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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Working Smarter, Not Harder, with Neuroscience in the Classroom

From Education Week's Teacher's Blog - Classroom Q & A

By Larry Ferlazzo
October 27, 2012

What are the best ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching?

I've seen the phrase "brain-based learning" used often, and sometimes in ways that do not seem particularly helpful. However, it is short enough to fit in a blog post headline....

This post is the second in a four-part series on this topic. Last week's post included responses from three neuroscientists associated with Today, educators Wendi Pillars and Wendy Ostroff will be sharing their ideas.

Several other guests will be contributing their thoughts on the topic, and I'll be featuring reader opinions in the final post. In addition,I've brought together my favorite useful related resources here.

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars is a National Board certified teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network who has taught ESL/EFL for 15 years, both stateside and overseas. She has been researching and deciphering educational neuroscience one thought at a time in the quest to bridge the science and its classroom applications. Running is her ultimate cognitive processing tool.

She is the author of two previous articles in Education Week Teacher, Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning, and What Teachers Need to Know About Action Research. You can reach her on Twitter at @wendi322:

"I was at my wit's end in reaching some of my students who were struggling. I knew I had to work smarter, not harder. Rather than haphazardly trying one strategy after another, I resolved to better understand what was happening in my students' 'inner spaces.' Which led me to neuroscience.

And although neuroscience is not a panacea, here are a few of my takeaways:

• I now focus my planning much more on learners' needs rather than what I "have to teach." I look for ways to establish the relevance of a lesson to previous and future learning, and make sure the lesson is truly worthwhile. If we make Civil War gingerbread in class, students need to know why and how it links to what they've learned.

• I have slowed down. A lot. Once the kids get used to longer wait times for responses to questions, they realize they are accountable for answering. I also try to extend my wait time after their responses. This typically extends their responses further, and peers' subsequent questions and comments are related to the first student's thoughts. Big-time gains for 2nd and 3rd graders.

• I encourage students to ask more questions by allowing more time for inquiry. I also post question stems to model various levels of thinking next to different amounts of "classroom bucks"; they have to ask questions from each level to sweeten their proverbial pot. I ask fewer spontaneous questions, instead asking specific (planned!) questions at strategic points in lessons. Anticipation of what they may be thinking at any given point presents a whole new level in planning.

• My evaluation of student responses has changed because--and this is especially true with language learners--even an apparently incorrect or off-base response can give me valuable information about their cognitive processes and previous knowledge. This helps me enhance the relevance of my instruction and also build stronger emotional connections.

• I teach students about their brains. Part of the brain-based learning means that as I learn about how the brain works, so too, should my students. They should be guided to identify their emotions, what motivates or stresses them, why something "sticks" more than usual. This cedes ownership to them so they can understand how--and have more power--to reduce their own stress and maximize their intellect with new tools for social and emotional competence.

• It's a great topic for action research. I use my findings as a mutual learning opportunity and as a lens through which to study classroom processes, student actions, and student reactions. The whys and hows. I look behind student responses for renewed insight, and have deepened my awareness of learning as a living process that directly affects people's lives.

• There are plenty of other examples, but my most important reflection is that this is all about the learner. "My lessons", the "state's curriculum", etc., are useless without the context of the learner, and their neural pathways being strengthened. Cognitive neuroscience, with all of its findings, has nearly carved in stone the fact that all learners are indeed different (the new "normal", perhaps)--a very obvious, but necessary fact outside the confines of labels and data.

Learning more about neuroscience has changed my perspective on the profession: as teachers, we really are brain-changers--and we can be more effective when we take advantage of recent discoveries.

Neurological evidence confirms what many teachers already do know about learning--the brain's penchant for patterns, repetition, novelty, emotional connections, etc. But data has debunked several misguided myths: critical periods in educational development, left brain vs right brain, multiple intelligences, the idea that we use just 10% of our brains.

Findings have also shed light on nutritional needs of the brain, the necessity of sleep, and common developmental disorders. It's a wide-ranging field that illuminates the complexity of the mind. If you've ever been concerned with puzzles of the whole child, I'd encourage you to jump in and read. The basics are accessible and will lend concerted perspective to the hows and whys of your practice.

Be cautious, of course, as some assertions you encounter won't be sound. Reflect deeply on your own practice, use common sense, and honor the individuals in your classroom--these strategies will help you sort out what to do with what you read."

Response From Wendy L. Ostroff

Wendy Ostroff's expertise in cognitive psychology, child development and metacognition stems from her research experience as a scientist in the Infant Perception Laboratory at Virginia Tech, as a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and as a Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University.

She has been developing curriculum on children's learning for the past 15 years in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University, in the Department of Education and Child Study at Smith College and, most recently, as Associate Professor in the program for the Advancement of Learning at Curry College. She is the author of Understanding How Young Children Learn: Bringing the Science of Child Development to the Classroom.

"Here are the top four ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching:

1.) Get moving

Movement gives the brain the opportunity to 'do the information' rather than to just see or hear it. Children who move around as part of their lessons show increased stimulation of the frontal lobes, less impulsiveness, and increased ability for executive control. Likewise, highly physically fit children show much greater success on attention tasks requiring executive control, and much better performance on mathematics and reading achievement tests.

