The Power of Habit:Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

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Charles Duhigg

We cannot change behaviors – including visual behaviors – without changing habits. Habits are behaviors which have become so automatic that they require little or no conscious thought. We can override a habit through conscious attention but this exhausts our available working memory. We have all experienced the errors that we tend to make when our working memory is taxed, such as not being able to remember why we opened the refrigerator. Continue reading

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Grit

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We can hypothesize that John Irving may have undiagnosed and untreated visual problems which contribute to his dyslexia but that is not the most important message in the following excerpt from Grit by Angela Duckworth. Our patients who have worked successfully to remediate their visual problems have some advantages over those who have found everything to be effortless to this stage in their lives. If you wonder about grit, I suggest that you read this well-written story.

“Garp was a natural storyteller.”

This is a line from John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp. Like that novel’s fictional protagonist, Irving tells a great story. He has been lauded as “the great storyteller of American literature today.” To date, he’s written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been best sellers and half of which have been made into movies. The World According to Garp won the National Book Award, and Irving’s screenplay for The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.

But unlike Garp, Irving was not a natural. While Garp “could make things up, one right after the other, and they seemed to fit,” Irving rewrites draft after draft of his novels. Of his early attempts at writing, Irving has said, “Most of all, I rewrote everything…. I began to take my lack of talent seriously.”

Irving recalls earning a C- in high school English. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800, which means almost two-thirds of the students who took the SAT did better than him. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. Irving recalls that his teachers thought he was both “lazy” and “stupid”.

Irving was neither lazy nor stupid. But he was severely dyslexic: “I was an underdog…. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words.” When his own son was diagnosed with dyslexia, Irving finally understood why he, himself, had been such a poor student. Irving’s son read noticeably slower than his classmates, “with his finger following the sentence – as I read, and I still read. Unless I’ve written it, I read whatever ‘it’ is very slowly – and with my finger.”

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Since reading and writing didn’t come easily, Irving learned that “to do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself…. In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes more second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”

Do the precociously talented learn that lesson? Do they discover that the capacity to do something over and over again, to struggle, to have patience, can be mastered – but not overnight?

Some might. But those who struggle early may learn it better.

Dr. Gary J. Williams

DrWilliams@GWilliamsFamilyEye.com

 

 

Smart Moves:Why Learning is Not All in Your Head

    Carla Hannaford

After hearing Carla Hannaford quoted many times, I decided that it was time to read this book and I was not disappointed. I started summarizing and excerpting books years ago to share with staff, but one of the primary benefits was to slow down my reading and to allow me the time to think more deeply about the implications of the author’s words. If you follow our blog, you have come across the understanding that thinking is not all in your head. We would have little difficulty with that if we didn’t already “know” that that all learning takes place in our brains. Changing our thinking, our beliefs, and our actions is much more difficult than learning when it does not require unlearning. I hope that the following excerpts cause you to pause as they have me.

Dr Williams for COVD

We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest movements in utero right through old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world and from which to draw when creating new possibilities.

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Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest. Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime. (This has been proven over the last decade when it comes to treating amblyopia. Intensive visual tasks for 20 minutes are more effective than hours of patching without a challenging, engaging activity.)

What we know, feel, learn, and think is shaped by how we know, feel, learn, and think. How we do these things is in turn dependent on the sensory-motor systems though which all our experience of the world and of ourselves is mediated. These sensory-motor systems shape our experience, and are shaped by it. So the story of how these systems unfold is a vital key to understanding learning.

Our proprioceptive sense constantly sends feedback to the brain that readjusts the balance of our shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading.

Touch, hearing and proprioception are important organizers of the visual aspects of learning. Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process occurring in the eyes. The other over ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from the association with touch, hearing, and proprioception.

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It’s easy to forget, or ignore, how much of vision is learned. We have to train ourselves, through books, movies, and art to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. We could call this visual literacy.

The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur.

Words can only be understood when they provoke some kind of image in the mind of the learner. If students cannot access the underlying images, the words are not comprehensible; there is no context or visual understanding.

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Computer scientist David Gelernter makes this point emphatically: “Emotions are not a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.” Gelernter goes on to assert that emotions are also “inextricably tied up with bodily states. The bodily state is part of the emotion, feeds it and helps define it. This means that ultimately you don’t think just with your brain; you think with your brain and body both.”

