Monthly Archives: August 2008

CAIS: LeAnn Nickelson on Nutrition & the Brain

“As we eat, so shall we think”

So said LeAnn as she presented a spirited session on nutrition, which included a forty-three page packet with the same title as her talk Brain-Smart Foods That Maximize Learning. As the mother of twins, LeAnn is passionate about the foods she serves her family. While her session was focused on foods that benefit the brain, I suspect most of you will agree that what’s good for the brain is good for the body, and vice versa.

It is common knowledge that our bodies need water. As a swimmer, I know that water is necessary to prevent muscle fatigue. The new information I gleaned about water is that, according to LeAnn, the number one reason for daytime fatigue is insufficient water!

In addition, having access to a drink of water can result in a two percent decrease in cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone – decrease it and your stress decreases. Another water statistic is that “a mere two percent drop in body water can impair physical and cognitive performance.” Sure makes a sound argument for giving every child (and adult) access to water throughout the day.

Another Nickelson tidbit is that an adolescent brain needs a snack about every sixty to ninety minutes in order to supply the brain with necessary levels of glucose. “Cognitive performance can suffer when blood glucose concentrations are low.” An ideal snack combines a  protein with a complex carbohydrate. LeAnn provided a list of possible snack combinations. One of her favorites is green tea and almonds at two in the afternoon.

  • real cheese and whole wheat crackers
  • fruits and vegetables (raisins, blueberries, oranges, apples, carrots, celery, grapes, bananas…)
  • peanuts or peanut butter on whole wheat crackers
  • fruit muffins made with whole wheat flour
  • granola bars or granola cereal
  • sunflower seeds
  • popcorn
  • hummus and pita bread

LeAnn provided advice for optimizing the brain prior to taking a test. I am willing to bet this advice is just as useful for anyone who is about to give a presentation or engage in some other activity that puts them front and center of a group of people.

  • perform 2 minutes of exercise (jumping jacks work well because they do not require much space)
  • consume a snack that has glucose (apples, pears, berries, grapes and raisins)
  • drink approximately 6 oz. of water (determined by body size, could be more or less)

For more information about nutrition, LeAnn recommended the following authors and books, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s site. And I have included one of my favorite and oft referenced sites, Neuroscience for Kids.

Jean CarperFood – Your Miracle Medicine
Elizabeth Somer
Food & Mood
Juliette Kellow
Miracle foods for kids
Marcia Zimmerman
The A.D.D. Nutrition Solution is the US Department of Agriculture’s site to help people understand healthy eating
The Department provides an interactive pyramid to learn more about the food groups
Neuroscience for Kids page on nutrition and the brain

CBS News: “Brain Food” For Kids

[Images come from iStockPhoto]

CAIS: LeAnn Nickelson on Food & Sleep

I usually have no difficulty falling asleep…the first time. It’s the second time that’s tough…after I’ve woken up at 2 or 3 in the morning thanks to rumblings in my stomach from something eaten hours earlier. Perhaps the most personally practical session I attended at the CAIS brain institute was LeAnn Nickelson’s Brain-Smart Foots That Maximize Learning.

Yes, the session was about brain-smart foods, but as you may have read in my previous post, a sound night’s sleep helps to consolidate memories and, hence, learning. Therefore, it comes in handy to understand how what you eat can impact how your sleep.

Here are the sleep and nutrition tips shared by LeAnn. (Most of this is either direct-quoted or paraphrased from page 30 of her information packed handout.)

