“Song Portraits”


“Seems so Long” by Stevie Wonder

Synasthesia is “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Synasthesia’s effects can take many forms. For example, some people with the condition – called synesthetes – may experience letters and numbers or music as having unique colors (grapheme-color synesthesia, chromesthesia, respectively). Less common forms include “tasting” words (lexical-gustatory synesthesia) and “feeling” sounds (auditory-tacticle synesthesia).


“At Last” by Etta James.

It’s probably no surprise that synesthesia is understood to aid the creative process in those who experience it. Missouri artist Melissa McCracken is a perfect example: she “hears” color, and renders her experience into paintings in which she “translates sound into color.” McCracken paints a wide range of songs, from classic rock to jazz to modern electronica. The results are abstract and quite beautiful. I’ve included a few examples here, but you can read about the artist and see more paintings here.


“Karma Police” by Radiohead.

Related links:

– Melissa McCracken’s website.
– Melissa McCracken’s Etsy shop, where she sells prints of her paintings.
– Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia.
– NPR story about pianist Laura Rosser, who is a synesthete.


The Social Cost of iPads in Schools

ipads in classroom

A recent paper by a team from the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles explores what happened to a group of sixth-graders who attended a nature camp without any digital media available for five days. No cellphones, no iPhones, no laptops, no computers, and no television. As written about in the New York Times, the researchers found that the children who spent just five days without screens scored higher on tests in which they were asked to interpret the facial expressions of either people in photographs, or people in videos without sound, than did children who had no such break from technology.

The Times opinion piece explores the various ramifications of the study, for children and adults alike. But what I found most interesting came towards the bottom of the piece. Psychology professor Patricia Greenfield, who also worked on the study, says:

“[iPads in school classrooms are going] to reduce interaction with teachers, [they’re] going to reduce children’s interaction with each other face to face. So I think this study is very important because it does indicate there is an important social cost, and that schools need to really think about that.”

Those who know me know that I have been concerned about the use of iPads in classrooms for a few years now. Despite school districts nationwide spending billions of dollars on iPads, I have not seen any research that shows a benefit to using them in schools. In fact, the research I have read finds detrimental effects: no increase in test scores, difficulties in reading comprehension, disrupted sleep. And one school district’s plan to provide every child with an iPad went down in spectacular flames, with ongoing controversy and questions about possible ethical violations. As Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban says so well,

“There is still no evidence that iPads will increase student achievement at all. It’s not the hardware, it’s the software, and no studies have been done on the software apps in use, so no one knows,” said Cuban, who suggested the money might be better spent on training and recruiting teachers. “I’ve seen students with iPads and the novelty is there and the engagement is there, but it’s not clear that novelty and engagement will lead to increased academic achievement.”

One might be forgiven for wondering if, so far, the only true beneficiary of schools’ race to buy millions of iPads has been Apple itself. The company lobbies hard to get schools to buy the devices, and they have pocketed hundreds of millions – if not billions – of taxpayer dollars to that end.

Time will tell if iPads in schools turn out to be an important educational tool, or just a really cool toy. But now that research indicates there may be a social cost on top of the financial ones, it seems time to take serious stock of what we are doing and why.

What do you think? iPads in schools: thumbs up, or thumbs down? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Teaching Students How to Learn

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A recent article in Business Insider discusses a big problem with most classrooms: Teachers do a good job of teaching students what to learn, but they tend to neglect the important step of teaching students how to learn.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I believe one of the most important roles of a school psychologist is to help students – and their parents and teachers – understand how they learn in order to provide the most effective classroom support possible.* Teaching students about metacognition can have a huge impact on their ability to succeed.

[Y]our ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

The article goes on to offer learning strategies that can be used by anyone. These are:

1) “Force Yourself to Recall”: Work hard at learning, don’t stop at the spot where it’s easy for you. Use flashcards!

2) “Don’t Fall for Fluency”: If it feels too easy while you’re learning something, it probably means you didn’t learn it.

3) “Connect the Old Things to the New Things”: Relate new learning to prior knowledge.

4) “Reflect, Reflect, Reflect”: Reflect on what you have learned.

Read the full article, along with lots of great embedded links to supporting research, here.


