How to Make Kids Smarter and Ease Existential Terror

Scientific American
How to Make Kids Smarter and Ease Existential Terror
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The menu for Cogmed working memory games. Courtesy of NCS Pearson.

A few months ago, I logged on to Lumosity.com to play my daily dose of brain games. The company had given me a free, temporary account so that I could try out their system as part of my research for an article I was writing on brain training. My then 11-year-old son wanted to play, too. It looked like fun, he thought. Plus, he liked the idea that the training might make him smarter. But I had been tracking my progress--and yes, steadily improving my performance--through my own account and I didn't want his scores meshed with mine. (If he upped my scores, I might never log a personal best again!)

So then he asked me for his own Lumosity account. Although I didn't agree right away, it wasn't a bad idea. A subscription isn't terribly expensive and the games are not time-consuming or arduous. What is more, some data suggest that kids' brains may benefit from playing games like those on the Lumosity site, as I report in the May Scientific American Mind (see "Brain Games Aim to Make Kids Smarter").

Like brain training for adults, the version for kids typically involves computer-based exercises designed to sharpen key mental aptitudes: reasoning, attention, self-regulation or working (short-term) memory. School does this anyway, of course, but most classroom lessons and assignments are largely in the service of teaching knowledge and skills. They depend on working memory, attention and reasoning (and thereby stretch them to some extent), but aren't geared toward burnishing these essential aptitudes.

Much of the push toward brain training in education is aimed at students who need it most--that is, those with learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia or dyscalculia. At the extreme, I visited a school called Eaton Arrowsmith in Vancouver for such children where the curriculum involves brain-remediation exercises for 80 percent of the day. It is like rehab for struggling young brains. After a few years of this rehab, kids go back to regular school, presumably better able to learn the regular material. The regimen seems to work for at least some kids, but the data is anecdotal.

Most of the programs that provide mental calisthenics to children are far less intensive and time-consuming. Kids might go to a resource room or practice at home for 20 minutes to an hour at a stretch several times a week. The results in are generally promising, but preliminary and, in some cases, mixed. And it isn't yet clear to what extent ordinary, non learning-disabled students benefit. But the idea is catching on, and even if brain exercises help only certain children, some time doing them may be worthwhile. So maybe I will let my kid give it a try--when he has time--although he is not the sort who desperately needs it.

Lessons in Fairness

Learning issues are not the only problem in education. Some young people are able, but unmotivated and dishonest. Cheating is a widespread problem in schools. One survey revealed that 75 percent of 1,800 students at state universities said they cheated on exams or assignments, as Mind reports in its current cover story (see "Why We Cheat," by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall).

Cheating is widespread in other endeavors, too, including science and sports. The story explores the reasons, which include fear of loss, social contagion and a talent for rationalizing minor instances of dishonesty. Solutions include better monitoring and policing--in the form of honor code reminders, radar speed signs and technology to detect doping by athletes. Doling out more severe punishments for cheating is less effective than boosting surveillance, research shows.

Another possible solution the authors propose is to introduce ethics instruction in schools, especially colleges, to create a culture that is more explicitly antagonistic toward deceptive behavior. But I can't help but wonder if parents could contribute as well. Cheating in different realms may have different motivations, but in education, it runs against what I always thought was its fundamental point: to learn. As parents, if we emphasize grades and scores as what matters rather than learning, we are sculpting minds that might cheat themselves out of knowledge because of a need to "succeed" or fear of failure. And they will cheat society of advances if they later become scientists who pursue accolades at the expense of truth.

When I was young, my father encouraged me to take very difficult courses, if they interested me, even when, despite a lot of hard work, it might be virtually impossible for me to get an A. If I learned something, my time was well spent, he assured me. What he didn't want--what seemed to almost disgust him--was the idea of picking an easy class to earn an easy A, but learning little or nothing. That wasn't cheating, exactly, but the attitude he promoted was inconsistent with any benefit that cheating might bring, because the goal he emphasized was learning and growing, not the score or the grade. It is a hard rule to follow, especially for people who need outside affirmation for various purposes, including their own self-esteem. But the more we focus on our own growth as people, the more honest and fair we will be. I have nothing against the schools taking part in this process, but I think this type of education can also occur at home and at a very early age.

Lessons in Life

Of course, even the smartest and most honest people can become crippled by existential crises, especially following a devastating diagnosis. I didn't fully realize the extent or duration of such issues until I read the article in this latest issue of Mind by Erica Rex (see "Hallucinogens Could Ease Existential Terror").

Rex describes the depression and fear she endured following a breast cancer diagnosis. Even after the cancer seemed to have been successfully treated, she remained paralyzed by misery and dread. She finds a way out of that emotional briar patch in a surprising manner: through the use of the hallucinogen psilocybin.

Hallucinogens are making a clinical comeback as a way to address the feelings of worthlessness and sense of foreboding that can come with serious illnesses. Psychotherapy alone is not very effective as a treatment for those facing death. Psilocybin, however, can be--and works after only one or two doses. The author's participation in a clinical trial of the drug significantly stifled her worries about the future. The powerful imagery she experienced helped guide her toward a more expansive view of the world and a more compassionate outlook on herself. Researchers are hoping that hallucinogens can help people facing a variety of end-of-life issues as well as other types of mental illnesses.

Although hallucinogens are potent and potentially dangerous, I can imagine their use being justified under circumstances like those Rex describes. A new study led by psychologist Daniel Randles at the University of British Columbia in Canada suggests that a much milder drug--acetaminophen--can also help treat existential dread. In Randles' study, people were made to focus on death by writing about what would happen to their body after they die. These were not individuals facing the sort of terrifying reality Rex had had to confront, but preoccupied with scary thoughts that can plague anyone. I'd venture to guess that this OTC painkiller would not provide much relief to patients in Rex's shoes. But if your angst seems to sprout up suddenly, for no particular reason, and if your situation is not truly dire, Tylenol might help you harness it. It's easier to get--and safer.

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