2.) Hook into emotions

Emotions are processed on brain super pathways and cue corresponding bodily responses, such as a release of adrenaline, increase in heart rate and sensory alertness. In the same way, when a classroom event is emotional or interesting, small amounts of adrenaline are released, strengthening the quality of neural signaling in the brain. An emotional hook to a learning experience can speed up the learning process. Furthermore, children vividly remember those classroom activities that sparked their motivation or grabbed their attention.

3.) Make space for open-ended and creative play

Neurological research shows us that cognition develops primarily through play. Play prepares the brain to handle the unexpected and promotes neural development in the brain areas involved in socioemotional functioning. As an illustration, rodents in environments with running wheels and play structures show greater brain development and intelligence than those without opportunities to play. In one study, juvenile animals raised with an adult who they could not play with, showed deficits in cognitive and social functioning. If they were allowed to play with a peer for just one hour per day, though, no deficits occurred.

4.) Work together

Collaboration in groups or pairs is especially beneficial for learning because our brains have overlapping neural circuits for actions that are performed and actions that are perceived. In this way, we can learn skills just as complex by being actively present, rather than needing to directly experience everything ourselves. With so-called mirror neurons, the observation of someone else's action directly maps onto our brain's motor representation of that action. When students learn together, they gain the knowledge that comes with not just their experience/perspective, but also that of every other student in the group."

Four Things All Educators Should Understand about the Dyslexic Brain

From the Blog - Brain-Based Learning

By Patrick Wilson
October 26, 2012

What do you think of when you hear the word dyslexic? All too often the reflex reaction is a stream of negative associations -- "slow reader," "under performer," "needs extra time on exams," "has difficulty spelling."

While it is true that these are common symptoms in students with dyslexia, they are surmountable problems. For any educator, the key to unleashing academic success in dyslexic students lies in understanding how their brains work.

A recent Edutopia blog post by Judy Willis made the case for adding neuroscience to the curriculum for student teachers. When it comes to tackling dyslexia in the classroom, this understanding would be hugely beneficial, as it would help teachers explain to students exactly why they are having problems and what they can do to overcome them.

Disenchantment and despondency about education are big problems in the dyslexic community, and it may go some way towards explaining why such a high percentage of the prison population has some form of dyslexia, a statistic that is way above the national average of dyslexics.

A teacher's ability to offer clarity on the student's condition and offer a strategy to become successful could be life changing for so many dyslexics.

Here are four key characteristics of the dyslexic brain that are crucial for educators to understand:

1.) Writing is a Three-Step Process

Putting pen to paper is a more complicated action for the brain to process than you might think, particularly for dyslexics. It puts huge demands on the short-term memory to move from one step to the next, which can be a real weakness for them. In the brain, the process involves:

  • Synthesizing a thought, e.g., writing a story about what you did last weekend, such as going to the park;
  • Working out how you are going to write it: "I . . . ran . . . fast . . . in . . . the . . . park;"
  • The physical act of writing; "getting" those words and physically writing them.

A dyslexic can typically do one of those things but will struggle to do all of them in sequence. The process of "holding" that thought and then selecting words and subsequently writing them down on paper can end in chaos. Poor sequencing in the brain also makes it very difficult for dyslexics to organize their thoughts and sentences into a structured piece of writing.

Creating a structured argument is a bit like cooking while trying to hold all the ingredients at the same time. Sometimes ingredients can fall into the pot in the wrong order. This can lead to a spaghetti soup of ideas that pour out in a stream of consciousness.

To overcome this while training the brain to become more comfortable with synthesizing the thoughts that students want to write and structure, I have found the "Talk To Write" method is extremely helpful. This involves getting students to talk through their thoughts, repeating the process until the structure of those thoughts is clear in their minds, and only then starting the process of writing.

2.) Dyslexics Struggle with Automated Processes

To cope with the multitudinous series of thoughts and actions that the brain coordinates every day, humans complete simple tasks on a subconscious, automatic level. For example, a non-dyslexic may pick up a sock and know instantly that it should be put in the sock drawer, or drive to work without thinking about how to turn the steering wheel. For dyslexics, however, these automatic processes can be more difficult due to poor memory recall. This may explain why dyslexics' bedrooms are often particularly messy!

A good way to help dyslexics improve their ability to complete simple processes more quickly is to encourage them to create models, such as "SLUR" (Socks Left-Drawer Underwear Right-Drawer) and "I before E except after C." Models can be created for anything from writing a paragraph (AXE: Argument, Explain, Evaluate) to remembering to pack essentials into an overnight bag (DTGMAP: Deodorant, Toothpaste, Glasses, Makeup and Pajamas).

3.) Memory? What Memory?

Poor memory recall is a key characteristic of the dyslexic brain. This means that while students may appear to understand things well, they often struggle to recall concepts later. Think of your memory as a warehouse full of ideas. A dyslexic searches for the words with the light off. Because they have more difficulty recalling things, they can sometimes come out of the warehouse wrongly assuming that they have the right thing. An extremely common example of this is dyslexics often confusing the word "specific" with "pacific."

4.) Dyslexics Are Creatives

Because dyslexics can't rely as much on memory, they become very good at creating abstract constructs rather than thinking in relation to past experience. Imagine explaining to a British rugby player how to play American football. The non-dyslexic will relate this to his experience, e.g., "It's like rugby but you need to throw the ball forward." The dyslexic has more work to do and, as a result, has to create the construct of American football more from his imagination.

