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Body language: who is your audience? 

We tend to think of body language in terms of the non-verbal communication that we share with one another. We think of people who have difficulty understanding non-verbal communication, and wonder whether this has to do with their ability to notice changes in another person’s facial expression or posture. Perhaps they notice but cannot interpret the gesture, because they are unable to reproduce the same gesture themselves. Low muscle tone may be the culprit. Sometimes we think of body language in terms of the messages we unconsciously send with our facial expressions (scorn? judgment?) that a person may understand even if he or she cannot understand our words.

But there’s another very important component to body language: When your body assumes a posture or expression, your own body and brain are listening.

In her inspiring TED talk,  http://blog.ted.com/10-examples-of-how-power-posing-can-work-to-boost-your-confidence/ Amy Cuddy talks about the difference between postures of powerful people and of those who are not. Powerful people are more optimistic, confident and assertive, and are able to think more abstractly; their testosterone levels are higher (“dominance hormone”) and their cortisol levels are lower (stress hormone).  

Cuddy explains the research behind power postures. Put your hands on your hips, or raise your arms as if you’ve just won a race. Or lean back into your seat and put your feet on your desk. Seriously, try it. Research has shown that positioning yourself in a power posture for two minutes can make a difference in how you perform in front of an audience, how you do in a job interview, how much stress hormone is running in your system (some 25% less). A friend tells me he’s used this with his students before their musical performances and it works. The opposite is also true – sit in a self-protective position, rolled in, and your confidence will wane while your stress increases.

You and I can easily use this tool, taking on a powerful posture for two minutes. But let’s take it another step – perhaps this technique can help a vulnerable, stressed person you are trying to assist? Perhaps a friend, a loved one, a child, a student, even one who may be unable to understand this concept, can learn to spend a little while in a posture that gives him or her a message of strength, confidence, leadership, a posture that would reduce the stress?

I’m going to try this. Will you join me? I’d love to hear from you if you see results.


How we learn - what does scientific research say?


Last month, when I drove all the way from San Francisco to somewhere in very rural Oregon, I listened to Benedict Carey’s excellent book, How we Learn, on CD. This one’s a keeper (yes, read it). Carey reviewed a long list of studies on how people learn, and managed to surprise me in just about every chapter with research results that were unexpected, or at least not obvious.

The following are eight notes, based on his book and the research behind it, that may encourage you to revisit how you learn or how you teach.

1.        Is it a good idea to always study in the same place? Apparently not. Most people do better by varying the environment: location, what you hear in the background, time of day, and how you engage with the material (read, discuss, recite, type etc.) Since the goal is to be able to perform well in every condition, you don’t want to be dependent on a particular environment to succeed. I’m thinking of my guitarring buddies who just about always claim “it sounded so much better when I practiced in my bedroom!” – practice on the porch next time, my friend. So take your laptop to a café, listen to music while you study. The different environments allow you to store the material in different ways, and that’s a good thing when you try to recall it.
2.       Sleep helps consolidate learning, and here’s the more interesting part: the early part of the night, when sleep is deep, is important for retaining facts (names, dates, vocabulary, formulas, concepts). The consolidation of motor skills and creative thinking happens in the morning hours, before waking. So if you’re pushing yourself in preparation for an exam or a performance, think which part of your sleep you don’t want to miss.
3.       Break up study time. Space it out. An hour today and an hour tomorrow, or even the day after that, is better than two hours in one long session. You give yourself an opportunity to recall, review and re-store what you’d learned. Spacing study time is the most powerful and reliable technique to extend and deepen your memory. Think of two important elements of memorization – storing and recalling. When you break up your study time you practice recalling what you’ve already learned. When we cram (yes, we’ve probably all used it as a last resort before an exam) we remember much less on the long run. Spaced rehearsal and self-examination allow us to remember twice as much as cramming. The brain can sharpen a memory only after some forgetting has occurred.
4.       Self testing is one of the best techniques to learn. Whether you like using flashcards, or have a friend/classmate help you test yourself, this improves comprehension and retention much more than continued review, which is a more passive activity. Best is a multiple choice test, in which you choose the right answer and get immediate feedback. Can you explain what you’ve learned to someone else? A lot of learning happens when you teach.
5.       Does it help to review notes from a lesson? I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use the word “Meh”, so perhaps this is my chance. Just because you’ve highlighted something or you’ve looked at your highlights doesn’t mean your brain has engaged in the material more deeply. Copying it isn’t as powerful as we would like it to be. However, studying your highlighted notes and then trying to write them down without looking is a much better way to learn because it works your memory harder and shows you what you really don’t know yet. What you want to watch out for is the “fluency illusion”, the feeling that you’re fluent just because reading the notes made everything look so self-evident. This feeling, which develops automatically and subconsciously, is the most common reason for doing poorly in exams that you felt you were prepared for.
6.       Smart phones and gadgets and social media are so distracting… how bad is that? Distraction is a real problem if you need to be focused continually during a lecture, but study breaks for 5-20 minutes are the most effective way to solve a problem if you’re stuck. Distracting yourself from the task (yes, go check your emails or play a computer game) allows you to let go of your mistaken assumptions, re-examine the clues and return to your desk fresh (yes, returning to the desk is part of the deal). If you’re motivated to solve the problem your brain will continue to work on it during your break without being fixated on the unproductive ideas you were stuck with earlier.  
7.       What is an effective strategy to improve performance on long term creative projects? Start them as early as possible and deliberately interrupt them. Walk away from your project, because this activates it in your mind. You’ll pick up more relevant ideas and get more in tune with your thinking. This is called “percolation” and it’s working in your favor.   
8.       Is it best to practice one skill at a time or alternate between working on a different skills? (I’m thinking about learning a new musical piece, but you may be thinking about your training as a HANDLE provider or your kid’s math homework). When you work on one skill at a time, you quickly see tangible improvements. But it is actually better to interleave different skills when you practice because that sharpens your grasp of all of them. If it’s the math homework your kid is struggling with, for example, the varying of math problems trains her to match the problem type with the appropriate strategies.  


