A study was recently published that claims learning to read and improvement in reading ability has a positive effect on intelligence overall.

Where to begin?

First, getting past sensational science related headlines takes effort. I have an educated and beginners mind when it comes to reading research. I read through this study slowly, and appears to me to be well-designed, and does not overstate what it found.

What it basically found/claims, is that learning to read not only helps improve verbal intelligence (which would be expected), it leads to improvements in non-verbal (visual/spatial) performance on IQ tests. This is the first time positive effects were found in areas not limited to verbal performance.

Of course I agree with the obvious. Learning to read and improving reading skill is vastly important for all sorts of reasons. There are however, a few cautions.

1. We don’t really measure intelligence. We try. What we really do as far as I can tell, is measure performance on tasks that we think are manifestations of intelligence.

2. If improving reading skills has positive effects on verbal and non-verbal intelligence, that’s a good thing. But we still don’t know why. Success in reading is based on several cognitive capacities including working memory, phonological processing, and fluent orthographic knowledge. Perhaps development of those skills are what transfers over to other more general thinking and problem-solving abilities. Perhaps the process of improving one’s reading skills, which undoubtedly includes perseverance, goal-setting and seeing weaknesses as challenges to be met, contains the operative links to improvements in “IQ.” In many cases, having access to high quality teaching (of reading and spelling) involves a mentor-student relationship that is a critical factor in building on success.

In other words, success breeds success.

The study I’m referencing can be found here: Learning To Read Improves Overall Intelligence

Of course it’s exciting news that early intervention works. But, the magic is in the details.

In this study, parents were coached to pay attention to subtle signs from their children (with autism) that they previously missed. When parents have seemingly non-responsive infants (not cooing, engaging in reciprocal eye gazing, etc) the adult often feels rejected and starts to do less of the interactive things parents generally do with their kids. By learning to spot the much more subtle interactive communication from children with autism, parents are more able to socialize their kids “upwards” and they gain more skills.

Treatment at earliest age reduces symptoms of autism spectrum disorder

Researchers found that oxytocin, the hormone heavily involved in social connectivity and feelings of warmth towards others, is not lacking in people with autism spectrum disorder.

Oxytocin Isn’t Lacking In Children With Autism, Researchers Say

Instead, the study found that oxytocin levels affected social functioning in both kids with autism and typical kids. “As your oxytocin levels got higher, your social functioning was more enhanced,” Parker says.

Gregory says it’s not surprising that children with autism have widely varying levels of oxytocin. “Autism isn’t a disease, it’s a spectrum” that can’t be linked to any one cause, he told Shots.

A Scientist with a Learning Disability

“Dr. Collin Diedrich has a Ph.D in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently a 2nd year postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His research focuses on how HIV increases individuals susceptibility to tuberculosis. Collin has aspirations to become an advocate for people with learning disabilities and ADHD.”

This incredibly bright scientist who has a learning disability expresses some great and thought-ptovoking ideas about intelligence, learning disabilities, and the damage caused by educational systems being so focused on the “average.”

I’m a Scientist With Learning Disabilities and That’s Okay!

You’re never too old to understand yourself better. Lisa Ling, journalist, discovers more about her brain and learning style.

Lisa Ling, gets a diagnosis of ADD at age 40

[via Richard Wanderman]

I came across this piece written by someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She makes some important points to consider concerning the judgmental implications of terms such as “high functioning and low functioning.” I’m a fan of precise and descriptive diagnostic work, but the writer points out the subtle and unspoken judgements that accompany some of our terms.

Decoding the High Functioning Label

FUNCTIONING IS NONLINEAR

I love that quote.

As Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In this recent opinion piece in the NY Times, “The Upside of Dyslexia” science writer Annie Murphy Paul cites a few experiments that causes her to wonder about the positive attributes and cognitive abilities that may occur naturally in people who have dyslexia, and could in theory lead to better performance in certain artistic and scientific fields.

She discusses a couple of interesting examples, one of which involves the discovery by cognitive scientists at UMASS found; that their subjects with dyslexia saw things on the periphery faster than non-dyslexics. This has been repeated in additional studies. In these examples, those who can focus better on the periphery or outer aspects of a visual field (who are less proficient at discernment of the central field) can do things like find the logical flaws in “impossible figures,” such as the interesting and impossible images found in some of M.C. Escher’s work.

Similar examples are cited in other experiments done with undergrads.

I think it’d be fascinating to find out that there are inherent abilities in a given condition mostly viewed as a frustrating learning disability.

I wish experiments like these focused on four and five year olds. Brains are proving to be far more plastic or malleable than we ever imagined. So I wonder if skills like the peripheral vision ability in their subjects are developed over time, as a result of (someone with a reading disabilitiy) not practicing or knowing what to look for in the central field of vision while reading. Word analysis requires looking at specific patterns within the central field. As a result of repeated looking more at the non-discrete aspects of words on a page, the outer reaches are more what one pays attention to.

