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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • I recently wrote that too many educational computer games look too educational and are not fun to play.  I have recently, however, come across a couple of causal games that although they don’t set out to be educational actually are, but are also addictive and fun.   Casual games are simple, cheap games that are easy, yet compelling to play.   The first game Drop 7  by area/code is a game involving numbers but also works a bit like Tetris.  To play you have to drop different balls with numerals inside into rows or columns and try and ensure that the numerals and the number of balls match i.e. every time you line five balls up the ones with the numeral 5 in them disappears.  I think that this game, without intending to, actually reinforces numerosities,  which is the ability to automatically recognise the number of objects in a set.  Understanding Numerosities is associated with the intraparietal sulcus in the brain and is the foundation for the development of mathematical thinking.  Individuals with dyscalculia (maths dyslexia) have difficulties with this concept.   I don’t think the designers knew this and just designed an addictive clever game.   But it would be interesting to research whether this does actually help children and especially those with developmental dyscalculia to develop in terms of maths.   In the meantime at the least it is a good fun way for children to reinforce automatic number understanding.

    The second game by one of my favourite casual gaming companies Popcap is called Bookworm.  In this game you have a grid of letter tiles and have to create words out of them.  You get points for the complexity of the word.  You also have to use up a burning tile before it reaches the bottom of the page (it goes down one step every time).  It is a fun, fast moving, compelling game but improves word knowledge and spelling at the same time.  Popcap are great at developing addictive simple games such as Bejeweled and Peggle.  It is great to see that they can use the same principles to create games that are educational.

    I should note that both games are also just fun for adults and children to play.  Me and my children enjoying playing them as well as other games just to relax.  They are great on the iphone.  I am sure that they are good at producing increased levels of dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) in my brain!

  • Living in the 21st century can be stressful.  If you listen to the media there is potentially a lot to worry about now; economic meltdown, ecological catastrophe, medical pandemics to name but a few.  Also there are the constant distractions of 24 hour news, TV, email, twitter and blogs! In general there is information overload.  So how do you cope with this?  I am becoming increasing interested in the potential of mindful meditation.   Whilst this may seem a bit New Age, at its core it is in fact a very simple idea.  The key is to focus on the present moment.  Not to worry about the future or the past.  To try and focus on something simple like your breathing and to not be distracted by intrusive thoughts.  Humans have used meditation to cope with life in different cultures for 1000′s of years, be it though Buddhism, Christianity or Taoist teaching.  More recently it has been shown to be very effective in dealing with mental health problems.  Combined with Cognitive therapy it certainly seems helpful for depression see Ma and Teasdale 2004 and anxiety see Evans et al 2007 .

    As a child neuropsychologist there are two areas of mindfulness that particularly interests me. Firstly it is becoming clear that meditation is associated with changes to brain function.  This includes increased thickness in prefrontal brain areas and increased grey matter in brain stem.  In his very impressive book The Mindful Brain in Human Development: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being Dan Siegel discusses in detail the neuroscience and development of mindful meditation.  In my opinion mindfulness is closely related to working memory (see post for details of working memory) and meditating on a regular basis by focusing on a set stimuli (voice, breathing, light) may be similar to working memory training.  It requires holding a focus in mind.  As I have discussed in the past working memory can be improved with practice.  There is some research showing that meditation training brings cognitive benefits.  A recent paper in  Consciousness and Cognition by Zeiden and colleagues suggests that brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.

    Secondly can mindful meditation be used to help children?  A recent special issue in the Journal of Child and Family studies shows a number of potential applications including for children with ADHD and also to help parents cope with managing difficult children.  At present I think the evidence that it works with children with neurodevelopmental problems is not quite there although there are promising indications. Certainly working memory training works with children and so meditation should in principal.  I also think that in this increasingly distracted, stressful age, preparing children with skills to deal with life such as mindful meditation may prove to be very useful.

    If you want to try it yourself there is a good resource site from UCLA with MP3 files with meditations etc here.  There is also a good paper with advice from Karen Hooker and Iris Fodor on how to help children in Gestalt Review here.