Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reclaim the Wonder of Childhood

We dull our lives by the way we conceive them.
-James Hillman (1965) American Psychologist

 Resa Steindel Brown in The Call To Brilliance argues that education can be empowering to children and adults in ways that conventional school systems cannot dare to even hope for.  Current schools are fashioned to give children the knowledge they need to get a job when they are grown. But there is so much more to human potential that is completely untapped or even squelched by schooling.  Wonder, imagination and self-determination are the first casualties of public schooling.  Steindel Brown believes a passion oriented, individualized education can revive the most beautiful attributes of the human spirit, with children leading adults back to a place where possibilities are endless.

The child can lead us back to our innate brilliance with authenticity, integrity and passion, if we allow it. But we forget. We forget our own childhoods when all things were possible.

Marc Brown is taking these passion oriented educational ideas and organizing Passion Oriented Education (TM) which should be launching this month.  Groups of parents get together every two weeks to plan and discuss the education of their children and brainstorm together to improve their children's opportunities to follow their passions.  Each group has a leader and the children meet once a week for projects and friendship.  This model seems ideal for use along with Gifted Education programs.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Are Runners Dopamine Machines?

We've all heard how exercise can prevent heart disease and maintain brain plasticity.  More good news regarding the positive effect of exercise, this time running, was presented recently at the Society for Neuroscience's 2009 meeting. Neuroscientist
Judy Cameron of the University of Pittsburgh showed exercise may have a protective effect against Parkinson's disease.

Cameron's study was conducted on rhesus monkeys.  A group of monkeys were divided to follow three different exercise plans for three months.  The first group really just sat around and watched others exercise.  The second group jogged for thirty minutes daily and the third group ran, on a treadmill, at a speed that brought  heart rates up to 80% capacity. After the 3 months,MPTP, a neurotoxin that inhibits dopamine production, was injected into the brains of all monkeys.  This neurotoxin is the same one present in the brains of humans suffering Parkinson's disease.

The results were astounding.  The monkeys that ran suffered no ill effects from the injected neurotoxin, while the sedentary monkeys lost motor function of their left arms.  The jogging monkeys did better than the sitting ones, but by far, the runners remained the healthiest.

My questions are:
1. Will Cameron be able to rehabilitate the sedentary rhesus monkeys by putting them on a strict running program or is their motor function impaired permanently?  
2. Would persons experiencing the early symptoms of Parkinson's benefit from joining a local running club and a training for a marathon? Or at what point is exercise no longer helpful?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Worship the Young and Venerate the Old?

This is a youth-oriented society, and the joke is on them because youth is a disease from which we all recover.

American culture idolizes youth. Youth represents strength, both physical and mental, beauty and plasticity. The United States is a young country after all, not just because of its demographics but also historically and architecturally.

An old building in Boston can be no more than 300 years old, compared to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, China's Qin Dynasty tombs or India's Virupaksha Temple; architecturally we are babies. No ancient structures dominate our landscapes.  Los Angeles  may have its share of crumbling buildings not because any building has weathered more than 200 August heat waves, but because cheap materials with no staying power were used in construction.

So, part of why we venerate youth may be a form of collective self-esteem.  As a culture, as a nation we are young, and so we love youth. To be young and beautiful means higher paying jobs and social opportunities. To be young and bright means hard work and a little luck may land you on NASA's newest mission to Mars or in the Oval Office, regardless of where your parents came from.  Youth are not held back by heavy familial traditions or responsibilities.Old age is perceived as defeat.  People fight it.  Americans want to stay young and any benefits middle-age or beyond may bring are lost to us.

In France, although the beauty of youth is celebrated, age is respected.  The old are seen as not only wise, but deserving of attentions small and large. Ecuadorians honor their elders by giving people of "the third age" steep, sometimes more than 50% discounts, on airplane and theater tickets and there is no set retirement age.  Healthy octogenarians work alongside younger people and are consulted and prized as workers for their experience. In fact, in the small Andean city of Vilcabamba, older people tend to exaggerate their ages, they want to seem older than their true chronological age. The young are seen as inexperienced and look for guidance from the older members of society.

