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Archive for May, 2010

A few days ago, I was alerted on a forum to the following article:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/self-promotion-introverts/201004/are-introverts-nuts

Apparently, the American Psychiatric Association is considering including some perfectly natural introvert traits as criteria for diagnosis of certain mental disorders.

Given that there are approximately three extroverts to every introvert, it seems that by dint of the fact that they are the ones doing most of the talking, they get to define what is “normal”.

Then today, while reading the Metro newspaper, I came across this:

http://www.metro.co.uk/news/826974-geniuses-are-bordering-on-being-insane-says-study

If introverts are a misunderstood minority (although admittedly a large one) in the population generally, then consider the plight of the genius. Being a rare phenomenon, it is unlikely that he or she will find much acceptance in a world of mainly average Joes. Small wonder, then, that given a person whose levels of creativity and/or intellect way outstrips that of supposedly educated professionals, those professionals cannot begin to understand what goes on in the world of the genius.

I can see why, as high-ability introvert, I am not understood by many. However, I am tired of that lack of understanding being pathologised by people who ought to know better.

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A couple of days ago, I was considering what factors constitute genius, and I was surprised to realise that only the first two of them actually stem from the person themselves, and the remaining three are down to factors to do with other people.

The component factors are as follows:

1. Aptitude.

It goes without saying that a certain minimum standard of ability to learn and create is required in the genius’s special field of interest. (People who become famous for producing rubbish are not geniuses, they’re just lucky.)

2. Attitude.

This would encompass all the personal qualities not directly associated with ability, for example, the person’s desire to produce in that subject area, their persistence, interest etc.

3. Opportunity.

This would involve things like having a mentor who took the budding genius under his or her wing, a project or job opportunity that came up at the right time etc. A potential genius who had more than enough ability and possesses all the right personality factors would be unlikely to ever become famous if the opportunity to develop his or her talents did not ever present itself. It is a little naive to believe that geniuses make their own opportunities. Most are too busy doing what is important to them to have time to be their own promoter or PR agent.

4. Communication Lines.

These would be the “distribution channels” – the means by which word of the budding genius’s products get disseminated to the relevant audience. Even in these days of the Internet, it may not be enough simply to promote one’s products online. Besides, getting word out there can be a labour intensive and time consuming business. While I am typing this, I am spending time blogging rather than getting on with my projects. By the same token, a genius would almost certainly need someone else to take care of communications and publicity to allow him or her to get on with actual production.

5. Capturing the Public Imagination.

Public acclaim comes about, not only because word got out there about what the person was doing, but because the concept connected with the broad public at that time. The genius might not be recognised within his or her lifetime, but their works might suddenly connect with the imagination of a future generation.

High ability alone is not genius. Some people have remarked that I must be a genius, but I only claim #1, and perhaps #2. The rest is down to #3: opportunity, and the two remaining points that must follow on from it.

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Many years ago, I was trained in a methodology that taught students to understand everything on the page they were reading.

One of the cornerstone skills in this methodology is clarifying for oneself all the vocabulary used. Students are taught to leave no stone unturned: definitions of words, punctuation symbols, abbreviations, coined words, specialist language etc. are all expected to be known.

The rationale behind this is very simple. If a word or symbol isn’t fully understood, it cannot be translated into a mental image or concept. How can a person understand or remember data which couldn’t be encoded?

A person can only read at the sort of speeds demanded by speed reading courses when everything on the page is crystal clear. If you were taking up a new subject, with a whole new vocabulary and probably plenty of unfamiliar acronyms thrown in, could you say with honesty that you could understand all of it without having to consult a glossary, dictionary or other reference book, or have the teacher define terms for you? Even when it comes to everyday language, can you assume you can define without hesitation every word you read? I have spot-checked English teachers, lawyers and doctors on courses I have run, and found that even they cannot always give full definitions of many common English words.

Obviously, the solution is to make liberal use of dictionaries, glossaries, grammar books, encyclopedias and so on as one studies. However,  speedreading courses generally gauge the student’s reading effectiveness by timing how long it takes him or her to read a certain passage. If a student were to study the passage for full understanding, clearing up everything as he or she goes along, then by speedreading standards that would make him/her a “slow reader”. Yet if you want to have a full enough concept of what you’re reading to be able to fully assimilate it and recall it later, then you must clear up what you don’t fully grasp.

The practice essays provided by speed reading courses typically have a comprehension pop quiz tacked on the end, yet they offer no practical advice in how to understand the material as one goes along. Speed reading gurus like Tony Buzan are very fond of selling readers the idea that faster reading equals more comprehension. He’s partly right in that the two are correlated, but the interpretation is backwards. People who understand what they read naturally read faster than people who are struggling to grasp the information. Hence it is comprehension = speed, not speed = comprehension!

I have not yet (and neither has any study expert I know) managed to resolve how to catch pieces of unfamiliar vocabulary while attempting to read at speed. I have tried it, and by the time I realised I was fogging out and must have missed something earlier, I had zoomed several pages beyond where the actual misunderstood word or symbol occurred and it took several times as long just to find it, than if I’d just been reading carefully to begin with.

Conclusion? I don’t think there’s any such thing as speed reading with full comprehension. There’s careful reading for understanding, or there’s skimming. That’s the choice.

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Well, I guess it only had to be a matter of time before we saw something like this.

