Currently viewing the tag: "brain"


I keep talking of a better way to view and understand ADD, but what exactly do I mean by that?  I’m going to discuss the idea here that classifying ADD as a “disorder” in need of treatment is erroneous.  I propose that by looking at the brain state currently labeled ADD in a different light, one of uniqueness and not dysfunction at all, we should be better able to help people who express this trait to find inspiration in their lives and thrive, academically and functionally.

I discussed in last post the numerous theories that have attempted to explain the cause of ADD, but so far they have all come up short.  From genetics to environment to evolutionary theories, no explanation has been sufficient to account for what they have found (or not found) regarding ADD.  I have also explained how the parameters for the disorder have grown throughout history–the wider they become, the more people that get the diagnosis.  Although this practice has identified many different similarities among people suspected of having an attention disorder, it has also increased the number of similar differences; in other words, too many symptoms blur the already fuzzy lines.

Further, I have pointed out that there are no clear-cut markers to be found in people diagnosed with ADD, unlike those found in other diseases like AIDS (HIV+), hepatitis (elevated liver enzymes), and prostate cancer (elevated PSA) to name a few.  Brain changes have been noted in some studies, but they are complicated by the fact that they have never been able to be reproduced in further studies.  One study did find that the brains of 50% of subjects labeled ADHD have slower maturation of their frontal cortices relative to “normal” controls, but I contend that it presupposes ADD to be an actual disorder, which I emphatically reject (aside from the possibility of the brain changes resulting from stimulant drug treatments).

I am certain that the neurological irregularity we currently classify as ADD is a normal variant to the mental attentive function we all exhibit.  Everybody, including those labeled ADD, has the ability to focus their attention at various moments in their consciousness.  The person labeled ADD, however, has difficulty focusing attention at preset moments defined by current cultural norms, most notably during classroom time.  Because we are all expected to learn which moment requires which behavior, this inability to focus is naturally considered a malfunction.  But is it?

It is my opinion that people exhibiting this normal variation of attention, this inability to concentrate at will, is more a reflection of an uninspired mind toward the subject matter–conventional academics primarily.  This is not news to anybody keeping up with these posts: I’ve made it abundantly clear that I believe the problem lies with teachers having an inability to inspire these normal variant minds.  But let me focus even more: People labeled ADD–we’ll say children primarily, because adults have usually learned to adapt to circumstances (as any successful organism does)–do lose their attention more quickly than the so-called “normals”.  I will not dispute this fact, but it doesn’t mean they are somehow dysfunctional; they are simply unique in their needs.

OK, so far I haven’t said anything that goes against today’s conventional wisdom on ADD.*  But here is the difference: By perceiving this unique variation in attention span as a disorder, it opens the door for a particular kind of fix–primarily stimulant drugs.  This has not only had a minimal effectiveness, but it is likely causing more harm than good both to individuals and to the society at large.

By seeing the unique challenges faced by some children (3-5% worldwide according to the latest figures) as a normal variation of a ubiquitous brain state allows the possibility to help these children wide open.  Seeing how the brain state labeled ADD is merely a different similarity to what we all experience when uninspired allows parents and educators to find out exactly what these children are inspired by.  When accomplished, the task will be to then relate all other subject matter back to the areas of inspiration.  Whew.

I know it sounds simple, but that’s because it is.  It’s universal.  Trying to find the fragmented parts that separate some human beings from others in order to account for a perceived abnormality is futile–we all operate under specific laws.  It’s not that I think the entire historical course of this non-disorder was unnecessary.  It served a sort of ruling out process.  But the evidence has been piling up–there is no there there.  Isn’t it wiser to see how people labeled ADD are similar to us and nurture that?

I do not for a second believe that the hunt for a fragmented cause of ADD, and its subsequent pharmacological solution, will end anytime soon.  But if you are a parent with a child that has trouble conforming to the social norms of focusing in the classroom on subjects that are maddeningly uninspiring, then think twice before attaching the label ADD to that child.  I am certain that the drug solution associated with that life-label will never provide anything more than reliance on drugs; at worst it might even harm your child, physically and/or mentally.

I will touch even further on the current treatment solutions for people labeled ADD in upcoming posts.  Until then, rethink conventional wisdom.

*It has recently come to my attention that my thoughts on this subject are similar to those put forth by the Church of Scientology.  I am NOT a Scientologist.  While I have nothing against Scientology, per se, as I know next to nothing of its philosophical teachings, I merely wish to separate my thoughts from that of any organized group or religion.  I respect all peoples’ choices to believe and worship as they choose fit.

Here’s an interesting thought: Humans may subconsciously create pain conditions in their bodies to relieve emotional stresses.  Hmmm…what do you think?  Are our physical ailments simply a way for us to deal with mental misperceptions?  Check it out:

Scientist have recently found that people who practice self-mutilation, clinically known as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), show decreased brain activity in areas responsible for negative emotions (anterior cingulate and the amygdala), while activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—an area responsible for pain integration—increased as a result of pain.

