Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Brain Basics, Part One: The Power of Visualization

Understanding how the brain works can go a long way to maximizing its potential.

My last article focused, oddly enough…on focus—namely, how to help gifted students who are easily distracted by outside stimuli. Those of you with easily distracted students or children of your own know what I am talking about: you ask him to get out his homework papers and, on his way to the backpack, he finds the cat who simply has to be held. You ask her to help you unload the dishwasher and, midway through the top tier, she has noticed a chip on one of the bowls and is soon sketching a “dish protection system” on a spare napkin. I received quite a few emails regarding this article (most of them in the “Amen, can I get a witness!” category) but several readers wanted to better understand why these sorts of distractions occurred. They were interested, as one reader put it, in precisely “how the brain works so that these outside stimuli become so distracting for some, but not for others.”

This is a topic that fascinates me and has for some years. I have attended conferences about the brain and learning, given talks, workshops and even written articles such as this one about it. So, on this occasion, without too much heady discussion (pardon the pun) or too much medical school jargon I will attempt to distill some of the essentials about how the brain works when it comes to learning with—and hopefully without—distractions. Knowing some of these basics, as it turns out, can be quite helpful when it comes to helping your gifted child (or student) better focus and subsequently retain and type of information. We begin with understanding that…

How the brain best learns and retains information is dependent upon understanding how it works to process all of the information that enters it. No two kinds of stimuli are the same. Exactly how the brain sorts and “makes sense” of that data, scientists are discovering, is a critical component in the learning process. For example, the temperature of a room, whether it is hot or cold, is information to which the brain and body must respond. To complicate this task is the fact that, at that very same moment that the brain and body are assimilating and coping with that stimulus, there may be a teacher, say, in that very room who is sharing curricular content. (Alternatively, perhaps, a parent may be telling his child the day’s schedule or giving a set of directions to follow.) But whether that “input” is the steps in solving two-variable equations or the task of cleaning up ones room before leaving for soccer practice, it is still information that needs to be processed independently of all other external stimuli.

Competitions for such sensory and cognitive processing are always at play. Fortunately, the brain has developed structures that assist in these complicated tasks. The following descriptions give examples of some of the key structures in the brain and, although it might appear as if their functions are clear-cut and quantifiable, please keep in mind that they are not. The brain is the most complicated three-pound piece of hardware known to man so that to convey its abilities and functions on paper with a few words is, frankly, hardly even possible. What follows instead are the broad strokes that might be used to describe the general function of brain’s processing centers.

Frontal lobe – located behind what most of us consider to be our foreheads, this section of the brain is responsible for, among many other actions, our ability to use higher-level thinking skills. It where calculations are processed, decisions are made, and critical thinking tasks are harnessed.

Temporal lobes – located on either side of the head, just above the ears, these sections hold memory.

Parietal lobes – running along the top of the head, on both the right and left sides, these structures provide the body feedback for pain, pressure, and touch.

Occipital lobe- located at the back of the head, this section occupies some 20% of the brain’s overall capacity and is responsible for vision and being able to visualize scenes never actually witnessed before. The occipital lobe, among others, is highly engaged when a child reads a story in which there are no pictures, only words to foster the imagination of the book’s events.

Amygdala – this tiny structure located in roughly the center of the brain is the seat of emotion. The amygdala also has effects on the way memories are stored. Interestingly, this part of the brain is highly active in adolescents as they enter puberty. (Trust me here: there is so much to say about the role of the amygdala in adolescent behavior and cognition that this one piece of the brain is worthy of its own future article.)

So what?, you might be asking yourself. How can a parent or a teacher make this knowledge about the brain’s structure useful in the retention of information or the battle against distractions? Well, for today, we’ll focus harnessing the power of the occipital lobe in particular. But first, try investigating its power by considering these scenarios yourself:

Do you remember where you were when you heard news that the Trade Centers in New York City were attacked?

Imagine: You are standing in, say, your bedroom when you think of an object you need in, perhaps, the basement. You go down there to get the item and find yourself suddenly standing there wondering, “What did I come down here for?” Frustrated, you march back up to the bedroom and suddenly, boom!, the item you needed comes back to mind!

