Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity

Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.

It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.

You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:

Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?

The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.

You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.

Can Videogames Actually Be Good For You?

By Ryan Hoff, Kasey Kendall, Harrison Smith, and Gabriela Moriel
Games and Learning
We’ve all heard people say that video games are increasingly violent and have a negative impact on kids’ behavior. But video games can actually be beneficial to a child’s development!

Video games are used in almost every classroom setting in the United States. Many games, like Math Blaster and Star Fall, focus on promoting students’ cognitive development and strengthening problem-solving skills.

Even seemingly non-educational games such as Sonic the Hedgehog have found their way into the classroom where students play the game in order to better understand Odysseus’ journey home. Playing an adventure game like Sonic the Hedgehog where the player must complete a series of missions or tasks and overcome various obstacles, students can learn not only by simply reading the Odyssey but also by interactively participating in their own quest.

Professors are even proposing the idea of developing a new public school with a game-centered curriculum, as this Christian Science Monitor article Video Games Start to Shape Classroom Curriculum states. Katie Salen, an associate professor of design and technology at the Parsons School of Design, describes this new approach:

“Kids are challenged to step into identities—mathematicians, scientists. They are immersed in and interdisciplinary setting, and instead of completing units, they go on a series of missions or quests, each of which has a goal.”

The Development of Interactive Video Games

The progression of interactivity throughout the history of video games plays a central role in current research of the potential benefits of video games. As video games have become more interactive over time (especially in the last decade), they have increasingly become a medium for the development of cognitive and problem-solving skills.

Continue reading “Can Videogames Actually Be Good For You?”

What’s the Dope on Music and Drugs?

Record Player
But in the long run these drugs are probably gonna catch up sooner or later
But fuck it I’m on one, so let’s enjoy,
let that X destroy your spinal chord, so it’s not a straight line no more
So we walk around lookin like some wind-up dolls,
shit stickin out of our backs like a dinosaur,
Shit, six hit’s won’t even get me high no more,
so bye for now, I’m gonna try to find some more

– Eminem, Drug Ballad

Drug strewn lyrics and references are found in much of today’s popular music. What effect do these words have on the average listener? Would you let your 10 year old listen to this? Why not… they’re just lyrics right?

School House Rock: Monkey Hear, Monkey Do?
John Markert: Two Schools of Thought

1) Reflection Theory : “Music is popular because it reflects the values and beliefs of those who consume it.” Proponents of Reflection Theory examine cultural forms such as music lyrics to gain insight into social beliefs. Here music is used to probe the connection between society and culture. Supporters of this intellectual tradition see the audience consuming with a critical eye, selecting songs because the theme relate to them and their world.
2) Arnoldian Theory : “Music is didactic and acts as a socializing agent by teaching behavior.” The concern by those at the other end of the intellectual tradition is that song lyrics may teach inappropriate social behavior. Mathew Arnold laid the foundation for this perspective in the last century, and his initial assessment continues to remain popular.

This is where the real debate can begin. Are the music and lyrics of songs with drug, alcohol, sex, and violence references putting adolescents at a greater risk of alcohol and drug use? Or is it simply the culture that these songs and music are created and engulfed in?

Pros and Cons of the Two Schools

One can make a case for both opposing ideologies. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the music and general lyrics can influence adolescents into using drugs and alcohol. For example, when browsing for songs that contain any type of alcohol or drug reference it is not hard to find hundreds of songs that contain one if not both. “White Lines”, “Fight for Your Right to Light the Bong,” and “Crack Monster” are just a few of the songs that diminish the dangers and actually commemorate the use of drugs and alcohol.

Continue reading “What’s the Dope on Music and Drugs?”

Raising IQ: Nicholas Kristof Meets Richard Nisbett

Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed today, How to Raise Our I.Q. He opens with a standard version of the individual meritocracy argument, that IQ is largely inherited:

Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics. After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong.

Kristof cites Richard Nisbett’s new book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. I covered some of Nisbett’s work in the post IQ, Environment and Anthropology, and Jim Holt gave a strong review of the book recently in the NY Times. The publisher’s home page simply says that this book is a “bold refutation of the belief that genes determine intelligence.”