I got sent the following report in an e-newsletter I subscribe to:

“NEUROSCIENE [sic] NEWS – BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK! by Phil Chambers

“Results of major clinical trail into Brain Training conducted by BBC TV’s popular science show, ‘Bang Goes The Theory’ were announced last week. The results clearly indicate that there were no statistically significant gains in four benchmark tests of brainpower after a 6 week period of Brain Training. One of the experiment’s designers, Dr Adrian Owen said: “The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference.”

“Participants in the trial were tested in their verbal working memory, spatial working memory, episodic memory and grammatical reasoning before and after playing online Brain Training games. These were similar to those found in popular products such as Nintendo’s Doctor Kawashima’s Brain Training. This is one of the best selling games of all time having sold over 20 million copies and the sequel “More Brain Training From Dr Kawashima: How Old Is Your Brain?” selling 5 million.

“Although the participants showed a marked improvement in their scores in the games, as the researchers state, “this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.”

“The experiment was designed by Dr Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge and Professor Clive Ballard of Kings College, London, who is director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society. Results are published in the journal Nature.

“Does this mean that all mental improvement strategies are futile and I should disband my company?

“I have long suspected that playing these games makes you better at the games but this does not transfer to real life, measurable skills. I have often stated this belief when asked about the games but it is nice to now have scientific data to back up my hunch.

“However, the techniques that I teach are totally different to the Brain Training games. With brain training you practice the tasks in the game and this is supposed to make you more mentally fit after you finish, like going to gym. My techniques on the other hand, are designed to be used in real life to make you better at tasks such as remembering people’s names. It is much more like learning to drive a car. You don’t learn to drive and expect to be able to get to your destination faster when you’re not in your car. You continue to use the car to get from place to place. So whenever you meet someone you use the technique to remember his or her name. If you stop using the technique you still forget!”

The article finished with the expected plug for mind-mapping and speed reading as “workable” tools. I shall write separately about each of those at some future date.

My initial impression of whether brain training works or not is that it depends on the actual games or tasks studied. If the game or task requires very specific skills, then it may be unrealistic to expect that skill to transfer to a different type of task. If, however, the type of skill being taught by the game or task has quite broad or general application, such as building up vocabulary, speed, maths skills or working memory, then I would fully expect players to be able to transfer the skills trained to another type of task.

Here is how I conducted my own informal experiment. Using the free tests offered by the International High IQ Society website, I took a series of tests to get a rough average. I played a round of Lumosity games intensively for just over two weeks. Subsequently, I took another round of the same tests, again to get a rough average over several tests. My average score after playing Lumosity was approximately 8 points higher. I took another round of tests several weeks later, without playing Lumosity in between. I had retained my higher average scores on the test. I think the main areas of improvement that had pushed my test scores up were speed and short term visual memory, which I felt were relatively weak areas. The visual memory task on this test is extremely hard, but after the Lumosity training, I felt that I was actually answering this part of the test as opposed to guessing at something that had flashed up and then gone way too fast.

Another study carried out on dual n-back training (another type of brain training task) showed very significant increases in non-verbal reasoning scores. http://www.newscient…n-boost-iq.html

Hence, I question what the exact “brain training” games were that were being tested in this study.

I find the driving analogy written by Mr Chambers particularly specious. When you drive your car, no, your driving speed might not readily transfer to anything else, but other skills might: observation or spacial awareness, perhaps.

Most people know instinctively that if they do crosswords or Sudoku, read a lot, or continue their education into old age, these activities serve to keep the mind sharp. I do not see how playing Brain Training can be any different. It’s like saying that playing football will only improve your football skills, and will have no effect on your overall fitness. Surely any activity – physical or mental – is better than none.

One thing is for certain – it will do more for the grey cells than vegetating in front of the TV.

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See their article here:

http://royalsociety.org/brainwaves/

Reading this, I cannot help feeling that for all their eminent learning, the professors running the show have missed the boat.

http://www.uknetpark.net/News/News_452010143625_2576.aspx

“Professor Colin Blakemore will lead a team of experts under the Brain Waves project, which will review new developments in neuroscience and their social implications.

“They will study areas of research that could contribute in enhancement of memory, intelligence and mental health.”

When I first caught a glimpse of a similarly-worded article in last night’s Evening Standard, my first thought was, “At long last!” On further reading, however, I see things like:

“They will also look into crime prediction, surveillance techniques that focus on human behaviour, fears over the “militarisation” of neuroscience and the development of brain-damaging biological weapons.”

The trouble with this is, it is considering the subject of neuroscience within the framework of existing societal and worldwide problems (such as warfare), rather than looking at how the subject could be investigated with a view to solving them.

Prof Blakemore said: “Our increasing understanding of the brain and associated advances in technologies to study the brain are beginning to give us the tools to improve the treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and mental illnesses, including depression and schizophrenia.

“But these advances will also increase our insights into normal human behaviour and mental well-being, as well as giving the possibility of enhancement, manipulation and degradation of brain function.

As usual, it is the medical aspect which is being considered above the possibilities for potential enhancement. But Prof. Blakemore even manages to spoil the latter by suggesting that “normal” brains can be manipulated or even degraded just as much as they can be enhanced through the application of science.

“Brain research is likely to have huge implications for society. We need to do something that scientists usually don’t like to do – to speculate about the future. We must begin now the process of providing the best possible information in areas of public policy such as health, education, law, and security.”

Do you see what I’m seeing? This is all to do with how neuroscience relates to “society”. To quote Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society. Brains belong to individuals, and only by addressing and enhancing the individual person, one by one, can “society” be improved overall.

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