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Currently Browsing: Brain Development

Challenging the Brain’s Natural Tendency

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Sometimes, we have to challenge the brain to see more than what it initially recognizes.

The brain loves to put “things” in categories.  So, when we see something similar, our brain is wired to associate it with something it already recognizes. For the most part, that’s a great plan.

But there are two major downsides to this natural tendency of the brain. First, labeling people to be “things” is limiting in that it negates the possibility that another perspective is equally possible.  Here are some examples:

  • A liar could be someone who isn’t confident how the truth will be received.
  • A selfish or manipulative person could be someone who hasn’t discovered how to get her needs met while also considering others.
  • A lazy person could be someone with a disorganized brain who is not able to compensate well enough to finish or do multiple tasks.
  • A hyperactive person could be someone with poor balance (since we balance more easily when we move).
  • An immature person could be someone with retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.

So, why do we tend to go with the first, more negative perceptions of such people?  Well, the brain also has a natural tendency to shine a spotlight on someone else, rather than on ourselves.

For example, it may be easier to view Tiffany as a liar than to reflect on how we respond to mistakes. It may be easier to view Luke as selfish or manipulative than to model and teach him how to respond in ways that consider everyone’s needs.  It may be easier to view Evan as lazy or hyperactive or immature than to explore what parts of brain development are incomplete and learn how to facilitate such changes.

Second, we may be limiting our own creativity when we don’t challenge ourselves to see beyond the “thing” that our brain initially recognizes.  Yet, the art of invention is based on envisioning something ordinary in a new and different way.

For example, my memory of a Cambodian refugee still rates as one of my favorite examples of doing just that.  After hearing this gentleman play incredible music from an instrument I did not recognize, I asked where he had bought it.  He smiled and explained that while it was a common instrument in Cambodia, once here, he couldn’t find the right kind of wood he needed to make it.

So what did he finally use?  A baseball bat.  Yes, he created that amazing sound from what was originally an old bat that likely spent much of its prior life lying in the dirt. To this day, I’m probably one of the very few people who think of beautiful Cambodian music when watching a ballgame.

But while the brain has a tendency to classify, we don’t have to just accept every first perception and every “thing” as absolute. We can sometimes challenge ourselves to think beyond the traditional viewpoint, the expected, the obvious.

And in doing so, who knows what kind of incredible changes we may then experience?

Family Recess

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Research has proven that playing is good for the brain.

I often ask kids what they like best about school. Hands down, the most common answer is . . . recess.  Intuitively, kids know what science has now proven—both kids and adults need time to engage in pointless fun.

We used to call that “playing.” Yet in our current, overzealous, gotta-make-sure-our-kids-get-ahead-world, allocating time to play is often relegated to a back burner.

However, research on play shows that it makes us more adaptable, and it actually improves how our brain functions. For example, when we combine physical energy with a sense of joyfulness (i.e. when we play), we reinforce neurohormones.  And when we engage in activities that free us from having a set outcome, there’s a positive effect on our mood and perceptions of time.

In fact, according to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, we need play in our lives as much as we need sleep.

So what is Brown’s definition of play? He says real play has no purpose. We do it for its own sake. It’s voluntary. We may even lose track of time or temporarily forget who we are in real life.

What’s the purest form of play? That’s when we improvise, where we make up whatever we’re doing as we go along.

So back to recess . . . where activities have little or no structure, where nothing is measured or ranked, where kids are free to be loud and move as quickly or slowly as they choose. Is there any surprise that kids fly out the classroom door as soon at that recess bell rings?

But then, that bring us to this question: Since playing has a natural appeal and is now proven to enhance the brain, why not create family recess time in our very own homes?

Yes, why not have the whole family take a break from household chores or homework or paying the

bills. . .  to now play together?

Note this is not just time for our kids to play. The idea of family recess is for us to play with them.

And guess what happens when we do? We discover that even though we’re adults, we never really lost our zest for play.

We prove that all the time at the Brain Highways Center. Here, parents enthusiastically engage in playful activities with their kids as part of our curriculum.  In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to decide who’s having more fun when observing, for example, a beanbag “fight” between a father and daughter.

So for my proposal of family recess, any unscripted, joyful movement works. Here are some ideas to get you started, but be sure to ask your kids for their input, too!

