Saturday, October 13, 2012

Brain Tripping


The photo is of our daughter on the five-hour drive to college last August. She's been there almost two months now. Funny how it seems so much longer. At first, she said she felt as if she was at camp or on a summer trip and would be home in six weeks. Now she says her dorm room feels like her other home. She called this morning as she walked to the library, her first excursion there since she got to college. "You're going where?" I asked her and she laughed. She said, "I might as well do some work as I've already caught up on all my shows." I asked her which library had she decided on (she goes to a large university with many schools and libraries) and she said the one near the outdoor farmer's market she works at on Thursday afternoons, because someone told her it has the best food. Whatever works. She has a lot of work and she's getting it done, but she seems to be managing the stress, too.

My cousin mentioned to me this week that her daughter is not good at taking tests, that somehow her memory deserts her. It made me recall a science project my son did when he was in the fifth grade, which of course I followed very closely. The project was about brain-hemisphere dominance. He asked each of his classmates to do a series of tasks (throwing a ball, answering a phone, looking through a pinhole, kicking a soccer ball) to determine which brain hemisphere, right or left, was dominant for sight, sound, handedness and footedness.

He had learned from previous research that the left brain controls the logical, analytical, objective functions while the right brain stores the spatial, artistic, intuitive data. The majority of the kids he tested were a mix, meaning they might be right brained for sight but left brained for handedness, and so on, storing data across hemispheres depending on how it came to them. But one girl tested left brained for every task, and one boy was right brained for every task, and don't you know, the girl happened to be the leading scholar in the class and the boy was the student who struggled the most in the class.

As my son delved deeper into the subject (prodded by his mother who by now was deeply interested in what he was learning), he discovered that when highly stressed, a person has access only to the dominant brain hemisphere because the corpus collosum, the pathway between the two hemispheres that allows information to pass back and forth, shuts down, effectively gridlocking traffic. Given that exams generate their share of stress, this might mean that a child who can always access the logical and analytical part of the brain will likely do better on tests, since most schools are set up to test the logical, objective and analytical strengths of students, valuing those abilities over the artistic, subjective and intuitive. And that right brained child, like my cousin's daughter who is a budding photographer, will often have the experience of walking out of a test and suddenly knowing the answer to every question, perplexed as to why she couldn't bring up the information while in the exam room.

This is a generalization of course. I'm sure neuroscience is infinitely more nuanced than could ever be expressed by the learning acquired for a fifth grade science project. But since then, I have always felt that my daughter did well in school because she started out in a progressive setting that didn't overemphasize test results, relying more on experiential and project based instruction and unconventional ways of storing information. My husband called it "stealth learning." He always remembers one particular parent visiting day when our girl was in first grade and the students were given the task to act out their number facts. The kids were so busy coming up with wacky ways to act out "7 + 8 equals 15!" that they mastered the number facts as a byproduct, scaffolded by the memory of the group's enjoyment of their performance.

I also think the smart management of student stress is why my son's high school turned out to be perfect for him, after a rather intense middle school with a homework load that near burned him out. His high school, while traditionally structured, dispensed the lessons with a dose of humor. It was an all boys school and the teachers seemed to understand that boys like my son needed to expend excess energy, to find the levity in their circumstances, to not make everything too deadly serious. Not that the school neglected to discipline the boys when it was called for, but discipline was in the form of JUGS, which stood for Justice Under God (it was a Jesuit school), and might entail running backwards around the football field—on one leg.

Once, when my son's class was particularly unruly at an assembly welcoming that year's freshmen, refusing to stop clapping and cheering as each new boy's name was called so as to extend the assembly and shorten first period class time, the principal gave the whole class of juniors a JUG, requiring them to return to the assembly hall after school. There, as he called out the names of each student in the junior year, the class was required to clap and cheer as they had that morning, resulting in a two hour detention that sent all the boys home with endorphins boosted. Down the line that evening, their Facebook status updates were the same: "Best JUG ever."

I don't know where I am going with this. I think I am just happy that my children seem to be managing the demands of college right now. I pray things continue to go right, and that they are able to meet their challenges philosophically, with diligence and hard work, but without debilitating stress that might cause them to temporarily lose access to whatever useful and needed data might be stored in their brains.