You are taking a test and get to a question whose answer you are quite sure you know. As you think about it, you can even visualize where you had taken notes about that answer in your class notebook. It might have been on the right-hand side of the book, in the upper right-hand corner…. Or maybe you read an article in a magazine and you want to share it with a friend. You grab the magazine and start rifling through the pages, looking only at the right-hand pages, specifically the ones that were near an ad for some clothing line that featured a handsome man wearing a suit.

Experiences like these are common to nearly all individuals for one very simple reason: the brain likes, even craves, visual images. Central to all three examples above is that of visualization:

You recall that you were in the office coffee room when you heard about September 11th;

Once back in your bedroom you were reminded of the item you needed in the basement because the visual cues of that bedroom—the items that literally surrounded you when you initially thought of that much needed tool—brought the idea back to you;

You need the information to answer the test question—or to find that magazine article for your friend—and what does your brain do to help? It gives you a picture of your class notebook… or of that Gucci ad on the right hand side!

Fostering visualization of any content (curricular or otherwise) by targeting and using the occipital lobe as the central point of processing the information is one of the strongest ways to help that material enter the brain… and stay there even as external stimuli compete for attention. To this end, the following suggestions might assist teachers and parents alike as each seeks ways to help children assimilate instructions or content.

Fill the space with visual stimulus. Teachers, make use of educational posters; put them up and refer to them; have students create posters, magazines, dioramas, models, webpages, etc. to foster further understanding of the content. Parents, make a visual diagram of what has to be done every morning (make the bed, place dirty clothes in the hamper, make breakfast, etc.) and place it on the refrigerator where it is clear and easy to see. Use pictures as well as words on your To-Do list.

Use videos or television programs to show hard-to-reach places or hard-to-find examples of concepts. Teachers, if you are studying the ocean, for example, but live in Kansas, you might consult the rich resources of National Geographic to help give students images of things they have never have seen before. Parents, similarly, if you are trying to explain where you are going to pick your child up after soccer practice, draw a simple map. Place an X on it. If there is a certain way you’d like to help the child organize his assorted toys in the room, make a diagram and label it.

Create "word walls." Teachers, write key vocabulary to a unit on sentence strips and tape these to the wall. Again, when you use the terms in oral discussion, refer to the words on the wall. Encourage students to add words as well. Parents, do the same! If there is a certain way you want your child to answer the phone or take messages (that she might forget to tell you later), place a script of sorts near the phone for her to refer to.

Be artistic. This one works for parents and teachers alike: whenever possible, try to express concepts in a visual manner. Graphic organizers, mind-mapping, and flow-charts are all brain-friendly ways to represent content. Pull out books, show pictures of your topic; ask kids to imagine or envision being there.

Try “teaching” in a different location. Teachers, do you always stand at the front of the room at the Active Board? Parents, do you always talk about homework or backpack organization at the kitchen table? Move about a bit! Try reorienting yourself so that material is taught (or the directions are shared) from a unique place. Go outside to complete worksheets; march to the back of the room, ask the students to turn around to see you, and repeat important facts there; make a point of being unique and unusual in where you teach or have your child think.

Give lots of examples. Teachers and parents, keep in mind that abstract concepts, like the notion of courage (or, ahem “personal responsibility”) may be hard, even for a gifted child, to visualize. In these cases, give examples of what you mean to back up your concepts. What were examples in The Red Badge of Courage where the main character showed courage? What does a responsible or organized person act like?

It is true that the brain’s structure and chemistry have remained fairly stable, unchanged over the centuries; but what is unique to us at this point in time is the depth to which we understand the nuances of this complex organ. We as teachers and parents are at a pivotal point in time now wherein the apexes of both educational theory and brain research just might overlap. Making use of these understandings, that is actually “applying the science to the art” of teaching and parenting, is what will, in the end, help our children be able to take the next grand steps on their own.

Next Article: “The Amygdala and Adolescence”

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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