Sunday, December 30, 2012

Looking to Improve Your Memory
in 2013?
We constantly perceive vast amounts of information each minute, but we make no attempt to recall very much of it. Equally important, we cannot remember information that we failed to encode for memory storage in the first place.

If your New Year’s resolution is to improve your memory in 2013, look no further than the article below for effective memory tips for the classroom or for daily living.
“30 Ways to Improve Your Memory” at

What is the difference between an explicit memory and a flashbulb memory? If you can’t remember, don’t despair. You are quite normal. We have been able to identify over 40 different types of memories and further research will reveal more. When someone tells you, “I think I’m losing my memory!” Your best response is now, “Which one?”

For a short and concise list of types of memory and a short description of each, see...
“A Dictionary for Types of Memory” at

Visualization and the Human Brain  
(Part 1)

 "Imagination is more important than knowledge, for imagination embraces the world."
--Albert Einstein

Over the millennia, our ancestors endeavored to teach survival skills to each subsequent generation.  It quickly became evident that maximizing their innovative capabilities enhanced survival, increased longevity, and advanced a culture.

Anthropologists recently discovered that the ratio of older inhabitants to younger members of a civilization frequently determined, if and how far that group advanced on the path from short-term primitive living to sophisticated civilizations. Today’s mission for the next generation remains no different than it was 50,000 years ago.

Over the eons, the remarkable human brain evolved to store information, not merely for the purpose of being able to recall the past and its myriad details. Instead, early hominid brains developed in a manner that permitted them to successfully navigate a frequently dangerous and unpredictable world. While the physical world has always been governed by the same universal natural laws, our ancestors increasingly relied heavily upon patterns and relationships in nature to anticipate the future and to plan their behaviors accordingly in order to survive environments that were subject to change at a moment’s notice. These early “scientist-explorers” devoted the majority of each day to avoiding the numerous dangers while taking advantage of any clear and present opportunity. Keys to survival were
(1) distinguishing danger from opportunity
(2) storing accurate memory records
(3) visualizing appropriate responses.

Matters relevant to the danger-opportunity continuum warranted visualization and memorization. Early mankind learned to visualize future possibilities by using their imagination, asking the right questions, making observations, gathering data and information, classifying objects and events, making predictions, thoughtfully conducting tests and experimenting, operating on “best-guesses” and hunches, framing explanations based on evidence, communicating ideas, using trial-and-error strategies, revising their thinking as-needed, dedicating their lives to “making sense” of their environment –the ultimate quest of human knowledge. At the core of these new competencies was a complex web of curiosity, inferential and abstract thinking, not for academic purposes, but for survival. 

Two million years ago, Homo habilis began an exponential brain growth enlarging both the cerebral cortex and expanding the cranium to encase and protect a much larger brain. Within a million years, the Homo sapiens brain doubled in size to 1350 cm2. The most distinguishing features evolved
(1)  a brain that was extremely large relative to body mass
(2)  the cognitive abilities to create tools and technology, to reason and plan
(3)  a unique ability to adapt to a plethora of environments and circumstances, as well as to create their own environments, rather than just adapting to natural surroundings. 

Which of the following procedures do you think would allow you to reproduce the most accurate representation of an object: tracing the object; looking at the object while drawing it; or, with your eyes closed, touching and examining that object and then drawing it without ever seeing it? Most educators and parents would surmise that the range in the quality of the three renditions would match the order in which they have been presented. However, you are in for a neurological epiphany!

Read the full article on “Brain Sight” at

What are Mirror Neurons and Why Are They So Important to Parents and Educators?

When a parent sticks his tongue out at an infant, the baby will often reciprocate. While watching a boxing match, a football game, or a mystery movie, have you ever noticed yourself perspiring and breathing as if you had shifted roles from a spectator to an active participant? While reading a novel, you might find yourself crying softly or uncontrollably. While witnessing someone else receiving a vaccination, you cringe and sometimes scream, "Ouch!" When I yawn, there is an excellent chance that you will yawn responsively without a single thought, hesitation, or control. What brain mechanisms cause such behaviors?