  1. Have pillow fights.
  2. Arm wrestle.
  3. Engage in (human) wheelbarrow races.
  4. Build a fort.
  5. Play tug-of-war.
  6. Create and run through an obstacle course.
  7. Climb a tree (yes, moms and dads can do this, too).
  8. Play freeze (or other) tag.
  9. Jump rope.
  10. Jump (barefoot) on bubblewrap.
  11. Jump on the bed (why not?).
  12. Wear a blindfold, and then try to squirt each other with plant sprayers.
  13. Toss water balloons, where one person takes a step back after each time the balloon is caught.
  14. Roll down a hill.
  15. Make a puddle of water, and see who can make the biggest splash.
  16. Build a mud structure.
  17. Play hide-go-seek (inside or outside).
  18. Play a variation of hide-go-seek: Only one person hides somewhere in the house while everyone else shuts their eyes. Then everyone tries to find that person. When a person discovers the hiding place, he or she now quietly hides there, too. As the game goes on, fewer and fewer people are left searching for where everyone else is hiding. (It adds to the fun when everyone tries to remain quiet as more and more people squeeze into the hiding place.)

Note that family recess time is not viewed as procrastination, where everyone is just putting off what needs to be done.  Rather, the mindset is one that suggests less work and more play is truly productive.

In the twenty-first century, that kind of thinking may be viewed as radical and revolutionary. But in our home, we can make such perspective a way of life.

Why Kids Slouch

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We can glean clues about a child’s brain organization by how he sits in a chair.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive.  That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”

Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.

How can that be?

Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes.  In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.

For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity.  So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).

This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing.  At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.

Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.

If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).

Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair.  He’s wired to do so.

But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son.  And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.

We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right?  Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.

So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.

Why Kids Avoid Eye Contact

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We may not realize that incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to make and sustain eye contact.

Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.”  And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.

Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.

To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?

Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us.  In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.

Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?

Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.

Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.

But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)

The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.

No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.

At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.

And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face.  The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala.  Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”

But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).

So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.

We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.

In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.

Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Apps for Autism: Helpful or Not?

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Wonder if Steve Jobs knew the iPad would be a hot topic in the autism community.

Knowing that I work with lots of families with autism, many people were interested in what I thought about the recent 60 Minutes segment, “Apps for Autism.”

That’s because at Brain Highways, we experience again and again how nonverbal kids (including those with autism) do speak and communicate their ideas after they’ve integrated retained primitive reflexes and developed their lower centers of the brain.

How’s that possible? Well, since it takes way, way, more highways to speak than to walk, speech (which takes place in the cortex) is going to be a luxury and inaccessible until the cortex is no longer preoccupied with compensating for underdeveloped lower parts of the brain. However, once that development is complete, the cortex is now “available” and, therefore, can focus on developing speech.

But the 60 Minutes story wasn’t about nonverbal kids learning to speak. Rather, it highlighted how some kids with autism were now able to communicate their thoughts by using an app on an iPad. So people were curious about my reaction to this.

I think many were surprised by my answer.  I thought it was great.

Do I believe everyone would prefer if a child actually spoke his thoughts? Yes.  But not everyone knows about brain organization or is willing to do the work.

So if something, in this case the iPad, proves what we’ve always known at Brain Highways— then it’s a great plus for everyone who interacts with nonverbal kids.  Namely, just because a child cannot articulate his thoughts does not mean that he also doesn’t understand what’s being said. Yet, too often, that’s the assumption

In fact, that’s probably why the people in the segment seemed so surprised by what the kids were showing they knew once they began communicating via the iPad.

In short, I say anything that helps people get past a “disability” and makes it easy for them to see, for example, an incredible child who is full of all kinds of thoughts and ideas . . . then bring it on.

That also includes kids who are in programs organizing their brain. The apps for autism fall under what we call “building into the structure”—where we encourage parents to help kids compensate (in this case communicate their ideas) while they’re building highways.

The 60 Minutes segment also noted it was interesting that kids with autism were so attracted to the easy touch-and-swipe iPad screens. However, this too makes sense when we look at kids with underdeveloped brains.  In such case, there is often a huge disconnect between what they’re thinking they want to do and what their body then actually does.

Yet with the iPad, it’s practically effortless to do just that. So, it’s really not surprising that such kids like using it.

We see the same reaction with our non-electronic “brain toys” at our site.  With very little effort from these kids, such toys produce an immediate really cool visual and/or auditory effect.  So, just like the iPad, kids are very attracted to them.

There was something else to glean from the 60 Minutes segment.  Near the end, they showed a boy who did not seem very enthralled with the app.  The teacher kept trying to redirect him to use the iPad to communicate, but he clearly wasn’t interested—until by mistake, he touched something, and a lion appeared and growled. That seemed to catch his attention and amuse him.

So what to learn from that part of the segment? Well, before we get down to business . . . (in this case: “This is how you will use this app to communicate.”), we need to allow all kids some time to first explore and play with whatever’s new.  Not everything always has to be an instructional moment.

Bottom line: It’s positive when compensations make something easier for kids who are trying to function with a disorganized brain.  But I also want parents to know we can help kids beyond that. We can actually help kids organize their brain so there are now an endless number of possibilities available to them.

And within that same process, such kids will be able to share their thoughts and ideas . . .  even if an iPad or some other compensation is not around.

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