Physical activity is directly connected to both body and brain health…see why it’s so important!
Do you know a worrier? Perhaps you have a child or were a child who worried about everything. The February 8, 2013, issue of the New York Times had a great article on worriers and warriors that helps us understand why some people present such a predisposition and how we can help them.
New research shows that there is a gene that is responsible for some of the worrying behavior that we see. This COMT gene carries the code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. Dopamine gives us that rush that lets us concentrate. It changes the firing rate of neurons, making us more alert and able to act. The enzyme from the COMT gene removes the dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. There are two variations of this enzyme: one of the variants builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine, the other rapidly clears the dopamine.
Those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. The dopamine lingers and they are focused and have superior executive functioning. Those with fast-acting enzymes have too much dopamine removed, so their overall level of prefrontal cortex activity is low. They exhibit less concentration and overall a less-inspired performance.
Under stress the process is reversed. Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine and those with the slow-acting enzyme can’t clear it; their engine is flooded. If they are more vulnerable to stress they will be disadvantaged. People with fast-acting enzymes need stress to perform, they need the extra dopamine to rev up their engine since the dopamine is cleared so quickly. Their ability to concentrate and solve problems actually increases.
Historically, it is the warriors who receive dopamine under stress and are ready for a threat. Worriers have the ability for more complex planning under normal circumstances, but need warriors by their side for times of stress. Since this is genetic, we receive a combination of warrior or worrier genes from our parents. A child may receive worrier or warrior genes from both parents, which explains such a broad continuum or worriers or warriors.
Research is clear that we have a biological clock that varies from one person to another. Some of us are morning people. Our minds are alert as soon as we stir in the morning. We don’t even need coffee to get going. Our best time for concentration occurs in the morning, tapering in the afternoon and ends in the evening. The evenings are for puttering and doing tasks that don’t require a lot of concentration. There are night owls, the people who live for activity after dark. They come alive at 7:00 p.m. and will enjoy their best success in the evening. It’s no surprise they have difficulty waking up in the morning. They require coffee, several alarm clocks, and a career that is forgiving about when their day starts. They often choose careers that have a night shift option. Or drink a lot of coffee. If you are a morning person then you probably had a better shot at doing well in school. You were at school during the part of you day when you had the best concentration. What about those night owls? No matter how hard they tried, they were always at a disadvantage in morning classes. They would have to work twice as hard to accomplish the same thing.
These circadian rhythms vary throughout childhood. We expect babies and toddlers to be morning people. They are ready to eat and play as soon as they open their eyes. Teens, on the other hand, are night owls, at least temporarily. Just like the baby phase passes, so does the teen night owl phase. They are wired to stay up late and sleep in. In junior high schools all over America, children are yawning and trying to stay awake. Most junior high teachers know that this is a “holding” period in their education. It is impossible to make progress when you are asleep. It has often been said that junior high should be a well supervised summer camp. Fresh air, physical activity, and lots of sleep make for a good junior high experience. Instead we deal with cranky, tired, growing children who desperately need to sleep.
Some schools have acknowledged this problem and tried to delay the school day start time for this age group with success. Imagine how much success a student would have if they could sleep until they weren’t tired anymore?
We all sense that teen thinking is different than adult thinking. We blame it on hormones and that is partially true. The bigger factor is a process the brain goes through called “neural pruning”. This is a period of brain development when neurons that haven’t been used are pruned away and the ones remaining will be developed into the adult brain. During this developmental period the “thinking brain” is under construction” and the “emotional” brain is in charge. This is just a phase, like all other childhood phases, so fear not, this period will end all on its own. In the meantime, be available to talk to them about their own biology and keep them safe!
Here are some passages from the book Soul of the Child by Michael Gurian. I show these as direct quotes but I have changed some of the wording for a better flow.
“In adolescents there is a process of renovation that occurs in the brain beginning at about 10 years old but the house itself is not razed during this time. It’s more like this- a lot of the furniture and many of the walls inside the self get replaced .We might say in the context of light development that the location of Lamps overhead and lights shining in the house change. These new changes will last into adolescence.This renovation is called pruning. Nerve cells and avenues continue to be used but those that have not been tended to get pruned away. Areas in the frontal lobe, which are especially crucial for judgment, insight, and planning can get pruned away So if your child is not prodded to develop good judgment, working towards these activities are some of the most important in your child’s development of individuality and maturity. When the child’ brain is pruning,the body will begin secreting doses of hormones.”
“During adolescence- one amazing fact we’ve recently learned- is that at least half the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, which is like the air traffic controller for persons brain, are obliterated by hormonal intrusion for months and even years during adolescence. During decision-making the brain has to rely on the limbic system and other parts of the brain that handle emotional reactions, so when you notice adolescents taking extra risks, making bad decisions, getting into addictions, being overly emotional, you’re noticing this obliteration of the prefrontal cortex.”