This creativity can also lead to the ability to solve complex problems. Michelangelo (the Italian artist and inventor), Albert Einstein (the German physicist) and James Dyson (the British inventor of the modern vacuum cleaner) were all dyslexic. It is likely that their inability to rely on recall helped develop their imagination and ability to create brilliant art, inventions and concepts that have changed the world.

With the right understanding of dyslexia, a student can become a truly successful and adaptable person. When a non-dyslexic sees failure as an indication that he or she can't do something, a dyslexic will see it as a part of the path to progress. Olympic rower Steven Redgrave attributed his tenacity to his dyslexia. He tried and failed. But he knew this was part of his learning process, and he did not give up until he won five gold medals!

So if you encounter a dyslexic student that is frustrated in education, I hope you can use this knowledge to inspire him or her to similar greatness.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Free Evening Presentation Weds, November 14: Neuropsych 101 with Dr. Ann Helmus

A Conversation with NESCA Director Dr. Ann Helmus

On Wednesday, November 14, from 7:00 - 9:00pm, NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents) Founder and Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. will discuss the "nuts and bolts" of neuropsychological evaluation.
  • What exactly is a neuropsych evaluation?
  • Why would you have your child evaluated, and when?
  • How do you choose someone to evaluate your child?
  • How does an experienced neuropsychologist drill down into your child's "symptoms" (attention deficits, executive function weaknesses, etc.), to fully understand what's likely going on in his/her brain, and explain that to you clearly?
  • And, then, how can YOU use this enhanced knowledge to improve your child's ability to learn?

She will also focus on the written evaluation report and what you’re entitled to expect of it: timely delivery, insightfully integrated data, a recognizable portrait of your whole child, and a set of specific recommendations easily understood and implemented by all concerned.

When:   Wednesday, November 14th,
                    7:00 – 9:00pm

Where:  NESCA,
                    55 Chapel Street, 2nd Floor
                    Newton, MA 02458

This program is appropriate for parents who have had a child evaluated before, as well as for those who have not.

Dr Helmus will allow ample time to answer specific questions from the audience. There is ample free, off-street parking. Light refreshments will be served.

This presentation is free! Seating is very limited, so RSVP quickly to Amanda Renzi or Melissa Jensen at 617-658-9800, ext. 0, or by email to

Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

From the TIME Magazine Blog - Healthland

By Alice Park
October 26, 2012

Autism likely has deep genetic roots, but the latest research provides hope that some learning techniques can lessen symptoms of the developmental disorder.

In children with the mildest cases of autism, these techniques resulted in changes in their brains that made them “indistinguishable” from those of unaffected children of the same age — essentially normalizing them, according to Dr. Geraldine Dawson, of the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The results, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, are validation for the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a behavioral intervention program that involves intensive engagement with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Specially trained counselors work with children twice a day in two-hour sessions, five days a week. In 2009, Dawson’s group reported on related work that showed that children with autism who received this intervention beginning at 18 months for about two years showed an average improvement in IQ scores of 17.6 points, and dramatic gains in adapting so-called normal developmental behaviors, such as brushing their teeth and engaging with family members during meals.

Dawson and her colleagues were curious about what was driving the change. Could alterations in the brains of the Denver Model toddlers be responsible? After all, in the first six years of life, the brain is remarkably plastic, meaning it can be molded and shaped depending on the growing child’s experiences and exposures.

To find out, she enrolled a group of 48 toddlers aged 18 months to nearly 3 years old who had been diagnosed with ASD. Half were randomly assigned to receive the Denver intervention, while the other half were assigned to traditional community intervention programs that included some special-education programs at schools.

Geraldine Dawson
After about two years, Dawson’s group took electroencephalography (EEG) readings of the electrical activity of all the children ‘s brains while they were looking at pictures of human faces or toys, and compared these readings to those of similarly aged children without autism.

In most of the affected children, previous studies showed the brain is more highly activated when the child looks at an inanimate object like a toy, and less activated when looking at a human face.

In the current study, however, the children participating in the Denver program showed the opposite effect; their brains lit up more when looking at a woman’s face than when viewing a toy.

MORE: Can Autism Really Be Diagnosed In Minutes?

“We essentially reversed the pattern so kids with autism are now showing greater normal brain activity when they saw a woman’s face and less activity when looking at objects,” says Dawson.

“In fact, the brain activity patterns of kids with autism who received ESDM were no different than a typical four-year-old’s [pattern] when viewing a woman’s face. They were indistinguishable.”

Dawson says the intervention is not a cure, but that the brain changes hint that some early drivers of ASD may be manipulated and even redirected toward more normal development. The findings may also reveal where in the brain and which systems are responsible for the problems associated with autism.

“By providing intervention early on, we can mitigate the severity of autism symptoms and perhaps really alter the trajectory of the disease at both the level of behavior and the brain,” she says.

MORE: Brain Imaging Could Detect Autism in Infants As Young As Six Months

That’s what has the autism research community excited. If it’s possible to change the course of the disease, and possibly reduce the severity of symptoms, it could mean the difference between a child who isn’t able to communicate and engage with family or friends, and one who may be able to participate in a normal classroom.

