Tag Archives: Brain Function

Trouble With The Cur-cive

Rachel Jeantel was a recent witness in the George Zimmerman murder trial in Florida.

Called to the stand to talk about her final conversation with her friend Trayvon Martin, shot by Zimmerman in the latter’s community in Florida, Jeantel said she could not read cursive writing.

That’s the main takeaway from the fourth day of the George Zimmerman trial: Jeantel, the heavyset, snappy prosecution witness who was on the phone with her friend Trayvon Martin minutes before he died, cannot read script handwriting. Defense attorney Don West underlined that fact for the benefit of the jury, the general public, and everyone else looking for an excuse to dismiss her testimony.

A short tangent: The fact that Zimmerman was found not guilty . . . Wow. I don’t for a second think Zimmerman went out there with the intention of murdering someone. I do, however, think that him having a gun is what led to Martin’s death. Because of the idiotic Stand Your Ground and concealed carry laws, Zimmerman felt safe carrying along a gun. Without that gun, Zimmerman wasn’t on trial and Trayvon Martin still is alive. No gun sounds like a win-win situation. It was the stupid laws that enabled Zimmerman to walk around feeling like a Wild West gunfighter that really were to blame. Thanks, Florida Legislature. Back to the post.

The right-wing blogosphere took that as just another example — including her looks, her diction and her perceived lack of education — of how she was only one step above a slug on the social evolution scale. Sadly, I’m not kidding. But I’m also not here to talk about the Martin case, nor Jeantel.

I’m here to talk about the reaction by people around the nation to the idea that Jeantel can’t read cursive. I’m guessing that most of the horrified gentry casting aspersions down on Jeantel are a bit, well, older, to be kind. When they and I grew up, cursive was a necessity. The refined gentleman or lady had an impeccable hand and enjoyed writing letters to friends.

Heck, Twenty years ago, a $300 Montblanc pen was one of the most coveted and costly graduation gifts. But today, few clamor over them, much less an expensive one. It turns out they want MacBooks and iPads — new writing tools of the digital age.

My own three young dudes can’t read cursive either. Most of their age cohort are deficient in the skill as well. Schools, as I found out in my last year or so as a Title 1 Tutor at Awesome Elementary here in Charlotte, don’t put nearly as much effort into teaching handwriting as once they did.

And why should they? Computers are easier to use, faster to get your thoughts down in writing, and the only way your words can’t be read is if you’ve smudged the print out, rather than that your handwriting is terrible. Mine certainly is. Heck, I can barely write cursive myself.

As a youth, I lived in England for a year. The school I attended was going to begin cursive lessons in its equivalent of fourth grade. I was in the equivalent of third. When I returned to America, I found that cursive had been taught the year before. Whoops. I managed to pick it up as the years went along, but never easily and never neatly.

I eagerly made the jump to keyboards the minute it was available. So I completely understand why people don’t see the necessity of learning cursive, I know that Rachel Jeantel is not alone in her ability to read it. She merely was the first person these hoity-toity bloggers had ever “met” who was of that age and was honest about her ability.

Of course, there are those who are not so eager to ditch cursive. And they might have a point.

In fact, a field of research, called “haptics,” focuses on the connection of touch, hand movement and brain function. Studies show that handwriting engages different circuits of the brain than typing simply doesn’t. And those strokes and pressures of the pen actually send messages to the brain, training it in vision and sensation.

In fact, the study of handwriting, called graphology, claims to infer character traits — like laziness, creativity or organization — just by looking at your written words. That repetitive process of writing builds motor pathways into the brain, said Katya Feder, a professor at the University of Ottawa School of Rehabilitation. And the more children write, the more connections they build.

Before anyone gets all crazy about the way the brain lights up differently when people use handwriting compared to typing, we need to realize that there probably are different, but roughly equivalent, light ups in the typing folks.

There’s much more to the dying art of handwriting, a sort of eulogy to the skill, over at Techland, a blog for Time.com. You dudes should definitely go over there and take a look. Lots of interesting stuff.

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Hands In The Air: This Is A Sleep Up!

Dudes and dudettes need sleep.

I know this isn’t a big revelation or anything here, but it’s important that we establish this baseline. We do need sleep. And probably a lot more of it than we’re willing to give ourselves.

Research shows that most people require seven or eight hours of sleep to function optimally. Failing to get enough sleep night after night can compromise your health and may even shorten your life. From infancy to old age, the effects of inadequate sleep can profoundly affect memory, learning, creativity, productivity and emotional stability, as well as your physical health.

According to sleep specialists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, among others, a number of bodily systems are negatively affected by inadequate sleep: the heart, lungs and kidneys; appetite, metabolism and weight control; immune function and disease resistance; sensitivity to pain; reaction time; mood; and brain function.