  1. Melatonin and serotonin are utilized in bringing about and maintaining sleep. Carbohydrates help produce serotonin, so try eating 1 to 1.5 ounces of a low-fat carb about 30 minutes prior to sleep. (9/1/08 I’ve been having an email exchange with a reader and have decided that this needs to be clarified. The snack should consist of complex carbs as opposed to simple carbs.)
  2. Avoid drinking caffeine after late afternoon.
  3. Exercise produces a surge in sleep hormones but be sure to finish with your exercise at least 4 hours prior to falling asleep. Exercise is beneficial for a number of reasons, including helping to work off stress, which may otherwise be a factor in promoting poor sleep.
  4. Alcohol and REM (the portion of sleep when you dream) are not compatible. Less REM is associated with more night awakenings and more restless sleep, so be sure to have your last drink more than 2 hours prior to bedtime, and keep overall alcohol intake to a low quantity.
  5. Those large dinners filled with fatty foods should be avoided, especially if eaten later in the evening. Heavy meals stimulate prolonged digestive action, which will make for a wakeful sleep. If you like large meals, try having them at breakfast and lunch, instead of at dinner.
  6. Spicy foods, which have been my sleep nemesis, and gas-forming foods can wake you up in the middle of the night if you have them at dinner. Again, try having them at lunch, instead of at dinner.
  7. Check that your body is getting its required quantity of vitamins and minerals.
  8. Set a bedtime ritual that helps program your body to expect sleep.
  9. And if the first tip doesn’t suffice, try a cup of warm milk at bedtime.

CAIS: David Eagleman on Sleep

Most of us will spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. Have you ever considered that sleeping is actually the flip side of being awake and is very much an active state? It turns out that REM brain waves resemble awake brain waves or, as David Eagleman says “just like you’re conscious except you’re not moving.”

REM is the Rapid-Eye Movement portion of sleep when you dream, and accounts for twenty percent of sleep time. According to Eagleman, during REM your “heart rate goes up, respiration speeds up, your body can twitch, there is heightened cerebral activity, and paralysis in the major voluntary muscle groups.”

It turns out that everybody dreams, though not everybody remembers that they dream. Perhaps you have engaged in lucid dreaming, a state where you are aware you are dreaming and are able to then take control of the dream.

All mammals and birds sleep but the duration of that sleep varies considerably. Eagleman says there is “no relationship between sleep time and activity level” and that although sleep is essential, it is “not a special higher order function.” If that’s the case, the question then becomes:

Why do we sleep?

Probably most of us would answer that we sleep to rejuvenate our bodies and minds. Given the title of Eagleman’s talk, Why is Sleeping so Important to Learning?, you may not be so surprised to learn that sleep has other functions. As Eagleman described it:

We sleep to consolidate memories, which in turn consolidates learning.
We also sleep to forget – to take out the trash – to rid our brain of the stuff we do not need. (This is based on Crick and Mitchison’s “reverse learning” hypothesis.) I particularly liked the image evoked by Eagleman’s comment that sleeping is an “offline practice session”.

If sleep is so important to learning, it may be useful to have a quick summary of how we process information. Typically, data gets sent to the hippocampus where it is filtered and then sent off to various parts of the cortex. As Eagleman reminded us, the hippocampus decides what to keep on the basis of relevancy to our goals and frequency of occurrence.

The areas of the brain that appear to be involved in sleep include the hypothalamus and the reticular formation, which is responsible for maintaining our sleep and wake cycle. Most of us have probably seen the impact on ourselves of insufficient sleep. We are more tired the following day, perhaps a bit irritable, and less attentive.

Do you ever have difficulty falling asleep? LeAnn Nickelsen addressed this issue in her session on brain nutrition, and that will provide food for thought in my next post.

For more about why we sleep:

CAIS: David Eagleman on Naps

Do you take naps? In his talk, Why is Sleeping so Important to Learning?, David Eagleman mentioned his colleague Sara Mednick and her book Take a Nap? Change Your Life! If you visit her site you can get the gist of her research by listening to her Google Author Talk or reading this sample chapter The Nap Manifesto. Simply put, to paraphrase Eagleman, Kindergarten and the Europeans got it right, but what about the rest of us!

According to Eagleman, a twenty minute nap will:

  • increase alertness
  • speed up motor performance
  • improve accuracy
  • improve perception
  • help us make better decisions

In addition to the above benefits of power naps, research shows that napping helps improve retention of information. Eagleman stated that the closer sleeping and napping come to the information to be learned, the greater the consolidation. This is why studying before sleep works.