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One of the most important things a teacher can do, especially with students with disabilities, is to bond with them. CAT scans show that children process information through their emotions first, and information that is the most emotional and emotionally relevant to them, is what students will learn. On the other hand, insecurity and fear can bring learning to a screeching halt by shutting down higher brain connections.

Another unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand – as in cursive…. Part of the problem is hand development, and asking children to perform the complex process of printing, way too early. In order to print the child must first crawl for a good long time with hands forward, to develop the bones in both the hand and to gain upper arm strength…. If you look at an X-ray of hand development, you will notice that the very intricate bones of the area near the wrist – the carpals, are not fully developed until about age twenty. The more developed these bones, the easier to hold a pen or pencil to print. If the child has had a lot of sensory-motor activation of the hand, printing can be more easily taught at about ages eight to ten.

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Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools.

Having been flooded a number of times, flood analogies come to mind. Trying to rush development is like trying to pump the water out of your basement before the level of the ground water goes down. You waste a lot of time and effort if you start too soon because the water keeps coming back in. You are eventually successful when the water (or the child) is ready. It is easy to fool yourself about the influence that you had be starting early. If we try to push children too early, we can also create failures as some children become confused and frustrated who would have done fine when they were ready and interested. Combined with this is the opportunity cost of what these children could have been doing and learning to enrich their experiential background prior to the vicarious experience that we get through reading. There is so much that can be experienced and learned in an interesting, interactive classroom. They can even go outside the classroom where most real learning takes place.

You may think that it is a contradiction for me to disparage in any way the potential to learn through reading but we learn very little when we read about things we don’t already know quite a bit about. This book is a good example. It would have glossed off me forty years ago when I knew that all learning took place in the brain. Decades of experience has enabled me to take information from this book that I could not have understood earlier in my career.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Tummy Time

Visual Factors in Reading

When will identifying vision problems that affect learning become a new standard of care?

 

Head in the Game The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes

Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game is about the growing use of new technologies to provide feedback on what is taking place in the brain and to use feedback to train the brain and to train the integration of the mind, vision, and body to enhance sports performance. Becoming aware of how our mind is enhancing our performance, or is getting in the way, is important to improve all visual abilities, not just those related to sports. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “90% of the game is half mental”. The technologies are new, but the goals haven’t changed. To be successful, the athletes need to take what they learn from the electronics and practice to make it habitual. It doesn’t matter what you do in practice or in therapy if you can’t consistently apply your new skills to your challenges. The goal is to replace a less efficient behavior with a more efficient behavior and to have the more efficient behavior become more automatic than what you were doing before. The more automatic the behavior becomes, the more resilient it will be to fatigue and stress.

Brandon Sneed’s first example is using an EEG to provide feedback. “I do best when I put myself in a mind-set of relaxed control – not straining, but working, feeling zoned in but calm, thinking only of moving forward…. Most people need at least thirty sessions to get lasting effects from EEG training. Some, even more… It is work which may be why EEG training hasn’t caught on. It’s easy to pop a pill and see when happens, but EEG training feels almost like going to the gym.” This is the same mind-set that patients need to develop when they are learning to align their eyes, to improve processing with their amblyopic eye, and to focus better and to track better. In vision therapy feedback comes from specially designed targets which may also incorporate new technologies.

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“The reason why golf is so difficult is because you’re starting the action. Your mind wants to be in control, but the golf swing has to be done on a subconscious level. It’s impossible to think about the thousands of muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to fire in a perfect sequence in a fraction of a second.” I recently blogged on How We Read. The visual components of reading are as complex as the components of swinging a golf club and are even more difficult to observe. And, while both acts are too fast and too complicated to be directed through conscious attention, you quiet your conscious mind while swinging a golf club while in reading your brain must be simultaneously combining current input with prior input from the page, along with previously stored input, while also forecasting what is coming next.