To explain the findings, researchers have toyed with the idea that self-mutilators actually enjoy pain.  Wrong—since people suffering from NSSI primarily engage in self-inflicted pain–usually cutting or burning the skin—during times of increased stress.  Researchers also proposed that perhaps self-mutilators are attempting to punish themselves.  The problem with this reasoning, however, is that, by definition, punishments increase negative emotions and make behaviors less likely to occur in the future.  Not the case with those practicing NSSI.

Enter a few new studies.  One recent study showed that fruitflies will avoid noxious odors associated with a painful shock; however, they will gravitate toward the same noxious odors when the odors are associated with shock removal.  Hmmm again.

In a second study, scientists found that removal of various forms of experimental pain were associated with a reduction in negative emotion in people with no history of NSSI.  What makes these findings especially interesting are that both general negative emotion and pain-induced negative emotion are processed in the same brain areas.  That means that pain relief and emotional relief are essentially the same thing.  Many of us know that pain-numbing drugs like alcohol also temporarily reduce emotional pain (until, of course, they lead to new forms of pain).  But recent research has shown that simple over-the-counter analgesics (pain relievers) also reduce emotional pain.

So scientists believe that self-inflicted pain, at least as it relates to people engaging in NSSI, may serve the function of reducing emotional pain or stress.  I propose that all pain states, thus all illnesses, result from the mind’s attempt to balance emotional events.  I’m not saying that illness is merely due to negative thinking, because I think any exaggerated thought process–whether positive or negative–can lead to disproportionate emotions.  I’m saying any unbalanced emotion can ultimately lead to illness.

I am fascinated by this study as I think it opens doors to the workings of the mind and it’s involvement in physical experience, including health and disease.

Huh?  Preschoolers using statistics to learn psychology?  Weren’t we taught that young children are egocentric–they can’t understand the world outside of themselves?  Well a new study sheds light on how children learn preference, and it’s neither consistent with egocentrism nor affective cues (how others respond to preferred items), but instead statistics.  That’s right–the human brain evaluates statistical information to come to conclusions.  Go figure.

The study set out to determine how preschool-aged children “understand the actions of other people in terms of underlying psychological causes, such as desires, preferences, beliefs, emotions, and knowledge states.”  It did so by creating an experiment testing a child’s recognition of nonrandomness, and whether this recognition allowed the child to make conclusions about another person’s preferences.

To do so, researchers recruited 72 preschoolers (average age: 4 years, 1 month) and put them in a room individually with a squirrel puppet named Squirrel.  They then watched Squirrel choose toys out of a box.  The available toys were of two types–foam red circles and blue flowers–in different proportions, randomly selected.  The proportions were either 18%, 50% or 100% target toy (let’s say red circles).  Squirrel then proceeded to pull out five samples of the target toy–still following?–and played with those toys for a short period.  The toys were then put back in the box and the boxes removed.  Out came three dishes with five samples of three types of foam toys–red circles, blue flowers and yellow tubes (as a control)–and the children were told to give Squirrel the toy it preferred.

Aha!  Here’s where it gets interesting: The children gave the squirrel the correct toy–the target–most often when it was the least present, that is, when at an 18% ratio.  When present at 50%, children gave the target correctly only half the time, and at 100%, they correctly gave the target only 25% of the time.  Hmmm…

Statistical analysis of the results showed that when the target toy was in the lowest proportions, the results were significantly greater than a chance occurrence, whereas in the 100% proportion the results were no greater than chance.

This study shows that the developing brain uses statistical information to determine preference.  If Squirrel chooses red circles despite their being less of them in the box than blue flowers, then it must prefer red circles.  Right.  When the proportions were equal however, or when there were only red circles, then the little brains could not infer which toys squirrel actually preferred.  Right again.

Now this may seem obvious to some, and judging by some comments I’ve already read about the study this seems to be the case for a few people.  However, to make this more interesting, the researchers set up a second study where they used affective cues–eyes widening, oohs and aahs, and so forth–when they received the preferred toy (in this study they used adults instead of Squirrel to test if children use visual and audial cues to make preference determination).  And again the results showed that children more correctly chose the preferred toy when it was in lower proportion, despite affective cues.  Genius.

I love this study because it gives some preliminary info on the workings of the young mind and how we come to certain understandings.  Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of the adult mind.  Reading about this study initially in a TIME online article, I was appalled at the conclusion presented by the author,

“Even preschoolers, in other words, can see that some people might need more help getting what they want when less is available to them.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of the results and the author of the piece clearly did not understand the study.  If you happen to come across this nonsense in any other article, please note that this study showed that children used statistical information to infer preferences in other people only.  It had nothing to do with altruism, although I’m sure some people would love to see it that way to further their own beliefs.  But this study was on learning mechanisms, and at that it was brilliant.  We’ll leave the morality for another study.

