Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Emotions Are Made

In the traditional view of emotion, emotions are their own entities, with their own essences, which can be found somewhere in the brain and which manifest in particular expressions we can all recognize.

In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, a fascinating book by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author presents a research-supported paradigm shift. Emotions are not inborn things to be found; they are made. Just like any thoughts or perceptions, emotions are constructed, and variability is the norm.

Our brains are actively participating in our realities, imposing meaning on stimuli rather than simply receiving meaning from the world around us and/or the physical sensations within us. In other words, we see what we believe, rather than believe what we see. If the brain were merely reactive, it would require too many interconnections to be metabolically efficient and keep us alive. It is advantageous for the brain to represent information utilizing as few neurons as possible. It does this by separating statistical similarities from differences and categorizing a set of experiences in a concept, as a kind of shorthand, to provide meaning and inform action.

An emotional category such as “Anger” is merely a concept that we use, with the aid of language and a probabilistic assessment of past experiences, to understand a variety of experiences in the present. Just as our concepts of color guide us to see only seven colors of the rainbow despite the many frequencies within each color category, we recognize emotions only as much as our constructed concepts allow. These concepts are basically our best guesses at what is going on in any particular moment, so that we can figure out how to deal with it to stay alive and well.

Because the body is just another part of the world that the brain must explain, our emotions may be telling us as much about what is going on within us as much as what is going on around us. With our limited amount of energy resources, the brain must constantly use past experience to predict the body’s need for these resources, and to budget accordingly. When the budget is unbalanced, the state of that budget is felt, prompting the brain to search for explanations. This may then be conceptualized as an emotional experience. Misinterpreting the reason for a bad feeling can lead to mistakes. For example, judges are more likely to deny parole for hearings that occur just before lunchtime.

The author makes some recommendations for keeping your body budget as balanced as possible, i.e., with a solid foundation so the budget is easier to maintain and to keep you feeling generally well. The suggestions include:
  • Exercise (Consider yoga, which includes a beneficial combination of physical activity and slow-paced breathing)
  • Engage with books, movies, or other forms of storytelling (Involvement with others’ stories helps to avoid rumination)
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Get a good amount of sleep
  • Surround yourself with greenery and natural light
  • Practice giving and gratitude
With emotional well being so closely tied to success in school and in life, and with emotions so inextricably linked to our physical states, it is wise to take good care of our bodies and minds, and to tend closely to the emotions we construct.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Podcasts: Part Two

Our last post shared some of our favorite podcasts for elementary school students. Today, we continue our list with selections for students in middle and high school. Like our prior list, these are all free and are terrific ways to entertain while building knowledge and vocabulary. We suspect parents will enjoy them just as much as their kids!

For Middle School and Up

RadioLab – Episodes are usually just under a hour long.

Originally created as a science podcast, Radiolab has evolved into an edge-of-your-seat ode to curiosity. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich present entertaining, profound explanations for natural, social, medical, and cultural phenomena (organ donation, genes and genetic mutation, animal research, sports, hunting, the elements, criminal justice…) all around us.

TED Talks – Episodes are usually between 7 and 15 minutes long.

TED has something for everyone. Topics cover the arts and sciences, innovation and philosophy, entertainment and history, and many, many more. Their relatively short runtime is also a plus; most can be enjoyed on the way to school.

The Allusionist – Episodes are about 20 minutes long.

This podcast is a fun romp through the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Episodes delve into topics teens will find interesting, like cursing and accents.

For High School

Freakonomics Radio – Episodes range from 30 to 45 minutes.

The hosts of this entertaining, irreverent show look for explanations for things you never knew you wondered about (but are captivated by the moment the episode begins). Recent shows explore questions like how to do the most social good with $100, why gluten has been demonized, languages and Esperanto, brain damage among N.F.L. players.

Intelligence Squared – episodes are about an hour long.

The premise of this podcast is simple: a motion (e.g. “Dating Apps have Killed Romance”; “Pay College Athletes”; “The U.S. Health Care System is Terminally Broken”) is introduced and the audience votes, indicating whether they agree, disagree, or are unsure. Then four experts on the topic, two who support the motion and two who oppose it, debate with each other and field questions from the audience. At the end of the show, the audience votes again, and the side that changed the most minds wins. The debate among listeners is likely to continue long after the episode is over!

More Perfect – Episodes range from a little over 30 minutes to just under an hour.

Brought to you by the brilliant creators of RadioLab (see above), More Perfect explores the Supreme Court, covering its history, its impact on current events, and the impact it may have on our country in the future. More Perfect is hip, entertaining, and addictive.

This American Life – episodes are about an hour long.

This is one of the best podcasts around. TAL’s journalists present a series of stories each week that all revolve around a current, relevant, theme. Some are humorous, some are poignant, all are thought-provoking. A few of our favorite shows have featured the outcome on group of convicts at a maximum security prison when they learn and perform Hamlet; the ups and downs of union membership for a group of employees at a car factory; sleepwalking; obesity in America; and, hilariously, a policeman frantically trying to catch a squirrel.
How Stuff Works – episodes generally run from 20 to 35 minutes.