However, staying up late to study or cram is not going to be useful, especially if the studying is for a test the next day. This is because a sound night’s sleep is important to consolidate memories and hence to consolidate learning. Obvoiusly, there has to be a balance. In my next post we’ll move from napping to sleeping.

Still want to be convinced about the power of a power nap?

CAIS: The Brain, Learning and Applications – Day 2

Having enjoyed LeAnn Nickelsen’s Nutrition presentation – not only for the content, but also for the way she modeled teaching and presenting – I returned the following day for Deeper Learning: Success for All by Differentiating (Part 1). LeAnn, a Jensen Learning Certified Brain Research Trainer, has co-authored a 328-page book with Eric Jensen about this topic. (I have not read it.) Her presentation was an in-depth preview of the book, and jam-packed with examples and handouts we were encouraged to use. Part 2 was offered in the second set of sessions, and the extensive handout covered the content of both parts in order to accommodate attendees who wanted to catch other presentations.

In retrospect, I should have stayed for Part 2. However, M. Layne Kalbfleisch’s session on High-Ability Children with Learning/Psychiatric Disabilities attracted me for the promise of learning more about dyslexia. Kalbfleisch had interesting content to share but spent so much time calmly answering questions and offering opinion on the state of her field that she never got to the portion of her talk on dyslexia. The good news is that a copy of her slides is available on the conference CD. The frustrating news is that many of her slides need elaboration to elucidate their meaning and impact. (Note to myself: teach or present less to permit ample time for questions, or manage the process more efficiently.)

Two keynotes followed lunch, and also provided a time when we could all gather for announcements and a sense of group closure prior to the last concurrent sessions. July Willis began with Increase Student Engagement, Motivation and Memory using RAD Strategies. Before you say ‘oh, another long title’, RAD stands for Reticular activating system, Amygdala, and Dopamine. Her talk focused on ways to make the most of these interrelated brain systems.

Dave Gray gave the second keynote, Introduction to Visual Thinking, and it was his Visual Thinking in Practice concurrent session that concluded my day. I will have more to share about his sessions in a future post.


The pacing of this conference provided ample time between sessions to gather thoughts, a snack or engage in conversations with colleagues. Intentionally keeping the size around 200 or fewer and locating it on a country campus helped set the tone for relaxed give-and-take between attendees and presenters. Coming the week before many of us return to school for opening faculty meetings, I found this a much appreciated shot in the arm to help make the transition from summer to school!

CAIS Images

Tomorrow you’ll be able to read about today’s second and final day of the CAIS conference. Last night I had a light and healthy dinner with a glass of pinot noir, followed by a not-as-thick-as-I’d-like hot cocoa and a scrumptious chocolate mascarpone cheesecake.

Be it the wine, caffeine, sugar, or something else, I didn’t manage to fall asleep till way after midnight (perhaps I should have practiced a thing or two from LeAnn Nickelson’s session on nutrition!) and was up at 6:15 in the morning (David Eagleman would grimace at my lack of quality sleep!)

After a full day in Connecticut and an almost two hour drive home, I have actually run out of steam and am falling back on this (hopefully) clever post. Clever, because both the last keynote and one of the last concurrent sessions (the one I attended) were presented by Dave Gray, founder and chairman of XPLANE, the visual thinking company.

I leave you with visuals of Avon Old Farms School, Avon Old Farms Hotel, and a page from my notes during Dave Gray’s keynote. Consider it some visual thinking, of sorts, to tide us over till tomorrow.

correction to my notes: The name of the Isotype designer is Otto Neurath.

CAIS: The Brain, Learning and Applications – Day 1

Nestled in the scenic countryside of Avon, Connecticut, just south of Hartford, Avon Old Farms School is a boys boarding school, grades nine through twelve. It is also the location of the CAIS (Connecticut Association of Independent Schools) Brain Institute, being held for the second year in a row. There are about 160 of us in attendance and, small world that it is, one of my lunch mates is a VP at PIRI (Public Information Resources, Inc.), which just happens to be the company that puts on the Learning & the Brain conference!