These socially valuable "monkey see, monkey do" neurons with absolutely fascinating properties were recently discovered in the cerebral cortex of monkeys. Giaccamo Rizzollati, of the University of Parma, Italy, found a system of brain cells, now referred to as "mirror cells," in the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of the brain. This area is a part of the larger premotor cortex, whose activities are crucial to planning and initiating movements. Immediately anterior to the motor area is the Supplementary Motor Area (SMA) or the premotor cortex, which is somewhat verticla strip of cortical real estate. The premotor cortex is a functional brain landmark separating the motor input (sensory/detecting) and output (motor/performing) systems. All proposed actions are mentally rehearsed in the premotor areas before being overtly executed (as an action) by the motor system.

This cluster of neurons fired a signal when a monkey physically performed a single highly specific action with either of its hand. Whether pushing, pulling, tugging, or grasping an object, or when picking up or putting a peanut in its mouth, for example, the mirror neurons became highly active.

However, the most fascinating characteristic of mirror neurons is that many of those same neurons in the premotor areas also fired when the monkey merely watched another monkey or the experimenter perform the exact same task! During these experiments, it became easy to predict precisely which neurons would fire based on which activity the monkey was observing. Just as interesting, when mechanical tools performed the same task, the mirror neurons remained inactive. However, the mirror neurons fired rapidly the moment the monkeys watched another monkey or a human engaged in a specific action.

While mirror neurons are located in the F5 region of the brain, they are heavily dependent upon vision (visual cortex), hearing (auditory cortex), speaking (multiple language centers in the brain), understanding gestures, and the development of social awareness. Like other functions of the brain, mirror neurons massively interconnected with other brain regions. Mirror neurons offer still one more insight into the neural basis of effective teaching and learning. From appenticeships to active classroom demonstrations, we rely on active mirror neurons to orchestrate a virtual personal experience mimicking the one under observation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Creative Thinking - Part 5: Bringing Out the "Genius" in Us

Daydreaming boosts creativity, when mental pictures reach the conscious mind and stimulate our limitless imagination. As a result, drawing can do for the brain during the day, what dreaming does for the brain at night.

During those times, we can open the mind to a floodgate of novel relationships and make interesting non-traditional connections.

Many of history's most prominent scientists were quite accomplished in the arts. MacArthur “genius” Robert Root-Bernstein, in his book Sparks of Genius, details a fascinating revelation. As he researched the lives of more than 150 renowned scientists from Pasteur to Einstein, he discovered a single common characteristic.

Nearly all of the greatest scientists, inventors and innovators, were also musicians, artists, sculptors, poets, or involved in the arts in one manner or another!

From Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations of the human body to Gregor Mendel’s sketches of how the laws of heredity operated, their models, maps, and drawings were not only indispensable record-keeping tools, but they also blurred line separating the sciences from art. When examined closely, one must ask, "Were da Vinci’s paintings art or anatomy?" "Architecture and blueprints or art?"

Robert Marzano’s research would likely discourage any binary answer, because advanced visual organizers have been shown to increase student achievement by more than 20 percentile points regardless of the discipline to which one attributes the success.

In the final analysis, there is an enlightening answer to the question, "Why do the world’s leading universities boast of a College of Arts and Sciences?” The two go hand-in-hand to enhance classroom learning and human advancement.

In the proverbial equation of "a picture" and its 1,000-word equivalent, one must ask the intriguing question, “If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, then what is an experience worth, where a young learner can produce his/her own models, maps, and illustrations?” Perhaps, the answer is a "full dissertation!"

Collectively, visualized experiences with the arts help make the discipline of science comprehensible to all learners, opening the door to our developing young geniuses.

Creative Thinking - Part 4: The Creative Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a sub-cortical brain structure that plays a critical role in laying down new memories. However, brain-imaging studies have shown heightened activations taking place in the hippocampus, not only when we are recalling memories, but also when we are daydreaming, which may constitute creating new memories.

For approximately 30% of our waking hours, we tend to drift off and our minds turn on a "default network" in the brain that is composed of a connected web of brain regions that we use when our mind shifts gears from "concentrate" to "wonder."

The unbridled excursions we take while daydreaming have multiple purposes. It is during these imaginative moments that we:

(1) tend to stretch the current boundaries of reality to new dimensions

(2) mentally rehearse future events

(3) tackle real or imagined challenges, a.k.a. “problem-solving.”

The evolutionary value of a complex creative human memory system rests not so much in our ability to store information, but in our capacities to use that information to predict future events and to imaginatively "create our own future."