See? I told you so. Not that I want to get all high and mighty here, dudes. Because, after all, I’m probably one of the worst offenders, let me tell you. I get up around 0645 every morning, or at least every weekday morning when I was working at Awesome Elementary School. Unfortunately, I rarely got to bed before midnight the night before. Add in time spent falling asleep and, there you go, I’m down in the 6.5-hour range.

And I know I need more than that.

When I started reading that list of organ systems that could be adversely affected by a lack of sleep in a Personal Health column by Jane E. Brody in The New York Times, I started feeling it all. Each and every single symptom. All at once. Dizzying, I tell you. Or was that one of the symptoms?

Poor sleep is also a risk factor for depression and substance abuse, especially among people with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Anne Germain, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. People with PTSD tend to relive their trauma when they try to sleep, which keeps their brains in a heightened state of alertness.

Dr. Germain is studying what happens in the brains of sleeping veterans with PTSD in hopes of developing more effective treatments for them and for people with lesser degrees of stress that interfere with a good night’s sleep.

I’m pretty sure you don’t have to have PTSD to make horrible sleep a risk factor for substance abuse and depression. I can tell you, and I’m sure you know if you’ve ever slept as badly as I tend to do, I feel horrible the next day. And, when you consistently feel horrible, that’s a pretty good recipe for being depressed about your situation.

So what’s the solution?

Seriously? You had to ask?

It’s get more sleep. Even though that might be hard, it’s the best recommendation you can have for increasing your health and making you feel better.

Timothy H. Monk, who directs the Human Chronobiology Research Program at Western Psychiatric . . .  is finding that many are helped by standard behavioral treatments for insomnia, like maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding late-in-day naps and caffeine, and reducing distractions from light, noise and pets.

See that? Don’t nap late in the day. Stay away from caffeine during the afternoon and sleep in a (metaphorical) cave, far from noise and pets.

Easy enough to say. Now we’ve just got to get it done.

See you dudes on the other side.

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Who Needs A Psychiatrist When You’ve Got An iPhone?

Okay, sure the headline might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a (somewhat) serious question.

Here’s why.

Despite how amazingly complex is our brain function, it can be easily fooled and made to go along with the plans of others. For instance, if you smile at someone, odds are that that person will smile back. If you smile, you will feel better.

It should be the other way around. That is, if you feel good, you smile. And that’s true. You do. But it seems as if the mere physical act of twitching a few facial muscles is enough to fool the brain into thinking that, “If I’m smiling, I must be happy so I’d better start the happy time now.”

Which is the thinking behind MoodTune. According to the developer, Harvard psychiatrist Diego Pizzagalli, if you turn on MoodTune for about 15 minutes a day, play some games in the app, it’s possible you can lift yourself out of depression. It’s possible, Pizzagalli said, this app could be all the treatment a depressed person needs. No meds. No talk therapy. Just an iPhone app.

Pizzagalli started working on depression in 1999 and released some of his most important papers in 2001. The papers focused on “biomarkers,” signals of response in the brain to antidepressants and psychotherapy. Take a peek inside the brain, and you can see areas light up–or fail to light up–in response to treatments. Whether an area lights up or not predicts, with considerable accuracy, whether a treatment works, he says.

So, the thinking goes, what we if we illuminate those regions another way? The brain could readjust appropriately without the need for a pill. The anterior cingulate cortex is associated with depression and also works when snap decisions need to be made, Pizzagalli says, so perhaps having someone make snap decisions would help treat depression. He developed desktop software in his lab to test it out and was happy enough with the results to delve deeper into the technology.

And there’s the whole thing with the physical act of smiling making us feel happy. The thinking here is that it doesn’t matter what causes these specific areas of the brain to light up. If they light up, you feel less depressed.

I don’t know about you dudes, but I find that idea rather fascinating. It speaks to a sort of hacker mentality, but working in neurons instead of silicon chips. I think it’s sort of like an extension of behaviorist approaches to therapy. Behaviorists don’t care why you do something if the thing is what you want to stop. They just work on stopping the behavior and feel like that will take care of the underlying problem as well. In a nutshell. Generally speaking.

This is some really strange, but very cool stuff, very next-level thinking. My concern, though, arises from an analogy. If you’ve got a car tire that keeps going flat, you go out and get a new tire. Problem solved. You don’t care why it went flat because you’ve got a new tire and all is good. But what if the reason your tire kept going flat was because you kept parking next to a sharp bit of curb and it would scrape against the tire, causing it to gradually lose air. Pretty soon, you’re going to need another new tire because the underlying problem is still there.

Think of that like the brain. You’re seriously depressed. You treat this by tricking your brain into lighting up some key anti-depression areas by playing some games. You feel better. But the root cause still is there, yeah? Won’t the depression come back? Keep coming back?

I guess that’s why they research these things. We keep asking questions and they keep trying to find the answers.

I picked this information up from an interesting article at Popular Science. You might want to go over there and read the whole thing. It’s really absorbing. I know I learned some things, and that’s always good.

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