The benefits of providing myriad opportunities for the young in the United States are clear.  Americans believe in possibilities and that is most clear in the iconoclasm surrounding youth. But much is lost with the vilification of old age and with classic American images of  the sunset years as disease-ridden and characterized by mental decline and irrelevance. These perceptions bode well for no one, not even the very young.  What is there to look forward to if your life opportunities and relevance peak within the first three decades of life?  This is simply culturally unhealthy and even pathologically ignorant. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Faustian Bargain

All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country.  A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it.  But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarise.
William D. Howells (1913), American Writer and Critic

A literature-based education is the exact opposite to Standards-Based schooling, the public school reform movement that has defined the first decade of the 21st century.  Schools today work to collectively raise the standards, or scores, of American students.  The key word here is collectively.  The final end of American public education today is to raise collective scores. This is what administrators focus on and look to inspire teachers to accomplish:  higher standardized test scores.  To what end exactly?  According to educational consultant Ruby Payne , raising the real estate values of communities, is an important reason children should go to school and do well on standardized exams. 
Are we deliberately training a generation of under-educated, apathetic and literary ignorant people; that is, classic barbarians, so our homes will retain or increase in value?
That seems like a terrible trade, like nothing short of a Faustian bargain. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The American Way: Plan Before the Plan

...I had a sudden realization:  I was in danger of wasting my life..."What do I want from life, anyway?" I asked myself...
                               -Gretchen Rubin (2009), American Author

When you want a killer backhand in tennis, you watch a good instructional video, hire a coach or take tips from your tennis-playing best friend.  When you want to join the community symphony with your cello, you dust off the old sheet music you haven't looked at since college and practice everyday for two months.  And, if you decide to tackle one 500 page history book each week next month, well, start practicing your reading.

New Year's resolutions are on the horizon just waiting, poised, ready to defeat the poor mortals who create them.  The thing is most of us make these well-intentioned resolutions with no concrete practice plan.  There must be a plan, before the plan.  So, if you're going to tackle the New York Times crossword puzzles each week in January, start practicing now.  Get ready to make the real resolution stick.

If you have a whole list of resolutions, then you need to be even more organized. Greatchen Rubin's new book The Happiness Project is a fun read about the year she decided to be happier and how she made it work. If you visit her blog The Happiness Project you can even find tools to follow in her organized footsteps to move towards the good life.

The whole idea of resolutions and self-improvement is distinctly American and began with Benjamin Franklin, whom some historians have called "The First American".  He constantly sought to improve himself, his community and the world.  He details his self-improvement project in his Autobiography.
What a great person to represent Americans.

Monday, December 14, 2009

No Easy Acess for Us

Google Books will not digitize French literature, french president Nicolas Sarkozy announced today.

"We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is,” Sarkozy said.

 So France will fund and thus control its cultural digitization project.
This refusal to let french literary treasures swim amongst Google's classic books with no obvious distinction; naked for the entire world to judge impartially, seems arrogant and cowardly.  The idea that French literature should only be doled out, beautifully packaged, by the French government seems limiting and could prevent future digitized generations from accessing some of humanity's greatest works as easily as I can today by visiting my local library.
In today's physical libraries, Victor Hugo and Pieter Hugo may stand side by side.  Most libraries don't have a room dedicated to french literature and so french greats may be stumbled upon by innocent seekers.  If French works are absent from the world's largest and possibly most efficient digital library, would not that be a loss for the French and the rest of us, in the end?
I love the aesthetic considerations that are a French obsession and surely play a role in this decision to keep digitized literature in French hands.
But, would it not be better if Sarkozy's government funded a French-controlled cultural collection and at the same time turned a blind public eye to whatever Google is doing and future plebeians across the globe might still stumble upon French literally grandeur?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Open Education: The Newest Tool for Dialectics?

The birth of what was to become the Western world's first university, occurred under the breezy shade of an olive grove dedicated to the goddess Athena. Thirty-year old Plato, the first professor, lectured sparsely, but posed humanity's greatest questions before his students for discussion. The teacher served as a discussion guide, a moderator. The brilliant students, hand picked by Plato, sought to discover truths as a collaborative community. Eventually this method of intellectual growth came to be called dialectic.

Fast-forward 2,300 years and this original method of academic discussion, at least in the United States, which boasts more than 5,000 universities, is reserved for only the creme-de-la-creme. The brightest students at the most elite universities seek to discover truths through collaboration with teachers, advisers and each other. Those whose paths have lead them to more mediocre centers of learning, though nor necessarily less expensive, sit and listen. And sit and listen some more. And after some more sitting and listening regurgitate facts on tests and quizzes and sometimes in shallow essays. No one expects these students to solve humanity's greatest questions.