“The brain after transition regains a new full circuitry and the adult decision maker shows through. We have to be vigilant guides during this time providing clear supervision, limits and expectations. We are helping them avoid the chaotic emotional reactions that can be part of an unsupervised adolescents life.”
“The last developmental step is myelination of cells in the brain at around 20.The brain completes its development with a gooey white substance that quickens every transmission and hardens the brain during adulthood. Cells continue to grow throughout life but at a much slower pace than during adolescence and child growth.”
“Modern life moves too fast for a lot of our children’s brains and they suffer from overstimulation. Not only abuse and neglect, but overstimulation increases cortisol levels. Our kids are literally in over their heads. No wonder the rates of brain disorders among children have skyrocketed in the last 30 years. Millions now suffer from ADD, dyslexia, bulimia, anorexia and depression.”
I would add anxiety to the list. KF
During a recent conversation with a coworker, I was surprised to learn that she managed to graduate from high school and college without ever reading a book in its entirety. After sharing this information, I could tell that she was neither proud nor bragging but confessing a deep, dark secret of sorts. Additionally, she revealed that reading was about as painful to her as “taking a freezing, cold shower.” When Marge read, it felt as though her eyes were stuck in quicksand and often she found herself jumbling words on the page, losing her place, or even falling asleep. These events usually occurred within the first paragraph or page of the text so it’s no wonder that she has avoided reading for most of her life…
This intriguing exchange, along with a fascinating book I am currently reading, prompted me to blog about dyslexia and discuss some common misconceptions.
Dyslexia is a term used to describe a wide range of reading challenges. We often assume that the term “dyslexic” only refers to someone who writes letters or see words backwards. Current brain research has a lot to offer and inform us on the subject of dyslexia and how it affects reading and learning.
“I know they are smart, why can’t they read?”
Able readers “read” in an area in the back of the brain called the occipital lobe. In this region, with enough practice, reading becomes automatic, almost like breathing does, taking little effort. Readers without this disorder enjoy and remember concepts, information, or story lines easily. Dyslexics are born without the neural pathways needed to connect to that part of the brain that strong readers use. As a result, dyslexics use a different part of their brain, an alternative pathway, to read. This part of their brain is unable to automate reading. It will always require a lot of effort, and reading occurs manually, although improvement can happen. This dynamic makes reading time-consuming and even emotionally and physically taxing.
Someone with dyslexia needs more time to access information. It is crucial for someone who has dyslexia to understand the big picture before they can access details. Many of us find spoken language innate and effortless. To read, we need to convert letters to sounds. Dyslexics are weak in phonological decoding, hearing the individual “sounds” in words. They tend to hear fewer sounds. A word like “bat” sounds like one sound, not three. Sound and letter relationships (phonological processing or phonetics) are at the most fundamental level of the reading process.
If we look at the big picture of language there are many other skills needed to read. Dyslexics tend to be strong in higher-order thinking skills including: reasoning, concept formation, comprehension, general knowledge, problem solving, vocabulary and critical thinking. They are smart and have many strengths, they are just learning to read in an area of the brain that has difficulty processing sounds. For the first 3 years of school, children are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn. Often this is when the difficulty begins to surface. We have two choices. One is to try and rewire the brain so it becomes more automatic or use the the manual system that has developed.
Dyslexics can develop more fluency (read more smoothly and quickly), by reading aloud, which improves comprehension. It’s important that they learn how to pronounce words. If a child can’t pronounce a word, they won’t have an accurate representation of it. They won’t build a model where meaning can become attached. Meaning is everything to a dyslexic”s ability to read and learn new information. They need meaning and the big picture to recall details.
How can you help?
To build fluency it is very important for dyslexics to get immediate feedback by reading aloud with someone. If you are their parent or teacher, have them start by reading lists of words or passages at an independent reading level. They need to be able to read 19 out of 20 words correctly on a page for the page to be at an independent reading level. A goal for fluency is to read 60 words a minute from a list or paragraph at their independent level.
A good process for building fluency is guided reading. Reading to them first so they can listen to sounds is important. You can repeat any step that seems beneficial. The goal is automation. By the 5th step they should be able to read at least 60 words per minute with few, if any errors.
1. Read a passage to the child.
2. Have the child read it aloud.
3. Have the child record themselves reading.
4. Have the child listen and follow along with the recording.
5. Have the child read to someone else once they have practiced.
Reading scripts, song lyrics or reading to someone younger are all great ways to practice reading for fluency. For younger students still learning to read, Dr. Seuss books are ideal practice. For older students, use books on tape whenever possible and tape record assignments or essays to make the time spent on an assigned task more reasonable.
Reference: Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, MD.