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January 23, 2009

Exercising the Brain—A Collosal Effect

Years ago, I had the good fortune to study at Cambridge University. Living on student stipends did not afford me much opportunity to take taxis on my ventures into London. But one time, when I was late for an important meeting, I frantically hailed a taxi and told the driver my predicament. He calmly replied, “Don’t worry, luv—I’ll get you there.” And he sure did. In the process, I stared in amazement as he negotiated the unbelievable maze of streets with skill that can only be described as phenomenal.

As typically happens, even with fabulous experiences, I put that event aside for many years. Then it came back to me when I read about a famous study conducted by Professor Eleanor Maguire of University College London. She carried out brain scans on a group of taxi drivers to test a theory about the brains of taxi drivers being affected by their work. The theory turned out to be correct. The average cabbie had a larger hippocampus than most people.

The reason has to do with the nature of the job. Well before the days of being able to rely on global positioning satellites, London cabbies had to pass a grueling test. They had to acquire something called “The Knowledge”--that meant acquiring a detailed mental map of all the streets within a six-square-mile radius of the heart of London.

it is an amazing skill and it takes years of study to build a complete “mental map” of the city. An area of the brain called the hippocampus plays a key role in behaviors involving memory and spatial navigation. So the taxi drivers’ trainlng led them to super develop that area of the brain. As Professor Maguire noted, “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the [nature of the] brain changes. The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience."

The study found something else as well. Over time, the hippocampus continues to grow as the “mental map” adds complexity. There are other studies along these lines linked to other cognitive skills. The brains of musicians, for example, show changes in certain areas of the brain.

What these studies tell us is that use of the brain is not simply necessary for an activity but the activity feeds back on the brain and actually changes its structure. This information is fascinating just on its own. But when we place it in the context of reading, it becomes vital-- and a bit scary.

Generally children of today’s generation do less and less sustained reading. Here, I am not referring to reading of short bits of information such as signs, TV screens, and the like. That type of reading has probably increased. But the sustained reading required to master subjects such as science, economics and social studies is steadily decreasing. Operationally, that means any requirement to carry out sustained reading is perceived as, and actually IS, more difficult. In other words, the less students do, the more difficult each assignment gets.

Altering the course we are on is going to be one of the top challenges in the coming years.

January 15, 2009

Media: The Most Dominant Force in Children’s Lives

Several decades back, Dr. David Hamburg, an astute psychiatrist, gave a talk on the new health problems that our nation was starting to face. In contrast to the problems that earlier generations had to deal with (such as infectious epidemics), he pointed out that the new health problems were the result of “having too much”—too much food, too much alcohol, too much stimulation.

Now a detailed study of 173 research efforts carried out by the National Institutes of Health and Yale University shows how on target he was.

Examining nearly 30 years of research, they found that television, music, movies and other media has significant negative health effects on children and adolescents. The effects cover an array of problems including obesity, tobacco use, sexual behavior, drug use, alcohol use, low academic achievement and attention deficit disorder. About 80 percent of the studies showed a link between a negative health outcome and media hours or content.

The results, while disturbing, are not all that surprising—once you take into account the fact that the average modern child spends nearly 45 hours a week with television, movies, magazines, music, the Internet, cellphones and video games. By comparison, children on average spend 17 hours a week with their parents and 30 hours a week in school. Put simply, media is the most dominant and pervasive force in their lives.

As Dr. Hamburg also pointed out, the handling of these types of problems is difficult because they don’t lend themselves to injections or any of the usual actions that we think of when tackling disease. Instead, they require that we impose on ourselves, and our children, control. The many failed diet programs illustrate just how difficult it is to “just say no.”

The situation is serious. But that does not mean it is hopeless. If we give it the consideration it deserves, we can get ourselves and our children into a far better place. The key is to consciously change the patterns that have become such an accepted part of our lives. For example, it is amazing how many children have TVs in their bedrooms. That is like having chocolates constantly at the side of a “chocoholic.” So simply eliminating TVs from children’s bedrooms is one place to start.

Another might be to change movie watching into a much more interactive experience. For example, parents and children could regularly set aside one evening a week to watch a film that they then discuss. Films such as Bridge of the River Kwai, To Kill a Mockingbird, Empire of the Sun, Heat of the Night are fabulous films that are not only intriguing but also conducive to discussions of history, values, and social movements. Kids generally love the opportunity to talk with their parents about issues that go above and beyond daily life. Family members begin to see each other in totally new ways.

As you begin to think about this area, you are bound to come up with a range of interesting possibilities. And generally, relative to dieting, they are far less difficult. At the same time, they offer you the opportunity to bring better health to your children—at no cost. Hopefully, more and more families will take this turn in the road.

For more information, go to

January 13, 2009

Want to Find Some Good Books?

Parents often ask me to suggest books for their children to read--both for school assignments and for pleasure. When you are faced with those sorts of decisions, you can get lots of help, information and advice at

It's an excellent resource--offering reviews, finding books that match the ones your child likes, offering stories your child can watch, telling the stories of the lives of authors and on and on. It's the sort of site many kids can navigate easily on their own--so that they can be active partners in the selection process.

January 10, 2009

Literacy in the U.S. A. One in Seven Can't Read

A new federal study has reported that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with very low literacy skills. Operationally, that means they find it challenging to read anything more than a children's picture book.

Some communities are making strides in handling the problem. For example, In Mississippi, the percentage of adults with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25% to 16%. However, in several large states — California, New York, Florida and Nevada, for instance — the number of adults with low skills rose. And overall, the nation has not made a dent in its adult-literacy problem: From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.

The findings come from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in a survey of more than 19,000 Americans ages 16 and older. The 2003 survey is a follow-up to a similar one in 1992.

The findings are published online at

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