Latest buzz: Music and the BrainLatest Buzz: BRAVE NEW BRAIN Latest Buzz: BRAVE NEW BRAIN
It’s been over a year since I first read Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music, but I find my mind goes back to some of the ideas he’s presented, and I ponder their application to the world around me. Let me share one such cause for reflection.
“Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations. These violations occur in any domain---the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm, tempo and so on---but occur they must. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no on wants to listen to. Scales, for example, are organized, but most parents get sick of hearing their children play them after five minutes. “
According to Levitin, what makes music interesting and therefore engaging is the play between what our expectations are and how those expectations are or are not fulfilled—what he calls the “systematic violation of expectations.” This principle is also evident in any subject area, not just music. In fact, this element of deviation from expectations (shall we call it surprise?) is vital to all creative endeavors. For instance, in the realm of interior design, we know what a red leather chair looks like because they are relatively common. When we see a burgundy suede loveseat we can identify the deviations from our expectation of the typical red leather chair. This is a visual example of the familiar in contrast to the unfamiliar. Similarly, a student writing a fictional narrative needs to stay within the parameters of realistic fiction if that limitation is given. The writer must be able to recognize the expectations of realism in addition to the expectations of fiction and of narrative writing.
While these two examples may seem as logical as musical scales, consider the emotional appeal that results from “violating” our expectations (to use Levitin’s word). A burgundy suede loveseat may be just the object to put coziness into a paint store customer service area, an area one does not normally associate with coziness. Similarly, when a writer pens his story, he considers what the reader anticipates, and then accordingly crafts his story to bring the delight of surprise.
As an educator I want to encourage my students to challenge expectations, or “violate” them as Levitin would say. These are the things that make a story refreshing and a room attractive. Of course in order to challenge anything, the sense of the expected must first be firmly established. Any deviation from those expectations must also involve the return to the established expectations. Music is filled with rich emotions as a result of violating expectations. Why not implement this idea beyond the realm of music and invite rich emotions into every area of our lives?
Latest Buzz: BRAVE NEW BRAIN
Scientific American and Scientific American Mind have featured publications on cutting edge brain research. Judith Horstman has looked at these and been brave enough to share some predictions scientists have made concerning where the current findings could take us. All I had to do was read “your brain can even direct changes to some of your genes, turning them off or on” to know that there is a whole new world of thought out there. It seems just too simple: I am in control of my brain and my brain can control my genes. Could this be? The implications are tremendous. I knew I wanted to read more.
BRAVE NEW BRAIN (published 2010) is for the most part easy reading. It begins with a simple review of brain terminology and brain structure which helps with later, more technical chapters. Beautiful color enhanced photos and illustrations also aid understanding this organ that remains hidden from our view. Here is a sampling of topics covered that may pique a reader’s interest:
· Brain Training Programs, Help or Hype?
· The Bad, the Good, and the Unknown Effects of Technology
· The Limits of Brain Scans
· Making Memories Stick Around
One reassuring thought promoted by Horstman is that we do not need to wait around to juice our brains on the “smart pills” of the future. There are six well-known drug-free ways to boost your brain that we can implement now:
1. Exercise it. That is, do physical exercise. This improves the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain.
2. Feed it fat. Omega-3 fats are what you want. Seek out fatty fish, nuts and seeds. Other dietary pluses include colorful fruits and vegetables which counteract atoms that can damage brain cells.
3. Stimulate it. Learn something new and hard. Pushing yourself in new directions creates new neural pathways – just the thing for keeping those new neurons.
4. Play with it. Some video games and even surfing the web can be beneficial.
5. Serenade it. Music has long been known to reduce stress, and reducing stress allows those new neurons to stick around. Lower blood pressure is also a benefit from music listening.
6. Meditate it. Sitting quietly for an hour or less each day allows brain cells to fire in synchrony – sounds like the benefits from calming down or thinking things through. Another result is that positive emotions tend to be visited resulting in reinforced neural pathways. While meditation may be viewed by some as a secular activity, I would label this prayer as well.
Latest Buzz: Child's Play IS Learning!
Recently I came across an article from Newsweek (Dec. 10, 2009) that has caused me to shout “YES!” Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, has released the results of last year’s study confirming games can boost intelligence. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“Twice a week, the kids played the games for an hour and fifteen minutes. Every fifteen minutes the kids moved to a new table, to make sure their brains always had something new to figure out. (The neuroscientists thought it was important the sessions remained fun.)
After just eight weeks – twenty total hours of game playing – Bunge’s team retested the children’s intelligence. They were specifically interested in the kids’ reasoning ability. According to the classic theories of intelligence, reasoning ability is considered both the core element of intelligence and also the hardest to change. The children’s reasoning scores, on average, leapt 32%. Translated to an IQ standard, that bumped them 13 points. “
Dr. Bunge and her team of graduate researchers set up their study in a way that is astonishingly close to the “brain building workout” that I have devised. A student plays a variety of games each addressing specific cognitive functions. We maintain a fast pace and switch from game to game to keep the whole brain challenged. Above all, the sessions are fun. Nice to see that what my students are experiencing is also supported by the scientific community!