The key, however, is the ESDM program, and those who provide the therapy need to be certified by a program Dawson and her co-developer, Sally Rogers, have created at University of California Davis. About 1,000 people have been trained in the technique so far, with 15 specifically trained to teach the model to others.

So far, ESDM is available in the U.S., Australia, Japan, India and Sweden, and while the researchers are hoping to expand the program, they are wary about losing the intimate and specialized techniques required to conduct the behavior interventions properly.

While most of the sessions look like play, they are carefully designed to engage and reinforce children’s social skills by asking them about how characters in a book might be feeling, for example, or by helping children to read the body language cues that most of them miss.

MORE: If Autism's Definition Changes, Will Some Kids Lose Services?

And given the latest understanding of how plastic the brain remains, even after childhood, Dawson says the results are encouraging for not just newly diagnosed toddlers with autism but those who have been living with the disorder for years.

“Although it’s optimal to start as early as possible,” she says, “I don’t believe there is any point where the door is shut and the intervention is not helpful.” 

About Alice Park

Alice Park is a staff writer at TIME. Since 1993, she has reported on the breaking frontiers of health and medicine in articles covering issues such as AIDS, anxiety and Alzheimer's Disease. Park has received two CASE media fellowships — the first in 2000 to Harvard Medical School, where she designed a program focused on the latest understanding of AIDS, and the second in 2003 to UCLA's Medical School, where she researched the growing number of clinical applications of genomic research.

In addition, Park's work has been recognized with awards of excellence from the National Arthritis Foundation as well as the National Headache Foundation.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Area of the Brain That Processes Empathy Identified

October 24, 2012

"The findings have implications for a range of neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism and some forms of dementia, which are characterized by deficits in higher-level social functioning."

An international team led by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York has for the first time shown that one area of the brain, called the anterior insular cortex, is the activity center of human empathy, and other areas of the brain are not.

The study is published in the September, 2012 issue of the journal BrainEmpathy, the ability to perceive and share another person's emotional state, has been described by philosophers and psychologists for centuries. In the past decade, however, scientists have used powerful functional MRI imaging to identify several regions in the brain that are associated with empathy for pain.

This most recent study, however, firmly establishes that the anterior insular cortex is where the feeling of empathy originates.

AIC - Anterior Insular Cortex

"Now that we know the specific brain mechanisms associated with empathy, we can translate these findings into disease categories and learn why these empathic responses are deficient in neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism," said Patrick R. Hof, M.D., Regenstreif Professor and Vice-Chair, Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai, a co-author of the study.

"This will help direct neuropathologic investigations aiming to define the specific abnormalities in identifiable neuronal circuits in these conditions, bringing us one step closer to developing better models and eventually preventive or protective strategies."

Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., who conducted the research in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai, worked with researchers from the United States and China, to evaluate Chinese patients, at Beijing Tiantan Hospital, who were shown color photographs of people in pain.

Three patients had lesions caused by removing brain tumors in the anterior insular cortex; nine patients had lesions in other parts of the brain and 14 patients (the controls) had neurologically intact brains.

The research team found that patients with damage restricted to the anterior insular cortex had deficits in explicit and implicit empathetic pain processing.

"In other words, patients with anterior insular lesions had a hard time evaluating the emotional state of people in pain and feeling empathy for them, compared to the controls and the patients with anterior cingulate cortex lesions." said Dr. Jin Fan, corresponding author of this study and an assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai.

According to Dr. Gu, this study provides the first evidence suggesting that the empathy deficits in patients with brain damage to the anterior insular cortex are surprisingly similar to the empathy deficits found in several psychiatric diseases, including autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and conduct disorders, suggesting potentially common neural deficits in those psychiatric populations.

"Our findings provide strong evidence that empathy is mediated in a specific area of the brain," said Dr. Gu, who now works at University College London. "The findings have implications for a wide range of neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism and some forms of dementia, which are characterized by prominent deficits in higher-level social functioning."

This study suggests that behavioral and cognitive therapies can be developed to compensate for deficits in the anterior insular cortex and its related functions such as empathy in patients.

These findings can also inform future research evaluating the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying complex social functions in the anterior insular cortex and develop possible pharmacological treatments for patients.


The study was funded by the National Institute of Health, the James S. McDonnell Foundation and a Brain and Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD young investigator award.

A Small Part of the Brain and Its Profound Effects

From The New York Times - Mental Health & Behavior

By Sandra Blakeslee
February 6, 2007

The recent news about smoking was sensational: some people with damage to a prune-size slab of brain tissue called the insula were able to give up cigarettes instantly.

Suppose scientists could figure out how to tweak the insula without damaging it. They might be able to create that famed and elusive free lunch — an effortless way to kick the cigarette habit.

That dream, which may not be too far off, puts the insula in the spotlight. What is the insula and how could it possibly exert such profound effects on human behavior?

According to neuroscientists who study it, the insula is a long-neglected brain region that has emerged as crucial to understanding what it feels like to be human.

They say it is the wellspring of social emotions, things like lust and disgust, pride and humiliation, guilt and atonement. It helps give rise to moral intuition, empathy and the capacity to respond emotionally to music.

Its anatomy and evolution shed light on the profound differences between humans and other animals.

