12 September 2010

New ideas on studying

Interesting NY Times article by Benedict Carey titled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" published on Sept. 6, 2010.  Here are a few excerpts:

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.


That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example): “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

05 September 2010

The Brain that Changes Itself - Norman Doidge (2007)

I found The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge up in Whitefish, Montana, and was surprised that I had somehow missed it in the past.  I take my usual exception to the wording of the title - brains don't change themselves - rather people can guide their own brain re-wiring.  This book is a great round-up of the current knowledge around neuro-plasticity - the ability to essentially regain or enhance ones mental capabilities (re-wiring one's brain), whether in response to injury or through conscious efforts.

The book opens with a couple of interesting observations, which I think point out the potential danger of metaphors.  Doidge traces the idea that the brain cannot change to three causes - lack of recovery in many brain-injured patients, lack of direct visibility of brain changes, and "the idea - dating back to the beginnings of modern science - that the brain is like a glorious machine.  And while machines do many extraordinary things, they don't change and grow." (p. xviii).

The book traces findings of many scientists who are studying the possibilities of brain regeneration.  For a long time the theory of localization - that each area of the brain had its own task and couldn't really change - held sway, but the evidence seems pretty overwhelming at this point that indeed areas of the brain can re-wire.  Many of the findings seem to indicate that it takes dedicated effort, and sometimes deliberate constraints, to force the person to find ways to use weakened parts of the body rather than relying on the still-functioning areas (for example, after a stroke when one side of the body may be partially paralyzed, one must find ways to exercise the weak side).  Many of the personal stories here are quite inspiring, showing results thought to be impossible in the past.

For most brain functions, the rule appears to be "use it or lose it" - i.e. one must keep exercising the functions of the brain or else the areas will atrophy.  This applies both to body movements and to mental capability - it appears that both physical and mental exercise are critical to maintaining a sharp mind and brain. 

While much of the focus of the book is on recovery from disability, there is some coverage of tools that may be useful in sharpening the performance of 'normal' folks (one example is the software of Posit Science).  I think there is still so much we don't understand about our own capabilities!