Self regulation seems to come so easy to starlings...
What is going on here? How do these birds in this homogenous flock manage to maintain their equilibrium? Researchers think that starlings fly in these coordinated patterns for many reasons. The most obvious appears to be self-preservation. It's good to be in the herd -- not limping alone in tall grass out in the savanna. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotizing flock of thousands.
How does each starling know when to turn?
In 2008, researchers in Rome published a paper in the journal Animal Behavior in which they analyzed high-quality video footage of 2,700 starlings in flight.(1) They noted that individual birds keep a minimum distance from their neighbors, proportional to their wingspans. Other research that year using similar analysis revealed that individual birds in flight coordinate their movements based on observations of six to seven birds around them.
When high-powered video analysis and computational modeling are applied to starling flocks they reveal patterns known less from biology than cutting-edge physics.(2) Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.
The molecular behavior of a body — whether it's ice in a hot room or a murmuration in flight — changes until it reaches a point where it can no longer exist in its current form. It becomes something else. It melts if its ice; it turns left if its in a flock of starlings.
At the individual level, the rules guiding phase transition are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality is created and maintained.
It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.
Ballerini, M., Cabibbo, N., Candelier, R., Cavagna, A., Cisbani, E., Giardina, I., . . . Zdravkovic, V. (2008). Empirical investigation of starling flocks: a benchmark study in collective animal behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 76(1), 201-215.
Keim, B. (2011). The Startling Science of a Starling Murmuration. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2011/11/starling-flock/
Most people have weighed in on the question of whether a child is the product of nature or nurture. The chicken or the egg… It’s a complicated question. As new information is revealed about the genome and the brain the question doesn't get any less thorny. Today, I’d like to focus on a variant of this question—an issue that has very real impact on how we raise our children. We know that our children derive their genes from each parent. It is easy to notice traits; physical and intellectual in our children that we recognize came directly from our parents. Sometimes, I see my father in my son (especially when he lines himself up to walk down a stairs, or the way he eats a boiled egg). My son never knew his grandfather (Jack lived in a different country and passed away when Noel Finn was a bouncing five). We also know that the physical, social and emotional environment that the child experiences will have a major impact on whom he or she becomes. For instance Noel Finn will grow up in Seattle, at a time that Pokémon is more important than chasing a cow for fresh milk in order to survive another day. But there is more. New research indicates that a child, by virtue of inheritance; a direct result of genetic chance, might be predisposed to physical, social, and emotional experiences in the human environment that can be life altering from the get go. In other words, presence or absence of specific gene variants can dictate if a child will be emotionally delicate (like a fragile orchid that needs a lot of TLC to thrive), or resilient (like a robust dandelion that flowers even in the harshest of environments). This can be challenging information for parents who suspect that they have an orchid on their hands (or for that matter a dandelion), but the knowledge alone is enough to give us a head start in being successful with these potentially brilliant kids. The good news is that parental nurture and amenable environment can triumph over genes and undo some of the undesirable effects associated with either.(1)
It comes down to genes. Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like orchids: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given ‘greenhouse’ care. Most people will be familiar with the difference between an orchid (even if they have never grown or cared for one) and a dandelion, especially if they have attempted to rid the lawn of its ubiquitous roots. It is easy to comprehend how the environment will have different impact on the orchid or the dandelion? It turns out that environment is a key stimulus, a decisive influence. It is critical that parents and indeed teachers and children develop sound mental models that connect with this genetic predisposition, consequential environmental choices, and possible outcomes. There are choices; there are opportunities; and there are outcomes. The dandelion will take root and sprout even in the harshest environment. Some children will develop a resilience and survival skills that seem to outperform even the most dire parental, familial and society ills. They can thrive in life and accomplish great things in their career and trajectory. Not so for the orchid. For instance, adverse childhood experiences from a traumatic environment and poor parenting tend to deliver the same outcomes every time. Orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail. But with a different (nurturing) environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.(2)
Figure 1. The Orchid and the Dandelion
Given that we are products not just of nature or nurture, but of complex gene-environment interactions, how do we adjust our teaching and learning practices to accommodate this knowledge? Read this carefully. Our genes don’t doom us to the disorders mentioned earlier—depression, drug addiction, jail. However, if we have “bad” versions of certain genes and life treats us ill, it turns out that we are more prone to them. Scientists have identified a series of gene variants that can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors—if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life. Most parents will probably be able to identify one, two, or perhaps more of these signs/patterns in their teenagers behavior—depression, anxiety, ADHD, risk-taking, and so on, but most people can manage these issues in the course of their development. The operant words in that disclosure are “if and only if” -- referring to the increased chance of an individual’s hypersensitivity to the environment and vulnerability to stress. This means that when certain genes are expressed and certain traumatic challenges occur in early childhood—then and only then is there increased risk of adverse life events as mentioned.