Another piece of evidence showing how genetics plays a instrumental role in shaping sexual orientation.  A recent study out of York University in Toronto showed that the ability to recognize faces, both in speed and accuracy, is a skill sharpened in women and homosexual men.  And to add an interesting twist–left-handed heterosexual men have quicker and more accurate face recognition than do right-handers.

The ability to recognize faces has been shown through imaging techniques to be a purely right-sided brain function in men, while women use both hemispheres.  This “doubling-up” of brain power allows women to scan their memories much more rapidly than men, making it easier for them to recognize people at cocktail parties.  Researchers believe that the same holds true for homosexual men–their brains likely use both left and right hemispheres when evaluating faces, accounting for their mirroring women’s abilities in this function.

Face recognition is complex.  It takes a number of brain regions, visual processes, and memory for recognition to take place.  Researchers studied this phenomenon by recruiting a sample group of homosexual men, heterosexual men and heterosexual women, of both left-handed and right-handed variety.  The volunteers were shown pictures of 10 faces and given time to try to memorize them. The photos were black and white, and digitally altered to remove ears, hair and blemishes, so as to eliminate the physical landmarks people often use to remember faces.  The 10 faces were then mixed with similarly altered images of 50 other people and flashed on a screen for just milliseconds apiece. The subjects’ job was to press a key when they saw a face they’d seen before.  The results were that women and homosexual men scored nearly the same, and both groups fared better than heterosexual men.  Homosexual women were not studied.

Genetics determines symmetry and asymmetry in body and brain.  For instance, previous studies have shown that gay men have a 39% greater chance of being left-handed than heteros (southpaw heteros performed better on face recognition than did righties, remember?).  Gay men also have a greater chance (~80%) of having a counter-clockwise hair whorl.

When it comes to brain morphology (shape), both women and homosexual men have two symmetrical halves, whereas heterosexual men and homosexual women have asymmetrical brain regions, with the right side being larger than the left.

What is unknown is if homosexual men are, in fact, using both brain regions when attempting to recognize faces.  The only way to know for sure would be to image the brain as it goes through the same experiment, but this would bring up some serious ethical considerations.

Either way, I find this research absolutely fascinating.  Despite some still believing it to be a lifestyle choice and not genetic, evidence points to homosexuality being a multi-factorial phenomenon.  Genetics, hormones, and environment all play a part in developing sexual orientation, many of them early in embryonic development.  Some have even proposed an evolutionary advantage to homosexuality being maintained in the population, despite its lowering reproductive success.

If genetics are involved, then there must be phenotypic differences that go beyond sexual preferences.  What are these differences?  How are they expressed?  Politically speaking, if we could recognize that sexual orientation is biologically determined, then it could lead to an advancement in equal protection rights for homosexuals and same-sex couples.

I also find this study interesting because, well, it explains my total lameness in not remembering people whom I’ve met in the past, some just days earlier.  Duh…I’m a little slow, um…er, uh…what’s your name?  Forgive me, I’m hetero–half brain, you know?


How can seniors both reduce the effects of aging on the brain and give back to society? By tutoring children, that’s how. And it is exactly what thousands of elders are doing–teaching kids how to read, write and do math–giving many of the older folk a renewed sense of purpose.

According to a recent study, seniors who have volunteered for Experience Corps, a program matching elementary students in low-income schools with seniors who serve as tutors, showed improvements in the “executive function” regions of the brain involved in thinking and the ability to organize multiple tasks. The children had much greater reading comprehension and ability to sound out words compared to kids who were not tutored.

The study looked at eight women considered high risk of cognitive impairment because of their low income status, low education level [they had only completed an average of 12 years of school (high school)] and low scores on a cognition test. Researchers say that these preliminary results are encouraging, especially if they can carry over to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Very nice. And no surprise to me. I know how important keeping the mind sharp is to staying young and vibrant. Obvious? Not really. The process of learning is instrumental in creating new dendrites, which leads to new processing pathways formed in the brain. New processing pathways = youth. Old processing pathways = wisdom. Youth + wisdom = vibrancy, influence and growth. Who doesn’t value that?

Research shows that keeping the mind conditioned through systematic mental exercise can protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, physical exercise helps too–particularly cardiovascular work–and we know how vital staying social is to warding off cognitive decline; but when it comes to maximal brain function and protection, nothing beats good old fashioned learning.

On a final note, there is evidence that having “purpose” can actually prolong life–and volunteering is one phenomenal way to go about it. A recent study showed that retirees over age 65 who volunteered had less than half the risk of dying compared to their non-volunteering peers. Now that’s impressive. If you love helping others, consider volunteering your time and mental prowess to teaching children how to read and solve equations. Really, it’s a win-win situation–they get smarter and you keep trucking. Now what can be better than that?


