ADHD, Multi-Tasking, and Reading

This weekend, more than 900 teachers, researchers, and other education experts met to share what they know about how we learn. At a session of the Learning & the Brain conference titled “The Web-Connected Generation: How Technology Transforms Their Brains, Teaching and Attention,” we heard a lot about multi-user virtual environments, enhanced reality, the myth of multitasking, and individualized web-based learning. But the tech story that most caught my attention was a slightly older one: reading.

Why do many kids with ADHD “suddenly” start to lag in reading comprehension by the fourth grade? They seem to have acquired the basic skills at the same rate and competence as their peers; they recognize and use phonemes, they can recall words at sight. One part of the reason is that we’ve been assuming that once kids master all the basic language skills they need, fluency just comes naturally, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Another is that the act of reading itself is a form of multitasking, and in some ways kids with ADHD have a harder time doing it.

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Brains are built to change

In Matt Ritchel’s New York Times recent article, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price,”
a dire picture is painted: We are hooked on technology (e-mail, text
messages, phone calls, social media), and our technophilia is changing
our brains.

But what Ritchel does not make clear is that
everything changes the brain, and that these changes are not
necessarily a bad thing. For an excellent explanation of how this
works, check out a Mind Hacks blog entry from earlier this week, "Neuroplasticity is a Dirty Word.”

This
is not to say that the heavy technology use covered in the article is a
good thing—it sounds like the dynamics of the family featured in the
article are paying a more serious price than the brains in question.
And, as has been covered before, the brain was not built for serious multitasking.

But
I know I will think critically the next time someone says that
something is problematic or of particular interest because it changes
the brain.

–Johanna Goldberg

Can Tetris shape the brain?

While reading “How
to Forget Fear
,” a Times Online article
by Alice Fishburn and science writer Ed Yong, a study on using Tetris to control fear responses caught
my eye.

University of Oxford researcher Emily Holmes asked
people to play the block-arranging game while watching a grisly film full of
surgery and accidents. “She found that while these volunteers remembered just
as many details of the film as those who did not play Tetris, a week later they had fewer flashbacks and were less
affected emotionally by what they had seen,” the article says.

This led Holmes to hypothesize that playing the game “hogs
the brain’s processing power,” preventing the grisly images in the film from
becoming powerful memories. Yong and Fishburn write, “Tetris acts as a mental vaccine that protects against the creation
of strong fear memories and removes their emotional burden.”

Several studies
have found
that multitasking can lead to an inefficient use of brain power, but in this
case it had a positive effect and might have potential clinical applications
for people dealing with traumatic memories and phobias. This echoes the
conclusions of a recent
Cerebrum article
summarizing work
in the area, which argues that video games can have both beneficial and harmful
effects but that more research is needed to fully understand these changes.

Although we have been
covering
the potential influences of various video games on the brain for years, in a
bit of a coincidence, Tetris itself
is featured in our most recent news article, “Your Brain On . . .
line
.”

Along with more recent work, the article mentions a 1992
study in which Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine “measured
the rate of glucose use in the cerebrum before the volunteers practiced [Tetris] and after four to eight weeks of
practice.” As scores rose, glucose use declined, indicating that the brain
became more efficient at playing the game over time.

A search for “Tetris and brain” in PubMed returned five
additional studies, two from 2009, on topics ranging from amnesia
to cortical
thickness
. The brain-research uses of the game may only be beginning.

-Johanna Goldberg

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