Since we know that difficult environmental challenges associated with early childhood interfere with learning and normal development, we look for solution. Unfortunately, most solutions are impracticable since the people who are most at risk are the children who need the nurturing caring home life, the safe supporting learning environment and the self-knowledge that can carry them through dangerous and negative conditions. Such environments are well documented and tend to be rooted in one or more of the following classical conditions: Low Socio-Economic Status, Chaos in the Home, and Risky Family. These are often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and are associated with traumas that impede learning and normal socializing.
1. Low Socio-Economic Status
Some of the challenges that are associated with hypersensitivity to stress and trauma result from low socio-economic status. Very often we find poor language skills and poorly developed executive functions associated with low levels of economic status, and show negative results on learning ability.(3) In a classic study of early childhood trauma associated with low socio-economic status, Hart & Risley highlighted the impact of vocabulary (parent talk with their children) on children’s apparent level of intelligence (using IQ score) and tied it to their future success or failure in school. This study (parent-child talk in families) took place in Kansas and was conducted over a ten-year period. A team of researchers recorded one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families over a three-year period, with children from seven months to 36 months of age. The team then spent six additional years typing, coding, and analyzing 30,000 pages of transcripts. Follow-up studies of those same children at age nine showed that there was a very tight link between the academic success of a child and the number of words the child’s parents spoke to the child to age three.
The main findings from this study are a sharp reminder of the importance of reading to young children; of introducing new and challenging vocabulary from the beginning. “The data revealed that the most important aspect of children’s language experience is its amount.” The findings are summarized here:
2. Chaos in the Home
Early life experiences related to chaos in the home have powerful effects on the brain and body that tend to last throughout the entire lifespan and that influence brain function, individuals’ behavior, and the risk for a number of systemic and mental disorders.(4) Research helps us understand how brain development and physiological functioning is affected in children exposed to early life abuse and neglect, poor or non-existent maternal care, and physical or sexual abuse. There is a burgeoning literature that highlights consequences for physical health and emotional and cognitive development.
In areas as critical as health and fitness, lasting effects of early life adversity pertain to children’s developmental trajectory: these include body fat accumulation, systemic inflammation, and poor dental health. Widespread data point to a rise in obesity, elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular reactivity not only in youth but also throughout the lifespan. In addition, there is widespread evidence that children exemplify greater helplessness and distress and, in particular, poor or non-existent self-regulatory control.(5) Sometimes, the school is the only safe place for the child. It is essential that teachers understand that they are working with a child who might be an orchid and particularly hypersensitive to ACEs and stresses that interfere with the child’s ability to learn and/or interact in any normal way with the schoolroom environment.
3. Risky Families
Cold, unsupportive neglect plays havoc with a child’s developmental and psychological well-being and results invariably in behaviors and attitudes that are counter productive to learning and/or socializing at school or at home. There is evidence that this problem is on the increase, possibly because both parents might be working, experiencing ongoing financial difficulties, and other family problems that are associated with living in a fast-paced, competitive world.(6) The adverse childhood experiences described here are found in all socioeconomic status levels—are not associated with high poverty only. We know that they have lasting epigenetic effects on brain architecture and systemic physiology. Trauma that occurs in one generation can be passed on through genes and expressed in later generations—something that might seem to be outside the control of the parent or teacher. But sound mental models of gene expression, neuroscience in the classroom and home, and strategies that are brain centric and specific can have rewarding results for all concerned.
Figure 2. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences is felt in home and in school. From a neuroscience and developmental standpoint there is evidence that children who grow up in these situations experience impaired development of their prefrontal cortices. This is exemplified in poor self-regulation of mood, and impulsive behavior with resulting bad decision making skills, antisocial outbursts and depression. High levels of fear and anxiety usually accompany this situation.
But as stated earlier, our genes do not doom us to a life of depression, drug addiction, jail and so on. There is an increased chance of severe outcomes given an ‘orchid’ individual’s hypersensitivity to environment and vulnerability to stress. But there is an upside to possessing variants of genes that have the potential to produce bad effects in stressful circumstances of social deprivation and other adverse experiences. These same individuals (orchids by any definition of the concept), when reared in non-threatening, familial, nurturing environments tend to outperform their dandelion cousins and often become the shimmering stars in the human constellation.
This fact is borne out by an alternate hypothesis which has emerged in opposition to the vulnerability outcomes as described above—a new model, which suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. So as parents and teachers it is important to recognize and be prepared to interact with your orchids and dandelions in an appropriate way.
“The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.”(2)
Environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. “It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes can instead be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.”(2)
In this view, having both dandelion and orchid kids greatly raises a family’s (and a species’) chance of succeeding, over time and in any given environment. The behavioral diversity provided by these two different types of temperament also supplies precisely what a smart, strong species needs if it is to spread across and dominate a changing world. The many dandelions in a population provide an underlying stability. The less-numerous orchids, meanwhile, may falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them. And even when they lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.