The How Stuff Works website features a rabbit hole of fascinating videos and articles, too, but its selection of podcasts will keep fans busy and informed on the go, too. There are a number of categories, including Stuff You Missed in History Class (genuinely interesting tales your teacher probably didn’t have time to get into); Stuff You Should Know (a grab bag of topics including current events, historical tidbits, politics, environmental issues, and many more); and the fascinating Stuff to Blow Your Mind (recent episodes explore why you shouldn’t drink seawater, meditation, Tetris syndrome, and grisly ancient neurosurgery).

Monday, January 22, 2018

Podcasts: Plug In!

For families on the go, podcasts can be a great way to make any time a time for learning. Play a podcast during chore time (it will make folding laundry or loading the dishwasher feel enjoyable – really!), the morning drive to school, or through headphones when your child must wait to see the doctor or dentist.

We’re sharing some of our favorite podcasts, organized by the age of the intended listener. Today’s post lists our choices for elementary school children; later this week, we’ll share our selections for students in middle and high school. All will sneakily build vocabulary and background knowledge while they entertain the whole family. And, happily, all are free.

Podcasts for Elementary School

Short and Curly – Episodes are about 20 minutes long

This rather strangely named podcast explores kid-friendly ethical questions (“Do you have to love your sibling?” “Are some lies OK?” “Is it ever OK to fight back against a bully?”) that will get young minds churning.

The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified – Episodes are around 10 minutes long

Radio journalist Eleanor travels to locations as ordinary as the gym and the breakfast table and as exotic as Congress and outer space as she follows scoops. Her adventures are enjoyable and enlightening.

Tumble – Episodes are just under 20 minutes long.

Small scientists will love learning about scientific topics like Antarctic dinosaurs, Mars, deep-sea creatures, parasites, and more from experts and researchers.

The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd – Episodes range from 6 to 15 minutes.

Follow the adventures of the World's Most Brilliant Scientist, Dr. Floyd as he tries to thwart the plans of his evil arch nemesis, Dr. Steve. All the while Dr. Floyd (and listeners) learn about the people and events that shaped the history of the Earth. This podcast has been described as a mix between Rocky & Bullwinkle and Mystery Science Theater 3000 with an educational spin.

For great stories, check out Storynory (tales are a little more than 20 minutes long) and the Stories Podcast (tales are around 15 minutes long).

Friday, January 19, 2018

Books for Young Children

A number of years ago, we looked at a program called, A Book on Every Bed, which was designed to encourage families celebrating Christmas to leave a book on every child's bed, so that he or she would wake up Christmas morning with the special gift of a book.

Even though Christmas has come and gone this year, we were reminded of this initiative just yesterday, when your blogger "played hooky" and took a one-day trip from New York to Washington D.C. to spend time with her new grandson.

This baby is surrounded by books. They are part of his life long before he can even speak, let alone read. His parents have been the beneficiaries of numerous gifts of books - classics they recall from their own childhoods and new books that are destined to be classics in years to come. They have started reading to him even though he is only a few weeks old.

But too many children aren't as fortunate. We know that reading to and with children builds crucial skills that stay with children as they grow and develop. That's why we have been big fans of the national nonprofit organization, Reach Out and Read (ROAR), which we have written about before. Building on the fact that over 90 percent of young children are seen in a pediatric practice at least once a year, ROAR provides training to doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners in how to talk to parents about the importance of reading to their children; how to demonstrate to parents how to interact with their children while reading - including cuddling and setting reading routines; and then gives a new book to each child to take home and keep.

If your child lives a life rich in books and reading, you may want to learn more about  Reach Out and Read, and express your gratitude by helping a less fortunate child to know the same joy of books and the benefits that reading brings.

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

Friday, January 12, 2018

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Over the years, we've written about sleep countless times. But one question that many families who come to The Yellin Center ask is just how much sleep is appropriate for students at different ages.

The National Sleep Foundation recently put together an expert panel, consisting of members of the American Academy of Pediatrics and 11 other groups, as well as half a dozen individual sleep experts. The panel reviewed existing literature and came up with recommendations for various age groups as follows:
  • Newborns (0-3 months)             14-17 hours per day
  • Infants (4-11 months)                12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years)                   11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years)            10-13 hours
  • School age (6-13 years)               9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years)               8-10 hours
  • Adults (18-64 years)                     7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65 years +)              7-8 hours
The panel noted, "Importantly, ... some individuals might sleep longer or shorter than the recommended times with no adverse effects. However, individuals with sleep durations far outside the normal range may be engaging in volitional sleep restriction or have serious health problems. An individual who intentionally restricts sleep over a prolonged period may be compromising his or her health and well-being."

