Meditation in Education

Can something as simple as designated quiet time for 15 minutes twice a day help struggling students perform better in school? After adopting this approach for three years, one school in a troubled area of San Francisco saw suspension rates drop by 79 percent, attendance rise 98 percent, and grade point averages increase.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on this school and other studies in the Bay Area, which also showed encouraging results. While these types of studies are still in their infancy, schools around the country are jumping on the meditation train in search of a cost-effective ways to nurture healthier and more focused students.

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Image: Shutterstock

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Social and Emotional Learning

Formal education often does not address the social and emotional backgrounds of children and their ability to learn, according to Ingrid Wickelgren, moderator at a recent New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) event titled Social and Emotional Learning: Preparing our Children to Excel. She argued that parents and other caregivers send children to school, assuming that the teacher will pour math, reading, and science into their tiny little brains. Bam! Done! In reality, learning is infinitely more complicated—some students are better-behaved, pay closer attention, complete homework assignments, and others don’t. The level of learning, she pointed out, is due to differences in executive functions such as attention, memory, planning skills, problem solving, and task switching in the brain. While being presented with new information and skills, children should also be given better ways such as mindfulness and other mental training to absorb and learn that information.

One of the event’s speakers, Amishi Jha, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, focused on the concept of mindfulness, defining it as “a mental mode characterized by attention to present moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.” At first, I wondered: Is she suggesting that we don’t use our brains to think? Am I “mindful”? Jha said mindfulness can train our brains to function more efficiently and calmly, without analyzing or thinking about the past or future. Most importantly, it can improve attention and other executive functions.

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Mental Preparation of Elite Athletes

The Olympics start this Friday and one can only imagine what’s going through the athletes’ heads in preparation for such a high-profile event. At any sporting event, but particularly events at this elite level, it’s not only about physical ability, but also about handling the mental aspect of competition.

In the Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “The Mental Preparation of High-Level Athletes,” decorated Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller says, “The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”

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Learning About Learning

How does school work, brain-wise? Do children teach themselves or is it something about the instruction that gets their brains firing and wiring faster? Last fall, a few hundred neuroscientists, teachers, and curriculum-makers met for a weekend to hash out what we know about learning and how we could use it to help every child succeed at school. One early answer: Play. 

The Aspen Brain Forum was sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, which has posted an extensive summary of the event as well as slides and audio from eighteen of the sessions. For an introductory taste of the event, though, try the 18-min podcast (which we sponsored). Science and the City's Nadja Popovich talked with three of the presenters, who sketch the growing field and describe a few surprising results.  

Many of these results are connected to the cognitive properties of executive function, especially attention: inhibiting distraction, focusing on the correct aspect of a task, and maintaining focus. For example, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia describes the "red-pencil technique" for children who are writing their letters or numbers the wrong way (mirrored). Asking them to remind themselves to stop before they have to write a "6" and switch from their regular pencil to another one to write that number slows them down enough that they write the number correctly, a change that seems to last. Diamond also points out that learning programs that include social, emotional, and physical components (such as play) "are better for academic achievement and executive function" than those that focus solely on academics. "Addressing only the cognitive seems to be less beneficial," she says.

On the subject of play, Daphne Bavalier of the University of Rochester offers tantalizing research into the benefits of often-denigrated video games. Studies done on undergraduate non-gamers who played games for the first time for a few dozen hours seem to show they have improved vision acuity and speed as well as attention. How might programmers tweak games to foster improvements that could last?

Bruce McCandliss of Vanderbilt University describes research that suggests that differences in learning abilities and styles may have a grounding in attention, tooor rather, what we focus our attention on. Brain scans of young people focusing on the beginnings and endings of spoken words differ in predictable ways from the scans of those who focus on the melody of the sentences, for example. Might "poor" readers be focusing on a less-helpful aspect of the language, perhaps enjoying the music of the language and missing its meaning? "Different learning styles may rely on different styles of attention," he says, and might benefit from different methods of instruction.

Like most of neuroscience, questions are more plentiful than answers. We do know some things work better than others, though; Diamond cites the Montessori, Tools of the Mind, and Path curriculums; Jump Math also seems to be making mathematicians of entire classrooms, not just a lucky few, according to John Mighton (who was not on the podcast but did attend the meeting).

The main take-away? Everyone learns a little differently, so relax about it. As Diamond says, "stress impairs executive function."

–Nicky Penttila

Neuromagic: The neuroscience behind magic tricks

Magicians are very protective of their secrets. To join a professional organization of magicians, initiates must swear an oath not to reveal any illusion secrets to a non-magician. Yet, a few years ago neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde convinced several well-known magicians to work with them on their study of neuromagic, or the neuroscience behind magic.

On Thursday, Nov. 18, Macknik and Martinez-Conde spoke about what they learned to a packed audience at the New York Academy of Sciences, as part of the Academy’s popular Science and the City program. The talk, based on their book, Sleights of Mind, focused on illusions, defined as “a subjective perception that does not match the real world,” which they believe are critical to understanding how our brains construct visual experience.

Illusions can be divided into optical and visual, explained Martinez-Conde. The difference is that optical illusions happen in the real world, while visual illusions occur in the sensory/visual areas of the brain. The example she gave of a visual illusion is the waterfall illusion; after staring at a waterfall for about a minute and then shifting your gaze to stationary objects nearby, such as rocks, they appear to flow upwards.

The explanation, according to Martinez-Conde, is that neurons that detect downward motion become adapted to the movement of the water and therefore become less active. At the same time, the neurons that detect upward motion remain active. The balance of the two sets of neurons is then thrown off, resulting in your brain’s conclusion that something is moving upwards.

The second half of the talk was largely devoted to change blindness, an issue of attention where people don’t notice a change in a scene. Macknik showed the audience a video of a basketball game, asking the audience to count the number of passes between the team in the white uniform. While many audience members (myself included) correctly counted the number of passes, what we didn’t see is the entrance of an unexpected character into the game (you’ll have to watch the video).

This inability to see something so seemingly obvious, explained Macknik, is because the brain has a spotlight of attention. In Sleights of Mind, Macknik and Martinez-Conde describe how the spotlight can affect the visual system, as well as the other sensory systems and cognitive functions.

“Your spotlight is directed to a region of your cortex and enhances the activity carried out in that region…It not only increases the neural signals at the center of your spotlight, it also suppresses the activity in the surrounding region.”

It’s easy to see how this spotlight helps a magician in performing illusions and other feats of wonder. Misdirection, paired with other tactics, such as timing, social cues, and humor allow magicians to control what we see and experience. This also helps to explain why people, in general, are not good at multi-tasking.

To view several videos (sponsored by Scientific American) of magicians working their wonders, please visit the Sleights of Mind Web site.

–Ann L. Whitman


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