The insula also reads body states like hunger and craving and helps push people into reaching for the next sandwich, cigarette or line of cocaine. So insula research offers new ways to think about treating drug addiction, alcoholism, anxiety and eating disorders.

Of course, so much about the brain remains to be discovered that the insula’s role may be a minor character in the play of the human mind. It is just now coming on stage.

The activity of the insula in so many areas is something of a puzzle. “People have had a hard time conceptualizing what the insula does,” said Dr. Martin Paulus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego.

If it does everything, what exactly is it that it does?

For example, the insula “lights up” in brain scans when people crave drugs, feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, listen to jokes, see disgust on someone’s face, are shunned in a social settings, listen to music, decide not to buy an item, see someone cheat and decide to punish them and determine degrees of preference while eating chocolate.

Damage to the insula can lead to apathy, loss of libido and an inability to tell fresh food from rotten.

"The bottom line is that mind and body are integrated in the insula. It provides unprecedented insight into the anatomy of human emotions."

The bottom line, according to Dr. Paulus and others, is that mind and body are integrated in the insula. It provides unprecedented insight into the anatomy of human emotions.

Of course, like every important brain structure, the insula — there are actually two, one on each side of the brain — does not act alone. It is part of multiple circuits.

The insula itself is a sort of receiving zone that reads the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings that can bring about actions, like eating, that keep the body in a state of internal balance. Information from the insula is relayed to other brain structures that appear to be involved in decision making, especially the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortices.

The insula was long ignored for two reasons, researchers said. First, because it is folded and tucked deep within the brain, scientists could not probe it with shallow electrodes. It took the invention of brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to watch it in action.

Second, the insula was “assigned to the brain’s netherworld,” said John Allman, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. It was mistakenly defined as a primitive part of the brain involved only in functions like eating and sex. Ambitious scientists studied higher, more rational parts of the brain, he said.

The insula emerged from darkness a decade ago when Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist now at the University of Southern California, developed the so-called somatic marker hypothesis, the idea that rational thinking cannot be separated from feelings and emotions. The insula, he said, plays a starring role.

Another neuroscientist, Arthur D. Craig at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, went on to describe exactly the circuitry that connects the body to the insula.

According to Dr. Craig, the insula receives information from receptors in the skin and internal organs. Such receptors are nerve cells that specialize in different senses. Thus there are receptors that detect heat, cold, itch, pain, taste, hunger, thirst, muscle ache, visceral sensations and so-called air hunger, the need to breathe. The sense of touch and the sense of the body’s position in space are routed to different brain regions, he said.

All mammals have insulas that read their body condition, Dr. Craig said. Information about the status of the body’s tissues and organs is carried from the receptors along distinct spinal pathways, into the brain stem and up to the posterior insula in the higher brain or cortex.

As such, all mammals have emotions, defined as sensations that provoke motivations. If an animal is hot, it seeks shade. If hungry, it looks for food. If hurt, it licks the wound.

But animals are not thought to have subjective feelings in the way that humans do, Dr. Craig said. Humans, and to a lesser degree the great apes, have evolved two innovations to their insulas that take this system of reading body states to a new level.

One involves circuitry, the other a brand new type of brain cell.

In humans, information about the body’s state takes a slightly different route inside the brain, picking up even more signals from the gut, the heart, the lungs and other internal organs. Then the human brain takes an extra step, Dr. Craig said. The information on bodily sensations is further routed to the front part of the insula, especially on the right side, which has undergone a huge expansion in humans and apes.

It is in the frontal insula, Dr. Craig said, that simple body states or sensations are recast as social emotions. A bad taste or smell is sensed in the frontal insula as disgust. A sensual touch from a loved one is transformed into delight.

The frontal insula is where people sense love and hate, gratitude and resentment, self-confidence and embarrassment, trust and distrust, empathy and contempt, approval and disdain, pride and humiliation, truthfulness and deception, atonement and guilt.

People who are better at reading these sensations — a quickened heart beat, a flushed face, slow breathing — score higher on psychological tests of empathy, researchers have found. The second major modification to the insula is a type of cell found in only humans, great apes, whales and possibly elephants, Dr. Allman said.

Humans have by far the greatest number of these cells, which are called VENs, short for Von Economo neurons, named for the scientist who first described them in 1925. VENs are large cigar-shaped cells tapered at each end, and they are found exclusively in the frontal insula and anterior cingulate cortex.

Exactly what VENs are doing within this critical circuit is not yet known, Dr. Allman said. But they are in the catbird seat for turning feelings and emotions into actions and intentions.

The human insula, with its souped-up anatomy, is also important for processing events that have yet to happen, Dr. Paulus said. “When you decide to go outside on a cold day, your body gets ready before you hit the cold air,” he said. “It starts pumping blood to where you need it and adjusts your metabolism. Your insula tells you what it will feel like before you step outside.”

The same goes for drug addicts. When an addict is confronted with sights, sounds, smells, situations or other stimuli associated with drug use, the insula is activated before using the drug.

“If you give cocaine to an addict, you are affecting their brain’s reward system, but this is not what drives the person to keep using cocaine,” Dr. Paulus said. The craving is what gets people to use.

For example, smokers enjoy whole-body effects, said Nasir Naqvi, a student at the University of Iowa Medical Scientist Training Program, who was the lead author of the recent article on smoking. It is not just nicotine binding to parts of the brain, he said, but sensations — heart rate, blood pressure, a tickle in the lungs, a taste in the mouth, the position of the hands, all the rituals.