…a genetic trait tremendously maladaptive in one situation can prove highly adaptive in another. (7)
About a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry a variant, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation; cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.
Looking back over our lives today, many of us will imagine, “I must have had a short/short variant of the serotonin transporter polymorphism. That might account fro the difficult journey through early home life (while my brother sailed through unscathed).” We take heart at the notion that through evolutionary process, we got to contribute at our level too. When kids with the vulnerability gene (our orchids) are put in a nurturing positive setting (or manage to survive intact in spite of the adverse experiences), they don’t merely do better than before; they do the best—even better than their dandelion peers.
1. V. Wlassoff, Genes, stress, and behavior - is your child and orchid or a dandelion? Neuroscience & Neurology. 2015.
2. D. Dobbs, The science of success. The Atlantic. 2009.
3. B. Hart, T. R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Paul H. Brookes Publishing CO., Baltimore MD, 1995).
4. B. S. McEwen, Understanding the potency of stressful early life experiences on brain and body function. Metabolism PubMed 57, S11-S15 (2009).
5. G. W. Evans, C. Gonnella, L. Marcynszyn, The role of chaos in poverty and children's socioemotional adjustment. Psychology Science 16, 560-565 (2004).
6. R. Repetti, S. Taylor, T. Seeman, Risky families: Family social environments and the mental and physical health of offspring. Psychological Bulletin 128, 330-366 (2002).
7. A. J. Bennnett et al., Early experience and serotonin transporter gene variation interact to influence primate CNS function. Molecular Psychology 7, 118-122 (2002).
I remember very clearly the day I took the results over to show David Krech. I ran across campus with the papers in my hand and laid them out on his desk. He stared at them, then at me, and immediately said, “This is unique. This will change scientific thought about the brain.” It was a great thrill—truly an emotional high—to sit with him and share that moment.
Fig. 1. Dr. Diamond, looking back over a career of neuroscience
Fig. 2 Brain Plasticity associated with Environment at Synaptic Level
It was an uphill battle for women scientists then—even more than now—and people at scientific conferences are often terribly critical. But I felt good about the work, and I simply replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but we have the initial experiment and the replication experiment that shows it can.”
Parents and teachers, ever mindful of doing the right thing for their children, are deeply interested to read expert perspectives on whether children are better off typing their essays or writing them the old fashioned way with pencil and paper. Recall (happily or painfully) that handwriting comes in several varieties—printed, manuscript (not joined), or cursive (joined). Does it make a difference if I write or type? Why should I care? Should I insist on my kid paying attention to his handwriting? What is the neural basis for keyboard over pencil and paper? Has the proliferation of technological devices where writing on screen is prevalent made a difference to the thinking behind handwriting versus keyboard?
It turns out that I should be thinking about this—that I should have an informed opinion about whether my child should spend time in tactile pursuit of neat letters on a page as well as acquiring skill and proficiency on the keyboard. It is important to know that there is a neural network of connections and pathways that are activated to the child’s advantage by intentionally teaching handwriting. It is also critical to have a sound mental model about what is happening, when, and why. There is also a persistent readership bias—a reader effect—that is insidious towards good handwriting. The quality of one’s ideas is often based on the quality of the handwriting. Many of us have an emotional connection with handwriting, but we are forced to spend more and more time on technology—typing, texting and pinching. Some harbor a cunning intuition that handwriting is important, if for no other reason, than to be able to write. For others, it is fast becoming a non-essential skill. And so here, I share some of the growing body of research that informs this field.
Who are the experts in this field and what do they have to say about writing versus typing? One of my colleagues at the University of Washington is Dr. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology and a truly amazing scientist in the field of learning and brain. She focuses on work that is relevant for classroom learners in areas of handwriting, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. Her book (with Todd Richards) Brain Literacy for Education and Psychologists (2002) is expressly oriented towards learning and teaching.(1)
So what does Dr. Berninger have to say about handwriting versus keyboard typing? “This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger raises an eyebrow. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words. You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page.”
Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region (fusiform gyrus) is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting. Written language helps the developing brain grow in areas that are critical for children (indeed all of us) to thrive in the modern world. It is particularly crucial in areas associated with attention and executive function.
There are programs and methods to help children with Dyslexia (impaired word spelling), Dysgraphia (impaired handwriting) and other learning challenges/disabilities (and a lot of research $$ ends up here), yet much of the research in this area has direct application for all brains. For instance, it has been shown that the fusiform gyrus is under-activated and has reduced gray matter density (neurons) in children with Dyslexia, but we know that the same region is activated in normal brain development when children learn handwriting, and letter and word recognition.