It’s an intriguing field, that of looking for strengths as well as struggles and I’m all for good research along these lines.

On the other hand, blind people seem to develop great auditory abilities that I’m sure are reflected in teh developing architecture of their brains.

Stay tuned.

Autism and the Agitator

Interesting and thought provoking op-ed piece in NY Times.

Autism and the Agitator

Image courtesy of Rebecca Kamen

Neurons to Butterflies

Fascinating piece from PBS, about Rebecca Kamen, an artist with dyslexia. In a nod to the field of neuroscience, she fashions abstract sculptures, inspired by neurons and her experiences with dyslexia.

Those persistent struggles were what influenced Kamen to study art in the first place. Admitted to college on probation, Kamen chose to study art education, because it was the only major she could find at Pennsylvania State University that didn’t require a math course.

“I learned about things by taking things apart, examining them,” Kamen said. “I think that enabled me to develop the skills of working with my hands more than just processing things in a more linear way.”

This article from Forbes, like many, frames the debate around the question of when kid should start school. Too Much Too Soon: Why Children Should Spend More Time Playing And Start School Later

The polar opposing sides argue for earlier or later start ages. The issue is framed around relative value of play versus “early intervention” so to speak.

It’s the wrong question. There’s plenty of kids who would benefit from starting school experiences at five or four and younger. The issue isn’t so much when, as it is giving people the freedom to choose and most importantly, understanding that play is a tool for brain development. Children’s play is the outgrowth of what’s called “private play” (internal and external fantasy play). The next stage of play, including playing with others, is central to developing the executive function of problem-solving. In children’s play, kids get to try things out, solutions to problems, and experiment with the physical and social world.

Don’t choose one over the other. Create different opprtunities in early childhood education with the right balance of acrtivities.

Recess should be renamed and re-imagined at that age. At any age.

“Major” changes coming to 2016 SAT

Glad they’re thinking “changes” and updating. Call me skeptical however, but I’m not convinced.

Changes to SAT in 2016

The Marketing of AD/HD


Slide above: Adapted from Exploring the Neurocircuitry of the Brain and Its Impact on Treatment Selections in ADHD, PRAKASH S. MASAND, MD; PETER S. JENSEN, MD; STEPHEN STAHL, MD, PHD

There’s been a certain amount of press and attention on the intense marketing of medications for people with ADHD, and the perceived over-medication. Representing the this type of attention is an article in the NY Times a couple of months back, The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder

On a personal level, I’m happy when people get sensitized to how easily manipulated into quickly reaching for a pill we can get. However, from a professional perspective, I’m nervous when we do a backflip into equally dangerous territory. The statistics bear out that the consequences of untreated ADHD are far more serious than the perceived over medication.

From observational data, interviews and surveys, and two really good long-term studies from UMASS and University of Wisconsin Medical College (The Milwaukee Study) we’ve found that:

Adults with ADHD are three times more likely (21 percent compared to 6 percent) to sell drugs illegally, have significantly more money management trouble, three times as likely when compared with the community control group to initiate physical fights (30 percent compared to 9 percent), destroy others property (31 percent compared to 8 percent) and break and enter (20 percent compared to 7 percent). They get into more and more severe car accidents, and exhibit road rage at higher rates than others. These statistics pertain generally to people with untreated ADHD.

The consequences to families and society when this very real condition is untreated are enormous.

This isn’t to say that people with ADHD can’t lead fantastic lives, or that all are troubled, not in the least, but you can’t wish the syndrome away and often, not always, medication is an extremely helpful agent. This is also not to say that there aren’t other treatment options, which when used appropriately can’t also help. ADHD coaching models, cognitive training programs (notably Cogmed) certain Mindfulness-based meditation practices (the military call it “situational awareness” not mindfulness) and ADHD-informed counseling, can be effective adjunctive or stand-alone therapies.

As it turns out, ADHD is actually under-diagnosed because self-reporting and self-referral are the primary ways that adults in particular find their way into treatment, and until the age of 30 or so, people with ADHD tend to over inflate their perceptions of their own performance. In other words they don’t always recognize the degree to which their distractibility, impulsiveness, or executive function deficits are impacting their lives as well as the lives of those with whom they live and work.

The only group for whom this is not true are college-age students. With this demographic, 1 in 4 are found to be “malingering” (essentially meaning, not being honest) when seeking medication or accommodations for coursework. This is a very real concern for my colleagues in the mental health field, as it should be.

So, while I agree that as a nation we seem too easily drawn to quick fixes, we also have to treat a very real condition with serious and life-changing consequences in a comprehensive and holistic way.