The insula’s importance makes it an ideal target for many kinds of treatment, Dr. Paulus said, including drugs and sophisticated biofeedback. But methods to quell insular activity must be approached carefully, he said. People might lose the craving to smoke, drink alcohol or take other drugs, but they could simultaneously lose interest in sex, food and work.

As clinicians explore the possibilities, Dr. Craig is thinking about the insula in grander terms.

For example, lesions in the frontal insula can wipe out the ability to appreciate the emotional content of music. It may also be involved in the human sense of the progress of time, since it can create an anticipatory signal of how people may feel as opposed to how they feel now.

Intensely emotional moments can affect our sense of time. It may stand still, and that may be happening in the insula, a crossroads of time and desire.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Starting Kindergarten Later Might Be A Good Idea

From The Huffington Post

By Chad Brooks, Contributor

October 25, 2012

"We could be excluding some of the business world's best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early."

Parents who decide to hold summer babies back and have them start kindergarten a year later may be onto something.

New research finds that kids born in the summer are less likely to grow up to be company CEOs, mainly because being younger puts them at a disadvantage in school, according to researchers.

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia revealed that a person's date of birth could affect their chances at becoming a CEO. An examination of company leaders in the S&P 500 found that just 6.13 percent of CEOs were born in June and less than 6 percent in July, compared with a combined 23 percent with birthdays in March and April.

"Our findings indicate that summer babies underperform in the ranks of CEOs as a result of the 'birth-date effect,' a phenomenon resulting from the way children are grouped by age in school," said Maurice Levi, a finance professor and co-author of the study.

With cutoff dates for school admission in the U.S. falling between September and January, the researchers determined that those CEOs born between June and July were the youngest in their class during school, while those in March and April were the oldest.

"Early success is often rewarded with leadership roles and enriched learning opportunities, leading to future advantages that are magnified throughout life."

"Older children within the same grade tend to do better than the youngest, who are less intellectually developed," Levi said. "Early success is often rewarded with leadership roles and enriched learning opportunities, leading to future advantages that are magnified throughout life."

Levi argues that the results add to the growing evidence that the way the current education system groups students by age impacts their lifelong success.

"We could be excluding some of the business world's best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early," he said.


The study, co-authored by Ph.D. students Qianqian Du and Huasheng Gao, investigated the birth-date effect in a sample of 375 CEOs from S&P 500 companies between 1992 and 2009. It is scheduled to appear in the December issue of the journal Economics Letters.


Follow Chad Brooks on Twitter @cbrooks76 or BusinessNewsDaily @BNDarticles. He's also on Facebook & Google+.

Non-Speaking (at Times) Autistic Provides Insight Into Communication Differences, Part I

From The Huffington Post Blog - Life with Autism

By Ariane Zurcher
October 24, 2012

AZ: Paula, you've described yourself as a "non-speaking (at times) autistic."

Yes. I think the phrase "non-speaking at times" captures my experience and also that of others who do have speech capabilities but can't always access them. I could also say "partially speaking" or "intermittent speaker." Just because one can speak at times does not mean speech is a reliable form of communication for that person.
Also, when a person can speak part of the time, others may not notice they are having trouble speaking. I have sometimes not been able to speak and other's just thought I was "being quiet" or did not have anything to say; that dates back to childhood.

AZ: Why did you make a video of yourself not speaking?
I made the video because we need to change ideas about "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" autistics. Not being able to speak is equated with "low-functioning." A constellation of characteristics are said to be true exclusively of "LF" people, such as self-injurious behavior, toileting difficulties, and not being able to speak or having limited speech, while "HF" people are said to have another set of characteristics, also fairly stereotypical, such as being "geniuses" who are good at computer programming and lack empathy.
These binary divisions don't address the wide variety and range of characteristics of autistic people and paint a limited picture of individual autistics, many of whom defy (not necessarily on purpose!) the expectations surrounding their "end" of the autism spectrum. I have always known I can't speak on an entirely predictable basis, but the conversations about non-verbal people assume that I have a different experience when in fact it's not so different at all.
I will talk a bit later about the very thought-provoking responses I have had to my initial posts and your interview with me published on Emma's Hope Book. The comments and questions demonstrate that we are still in the initial stages of understanding the links between speech production, language, thought and ultimately, communication.
AZ: Can you talk about how and why you sometimes are unable to speak?