Continue reading “Raising IQ: Nicholas Kristof Meets Richard Nisbett”

Fear of Twitter: technophobia part 2

When I was a lifeguard in high school, two of my fellow lifeguards — Steve and Pete — sought to converse as much as possible quoting directly lines from the Chevy Chase movie, Fletch. This is what qualified as comedy. Steve was apparently the ‘more clever’ of the two as he probably achieved Fletch Quotation Ratios as high as 20%; Pete, though quite well tanned, likely only managed 10% FQR at best. I hadn’t seen the movie, and I was never much for quoting film scripts (not even Monty Python), so I assumed that Steve’s high FQR was either a symptom of premature senility or a sign of the impending collapse of Western civilization.

Recent fears about the negative cognitive consequences of the social networking site Twitter, which I mentioned in an earlier post, Is Facebook rotting our children’s brains?, led me to recall Steve and Pete’s battle for high FQR. In both cases, concerned observers might wonder whether patterns of mental activity can lead to long-term neural degeneration; I haven’t checked in on Steve or Pete in more than 20 years, but I suspect they’re both locked in institutions living out a cruel Chevy Chase imitation from which they can no longer escape.

Twitter, even more than other Internet-based social networking applications, seems to provoke apocalyptic fears of mass mental degradation. Over at Alternet, for example, Alexander Zaitchik asked Twitter Nation Has Arrived: How Scared Should We Be? In the piece, Zaitchik wonders whether what was ‘once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls’ was bringing about the apotheosis of all that is loathsome in American pop culture: ‘look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity.’ Rob Horning of Pop Matters warns about ‘Twitterification’ in a piece titled, Foucault’s Facebook. Keith Olbermann named Twitter ‘worst person in the world,’ …for the one episode at least (see video at You Tube); Olbermann found someone already Twittering in his name, even using his email address. And if you’re not already convinced that Twitter is the unmentioned fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, John Mayer’s Twitter obsession is blamed for Jennifer Aniston pulling the pin on their relationship.

Fortunately, even if we are on the non-stop plane to cognitive Armageddon, Web 2.0 assures us that we will have clever guerilla videos about our own immanent destruction as our in-flight entertainment. From SuperNews, we have a helpful cartoon, ‘The Twouble with Twitters’, to explain to us ‘the latest socially networking micro-bloggy thingy,’ especially if you’re a slow-on-the-uptake parent not sufficiently worried about adolescent technology use (are there any?).

More after the jump…
Continue reading “Fear of Twitter: technophobia part 2”

The Insidious, Elusive Becoming: Addiction in Four Steps


Trying to describe the process of becoming an alcoholic is like trying to describe air. It’s too big and mysterious and pervasive to be defined… [T]here is no simple reason it happens, no single moment, no physiological event that pushes a heavy drinker across a concrete line into alcoholism. It’s a slow, gradual, insidious, elusive becoming.

-Caroline Knapp

Caroline Knapp wrote those lines near the beginning of her powerful memoir Drinking: A Love Story. Every year I use this book in my class on addiction. Students get drawn into Knapp’s clear and close account of how she began to drink so much, what it is like to be an alcoholic, and how she managed to get to recovery. Every year the book challenges my own thinking as well.

I used that last line—alcoholism as a slow, gradual, insidious, elusive becoming—to end my earlier post on Subjectivity and Addiction: Moving Beyond Just the Disease Model. There I argued that our two views of addiction, a popular one of getting hooked on things and a serious one about tolerance and destructive use, are crucial to understanding what addiction is.

For each category my class stuck up exemplars on the blackboard, from Facebook to hard-core drugs. Then I drew a between the two categories, using a thick two-headed arrow to indicate that the subjective and biological views interact. Both sides matter.

But I’ve realized that is not enough. That double-sided arrow remains woefully inadequate, a place marker that can end being two-faced, saying nothing of consequence, or double-edged, used simply to cut into the other side. That one symbol tells us little about the interactions themselves, about how people and disease mesh. It lends no insight into what Knapp shows us with her book—that addiction is an elusive and terrible becoming.

So how do you become an alcoholic or addict? How do you go from something fun to something all-encompassing? This question matters deeply. One fact, often overlooked in all the moral angst about addiction, is that most people who try alcohol or drugs do not end up addicted to them. They remain on the popular side. But some cross over. In the same passage as the opening quote, Knapp describes the end point: “Alcohol is everywhere in your life, omnipresent, and you’re both aware and unaware of it almost all the time; all you know is you’d die without it, and there is no simple reason why this happens… (8)”

Continue reading “The Insidious, Elusive Becoming: Addiction in Four Steps”