Want a new tool in your anti-aging arsenal? Try gaming. Video gaming that is. New research suggests that playing video games might just help slow down the effects of aging on mental function. And you thought Grand Theft Auto was just for psychos.

According to experts, playing video games can improve older adults’ reflexes, processing speed, memory, attention skills and spatial abilities. Not bad, not bad. And gaming systems like Nintendo’s Wii could even provide seniors with some physical activity. For those who don’t know, the Wii has special controllers requiring hand and arm movements. Although not an ideal form of physical fitness in my humble opinion, some movement is certainly better than nothing.

Saying that, one study did find that seniors playing the Wii bowling game had boosted heart rate during the activity. The study’s participants were between 60-80-years-old.

As far as improved cognitive function, a 2008 study which looked at 60-70-year-olds playing the computer game, Rise of Nations, found that the participants had increased performance on tests of memory, reasoning and cognition. Especially notable were improvements in planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity and multi-tasking. Now that’s pretty darn substantial in my book.

Associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, Jason Allaire is co-director of its Gains Through Gaming Lab. The Lab has received $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation for further research and how gaming can boost memory and thinking skills in the elderly. Bravo to that!

Researchers plan to focus on three fundamental areas of cognition:

  • Attention demand–most video games require deep attention and focus, useful skills to every area of life
  • Novelty–learning new things creates new dendritic formation, a must in keeping mentally sharp
  • Social interaction–video gaming is often done with others, and now with online gaming…well, a new social outlet is here for the taking

My regular readers know how much I value maintaining mental sharpness. As long as your brain is firing, you are interacting as a conscious life form (I know that’s debatable, but play along). And when you are firing on all cylinders, watch out! Do I think playing video games is better than learning a language, mathematics or an instrument–no, I don’t. But as a supplement, or for people who just can’t bring themselves to become more academic, heck play a video game–they’re fun!

Wow! Being a parent is tough. So much to think about–so much to know. My daughter has been sick for two weeks now with a cold, and it has turned into a pretty nasty ear infection. It’s been rough. Check out this months article titled, Putting a New Light on Illness, to see how I believe we need to approach such matters.But again, being a parent is tough. Take, for example, childhood learning. As parents we want to do the right things for our tykes. So we buy them Baby Einstein products, enroll them in music classes, and read them Goethe. But is it really doing anything or are we just fools for marketing? According to new research, one of the best things you can do to enhance your child’s language development is give them a set of blocks. Blocks? Wooden or plastic geometrically cuboid shapes? Not computer programs, DVDs, language tapes, or Graciela, the Guatemalan Spanish tutor? Just plain old blocks?

Yup! So says a study out of the University of Washington. Unstructured play with blocks stimulates thinking, memory and physical mastery of objects at a time when a child’s brain is growing rapidly, says Dimitri Christakis, the author of the study. Apparently blocks “are the precursors of thought and language,” he wrote in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, “Older children begin to make up stories or scripts for these objects …” And even better, such play may substitute for less stimulating activity like watching television.

Speaking of T.V., you must know how I feel about watching too much of this junk. Just call it brain Twinkies. It isn’t great for adults, but it’s particularly problematic for children. At a time when their delicate nervous system and brain are developing rapidly, children should really be engaging in stimulating activities like playing with toys, imitating Mom and Dad doing household chores, reading (if they are old enough), and listening to wholesome music (it doesn’t have to be Beethoven, but you probably want to lay off the Tupac for a while). Watching T.V. should really be minimal, if at all.

According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 2-years-old shouldn’t watch any T.V. at all, while children older than 2 should limit their viewing to less than two hours a day. These conclusions are the result of multiple studies showing high levels of television viewing in children leading to social and behavioral problems–like ADHD–later in life. This current study, though, is the first to point out that, even if television viewing is high in toddlers, parents can prevent problems by curbing the bad habit by age 5 1/2. That’s good news for parents who have been unaware. But now you know folks, so pull that Dummy Tube out of Junior’s bedroom tonight.

On a final note, yet another recent study shows that less than one third of all U.S. children are recieving nutritional supplements. Now c’mon people–getting adequate nutrients is essential to good health (it’s one of the key points in my upcoming book), and let’s face it, today’s American diet is severely lacking in nutritional value. So you’ve got to supplement, as do the kids. Saying that–supplements should never substitute for a nutritious and wholesome diet. They supplement. But to ensure both you and your child good health, you probably want to get a good vitamin and mineral supplement today. According to the study, “children using supplements were more likely to be thinner, from a higher-income family without smokers, and spend less time with television and video games.” What do you know? Sounds like these families know what’s up. You can too–just start today. As I said before, being a parent is tough, but keeping up with the latest information helps significantly. I hope this info has made your job just a little bit easier.

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