*As an aside, this is one of the shortcomings of a strictly RtI approach to intervention. RtI does a good job of showing us what a student has not learned, but does not tell us why the student has difficulty in certain areas or what the best teaching approach would be for that student. It’s true that RtI interventions gives us implicit information, but I maintain it cannot give us explicit information about gaps in learning. This is one reason I believe individual assessment is so important.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy via Your Password


Photo credit: Mauricio Estrella

Here’s an interesting idea, courtesy of Mauricio Estrella. In a blog post titled How a Password Changed My Life, Mauricio shares how he came up with the idea of using the monthly event of changing his log in to set a daily reminder or goal or imperative. It started with a nudge to forgive his ex (“Forgive@h3r”), and evolved into lifestyle goals such as quitting smoking (“Quit@smoking4ever”), losing weight (“Eat2times@day”), and saving for a trip to Thailand (“Save4trip@thailand”).

Although Mauricio never says it, these daily reminders, or one-word “scripts,” strike me as a simple way to build Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) into something so mundane as updating a password. I think it’s a great idea: turning cyber security into real-world gains. What do you think? Would it work for you?

Our Neglected Mental Health System


Manteno State Hospital, Illinois. Opened in 1930, Manteno State Hospital was once the largest psychiatric hospital in the United States, with a peak population of 8,195. The hospital closed for good in 1985.

In the first class of my first day of graduate school when I was studying clinical psychology, the professor stood in front of us and asked, “When we think about the mentally ill, what do they have in common the world over? In every country on earth, this one fact is true of all mentally ill people. What is it?” The answer? They are ignored.

A recent piece by Liz Szabo of USA Today titled The Cost of Not Caring: Nowhere to Go offers an in-depth exploration of the current state of mental health care in the United States. Echoing what my professor said years ago, the situation can be summed up in one word: neglect.

Nearly 40% of adults with “severe” mental illness — such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — received no treatment in the previous year, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among adults with any mental illness, 60% were untreated.

Szabo’s story is broken down into four relatively short chapters, each of which focuses on one topic and one individual: 1) Our neglected mental health care system, 2) Jails and homeless shelters have become the “new asylums,” 3) Emergency rooms overwhelmed by patients with mental health needs, and 4) Disappearing mental health services as programs are cut nationwide.

If you have the time, I recommend Szabo’s piece as a good overview of some of the aspects of the problem. It is a complicated issue, with many causes, and no single story can capture all of it. But I am glad to see the topic is getting more attention. If you are truly interested, you may want to visit the mental health advocacy website mentalillnesspolicy.org. There you’ll find dozens of links to articles, essays, surveys, policy papers, legal rulings, and summaries on every mental health policy topic imaginable.

Further exploration:

Mental Association for Greater Chicago’s Mental Health Services Directory for the greater Chicago area.

Mental Illness in America radio episode from BackStory.

States are cutting back on psychiatric hospital beds, despite increasing demand.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio is looking into ways to reduce the city’s population of mentally ill jail inmates.

The United Kingdom is grappling with its own mental health crisis in London.

Doctors in Ireland are warning of a “suicide crisis.”

More than half of agencies serving children and adolescents in England cut funding over the last five years.

Weekly Roundup 6-19-14

Sorry I’m a few days late with the Roundup! Last Friday was my last day at my internship, and I had a surprising amount of work to wrap up. I’m really going to miss all of my colleagues and the students I got to work with this year; it was a great experience all around. As hard as it was to say goodbye to everybody, I am so grateful for the experience and am glad that I made genuine friends and strong professional connections that will continue past this year.

So…since I actually kind of already miss going to work every day with such a great group of people, I’m going to post all school-related links this week.

School: A professor at Dartmouth presents a strong argument for why laptops should be banned in the classroom. Citing his own experience, as well as research, he writes, “…[R]egardless of the kind or duration of the computer use, the disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz. The message of the study aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.”

School: An education columnist presents a strong argument for why laptops should not be banned in the classroom. “…[C]ollege students are old enough to vote and go to war. They should be old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to pay attention in class—and to face the consequences if they do not.”

School: Two college professors have proposed a radically simple application for federal student aid for college tuition (the notoriously long – 108 questions at last count! – Fafsa form). Their idea? Two questions: “What is your family size? And what was your household income two years ago?”

Weekly Roundup 6-7-14

School: Bard College is in its second year of a radical change to their admission process: Write four essays, and if they are graded B+ or higher by a committee of faculty, you’re automatically accepted. No ACT, no SAT no GPA, and no CV. Reminiscent of Oxford’s famous one-word essay question, Bard’s new approach may serve as the ultimate anti-standardized-test statement.