Without a flexible and imaginative memory system, predictions, and planning our actions/reactions would linger just beyond our cognitive reach.

Creative Thinking - Part 3: Visualization and Human Cognition

Visualizing is integral to reading for comprehension. To understand what they read, students must rely heavily on the “picture-making” mechanisms in the visual systems of the brain in order to extract meaning from the words on a printed page.

The association cortices in the brain are charged with the task of making sense of incoming information. Learners can only make sense of abstract information based on preexisting internal mental models.

Harvard University faculty member, Marc Hauser (2009) points to four human characteristics that distinguish our cognitive abilities from those of our primate cousins, who are only 1% genetically different from us.

1. Generative Computation: our ability to generate countless products from limited content (26 letters used to construct a limitless number of words, conversations, and concepts)

2. Promiscuous Combination of Ideas: taking disparate ideas from a wide range of domains of knowledge and creating new products, laws, and relationships

3. Mental Symbols: producing a complex communication system

4. Abstract Thought: the ability to reasonably imagine things beyond our immediate.

When we deploy non-linguistic models, maps, diagrams, simulations, and representations to assist with creative r abstract thinking, we enhance classroom success by taking advantage of some of the brain's longest-standing competencies.

We can safely assume that the law of gravity was well understood before Newton's formal theory was ever proposed or written down.

Creative Thinking - Part 2: The Value of Mental Imaging

Advancements in the human condition were largely the result of our predisposition to create images for the purpose of future plans. When did our ancestors suddenly realize that creating pictorial representations had the power to evoke mental images of past experiences (defying time) and objects no longer present (defying space)?

Doing so, both now and eons ago, requires
(1) creating imaginative circumstances
(2) manipulating internal mental pictures
(3) engaging in abstract thinking.

Storing information in the brain for the sake of data accumulation would have forced early man to skip ahead to the final chapters of our species’ existence.

When we venture backwards on the timeline of human history to the "pre-literacy era," evidence abounds of our innate inclination to convey ideas, with images, illustrations, maps, and models (however crude they may have been).

Equally astonishing, the same human basic brain structures, processing mechanisms, and neuronal systems that sketched bison, horses, and deer on the Lascaux walls are used for learning in our classrooms today. Students decipher modern messages from paper, laptop screens, interpret computer-generated images on interactive whiteboards using precisely the same neurophysiological hardware.

Those ancestors who were best able to recreate significant events through visualizations, self-generated images and drawings passed those winning genes on to future generations includng the present generations. So, how should we incorporate this winning strategy into student learning?

While it may be no great feat to create pictures in the mind’s eye, translating an array of squiggly and straight lines on paper into mental images representing concrete objects is remarkable. But generating the exact same mental image, merely by a hand-drawn visual cue, in millions of other minds asynchronously (18,000 years later) is nothing short of astounding!

Creative Thinking - Part 1: Bridging the Gap Between the Experience and the Mind

Every organism interacts with the world in some way, but only human beings are capable of bridging the gap between "the experience and the mind" with the aid of representational thinking tools (illustrations, speech, concrete models, etc.). All abstract thoughts are grounded in concrete scenarios, and we can represent these abstractions on paper, whiteboards, or computer screens.

The human brain is capable of recreating at will an original event, modifying a past experience, or completely inventing a fabricated occurrence inside the mind. Vision and visual imagery have been essential to the evolving human brain far longer than the printed word has.

The celebrated petroglyphs found around the world, including the cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France, represent some of the first cognitive leaps in the evolution of abstract thinking, but the $64,000 archaeological questions are:

1. What were these particular drawings used for?
2. Were these etchings prescient efforts to convey historical records to
future generations or just flights of artistic and imaginative fancy?
3. Were the illustrations intended for storytelling, or possibly teaching models
that were used to instruct prospective Paleolithic hunters?

The power of these two-dimensional illustrations resided not in the images themselves, but in what the human brain did and continues to do with those illustrations.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Abbreviated Dictionary of Memory Types

If someone tells you, "I think I'm losing my memory!" You might want to ask them, "Which memory?” We have several different types of memory and more than one pathway back to them.

Autobiographical memories are the specific memories about our personal lives that make us the unique individuals who we are.

Conditional memories represent our knowledge of when and where to deploy a skill to solve a problem or to produce additional knowledge (a “cognitive toolbox”).