I can't say I speak most of the time, since most of my waking hours are not spent talking. I showed on my video even when I am alone I frequently can't talk. I don't need to talk at those times, but I am very aware that if I were suddenly presented with a situation in which I needed to talk, I would not be able to. I am, however, usually able to make what some autistics have called "speech sounds," which means that I can say something even if it is not exactly what I wanted to say.
I have several reasons for not being able to speak at any given time. I distinguish between not being able to talk at all and having trouble with word finding, which does not make me lose speech but can have some interesting results when I find a word that is not the right one! I can go in and out of speech several times during the course of a day.
The following list includes reasons for my not being able to talk at times. These are not in any particular order: sensory overload, being tired, reading or seeing something disturbing, thinking more in visual images than in words, trying to talk when other people are talking too fast and not taking turns, which I'd like to add is not limited to the autism spectrum, although a lot of literature exists about teaching us to take turns. Some of that teaching is necessary, but I think it should be introduced to non-autistics as well!
AZ: Are there other things that make speaking difficult?
Yes. I have big chunks of time when I don't talk much at all because I am mostly alone, like when my son spends the weekend with his dad or during the day when he is in school and I am doing writing work. After a weekend spent primarily not talking, I am not used to it and have trouble getting started again. It does not take more than half a day of not talking before I need to urge myself to take it up again. It's the inertia of not doing it; plus, I have to remind myself, sometimes consciously, of how to move my muscles (mouth, lips, larynx) and intentionally will myself to speak, which does not always work.
Sometimes my son will ask me "Mommy, are you having a hard time talking?" and if I manage to say "Yes," I am able to start talking again, although I can have a hard time formulating sentences and finding words for a while.
AZ: Of all the items on the list, which ones affect you the most?
The thing that will stop me cold, suddenly switching from being able to speak to not being able to utter a word, is seeing, reading or hearing something that is distressing to me. For example, I write indexes for non-fiction books. Some of them have very graphic descriptions of things like genocide or war. I did my "make myself talk experiment" on a day when I was using voice recognition software to do data entry for a book that had 10 chapters of very harrowing material. Since I am a visual thinker, not only was I reading the book, but also seeing it in my mind, like an awful movie that I did not want to watch. I found myself typing instead of dictating, and realized I had been doing so for maybe half an hour.
I said to myself, "Why did I switch to typing?! I don't want to be typing!" and my experiment was underway. I spent the next two hours trying to make myself talk, with no success. I was online at the time, so was typing to people telling them about the experiment. Some of them were a bit concerned that I was trying to force myself to talk when I couldn't, but I needed to find out if I would be able to, if I tried really hard.
The answer to my question came after two hours, in the form of a small squeak. That's the one sound I could make after all that trying. I had two realizations as I finally ended my experiment. The first was that it reminded me of when I had an epidural for a procedure and tried (yet another!) experiment to see if I could wiggle my toe. The doctor was annoyed with me and told me I was actually wasting physical energy I would need to recover from the procedure. I had the same feeling of exhaustion from trying to make myself speak.
The other was that maybe I should carry an autism card with me in case I was at the scene of something upsetting, like an accident or crime, and could not talk to first responders. Some things that I find troubling and that stop me from being able to talk are not that dramatic. It can be someone saying something that I didn't expect them to say (not limited to "bad" things) anything unexpected or surprising.
AZ: What are your earliest experiences of not being able to speak?
When I was a child, there were many times when I could not speak. I think very early on, I was not very aware that I could not talk at times; I simply did not talk when I couldn't. I definitely spent a lot of time looking at things like dust motes in the air and the threads on my blanket and other tiny little interesting things; I have no idea whether anyone tried to talk to me and got a response, how fast a response they got, and whether or not I was conscious that I wanted to say something but couldn't. 
In later childhood I was more aware that I was both not speaking and wishing I was. I attributed loss of speech to being shy and was angry at myself for not being more brave. I spent a few decades having times of not being able to speak, including the entire day once, and telling myself to "TALK!" but was unable to.
AZ: When did your views regarding your inability to speak at times change?
After I learned about autism, I started thinking more about the reasons I lost speech. I met people who either could not talk at all, could not always reliably access speech (like me!), stuttered (like me, again), had trouble finding words, or had to say other words, circling around until the right one was selected, such as one of the "big words" I used to get teased about in school.
AZ: Does it trouble your son that you can't talk sometimes or have trouble saying what you mean?
My son is very good at talking about things, but I don't assume that he would feel entirely comfortable directly telling me things he doesn't like about me. The things he does say indicate support rather than discomfort. A few times I have been annoyed at myself for stuttering and he says "Mommy! Don't ever be mad at yourself for stuttering!" or, a few times, "Mommy. Stuttering. It's a way of life."
I don't not communicate with him, so he does not feel ignored. I use alternative methods of communicating with him, just not talking. I write, point, use my extremely limited repertoire of ASL signs. I once was writing to him about what to wear to church and he wrote back "Yes, mother dearest!" He (as is true of most people I write to) matches my communication mode and writes back.
I have written to him (and to others) "You don't have to write to me; I can hear you!" He has noticed and told me that when he comes back from visiting his dad I "seem different." We have talked about his coming back as a transition point -- the house is suddenly noisier and definitely "talkier." I have often said that my child talks to think, so we are quite different in that way. I am working on what would make the transition from "kid gone" to "kid in the house" an easier one for both of us.
AZ: People who do not have difficulty speaking may have trouble understanding how someone might be able to speak in one situation and then not able to in another. Can you talk more about this?
Some abilities are not there every single time a person wants to access them. This is true for all people, but for an autistic person, these fluctuations in abilities and access to abilities might be more pronounced. Think of your favorite sports team and player. Some games are not so good; at other times the team really does well. But hitting a home run is not an essential life skill. 
When it comes to anything considered really basic, like being able to talk, a sense of mystery surrounds the topic, when a person can do it one time and not another. I maintain that it's not that different than anything else, but it is more noticeable and pronounced when it's something that is expected of everyone and when one is able to do that expected thing most of the time.
This interview has been broken into two parts. Stay tuned for part two.
About Ariane Zurcher
Author of the blog, Emma's Hope Book, Ariane Zurcher began documenting her daughter’s journey through a childhood of autism in 2010. Her writing has been published in such magazines as Allure, XIst Century Magazine, Options, Elle, Aspen Magazine, The Aspen Times and on numerous blogs.

