Environmental Psychology and conservationists have, for awhile now, been advocating the importance of letting children get out and play in and with nature to educate them on the value of preserving their environment and benefiting from natural surroundings. It’s nice to see pediatricians also start to embrace and advocate for the need for everyone, including children, get outside and get dirty.
Dr. Lawrence Rosen writes that throughout his practice, seeing children on a daily basis, “I’m often reminded of Winslow Homer’s 1872 painting, “Snap the Whip,” depicting boys playing with abandon in a field outside their rural schoolhouse.”
So eloquently portrayed is the simplicity of another time, kids out in the natural world for no other purpose than to play, freely and without a care in the world.Contrast this with contemporary schoolyards with their meticulously designed jungle gyms and artificial surfacing, often empty throughout the day as more and more schools abolish recess or replace free play with highly structured, adult-supervised activities. I’ve realized, as I see increasingly anxious and depressed children come to my office looking for guidance, that the answers often lie not in my prescription pad but outside my window.
One very recent publication from Dr. Kirsten Beyer and associates at the Medical College of Wisconsin described the influence of green space on mental health outcomes, concluding that “higher levels of neighborhood green space were associated with significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress” and that “’greening’ could be a potential population mental health improvement strategy in the United States.”
These findings make sense to me and yet also don’t.
Few environments feature such a cacophony of decor as the elementary school classroom. Colorful bulletin boards, scientific posters, state maps, and student artwork tend to cover nearly every inch of wall space. Yet a new study on classroom design from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that all that educational flair may not be all that great for getting kids to learn.
The study, carried out over two weeks, examined 24 kindergarten students who were taught six lessons on topics they had not yet learned in school. Half the lessons were taught in a highly decorated classroom environment, with posters and art all over the walls, and the other half were taught in a classroom with no decoration.
CMU’s researchers found the kids spent more time off-task and were more distracted when the room was brightly decorated, and they tested better on subjects they learned in the sparser classroom compared to the ones they learned in the more visually stimulating environment.
Elementary school children typically stay in one room all day, so classroom decorations don’t necessarily match the subject matter they’re learning at any given time. If they’re sitting in front of a U.S. map, they’ll be looking at that all day whether the current lesson is on geography or math. This study, though very small, adds to previous research from the same psychologists showing that visual stimulation that’s irrelevant to on-going instruction can distract kids.
The study doesn’t go on to offer any ways to necessarily improve the classroom design, although the article does give other links discussing it.
Nature can be fairly visually cacophonous, so what is it about classroom designs that are so distracting? I also wonder how much of their distraction is from an unnatural learning style, and then other more engaging things to look at. That is not an attack on the teacher, I’m just skeptical whether any human is capable of sitting in one room for 6-8 hours, with a couple of lunch breaks, and concentrate the entire time, for an extended period of time. Even grown-ups have a hard time doing that, and suffer when they try to sustain that for too long.
What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.
Exercise clears the mind. It gets the blood pumping and more oxygen is delivered to the brain. This is familiar territory, but Dartmouth’s David Bucci thinks there is much more going on.
“In the last several years there have been data suggesting that neurobiological changes are happening — [there are] very brain-specific mechanisms at work here,” says Bucci, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
From his studies, Bucci and his collaborators have revealed important new findings:
The effects of exercise are different on memory as well as on the brain, depending on whether the exerciser is an adolescent or an adult.
A gene has been identified which seems to mediate the degree to which exercise has a beneficial effect. This has implications for the potential use of exercise as an intervention for mental illness.
Nice interview from Salon with scientist Shimon Edelman about how scientists are discovering neural patterns to the behaviors and activities that make humans happy; turns out the act of learning is often more rewarding than what we learn:
Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, offers some insight in “The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” In his new book, Edelman walks the reader through the brain’s basic computational skills – its ability to compute information, perform statistical analysis and weigh value judgments in daily life – as a way to explain our relationship with happiness. Our capacity to retain memories and develop foresight allows us to plan for the future, says Edelman, by using a mental “personal space-time machine” that jumps between past, present and future. It’s through this process of motivation, perception, thinking, followed by motor movement, that we’re able not only to survive, but to feel happy. From Bayes’ theorem of probability to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Edelman offers a range of references and allegories to explain why a changing, growing self, constantly shaped by new experiences, is happier than the satisfaction any end goal can give us. It turns out the rewards we get for learning and understanding the workings of the world really make it the journey, not the destination, that matters most.
Very cool video from B-Reel, Scandinavian furniture brand Varier and Oslo agency DIST Creative, on a project that involved creating fabric designs based on brain waves, specifically the brain waves of children playing and exploring:
Using some of the findings from its Mind Scalextricsexperiment, B-Reel used a headset to measure the brain waves of three children using Varier’s Balans chair. (The chair is designed to promote circulation and extended activity, which is claimed to leadi to better concentration and overall well-being).