There are variations in how much sleep children and adults need to thrive. But if your child -- or you -- is consistently sleeping outside these general guidelines, it could have an impact on learning and health, or be a symptom of an underlying medical issue. In either case, it is worth discussing with your physician. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

Last year, we wrote about research supporting a way to manage emails while managing stress. Tending to our internal needs while interacting with the external world has become a particularly challenging and important task as technology has increasingly saturated our daily realities. With smartphones vibrating in our pockets, lighting up next to our beds, and dinging at us from our desks, it can be easy to feel as if we are owned by technology rather than vice versa.

With so many distractors competing for our attention, and with attention being so vital for completing the tasks consistent with our goals and desires, we find ourselves in a historically unique predicament. Of course, while there wasn’t Facebook to check or text messages to respond to in the past, distraction was always a part of life. For example, one of our oldest ancestors might have been foraging for food when suddenly there was a rustle in the trees signaling a nearby predator. This would trigger a shift in focus away from the original goal (finding food) to a more pressing need for survival (escaping the predator). Illustrated in this example is that distractibility can actually be adaptive, which is precisely the reason it evolved. It is therefore important to remember that the key to optimal attention is not to avoid or somehow rid of distractibility, but to modulate our focus in the best way.

Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen emphasize this in their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. They present a wealth of interesting research regarding the brain, its cognitive feats and limitations when it comes to attention, our behaviors as they relate to focus and distractibility, and the impact of constantly shifting our attention as technology beckons. Finally, they suggest ways to take control and maximize your productivity and general well-being in the face of so much technological buzzing.

We appreciate and recommend this book, not just as professionals who work with many students struggling with attention, but as imperfect, self-reflective people who are always looking to understand ourselves better and improve the allocation of our own attentional resources. Perhaps you can challenge yourself to put the smartphone down and give it a read!

Friday, January 5, 2018


It's early January, and most of us are still working on our New Year's resolutions. Even if most of these promises to ourselves won't last the month, there is one easy fix for making life easier that might just stick longer - perhaps even permanently. 

Whether you are a harried parent, an educator, or a student, a simple white board can bring big benefits in helping to keep track of everything from shopping lists, to homework, to important dates. The key to making a white board an effective tool is size - the bigger the better - and prominence. Tucking your white board behind a door or in a corner will not be anywhere near as helpful as putting a large board of at least two or three feet in diameter smack in the middle of your room, your classroom, your office, or your kitchen.

You don't even have to have an actual board. There are now whiteboard or dry erase paints, that can transform any wall area to a white board. But you do need to keep erasable markers in a variety of colors (the better to catch your attention) nearby, as well as an eraser. And some boards are also magnetized, so magnetic clips will allow you to post fliers and reminders. Just don't overcrowd your board so that reminders get lost in the clutter.
It should draw your eye to its reminders and messages every time you pass by. And what if you don't really want to have everyone see that you have a doctor's appointment next Thursday? Use initials or other abbreviations that mean something to you but can still keep your essential information private.

What about electronic reminders and calendars? Aren't they more helpful? They are helpful and can be lifesavers for folks on the go. But the whiteboard is not intended to replace them, only to supplement them. Further, a whiteboard  can be seen by everyone in your household, so they are terrific for  such reminders as "Thursday is recycling pickup" or "Turn down the heat before you leave for the day".

Some other uses we recommend for the students with whom we work include:
  • Use a whiteboard to create a timeline for homework tasks, setting out when these will be done 
  • Create a checklist of tasks to accomplish each day, or each week. Cross off each assignment or responsibility when it is completed. For students who have difficulty breaking large tasks into their component parts and having a sense of accomplishing each step in the process, this visual reminder of progress can be extremely valuable
  • Putting "to bring" lists out in the open for each student in the family (and for parents, too) can help family members remind one another about things to take with them when leaving for the day. "Joe, did you bring your sneakers for gym?" "Mom, I need my permission slip signed. Did you give it back to me?" 
Our whiteboard has the message "Blog on Friday" written at the top. We can cross it off now ... and hope that our reminder has been helpful to you too.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Scratch Programming and Community

More than 23 million users sharing almost 28 million projects gives some small idea of the popularity of Scratch, which describes itself as "a programming language and an online community where children can program and share interactive media such as stories, games, and animation with people from all over the world."

A project of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, Scratch was recently celebrated in Ed., the Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on the occasion of Scratch's 10th anniversary. When children were asked to share what they would tell a friend about Scratch, the top 10 responses included such terms as "excitement", "imagination", and "possibilities".

The developers of Scratch aim to help children -- generally from ages 8 to 16, although there is a version for younger children, ages 5-7, available as a free app called ScratchJr. -- "think creatively, work collaboratively, and reason systematically." There is no charge to use Scratch.

In addition to information for parents about Scratch, to enable them to understand how it works and to explain the guidelines of the Scratch community, the folks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have created an online community for educators, ScratchEd, to enable them to share resources and stories. Scratch is a resource worth checking out.