The fusiform gyrus is connected with the lingual gyrus, which is a brain structure that is linked with processing vision, especially letters and words and with semantic processing.
Graphic 1. Fusiform Gyrus and Lingual Gyrus associated with
letter and word formation
Handwriting is a skill that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes. Dr. Berninger highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes in order to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. FMRI images of the brain inform us that sequential finger movements activate massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory (the system for temporarily storing and managing information).
For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. Studies on note-taking have suggested that college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand. In a population of low-income children, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school.(2)
Dr. Berninger’s research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing. Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type. “What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading—it transfers to better word recognition—then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”
A new article was released in Education Week October 17th 2016 that gives more details about the discussion regarding Cursive and Common-core. The following link will get you to it...
1. V. W. Berninger, T. L. Richards, Brain Literacy for Educators and Psychologists. (Academic Press, New York, 2002).
2. L. Dinehart, Handwriting in early childhood education: Current reserach and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, (2014).
Neuro-plastic Changes associated with Psychological State
Stress has significant adverse effects on health and is a risk factor for many illnesses. Neurobiological studies have implicated the amygdala as a brain structure crucial in stress responses. This longitudinal MRI study investigated the relationship between changes in perceived stress with changes in amygdala gray matter density following a stress-reduction intervention.
describes how the amygdala can change for the better despite environmental stresses. This is a remarkable study because it outlines how the brain changes is in a good way in response to actions taken by the individuals involved in the study. It clearly demonstrated a link between human intervention and a marked reduction of amygdala activation as a result of intentional mindfulness activities on the part of the participant. The individual was able to control where incoming sensory information would be processed. The results were gratifying and can be generalized to parents and teenagers anywhere. In other words, an individual who willfully undertakes a mindfulness activity can control activation of the amygdala and, consequently, cause incoming sensory information to be routed to the prefrontal cortex instead of to the reactive fight, flight or freeze brain.
Stressed but otherwise healthy individuals (N.26) participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention. Perceived stress was rated on the perceived stress scale (PSS) and anatomical MR images were acquired pre- and post-intervention. PSS change was used as the predictive regressor for changes in gray matter density within the bilateral amygdalae.
Following the intervention, participants reported significantly reduced perceived stress. Reductions in perceived stress correlated positively with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density. Whereas prior studies found gray matter modifications resulting from acquisition of abstract information, motor and language skills, this study demonstrates that neuroplastic changes are associated with improvements in a psychological state variable.
B. Holzel et al., Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access, (2009).
Fig 1. Gray Matter decreased as Stress Scores decreased
Result: The take-away is quite staggering and, if fully acknowledged, should change everything teachers do around adolescent learning in the classroom and, indeed, everything parents do for their teenagers at home. It clearly shows that it is possible to eliminate negative effects of amygdala activation (due to stress, boredom, etc.) with a simple mindfulness technique that clears the way for higher order processing in the thinking brain (Prefrontal Cortex).
Data: Average percent change (post-intervention minus pre-intervention) in gray matter density within the identified cluster extracted from each individual plotted against change in Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) scores.
This study is important for teachers and parents. It suggests that ameliorating the subjective experience of stress through a behavioral intervention may actually decrease amygdala gray matter density in humans. This finding is particularly interesting as it suggests that an active re-learning of emotional responses to stress (such as taught in MBSR) can lead to beneficial changes in neural structure and well-being even when there is presumably no change in the person’s external environment.
These results indicated an association between changes in stress levels and morphometric changes in the right, but not the left amygdala. It has been suggested that the right amygdala mediates an initial, fast and perhaps automatic stimulus detection, followed by a more evaluative and discriminative response by the left amygdala (Morris et al., 1998; Wright et al., 2001; Glascher and Adolphs, 2003; Costafreda et al., 2008). Based on this model, our data suggest that this stress reduction intervention may strongly impact the participants’ initial reaction to stimuli.
A simple reminder to display for teenagers at home. One minute of mindfulness can make all the difference when it comes to amygdala hijack. Close your eyes for one minute and listen to your heart pump blood though your veins. This will clear out your prefrontal cortex and allow you access to your executive functions and your higher order thinking brain.
As CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Allan Jones leads an ambitious project to build an open, online, interactive atlas of the human brain.
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This video contains a basic overview of nutrition and the brain - it focuses on the brain as a very calorie-demanding organ, and how we came to love Junk Food, but how what's good for our brain may not be good for our bodies.
In this student-produced video, the narrator describes the nutritional needs of the brain in adolescents.
In this article, Judy Willis makes the case for teaching teachers about neuroscience. She identifies three core benefits of neuroscience knowledge for teachers and students.
TKO Mahony, PhD is a learning scientist at the University of Washington LIFE (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments) Center.
Brainspring is a collective of students and faculty at the University of Washington who have come together to collect, categorize, and disseminate neuroscience resources for teachers.