Speaking of school things, my niece (who was helping my son with a vexing chemistry assignment in the photo above) had her first dental school interview yesterday (shout out to Grady doctor's alma mater!). She loved the school, found the students and faculty to be interesting and warmly inviting and Nashville to be more livable that she'd imagined. She said, "Two days in Nashville and I'm already reading signs with a Southern accent." Her grandmother on the phone this morning had a good long laugh at that one.


13 comments:

  1. I am madly in love with every drop of this post. (This is becoming a pattern with me, I know.) But seriously--i loved the science about the brain, the image of your daughter walking to the library and talking to you on the phone, and, of course, your sweet niece loving her experience at my alma mater!

    Nashville is amazing--I still love that town. I love that your kids are happy and whole. Good, good, good.

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    1. Kimberly, thank you! I am keeping my fingers crossed and sending up good thoughts for all of us, for your loves and mine. We are so smiled on. xo

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  2. Ditto, what gradydoctor said. You are so blessed in your children. You are so blessed in your children. What a pair! Loving, beautiful, funny, and smart. You did okay ;-)

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    1. Glenn, I *am* blessed in my children. They are not perfect but they are mine. I would have it no other way. Thank you, friend.

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  3. Your children are the most interesting people. And of course, the reason why is because you and your husband have always supported their interests and because you are interesting, curious people who ask questions and find answers. Your son's science project, as related by you, has given me some insight on why, perhaps, when I am having anxiety, no amount of trying to use logical thinking works- there is just no connection. Wow.
    Thank-you.

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    1. Dear Mary, I have always thought that insight gained from my son's science project could explain so much about how children perform in school settings, and why really high stress situations can be counter productive for some people. I wonder why that knowledge doesn't obtain everywhere. I think it explains why I am not a good public speaker, but can be perfectly fluent in private conversations. I get stressed and cant locate my words when faced with an audience. I am obviously operating from my right brain at that point, with no access to my left brain where most language is stored. Or something. Who knows? What I do know is I love you dearly.

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  4. I've been rather lurking but coming out to say how much I've been enjoying your posts. And this one - oh, yes. It broke my heart as a teacher to see how kids didn't fit our one-size-fits-all model and how wonderful your children had choices.

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    1. NOLA darling, I don't get why there is this one size fits all model when there has been so much research on the differing styles of learning. Imagine the riches that are lost because some children weren't met in the classroom where they needed to be. Thank you for this comment. Hope you are feeling better. xo

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  5. This post really resonated with me, plus ended with a laugh about how Southern accents creep into your brain!

    My children are as different as night and day as far as their brain dominance. I am thrilled that you shared your son's experiment with us, as I've done so much of my own investigation into the mysteries of my son's brain. The book that helped me the most was Right Brained Children in a Left Brained World. I was finally able to understand the gap between my son's intelligence and his performance, and able to understand his thought processes better. That said, knowing how he worked didn't do much to help him navigate a system that didn't care. He fought with me to stay in his huge public school, and I worried that I ruined everything, but here he is, off at a college we didn't think he'd be able to get into, doing well, although struggling with the reading load. Life is hard for dyslexics.

    I still follow Eide Neurolearning Blog and always learn more fascinating things about the human brain. I love that MRI data can visualize the workings of the brain and help us to understand how children learn.

    Your kids are amazing people, and so are you. I love coming here to visit. The words and pictures make me feel good.
    xo

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    1. Mel, it sounds as if we have the same son! But I suppose that is not so surprising because I so often read your blog and marvel at the synchronicities of what we are experiencing. That book, Right Brained Children in a Left Brained World helped me a lot, too. But as you note, our children still have to navigate traditional educational environments and it isn't easy. Still, I noticed my son has developed other strengths as a consequence of having to compensate for his challeneges. Thanks for sharing that blog. I am going there right now. Hugs, dear friend.

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  6. This explains everything. No wonder my mind goes blank when I see math problems! I have very little left brain function, I think... =)
    I'm glad your daughter has found a good library - there's nothing better.
    xo

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    1. Rachel, you might be a right brained artist through and though, and yet, and yet, your designs require some sense of math, albeit the spatial kind, which is right brained, too, I suppose. I think the moral of the story is if our right brained kids can make it through left-brained school, they can then put all that right brained goodness to work for the world. The moral for kids is, hang in there. Your day will come. xo

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  7. Wow, the corpus collosum shutting down is really fascinating, I never knew that. Thanks, Angella :)

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