This first day was filled with dynamic and content-rich presentations, beginning with David Eagleman’s keynote: Ten Unsolved Mysteries of the Brain, which you can conveniently read in the July, 2007 online issue of Discover. I followed the keynote by attending Eagleman’s session on Why is Sleeping so Important to Learning? More on this in a later post, but for now I can’t resist commenting that he looks so young for one who has accomplished so much!

After lunch I attended an informative and energetic session by LeAnn Nickelsen on Brain-Smart Foods that Maximize Learning. The information in this session really needs to be shared with students, teachers, administrators and parents. Most of us are aware of foods we should or should not eat, but now I know WHY and WHAT IMPACT they have on my body and brain functioning. I gobbled up her presentation and promise to share more in a future post.

My day almost concluded with the last of three sessions that James Zull gave today. He is the author of The Art of Changing the Brain and he discussed Knowledge and Neuronal Networks: Learning by Addition and Subtraction. It was a pleasure to meet him in person, and I even had time to ask his advice about where to go to further my study of the information presented in his book. (Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program was his reply.)

Zull ended early in order to catch a plane, so I had the pleasure of popping in to Michael Kaplan’s session on How the Brain “Reads” Ritalin: A Survival Guide for Teachers. Kaplan is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Center. From the thirty minutes I heard, his presentation is one to which all teachers should be privy. Having missed the first two-thirds of his talk, I plan on contacting him for a copy of his slides, which he willingly offered to those who were interested.

More to come after tomorrow’s session, including pictures of the area. (I left the camera cable at home!)

Use Your Hands!

Gever Tully and The Tinkering School first came across my radar thanks to his TED Talk: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do. He has now come into view a second time thanks to an article in today’s NY Times.

Digital Designers Rediscover Their Hands caught my eye partially due to the title, but mostly because of this opening line:

Gever Tulley has only one qualification for training software designers how to become more creative.

Of course I had to read the rest of the article!

It’s all about the hands-on experience – both how it gets people to think outside of their [in this case digital] experience, and how the interaction with materials provides an enjoyable and much needed tactile engagement with the physical world.

Trying something different – getting your brain thinking along other tangents – helps promote conditions for creative thought. And hands-on experience helps inform the learning process. Ken Robinson, James Zull and John Dewey would all be pleased. 🙂

By the way, the CAIS Brain Institute is this Tuesday and Wednesday. You can read more about it in my previous post, and of course, I’ll be writing about it later in the week.

The Art of Changing the Brain – James Zull

James Zull is a professor of Biology and also Director Emeritus of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE); both of these at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Coupled, this explains Zull’s approach to his 2002 book, The Art of Changing the Brain – Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning.

Zull is a biologist with a keen interest in how the brain learns. At its simplest form, our brains produce electrical and chemical signals in the process of creating synapses, and the result of this process is physical change in the brain. Thus it follows, according to Zull, that:

Teaching is the art of changing the brain.

and this is done by “creating conditions that lead to change in a learner’s brain.”

Zull begins by providing an overview of David Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle, and equates it with related brain structures. (You can brush up on Kolb’s theory in this previous post.)

Kolb’s cycle provided the Ah ha moment for Zull to make “this natural connection between brain structure and learning.” With the above chart as a basis, Zull spends the remainder of his book delving into the learning process/cycle. More on this in future posts.

For more about James Zull:

For more about David Kolb:

For more about UCITE:

This fascinates me because it is professional development by and for faculty, providing “services for faculty which will enhance student learning”.

  • As part of this initiative they have a Learning and Teaching page filled with links about teaching methods, assessments, getting student feedback, dealing with controversy, general classroom issues, cooperative learning, experiential learning coupled with the learning cycle and learning styles, and using technology in teaching.
  • Some of the services provided by UCITE , including assistance with presentation skills!