Latest Buzz: Brain Rules
Brain Rules Twelve Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
Developmental Molecular Biologist and Research Consultant
Director of Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University
Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine
See www.brainrules.net for illustrations, audio, video and more
Rule #1 Exercise boosts brain power
· To improve your thinking skills, move. Integrate exercise into your day: recess, pe, breaks
· Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left-over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.
· Aerobic exercise just twice a week halves your risk of general dementia. It cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%.
Rule #2 Meet your brain
· Three sections comprise the brain. Each is responsible for specific functions.
· Symbolic reasoning is a distinctive feature that human brains perform.
Rule #3 Every brain is wired differently
· What you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like--- it literally rewires it.
· The various regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people.
· No two people’s brains store the same information in the same way in the same place.
· We have a great number of ways of being intelligent, many of which don’t show upu on IQ tests.
Rule #4 People don’t pay attention to boring things
· The brains attentional “spotlight” can focus on only one thing at a time; no multitasking.
· We are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording detail.
· Emotional arousal helps the brain learn.
· Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion.
Rule #5 Short-term memory: Repeat to Remember
· The brain has many types of memory systems. One type follows four stages of processing: encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting.
· Information coming into your brain is immediately split into fragments that are sent to different regions of the cortex for storage.
· Most of the events that predict whether something learned also will be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.
· You can improve your chances of remembering something if you reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain.
Rule #6 Long-term memory: Remember to Repeat
· Most memories disappear within minutes, but those that survive the fragile period strengthen with time.
· Long-term memories are formed in a two-way conversation between the hippocampus and the cortex, until the hippocampus breaks the connection and the memory is fixed in the cortex---which can take years.
· Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.
· The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.
Rule #7 Sleep well to think well
· The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake.
· The neurons of your brain show vigorous rhythmical activity when you’re asleep---perhaps replaying what you learned that day.
· People vary in how much sleep they need and when they prefer to get it, but the biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal.
· Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity.
Rule #8 Stressed brains don’t learn the same way
· Your body’s defense system---the release of adrenaline and cortisol---is built for an immediate response to a serious but passing danger, such as a saber-toothed tiger. Chromic stress, such as hostility at home, dangerously deregulates a system built only to deal with short-term responses.
· Under chronic stress, adrenaline creates scars in your blood vessels that can cause a heart attack or stroke, and cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling your ability to learn and remember.
· Individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the problem---you are helpless.
· Emotional stress has huge impacts across society, on children’s ability to learn in school and on employees’ productivity at work.
Rule #9 Stimulate more of the senses at the same time
· We absorb information about an event through our senses, translate it into electrical signals (some from sight, others from sound, etc.), disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the event as a whole.
· The brain seems to rely partly on past experience in deciding how to combine these signals, so two people can perceive the same event very differently.
· Our senses work together---vision influences hearing, for example---which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once.
· Smells have an unusual power to bring back memories, maybe because smell signals bypass the thalamus and head straight to their destinations, which include that supervisor of emotions known as the amygdala.
Rule #10 Vision trumps all other senses
· Vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources.
· What we see is only what our brain tells us we see, and it’s not 100% accurate.
· The visual analysis we do has many steps. The retina assembles photons into little movie-like streams of information. The visual cortex processes these streams, some areas registering motion, others registering color, etc. Finally, we combine that information back together so we can see.
· We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.
Rule #11 Male and female brains are different
· The X chromosome that males have one of and females have two of---though one acts as a backup---is a cognitive “hot spot,” carrying an unusually large percentage of genes involved in brain manufacture.
· Women are genetically more complex, because the active X chromosomes in their cells are a mix of Mom’s and Dad’s. Men’s X chromosomes all come from Mom, and their Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes, compared with about 1,500 for the chromosome.
· Men’s and women’s brains are different structurally and biochemically---men have a bigger amygdale and produce serotonin faster, for example---but we don’t know if those differences have significance.
· Men and women respond differently to acute stress: Women activate the left hemisphere’s amygdala and remember the emotional details. Men use the right amygdala and get the gist.
Rule #12 We are powerful and natural explorers
· Babies are the model of how we learn---not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.
· Specific parts of the brain allow this scientific approach. The right prefrontal cortex looks for errors in our hypothesis (“The saber-tooth tiger is not harmless”), and an adjoining region tells us to change behavior (“Run!”).
· We can recognize and imitate behavior because of “mirror neurons” scattered across the brain. These are cells whose activity reflect their surroundings.
· Some parts of our adult brains stay as malleable as a baby’s, so we can create neurons and learn new things throughout our lives.
Latest Buzz: Maximize Learning in Multimedia Presentations
Richard Mayer : multimedia and multi-sensory learning
As a researcher Mayer has explored the link between multi-media exposure and learning. His studies show that the positive contributions of multisensory presentations are greater than the sum of their parts: supra-additive integration. One explanation is that extra information given at the moment of learning helps the learner integrate new information with prior knowledge making learning better.
Mayer has developed rules for multi-media presentation to maximize learning. Here are five of them in summary form:
1. Multimedia principle: Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
2. Temporal contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
3. Spatial contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented next to each other rather than far from each on the page or screen.
4. Coherence principle: Students learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.
5. Modality principle: Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.
John Medina notes that these studies involve just two of our senses. Think of the impact of combining this information with all five of our senses.