This linking of passive acquisition of information to a University education is oppressive and demeaning to students, many of whom could be capable of tackling humanity's greatest questions, if given a proper university experience that includes dialectic.

The grassroots Open Education Movement (OEM), pioneered by Richard Baraniuk of Rice University, may be the impetus to never-seen-before human intellectual progress, and a very modern form of dialectics. The OEM aims to open up education in the tradition of the open-source software movement, such as Linux.
Using 21st century tools, this OEM collaboration on speed will grow exponentially as students from around the world gain access to real-time tackling of humanity's questions, from the most basic processes we still don't fully comprehend to universe-sized cosmological ideas.

Open educational materials include text, images, audio, video, interactive simulations, and games that are free to be used and also re-used in new ways by anyone around the world. Participants in open-education are working toward a broad set of goals, that democratize education and include intellectuals of all ages, disciplines and nations, reduce the cost of teaching materials (throw out those $120.00 textbooks), reduce the time lag between the production of course materials so they remain crisp and relevant in our fast-paced world.

Imagine the dialectical possibilities when ordinary university students are equipped with an entire collaborative intellectual universe.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The One Human Freedom

I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.
-E.B. White, American author

The world is divided into people who believe they can change the world and people who don't. The meanings of "world" and "change" are relative. A 1-year-old smiles sweetly at her daddy pointing at the gummy bear jar on top of the fridge trying to effect change with charm. A teacher sees great potential in a wayward student and tells the parents hoping to make a difference with authority. A chemist works in the lab four hours past quitting time knowing her work could be the difference in eradicating swine flu.
The power to change the world is wrought with peril. Mistakes will be made, people will disappoint or be disappointed and too many days may end with exhaustion and defeat. But such is life. The power to change life is the stuff of hope. Without hope, there is depression.
In 1964, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term "learned helplessness" to describe a loss of will he observed in lab dogs. The dogs were inadvertently taught that their actions had no correlations to outcomes. These dogs shrank physically and mentally. They became sluggish and the eagerness dogs are known for left. But 1/3 of the dogs kept trying to effect change; they did not learn this helplessness. These are the dogs Seligman continued to study.
Eventually Seligman studied similar characteristics in humans and found that some people refuse to become helpless in even the most adverse life circumstances. These positive people believe negative circumstances are temporary and that they have some control, even if the only control they really have is that of thoughts.
Viktor Frankl, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning says

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

What Frankl labels "last of the human freedoms" is also the first and possibly the only. In the end, we are either directors or prisoners of our thoughts and what we choose to think, makes all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Are Your Invariant Representations?

Genes dictate the overall architecture of the [brain's] cortex, including the specifics of what regions are connected together, but within that structure the system is highly flexible.
-Jeff Hawkins (2004), Neuroscience Researcher

Scientists often refer to the human brain as "wired". This term is misleading because it calls to mind an incorrect image of brain physiology. Substances, such as blood and hormones, and impulses, move through the brain in patterns that are often started and set by individual experience. A live brain is soft and pliable and truly, there are no wires involved. A more appropriate term, though clunky, is Jeff Hawkins's Invariant Representation.

An invariant representation is simply a neuronal pattern with enough connections to other patterns to make a human memory. The more complex a web of patterns is, the more actual brain space (mental space) it takes up. That is why, the brain of a violist practicing 6 hours a day, for the last five years, will be different then your brain, if you're spending 6 hrs/ day playing Wii Tennis.

Actress Jennifer Lopez said,

Until you`re twenty, you have the face you are born with, and after that you have the face you deserve.

The same thing applies to your brain. Your genes determine what you start with. Eventually, depending on how you have spent your time, you will have the brain you deserve.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How Much Space Do You Need?

It is a disaster to have a man fall in love with me. They aren't content to take what I can give, they want everything from me.
Katherine Anne Porter (1960), American Journalist

Feeling lonely even when involved in a close, romantic relationship, is not all that uncommon. This odd sort of loneliness stems from unmet expectations. In order to relieve "in-relationship" loneliness one of two things needs to occur. Either the expectations of the lonely person need to be adjusted or even replaced by ones that work for the relationship or an emotional break from the other person must be made. The expectation that is most relevant to happiness in romantic relationships is related to freedom versus connectedness.