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Brandon Sneed appreciates the importance of the placebo and nocebo effects. “Then there’s this stunning example of the nocebo effect: a study at the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 2011, led by professor of anaesthetic science Irene Tracey. While studying the efficacy of an opioid drug, she found that something that should be effective can be rendered useless after a subject is told it won’t work. That’s right: even though something is scientifically proven to help people – such as a pill – if people decide it’s not going to work, sometimes it won’t.” Supporting people should be an integral component of all care from medicine, to surgery, to therapy, to coaching, to teaching. This is not in lieu of effective treatment, it augments it. If someone becomes a victim and develops learned helplessness. If they become a passive patient instead of a person involved with their care. If the expectations that are placed on them are too high or too soon and they feel that they can’t, working to change that attitude must be part of their care. The teacher is more important than the curriculum. The therapist is more important than the technique. And for coaches see The Talent Code

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“To master the mind, first master the body.” The Western World separated the mind and the body at the beginning of the Enlightenment because the connections could not be proven at that time. It took hundreds of years for this accepted wisdom to be reversed. So while we are mostly training the brain, we are doing it through the body. “Keeping the mind relaxed yet focused for extended periods of time is hard and a skill almost everyone takes for granted.”

“No performance-enhancing drug or piece of technology can compare to a good night’s sleep.” Research on sleep clearly indicates that it is our brain that needs to rest and not our bodies. This is a little like turning your electronic device off and on to allow it to reset, but our brains take more time.

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I share Brandon Sneed’s amazement as it is expressed in the following excerpt. “This brings us to one to one of the most stunning thing’s I’ve learned so far. We have five senses, right? We experience those senses because of specialized cells throughout our body called sensory receptors. Everything you feel, hear, smell, taste, and see comes from those receptors sending the information they gather to your brain. Of all the sensory receptors we have, 70 percent are in our eyes alone. That’s 260 million (130 million per eye) receptors taking information in through the eyes and sending it to the brain, by way of 2.4 million nerve fibers. This adds up to our eyes sending our brain 109 gigabytes of data every second.

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“Larry Fitzgerald, the great Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, did vision training as a child with his grandfather, an optometrist. ‘Parents need to understand,’ Fitzgerald once said, ‘that you need over 17 visual skills to succeed. Seeing 20/20 is just one of those. Vision problems can have a serious impact.’ And not just in sports, he added, but also ‘on a child’s education.’”

 

The Power of Play

Sleights of Mind

The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions. Continue reading

Who’s in Charge

Michael S. Gazzaniga

There is one excerpt from this book which I feel is particularly powerful. In our ego, we applaud our higher thinking abilities and other than sports, musicians, and some crafts do not highly praise skills which are highly dependent on practice and automaticity. Yet most of what makes all of us function efficiently are those skills which we have developed to an automatic level. Our ocular motor skills are low-level skills on which our perception of the world is reliant. Hours and hours of play and experience are necessary to develop ocular motor and perceptual skills. When that has not taken place naturally, the challenge is for us to develop those skills through vision therapy. To be effective, they must be developed to an automatic level. We can each think of many instances in which conscious thinking really gets in the way. Walking downstairs is just one example. The excerpt below shows to a surprising degree how strong this effect can be.

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It is easy to show the difference in timing between automatic responses and those where consciousness intervenes. If I put you in front of a screen and have you push a button when a light flashes on, after a few trials you will be able to do this in about 220 milliseconds. If I ask you to slow this down just a tad, say to 240 milliseconds, you wouldn’t be able to do it. Your speed would be more than 50 percent slower, it would drop to about 550 milliseconds. Once you put consciousness in the loop, your conscious self-monitoring of the speed takes longer, because consciousness works at a slower base speed. This is something that you may already be familiar with. Remember practicing the piano, or any other instrument, and memorizing a piece? Once you had practiced a piece, your fingers could really fly until you made a mistake and consciously tried to correct what you did wrong. Then, you could barely even remember what note was next. You were better off starting all over again and hoping that your fingers would make it past the rough patch on their own. This is why good teachers warn their students not to stop when they make a mistake while playing in a recital, just keep going, keep that automatic playing automatic. The same is true in sports. Don’t think about that free throw, just plop it in as you have the hundreds of times in practice. “Choking” happens when consciousness steps into the play and throws the timing off. Natural selection pushes for nonconscious processes. Fast and automatic is the ticket for success. Conscious processes are expensive. They require not only a lot of time, but also a lot of memory. Unconscious processes, on the other hand, are fast and rule-driven.

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