Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

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Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

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Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Pediatricians’ Group Says Spanking is Ineffective, Potentially Harmful

Guest blog by Brenda Patoine

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Photo: Shutterstock

It’s official: spanking is out. Time-outs are in.

That’s the lead message of a new policy statement from the largest pediatricians’ group, in its strongest warning yet against the use of spanking or other harsh punishments–ever–by parents and others charged with caring for children. It’s the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) first update to its policy guideline on discipline since 1998, when it discouraged but did not specifically proscribe spanking. This time, the message is clear: spanking doesn’t work and may cause harm. Ditto for harsh verbal reprimand that shames or humiliates.

The policy, which is intended to guide clinicians in their interactions with parents, cites 20 years of scientific research it says overwhelmingly demonstrates that corporal punishment is not only ineffective as a disciplinary measure, but may be harmful. Spanking in and of itself is associated with adverse outcomes that are similar to those seen in physical child abuse. Continue reading

Mindfulness for the Developing Brain

meriah dejosephOn Thursday, March 15th, Know Science, an organization that advocates the knowledge of new science and scientific research to the public, hosted the talk “Regulating the Brain: The Science of Mindfulness” at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute in New York City. This was an event presented as part of Brain Awareness Week.

Meriah DeJoseph, the presenter for the evening, is a lab manager for the Neuroscience and Education Lab at New York University (NYU). She will be starting a PhD program in developmental psychology this fall to further investigate self-regulation and how mindfulness can affect the developing brain. Prior to NYU, she worked on a project at Teachers College, Columbia University studying brain activity of children from Girls Prep Bronx Elementary, who have a mindfulness class integrated in their curriculum.

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Music and the Arts Promote Heathy Cognitive Function

A session entitled “Arts, Music, and the Brain: How the Arts Influence Us from Youth to Maturity” drew a standing room only crowd in a late afternoon session on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

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Credit: Shutterstock

Four speakers came at the topic from slightly different angles. The common denominator: In addition to anecdotal evidence and common sense, improved imaging and sound wave technology has helped neuroscientists demonstrate that arts and music boost cognitive function across social economic class, age, gender, and ethnicity.

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SfN Discussion Centers on Youth Football

On an early Sunday afternoon a few blocks away from the Society for Neuroscience Conference at the San Diego Convention Center, sports bars packed with football fans watched their heroes bang heads playing the most popular sport in America. Inside the center, four neuroscientists who specialize in head trauma and a former NFL player talked about the complex issues of concussion and multiple impacts to the brain in football, others sports, military service, and in random accidents.

“Here is an October 9 New York Times article about Jordan Reed, a tight end for the Washington Redskins, who sustained his sixth concussion and pondered whether if and when he should return to the field,” Harry Levin, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University, enlarged on a screen. “Six is too many, and he ended up missing only two games.”

“Did he have come back too soon?” asked Levin. The answer, to the frustration of athletes, their families, and neuroscientists head trauma researchers is: We really don’t know.

While the roundtable discussion, “Concussion: From the Players’ Experience to the Future of Research,” offered compelling data on the scope of concussion and mild head trauma by gender, age, and circumstance, the speakers emphasized that in light of heightened awareness and the challenges facing researchers about quantifying the dangers, making public policy decisions is purely speculative and premature. [See full video of the discussion, below.]

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