A friend, Paloma, recently moved to Manhattan to dance, write and try to make ends meet on student loans and side jobs. She rented a one-room "hole-in-the wall", registered for classes at NYU and chatted with anyone willing. Two weeks into her new life the loneliness set in and flooded any spare moment. Although she spoke to friends and family in Ohio by telephone and e-mail, she felt utterly socially disconnected in her new life. One day, her sister mentioned that Paloma's old boyfriend, George, had also moved to New York recently. "Why don't you look him up?" she said. Paloma did not really want to date George again, but she did need a friend.

George, moved to New York City, rented a flat, and started exploring his new neighborhood, Chinatown. The intoxicating smells of fresh meat and fried delicacies, mandarin folk opera music mingled with curt yelling and the shear mass of humanity kept this Midwesterner enthralled. On his walks to and from his new job he had time to think and marvel. He felt very happy.

Two weeks into his new life, he received a call from Paloma. She was in town, working as a waitress by day and taking evening classes to complete her MFA. "Let's get together!" she said. They met for lunch. They kept in touch and eventually resumed dating. Soon free evenings and weekends were spent in each others company. Paloma was happy. Everything in her life seemed in place now that she had George to share her life. But George began to feel an unease growing inside. Paloma needed more of George. More time. More affection, love and assurance. More impromptu talks, more hugs. George needed time alone. So their conflicts began. Neither of them were quite in love and so, the relationship ended. George went back to marveling at the wonders around him, alone. Paloma began looking for her soul mate.

University of Chicago professor, John T. Cacioppo, author of Loneliness, believes it's a subjective sense of loneliness--not lack of objective social support--that uniquely predicts whether a person's psychological state negatively affects her physiological health. People who feel they are lonely exhibit depressive symptoms, chronic health conditions , and elevated blood pressure.

Each person has a unique need for connectedness and each person's expectations fall in line with that level of need. The needed level of need can not be wrong. Each is just different and this difference can cause relationships with great potential to sour. To remain happy in a relationship with a person whose connectedness needs differ from yours, your expectations must be adjusted to better fit that relationship. Negotiations must begin and a place where each person feels loved and connected needs to be found. That is why Love Is Work.

Love has to be work, because each person's need for connection is unique. Soul mates exist, but someone exactly like you, does not and never, ever will.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Music On My Mind

Are you good at tuning into the smallest nuances of human speech and its emotional variations? It could be because you started piano lessons at age seven. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus believes musical experience not only sharpens your hearing for music but also alerts you to emotions expressed in speech, such as anger or sadness. The more time (both daily and across the years) a musician has practiced the more obvious the effect. This has hopeful implications for the treatment of mental disorders related to decreased emotional connectivity, such as autism. Maybe we will soon see music lessons especially tailored for autistic children.
In Venezuela, musician Jose Abreu tailors music education to improve the lives of 300,000 poor children, one lesson at a time. Children admitted to his program sign up to practice an orchestral instrument every day they eat, for many hours. They learn classical music from expert musicians and each other. Eventually they join the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, travel the world and gain a discipline that will forever lift them from poverty. The current conductor of the
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is a graduate of Abreu's program.
You don't have to be mentally disabled or living in the poorest neighborhood of Caracas to benefit from the practice of music. Yet it is rare for non-musically trained adults to seriously take up the discipline of music. We somehow find time to hit the gym and even finish a New York Times crossword puzzle now and then.
Could it be our society is so focused on expertise and competence, that it is difficult for adults to start something, they will be terrible at for a few years, from scratch?

Friday, March 6, 2009

More Knowledge Please

There is probably no limit to what science can do in the way of increasing positive excellence.
So far, it has been physical science that has had the most effect upon our lives, but in the future physiology and psychology are likely to be far more potent.
-Bertrand Russell (1960), British Philosopher

The most difficult human endeavor is self-control.
As a conscious being, you are aware of your body, but the organ in which consciousness occurs, the brain, is not aware of itself. That is why neuroscientists study the brain at work, psychologists experiment to understand behavior and analysts dissect motives. We so want to understand ourselves because deep down we know, with understanding comes freedom and with freedom, the possibilities are infinite.