Saturday, March 6, 2010

Are You in Sync?

Yesterday, I spent the day at a small conference at the Media Lab at MIT. The conference of about sixteen people brought together Artificial Intelligence researchers at MIT with practitioners who work with various forms of psychological disorder, the premise being that it's sometimes easier to learn about something when it's not working than when it is working. So, you had the AI guys, the practitioners and, um, me.

We Walk, Therefore We Think
The first speaker was a practitioner focused on child development. He gave an amazing presentation that began with the origins of man and ended with the current epidemic of childhood challenges such as ADHD and Autism. He compressed a few day's worth of presentations into just a bit over an hour speaking at a rate that required no Adderall on my part.

He explained that the reason humans developed the brains that we have is primarily due to evolutionary forces driving improved mobility in open areas (highly mobile mammals survive on the savanna while less mobile mammals don't). Our need for improved mobility led to bipedalism (walking on two feet) which in turn required significant development of our brains to manage the complex and coordinated movement of muscles defying gravity.

He went on to explain that our brains are not different because of their size, but instead, because of their structure and the structure of our broader neurological systems. The brain consumes significant resources; in order for bipedalism to work, it had to be done efficiently. If our brains were consumed providing real-time, always-on motor coordination of all the muscles required to walk or run on two feet, then bipedalism would have quickly gone the way of the duck-billed platypus.

To walk more efficiently, our bodies developed in a way that allows for independent operation of various systems and muscle groups. Rather than communicating all the time with every single muscle required to walk, the brain communicates between 10 and 15 times per second with various muscle groups effectively shutting down in between communications sessions. Efficient! To us it all appears to be continuous and fluid, but in fact it's just a sequence of discrete events (think of frames of a movie playing at about 30 frames per second).

Of course, for all this to work, everything has to be synchronized. It's no good if every time the brain wakes up to issue the next command, the muscle groups are busy doing their thing, or if the muscle groups looking for the next action find a sleeping brain. So, our neurological systems developed a clocking mechanism of sorts that keeps everything in sync, until it doesn't.

Out of Sync
The independent but synchronized operation of various components of our neurological and motor systems extends to other systems such as our sensory systems and even to communication and coordination of various independent regions of the brain. When everything is in sync, it works great; but when we loose synchronization, different challenges occur such as autism, ADHD and schizophrenia. These challenges are not attributable to a damaged brain, just to a brain that lacks synchronization and coordination (think good employees, bad management).

If a child has challenges with various forms of sensory stimuli (e.g. bright lights or loud noises or touching and hugs), it's not a problem with his his sensory receptors (his eyes or ears or skin) and it's not a problem with the regions of his brain that process the information. Instead, the problem lies in the coordination of the various receptors and the various processing centers. With poor synchronization, you get the mental equivalent of trying to walk with uncoordinated muscle groups.

Getting in Sync
So, if many challenges we face are due to poor synchronization of various systems and various regions of our brains, what do we do to improve synchronization? Essentially, we conduct activities that stimulate and challenge the systems that are out of sync (think of working on a set of weaker muscles in order to stimulate and develop them.)

For example, if a person were to experience a stroke leaving his right arm paralyzed or impaired, research has shown that the most effective treatment would involve restraining his left arm so that he can't use it. Similarly, if a child is not able to process non-verbal communications, you would want to focus on communicating (perhaps exclusively) non-verbally.

Of course we needn't take on the challenge head-on in order to stimulate development. We can work via any number of modes to stimulate growth and development. For example, there appears to be a significant relationship between postural and cognitive abilities in ADHD. Rather than working on ADHD, we could work on exercises focused on posture and mobility. It's all connected.

As we talked about these approaches, one of the psychiatrists brought up concerns regarding self-esteem, i.e., if we work exclusively on a child's weaknesses, won't that lead to poor self-esteem? The answer was simple. Approach all activities in a positive, enthusiastic and celebratory manner. Although the target of the activity the challenge or weakness, the manner of the activity is upbeat and happy.

Of course, I'm a neophyte who's just taken a few days of expert presentation compressed into a few hours of discussion and now compressed it into a few lines of blog. One of the books recommended at the conference is Disconnected Kids by Dr. Robert Melillo.

Happy synchronizing!


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