Monthly Archives: January 2009

Brain Conferences

nyds-smallFor the past four or five years I have been eagerly attending brain conferences. My husband says that I could probably attend such conferences for years to come, they would cost less money than a year of grad school, and I’d be exposed to  cutting edge information. He’s probably correct! You can read all of my posts about the conferences by clicking the Learning & the Brain conference tag. (SketchUp image by Fred. If you are curious about this image, watch the movie on his page of the Seussian model he created.)

The Learning & the Brain conference takes place three times a year, with the next one scheduled for this February in San Francisco, CA, the theme of which is Using Social Brain Research to Enhance Cognition & Achievement.  May’s conference in Washington, D.C. will focus on The Creative Brain: Using Creativity & The Arts Research To Enhance Learning. This is similar to the theme of the conference I had hoped to attend in November 2007, so you can bet I will try my best to attend this May conference. The third conference will take place November  20-22, 2009 in Cambridge, MA, with this year’s theme yet to be determined.

In addition to the conferences, there are two related summer institutes. 

June 22-25 at Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA – Making Connections: The Art & Science of Teaching

July 28-31 at University Park Campus, University of Southern California, Los Angeles – Teaching for Learning: Connecting Brain & Cognitive Science with the Classroom

Robert Greenleaf’s name has come up a number of times in my posts. He has been a speaker at my school’s opening faculty meetings, and I participated in one of his brain workshops. Last summer I attended The Brain, Learning & Applications summer institute with which he is affiliated. Posts about last summer’s institute are accessible via the tag reference in my opening paragraph.

Greenleaf Learning, along with others, now present five institutes annually throughout the spring and summer, touching down in three different countries.

April 9-10, Frankfurt International School, Germany

April 19-20, Cary Academy, Cary, North Carolina. U.S.

June 25-26, Hillfield Strathallan College, Hamilton, Toronto, Canada

July 16-17, Albuquerque Academy, Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.

August 18-19, Avon Old Farms School, Avon, Connecticut, U.S.

As Lisa Rhodes, the organizer of the Albuquerque institute wrote, “The institutes offer incredible local opportunities to see nationally recognized speakers at extremely reasonable rates.”

I have no personal experience with the Society for Neuroscience, but they do have an annual meeting scheduled for October 17-21 in Chicago, Illinois. You can catch up with highlights of the 2008 meeting in this podcast by Ginger Campbell, MD. Ginger’s site, Brain Science Podcast, is chock full of book reviews and insightful interviews with neuroscientists.

If any of you know of other brain related conferences, please share the information in a comment. Thanks!


A Pyramid by any other version…

Back in December I referenced this pyramid in a post discussing Aaron Nelson’s suggestions for improving your memory. For U.S. readers who have ever taken note of the Government’s Food Pyramid, the one below is distinctly different from the old pyramid, as well as from the new pyramid. (You can also see an interactive version of the new U.S. Food Pyramid at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s site.)

What I like most about the pyramid below is that everything rests on DAILY EXERCISE. Every recent book about the brain that I have read includes EXERCISE as one of the most important features of building and maintaining a healthy brain.

Exercise ~

  • promotes neuroplasticity
  • promotes neurogenesis
  • releases norepinephrine, which facilitates memory and neuron communication
  • boots the protein BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) that fosters neurogenesis
  • improves executive function, which is managed in your frontal cortex
  • promotes memory
  • helps deal with and manage stress

Yes, I know, some of these overlap. Come at it any which way you like, but there’s no getting around the fact that EXERCISE is BENEFICIAL for your BRAIN. You already know it is beneficial for your body, and since your brain resides in your body, the sum total of this is that EXERCISE is GOOD for YOU!


You can read more about this Healthy Eating Pyramid in Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat? and see a larger image of the pyramid by clicking any one of three links at the end of this article about the pyramid. I asked for, and was given permission to repost the pyramid, providing the following attribution was included:

Copyright © 2008 Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Pyramid, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health,, and Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, by Walter C. Willett, M.D. and Patrick J. Skerrett (2005), Free Press/Simon & Schuster Inc.

It’s Elemental, my dear Robinson!

theelementI have been anticipating the publication of Ken Robinson’s the Element since it was first announced, which seems like over a year ago. I was also hopeful that the author’s voice would mimic his presentation style, unlike the last book of his I tried to read, Out of Our Minds (which I could not get through). Happily, despite the many typos (around 12!) in the Element, Sir Ken’s humor, narrative and story telling expertise all came through.

This is a book about not only finding your passion, but also about the importance of doing so – both for yourself and for the benefit of moving society along. It is also about how the nature of education has to not only change, but actually TRANSFORM in order to better serve those who engage in the process (and perhaps open up pathways for those who drop out of the process).

One of Robinson’s points, made with co-author Lou Aronica, is that in way too many instances our educational systems discourage students from pursuing their passions, or worse yet, do not provide environments that foster finding one’s element. He shares a slew of stories about prominent people who found their elements despite their “education”, in some cases choosing to forego finishing their formal education.