Award-winning jewelry designer and winner of both the coveted 2009 Rising Star Award in Fine Jewelry and the 2010 AGTA Spectrum Award for Business/Day Wear, Zurcher was trained in the fine arts. A graduate of Parson’s School of Design, with graduate work in Creative Writing, she began her career in the world of fashion, freelancing for design houses in London and N.Y., along with a stint at Elle Magazine.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Simon Baron-Cohen: "Autism is linked to minds that are wired for science."


By Ian Steadman
October 26, 2012

"So it's prenatal testosterone, not gender, that's associated with scientific talent. A good scientist is a good scientist irrespective of their gender."

Scientists are more likely to show signs of autism, explained psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, speaking at Wired 2012.

"People with autism show a broader interest in systems," he said. "You're trying to find the system, and find the mechanism behind how it works. I'm going to explore the idea that autism is linked to minds that are wired for science."

Baron-Cohen cites an article written by Ioan James for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which claimed that historical scientists -- including Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, Marie Curie and her son-in-law Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie, and Paul Dirac -- showed signs of autism.

Albert Einstein, too, was "late to speak, and when he spoke he spoke with echolalia, where you repeat what people say back to them -- and apparently in his childhood he had no friends," Baron-Cohen says -- all characteristics on the autistic spectrum.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Wired US even published an article in 2001 discussing the anecdotal evidence that children with autism were especially common among the offspring of Silicon Valley couples. The evidence, says Baron-Cohen, is that "scientists tend to score higher in terms of autistic traits than people in the general population", and those traits -- a love of systems, and an aptitude for analysing them -- can be passed on in some way.

Looking at people in the Dutch city of Eindhoven also provided further evidence for a link -- the city's history as a centre of technical innovation (the "Silicon Valley of the Netherlands") means that around 30 percent of the jobs in the city are in IT. The prevalence of autism in Eindhoven is twice as high as in the rest of the country.

Baron-Cohen wonders if that was perhaps merely a reflection of a gender imbalance -- boys tend to be more interested in technical systems than girls, and boys are also more likely to display autistic traits. Baron-Cohen cites a study where babies (each only a few days old) were shown both a picture of a human face and a mechanical mobile -- male babies looked at the mobile more often than the face, and vice versa for the girls.

"What might males produce more of that could produce this connection?" Baron-Cohen wonders, and the answer is testosterone. He says: "Males produce twice as much testosterone in the womb, and prenatal testosterone influences brain development. We tested fetal testosterone, and found higher levels predicted autistic traits in the child later, and also an interest in systems. So it's prenatal testosterone, not gender, that's associated with scientific talent."

That's important, says Baron-Cohen, because it means that "a good scientist is a good scientist irrespective of their gender". It also means that people with autism, like hacker Gary McKinnon, "don't have a disease, and they need support -- they're simply fascinated with the way things work".

Autistic people, he says, "tend to be unemployed", so we as a society need to find them jobs that will value their skills and make the most of their unique talents."

Ami Klin: A New Way to Diagnose Autism

From TEDxPeachtree

June, 2012

World renowned autism authority Dr. Ami Klin takes a deeper look at autism beyond its widely acknowledged genetic origins. He explores how autism results when the evolutionarily conserved and developmentally early-emerging mechanisms of social adaptation, such as the mutually-reinforcing choreography between infant and caregiver, are disrupted.

A Barbed Response by Julia Bramsen...

This talk is an excellent example of the state of the academic profession within the field of autism.

The brilliant, highly-credentialed, long-experienced and clearly well-meaning expert in the field combines new research with a very old-school, non-spectrum conception of autism.

How could anyone with little or no experience of the actual range of the autistic community, doubt a single aspect of these stereotypes?

Frankly, having listened to this (TED) talk, I don't feel the least bit "rejuvenated".

All Dr. Klin's illustrations are drawn solely from severely challenged end of the spectrum. I have Asperger's, and very little of what Ami Klin says in this presentation is, or was, accurate for me, either now or in my childhood.

"I don't suffer from Asperger's. I do, however, suffer when my extraordinarily diverse community is presented as a collection of negative extremes."

Some of the estimates of undiagnosed adults with autism have doubled from the former estimate of 40 million individuals. Within that number are many people you deal with as a part of your everyday life. And you do so without ever realizing how YOUR neurotypical lack of a theory of OUR mind is being continuously accommodated throughout the social or professional exchange.

We have always been your neighbors and coworkers. We are your teachers, veterinarians, your mechanic, architect, engineer, landscaper and for that matter, the clinical psychologist helping you with your autistic child. And we work very hard at accommodating your lack of understanding of us.

The flipside of "otherizing" us is the idealization of neurotypicality, which seems to be so often drawn from the very most relationally gifted end of your neural community. The vast majority of people in marital counseling, family court and, for that matter, prison, are on YOUR spectrum, not ours.

We don't bully you. We don't exclude you. We are, in fact, far more likely to be on the receiving end of your unempathetic transgressions.