Archive February 2010

“Brain Based…” a Meaningless Buzz Word 0


1083011_thinking_out_of_the_box_2Today’s educational marketplace is full of products and theories and methodologies that claim to be “brain based”. This overused term is much like “Green” in the environmental movement. It can mean almost anything. Consumers have been taught to believe that if we say something is brain based, then it works in harmony with the brain and therefore produces better results than something that is not brain based. (Don’t we use the brain in everything we do?)
Studies by MCCabe and Castel (2008) and Weisberg, Keil et al (2008) show that an image of a brain or the mention of irrelevant neuroscientific jargon boosts sales and can sway reader judgement. The old… “if I can’t understand it, it must be true” type of consumer thinking.
Sylvan and Christodoulou (2010) suggest a new system of categorizing this nebulous “Brain Based” phenomemon to provide clarity and meaningfulness.

Brain Supported:  Products that have used neuroimaging (PET scans etc) to demonstrate the impact of the product or method on brain structure or functions along with behavioral improvement.

Brain Derived:  Products or methods that are taken from neuroscience theories.  Start with the theory and create the product based on that specific theory. 

Brain Driven: Products that manipulate brain activity to change behavior.  An example is biofeedback where a machine monitoring brain waves gives you visual feedback on your mental state in order to improve performance.

Brain Inspired:  Products or methods directly inspired by general brain principles, which in truth are most often more traditional behavioral or cognitive science.  This is something like using the principle that a small anxiety increses attention and performance, but a lot of anxiety degrades performance.

In short – using a more authentic classification system like this could help consumers discern what, if any, real roots the product or method has in current neuroscience.

Designing for the Human Brain 0


Time 100Just got back from a very interesting conference in Chicago.  As an educator interested in neurobiology, a conference on “Design” may seem like an unusual place for a presentation on implication of brain research on architecture, graphic design, art, or engineering, but what if what we think we see, isn’t what we really see?  What if our memories are really emotional composites and not accurate recordings of what  happened?  How do we design something for a fluid state of perception.  Anyway, if your interested, you can see the presentation under the “Presentations” link.  Love to hear what you think?

FMRI and how the Brain knows before we know. 0


fmriWhat the heck is FMRI?

What do you mean “the Brain knows before we know”?

Listen to the following Podcast from Scientific American and find out.


Video Games: good? bad? good? at least for visual attention. 0


pac manDaphne Bavelier and her team at the University of Rochester have been doing research looking at the effect of video gaming on something called visual attention.  This is not the same as what we normally call “attention” which is really something we control and do on purpose.  Visual attention is the brains ability to focus on an object or event withing the visual field.  It seems that gamers can “see” something new in their visual field more quickly than non-gamers.  It also appears that they can also pay simultaneous attention to more objects  (gamers = 5, non-gamers = 3).  Gamers I talked to said that they could easily keep track of more complex visual environments now than they could back when they started. 

Now if we add the idea of cognitive exhaustion; that brains become more efficient in their use of energy (glucose) as it gets better at doing something, then it stands to reason that as gamers get better at “seeing” more objects or events in on the screen, that they do so more effortlessly, leaving more cognitive resources to other cerebral processes like motor reflex.

Mirror Neurons: Getting creative by watching creativity 0


creativityScientists have for some time, been looking at neurons in the brain that they call Mirror Neurons
It appears that simply put, these neurons learn from vicarious experience  (watching, hearing) and not by doing.  Now in all honesty, scientists have sufficient evidence that these neurons work this way in primates, but are not quite sure that they work this way in humans.  However, there is a good bit of solid research going on that seems to confirm this theory. 

If we follow this logic, then one of the ways in which we can trigger creative thinking is by watching creativity at work.  The problem is, of course, that we can only watch the output of creativity, and not what the brain is actually doing up there in that maze of neurons.  But, since we can learn to dance quicker and better by watching dancers, we can also become more creative by watching the output of creative people. 

Creativity happens in all sorts of ways.  Sometimes watching other people, sometimes working with others, and sometimes just off by ourselves.  It is clear that we don’t need others to be creative, some of our most creative people need to be by themselves to create.  Think about the recluse J.D. Salinger who just passed away.  But it seems clear that if you need to jump start creativity, fire up those mirror neurons by surrounding yourself with creative people.