A number of ideas resonated strongly with me, two in particular.

The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting group think and ‘deindividuation’ but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.

Finding your element, especially if it is NOT your job, will probably enhance how you do your job.

Getting back to the first idea – Robinson suggests we need to

  • transform curriculum, and “eliminate the…hierarchy of subjects”
  • instead of “subjects”, curriculum should be based upon disciplines
  • curriculum should be personalized


The Notes section of the book provides URLs for a number of topics and ideas referenced. Not all of the sites are pertinent to what I tend to write about, but below are those which complement this post.

Another look at the five senses – perhaps we have more than just five? Exploding the five senses by Andrew Cook

Audiblox is a worldwide company that has put together “a system of cognitive exercises, aimed at the development of foundational learning skills” and seems to focus on those who have learning difficulties. The founder of Audiblox, Jan Strydom, along with Susan Du Plessis, has authored IQ Test; Where Does It Come From and What Does It Measure?

A conversation about The Future of the SAT in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

Tony Buzan talking, in a number of short videos, about the use and benefits of Mind Mapping

The Rules of Mind Mapping 
Use both sides of the brain 
The rest of the videos are available here

Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Mentoring Project Who Mentored You? 

International Telementor Program – “facilitates electronic mentoring relationships between professional adults and students worldwide”

Public/Private Ventures “creating and strengthening programs that improve lives in low-income communities” 

The UP Experience – a one-day, less expensive version of TED 

Inauguration Day

As published at
January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poem

The following is a transcript of the inaugural poem recited by Elizabeth Alexander, as provided by CQ transcriptions.

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.


[Updated January 19 and May 10 with some additions. Also, Happy Birthday a week and a day ago to Fred!]

I don’t usually listen to music while writing or reading, as the music distracts me. If there are words, I want to sing along, and no matter what, I tap my toes or swing my legs, and eventually my whole body gets into the act.

It is possible to retrain my brain so that I can focus on writing or reading while listening to music. However, then I would be multitasking, and research has led to the conclusion that the brain does not – and cannot – multitask.

(As an experiment, I’ve been listening to some wonderful recently-gifted-to-me music and writing this at the same time. However, the experiment doesn’t necessarily prove I can successfully multitask. It simply shows that with strong intent to concentrate, I can write while “turning off” my normal physical response to listening to music.)

NPR’s thirty minute Talk of the Nation, October 2008, is all about Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain. The gist of the conversation is that while you can do more than one thing at a time, none of them are done well. With that said, it seems that younger folks who are growing up with technology (the digital natives, as coined by Marc Prensky), and who do many things at once while using that technology, are perhaps changing their brains as they engage in successful multitasking. Apparently, playing certain types of video games promote the ability to multitask within the brain. Of course, because neuroplasticity is a feature of our brains, the rest of us can also train our brains to become better at multitasking. However, regardless of the age of the person attempting to multitask, switching between two dissimilar tasks will be more successful than switching between two similar tasks, although this is influenced by “how hard and how confusable” the tasks are.

(More on my experiment – last night the music was playing while I wrote the above paragraph. Rereading it this morning, there was a glaring mistake in the last sentence, which I have since remedied. And updated on January 19 – I decided that my memory of the NPR report was inaccurate, so I went back and listened to the NPR report again and, sure enough, I had it right the first time, and wrote it wrong the second time. Sure proves John Medina’s points made below!)

The above conversation is part of an NPR series about multitasking. Please note that “brain research suggests cell phones and driving are a dangerous mix, even with a hands-free device.” If you drive and talk on a cell phone, please listen to the NPR 8:55 minute conversation below on Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving.

John Medina, author of brain rules, states in Rule #4:

We don’t pay attention to boring things.

It turns out that multitasking simply does not help our brains to pay attention. You can read more about what Medina has to say on this topic in his blog article The brain cannot multitask.  In particular, Medina states that “The best you can say is that people who appear to be good at multitasking actually have good working memories, capable of paying attention to several inputs one at a time.” He goes on to say that there is a consequence to multitasking, and this is proved by my editing discovery this morning.

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.

(By the way, I turned off the music in order to listen to the NPR interviews and read the articles, but the music is back on now for the rest of this post.)

Here are three additional views on multitasking.

Brain 101 redux

Many of my early posts on Neurons Firing were about the brain. In fact, they are catalogued on a separate page, Brain 101. In wanting to better understand what the brain looks like, how it feels, and how it works, I even did a mini-dissection of a small sheep brain. And last year, in a Frontiers In Science elective at my school, I had the opportunity to participate in a dissection of a brain that still had the eyes attached. 

I still haven’t found my “ideal” brain book – a book with pictures of a human brain, shown by parts of the brain, pictured at actual size but also enlarged to better see what is there, with explanations of each part, and essays similar to those written by Lewis Thomas in books such as The Lives of a Cell. (V.S. Ramachandran would be a perfect author for such a book!) Meanwhile, I enjoy these projects created by sixth graders at my school as part of their Science class.