It then used a custom built data visualization engine to turn the recordings into a pattern that could be printed as upholstery for the chair. As well as creating image patterns to reflect the changes in the children’s brain activities, the engine engine also used graphic presets corresponding to the children’s personal interests and took inspiration from patterns ranging from classic tapestries to pop-art and contemporary design.
Varier Furniture is featuring the project on its website as well as at international Furniture and Design Fairs.
A lot of parents freak out about how to provide enriching environments for their children and help them grow, from music lessons to early reading to math flash cards.
In one of those “well duh” books, two neuroscientists, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang remind us it doesn’t take all that much…
Babies may look helpless, but as soon as they come into the world, they’re able to do a number of important things. They can recognize faces and moving objects. They’re attracted to language. And from very early on, they can differentiate their mother from other humans.
“They really come equipped to learn about the world in a way that wasn’t appreciated until recently,” says neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt. “It took scientists a long time to realize that their brains are doing some very complicated things.”
Aamodt and fellow neuroscientist Sam Wang explain how the human brain develops from infancy to adolescence in their new book, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. The two researchers also offer tips for parents to help their children eat their spinach, learn their ABCs and navigate elementary school.
They talk with Terry Gross about complicated concepts like self control, abstract thought, and things that are even hard for some grown-ups, and how to create an environment that makes kids want to practice these things.
I will be on vacation this week, as sort of a decompression from summer and respite before I jump full on into Fall, Winter, and all that ensues.
I intend to spend as much time as possible in nature, listening, smelling, seeing, and overall experiencing the amazing world that is around me. Spotting animals, smelling trees, water, flowers, and moss, feeling the crunch of leaves and rocks beneath my feet, hearing the wind blow through the leaves and listen for animal calls, and taste the heat in the hot afternoon sun and cold at early dawn.
I encourage everyone to take 20 minutes sometime between now and when I get back to just go outside, find a comfortable, quiet place to sit – under a tree, near some water, on the street corner near your house – and just listen, smell, taste, and watch. Listen to all the noises. What’s the closest noise, what’s the farthest noise? How many animals can you spot? How many different smells can you pick up? Breathe fully into your lungs and slowly let the air out, feeling it work its way through your nose, throat, and lungs.
Give yourself this 20 minute vacation, even just once this week, and I guarantee your environment will feel fuller, richer, and you’ll feel more in tune with your surroundings.
Have you ever sworn you knew what your cat was thinking? You may have been right. It turns out we are more tuned into animals and their emotional status than we might think:
Animals have a special place in the human heart. Now, researchers are reporting that creatures great and small also have a special place in our heads.
A team led by researchers at Caltech has found individual brain cells that respond when a person sees an animal, but not when that person sees another person, a place, or an object.
The cells were found in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain involved in emotions, including fear. And they responded to any kind of animal, including spiders, dogs and rodents, says Christof Koch, a researcher at Caltech and the lead author of the study, published in Nature Neuroscience.
One reason present-day humans have these cells may be because some animals posed a threat to our ancestors, Koch says. Specialized cells could have helped the brain respond quickly to danger, he says.
I love the idea that urge to cuddle puppies comes from the amygdala, often referred to as the “lizard” part of our brain! It makes sense that as humans we’d survive better if we were more in tune with the animals in our surroundings and whether they wanted to eat us or not.
Wow, speaking of mental flowers. Researchers have found that the brain has its own weeding/pruning capabilities:
Gardeners know that some trees require regular pruning: some of their branches have to be cut so that others can grow stronger. The same is true of the developing brain: cells called microglia prune the connections between neurons, shaping how the brain is wired, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory EMBL in Monterotondo, Italy, discovered. Published online in Science, the findings could one day help understand neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.
Microglia are related to the white blood cells that engulf pathogens and cellular debris, and scientists knew already that microglia perform that same clean-up task when the brain is injured, ‘swallowing up’ dead and dying neurons. Looking at the developing mouse brain under the microscope, Gross and colleagues found proteins from synapses — the connections between neurons — inside microglia, indicating that microglia are able to engulf synapses too.
Now I have some high standards to live up to; making this blog act like a proverbial brain cleaner!
Original paper: European Molecular Biology Laboratory (2011, July 22). Gardening in the brain: Cells called microglia prune the connections between neurons, shaping how the brain is wired. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/07/110721142410.htm
As a follow-up to my previous post about brain reactions to improv, creativity, and problem-solving, check out my post on my other blog, Art of Science, to see the TED talk by Charles Limb discussing how the brain works on music.