Would you share what study strategies work for you (whether scientifically based or not)?





Slowing down and focusing

Having pulled a muscle in my back, I just had to slow down. I slowed down my movements, eased my to-do list, and expected to just sit or lie down and relax.

But relaxing is a tricky, elusive thing. My mind just continued its non-stop chatter – what I did, what I should be doing, yesterday’s news, today’s emails, the book I’ve been listening to in the car and the one I’ve been carrying around in hope to slow down and just read… I'm sure you're familiar with that feeling.

I must have a couple tools in my tool box that can help me here, I argued with my chattering brain.

I tried breathing. Slowly, effortlessly, in and out through my nose, carrying a wave of expansion and relaxation to my sore lower back and to other places that felt tight. Try that, if you haven’t for a while.

Then I did what I often see people do without thinking, just because it “feels right”. I crossed my ankles and interlaced my fingers, and felt grounded at last. Look around you and you’ll see how people find ways to connect between the right and left: touching the hands together or the fingertips of both hands together, squeezing the bridge of the nose, sipping water through a straw at midline – in the middle of the mouth, interlacing their fingers behind their backs or in their laps or on their desks. All these variations on reaching or crossing midline increase the communication between the two sides of the brain, allowing for focus and ease of thinking.   

And that feels good.


In case I forget

I spent much of last week in the company of a new friend who is 83 years old and suffers from dementia. We had lively conversations about politics or countries we’d been to or food or stories of our lives, and then he’d tell me some of the same stories again and again. He knew his memory wasn’t “like it used to be” but didn’t realize the extent of its loss. And that may be a good thing, because he would have been upset to know how much of his witty mind was no longer there. At the same time, I could see how the memory loss elevated his anxiety.  He was surprised again and again by the same confusing documents on his desk, asking for explanations about them. He found the daily routines of blood sugar and blood pressure checks and medications baffling. He was anxious when his caregiver was not around, because he didn’t remember if and when the caregiver would be back. He was upset about the car that blocked his driveway, because he forgot that he didn’t drive any more, and that therefore the blocked driveway was not really a bother.

He was delighted when I responded to one of his funny anecdotes with surprise and amusement, but seemed apologetic when I said that yes, I know that, he’d told me. Going for a walk he’d enjoy the flowers, the sunshine and the neighbors he ran into. Returning home forgot that he’d been out, but the contentment remained.

It seemed to me that the feelings of delight, surprise, anger or anxiety lingered at times longer than the memory of what triggered them in the first place.

Not all of us will get to age gracefully. We may as well cherish our minds while we can still enjoy them, and do what we can to keep them intact. We can educate ourselves about exercise and diet and supplementation, and develop habits, if we haven’t yet, that will support our health. But even when damage is done, intervention can make a difference. I’m hoping that if I were to be as confused as my friend, that someone would take me daily through activities that I couldn’t remember to do, to support my balance, to enhance my dexterity, to engage my two hemispheres in coordinated movement, to reduce anxiety, to enhance memory, to experience joy.  


If you needed help to say what's on your mind

A couple of weeks ago I attended a training at Syracuse University on assisted typing.

If you’re not familiar with this form of communication, imagine for a moment that you can’t speak, and you can’t even type unless someone supports you – say, touches your elbow or shoulder while you type to help you focus, or pulls away your hand from the keyboard after every letter, so that perseveration won’t get in the way of your words.

If your loved one has not been able to communicate using words, whether spoken or written, have you assumed that he or she has little to say? Have you assumed that he or she understands very little?

I find HANDLE very compatible with assisted typing and other forms of facilitated communication, in that the basic premise is the assumption of competence. Yes, you may be wrong, but assuming incompetence can be a lot more harmful. The woman sitting across from me at the workshop received practically no education until she was 24. She now has a Masters degree on disability studies and serves on the Executive Board for the Autism National Committee (AUTCOM) as Vice President.

I can’t wait to practice and to learn from people who communicate through assisted typing as well as from my colleague Carolyn Nuyens who has been practicing this modality in California for many years. 

I’ve met half of the people whose profiles and stories are here. And here’s a blog by yet another person who uses assisted typing, sharing her thoughts about ABA and the “politically correct” term “person with autism”.


There are people I know who have been silent for a long time. I'm eager to learn what they may want to say. I can’t imagine where I would have started if I had had to wait until my teens or adulthood before having a chance to say what’s on my mind. What would be the first thing you’d say? If you want to explore these possibilities for someone you know, send me a note. I may be able to help.