Conceptual memory is knowing what something is, how it works, etc., which can be knowledge gained by learning (apprenticeship or mentorship) as well as through the analytical process sense-making.

Echoic memories are auditory memories (of songs, voices and sounds).

Explicit (declarative) memories are working (short-term) memories, which can be further divided into semantic (isolated words, facts, symbols, etc.) memories and episodic memories, which are memories of locations, events, circumstances and space. These particular memory "episodes" in life would include memorable moments (e.g., a 21st birthday celebration in Las Vegas) where the details of the memory are embedded in the broader experience.

Declarative memories are memories that can be articulated easily (dates, historical facts, telephone numbers, etc.) including what we can recall in our mind as imagery. They are easily established and the specific information easily forgotten, which leads to frustrations in the classroom.

Flashbulb memories are recollections of where you were when a historically or personally significant event took place (the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, the assassination of JFK, the tearing down of the Berlin wall, the attack on the World Trade Center or your wedding day.)

Iconic memories are visual memories (pictures). Since human vision preceded writing, visualization is a powerful learning aid.

Implicit (non-declarative) memories include what we can “do” (typewriting, bicycle riding, tennis, etc.), which comprises procedural memories -- physical skills that require repetitive practice to learn them, such as the ability to dance, drive a car, tie one’s shoelaces or necktie. It constitutes the body's sensory-motor library of skills we have. Motor memory is the body of learned motoric habits (playing basketball) where "the mind is in the muscle." They are all described as non-declarative because we cannot say or "declare" how they are accomplished. How would you verbally explain riding a bicycle or dancing?

Permanent memory (formerly referred to a long-term) memory can be sub-divided into explicit and implicit memories.

Reflective memories or instinctive memories (e.g., knee-jerk response) are stored in the parietal lobes and the cerebellum. These memories can neither be trained for nor learned, since they occur naturally.

Sensory memory is the brief representation of a stimulus while it is being processed in one of the numerous sensory systems, most commonly with an origin in tastes, smells, touch/textures, sights or sounds.

Source memory is knowing when and where a particular fact or aspect of knowledge was originally learned and how you came about knowing it. (When and where did you learn the significance of the date “1776?”)

Working (short-term) memory has a limited capacity of 7 items and lasts approximately 30 seconds or less in duration.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Prophylactic Value of a Good Education

Educating our children to their maximum potential is a goal whose paramount importance can never be overstated.

Learning in today's world has become a lifelong requirement, no longer restricted to the childhood years. A strong early foundation for learning undergirds all academic advancement, as well as future success in complex learning. Not only does developing a fully-functioning brain increase the probability of success in school and in career aspirations, it also has a documented prophylactic value.

Numerous research studies have shown that attaining a college degree has the subsidiary benefit of protecting the brain from debilitating brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia in the later years of life. UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Robert Jacobs found that there were 40% more neural connections inside the autopsied brains of college-educated subjects than in their age-mates whose formal education terminated after receiving a high school diploma (or without ever completing high school at all).

Other neuroscientists have concluded that developing excessive numbers of intra-hemispheric and inter-hemispheric brain connections protects us from diminished cognitive capacities by making it easier for an injured or impaired brain to re-wire itself. Even in cases of brain trauma (due to auto accidents, missile wounds, etc.), better educated individuals, who have led challenging and stimulating lifestyles, typically enjoy a moderate neural advantage during recovery.

In January 2010, Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head during a deadly rampage in northwest Tucson, which left 6 other individuals dead and 12 more wounded. The neurosurgeons at Tucson’s University Medical Center, who operated on Congresswoman Giffords, were hopeful that she would survive, but offered a more dismal picture regarding any full recovery of her physical or mental capacities.

However, on the first anniversary of the shooting, January 8, 2012, the congresswoman led a crowd of 3,500 people in the Pledge of Allegiance at 10:10 a.m., which was the same time of the morning that she and the 18 others were shot. Since the damage was to the left side of her brain, Congresswoman Giffords resorted to holding her left hand (instead of her right hand, as is traditionally done) over her heart during the ceremonies. Because the brain is contralateral, a left hemispheric wound to the congresswoman’s brain resulted in the debilitation seen in the right side of her body.

Every parent should make a special effort to assure that learning and cognitive development are given the highest priority in the home and school. Children should also understand the instant power of learning and the long-term protection of a well-educated human brain.