The Bard Entrance Exam aims for exactly the kind of student who, for any number of reasons, doesn’t fit inside that infernal perfection cage—who is instead, as Bard’s Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Admissions Mary Backlund told me, “someone who really likes learning,” but perhaps “couldn’t be bothered with what they saw as the ‘busy work’ of high school, and instead invested themselves in things not perceived as ‘academic’ in some places, like music or the arts—or just reading on their own.” For these students, Backlund tells me, “this option is a ‘twofer’: They get to apply and do what they love—researching and thinking—all at the same time.”

Psychology: As the global economy has grown to historically unprecedented levels over the past 80 years, people – especially Americans – are feeling more harried than ever. In a new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” Brigid Shulte examines possible reasons why the predicted idle leisure that was supposed to be born of increased wealth has not materialized. Shulte explores numerous theories, including: We’re not actually working more, we’re just appearing to be busy because busyness equates to social status; as our incomes increase, our desires increase – we are hardwired to become more and more acquisitive as our ability to acquire things grows – which leads to a need for more money which leads to more work; and the idea that wealthier people work more hours and have less leisure time than the working class Americans, creating a phenomenon known as “the harried working class” (which brings us back to busyness as social status).

Scholarship: As handwriting is pushed aside by Common Core standards, recent research shows that distinct parts of the brain are used when we write in cursive, print, or type on a computer. Are we depriving children of full brain development by, for example, eliminating instruction in cursive handwriting?

When…children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

Friday Links: Freud, Philosophy, Forward-Thinking, and Frozen


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Freudian Slipcovers: Photographer and psychoanalyst Mark Gerald has an ongoing project in which he photographs psychoanalysts in their offices.


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Philosophy meets graphic design: Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, a graphic designer’s project to “[distill] the essential principles of 95 schools of thought into visual metaphors and symbolic representation” has become a book. Released in March, Genis Carreras’ A Visual Dictionary of Philosophy is already sold out on Amazon.


Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 11.28.10 PMGrateful Dead drummer and percussionist Mickey Hart has been offering his brain for study for at least a couple of years now. Recently, he demonstrated a new “brain training” game using a virtual reality headset. The game is called Neuro Drummer, and is part of an effort by a variety of developers to create interactive computerized games that can be used to visualize the brain in real time and potentially lead to cognitive benefits or even medical solutions for a variety of brain-based ailments at best:

“The game produces a reaction, or change in behavior, in the brain. The Glass Brain software then records that in real time and isolates which parts of the brain are active. The game can then use that information and adapt so that it can be more effective. That can result in targeted, personalized, multimodal, and closed-loop treatment for brain patients…It riffs off the theory that music rhythms can help restore connective pathways in the brain that have degenerated in older people through aging or Alzheimer’s disease.”



Tourism to Norway is up dramatically, likely thanks to a Norwegian Tourism Board marketing campaign targeting fans of the Disney film Frozen.


Do Professors Show Bias When Choosing Students to Mentor?


A recent story on NPR discussed apparent bias by university faculty when it came to selecting students who would receive the most guidance. The discussion centered around results of a recent study authored by Katherine Milkman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Milkman and her colleagues sent mock letters to over 6,500 professors at the top 250 universities in the country; the letters were supposedly written by students inquiring about a meeting with the instructor. The letters were identical in content but were signed with varying names that were deliberately selected to denote the gender and/or ethnicity of the letter writer. Here is a sampling of names:

Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen.

The idea was to send letters coming from a diverse-sounding pool of students who requested a meeting with the professor, then see which students received a reply. Here’s what the NPR reporter said about what the researchers found:

[All] they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities were systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors. Now remember, these are top faculty at the top schools in the United States and the letters were all impeccably written.

The “large disparities” were that depending on which department the professors were associated with, their bias in replies varied greatly. In the humanities, for example, there was the smallest amount of discrimination. But in business departments, there was a 25% gap between “students” whose names read as white and male vs. women and minorities. Private schools showed more discrimination than public schools, and “students” whose names read as Asian were discriminated against more than any other group. Further, having a diverse faculty does not remedy the situation.

MILKMAN: There’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty.

The research is interpreted as revealing a “glass ceiling” of sorts. By selecting faculty at top schools, the idea is that those faculty – and their time, attention, knowledge, contacts, etc. – can be conduits to higher levels of (financial) achievement for the students with whom they work most closely. Having more access to a professor and his or her resources is believed to equate to more success. In a sense, the faculty at these top universities could be said to represent what is colloquially referred to as an “old boys’ club.” Except these professors aren’t just old, aren’t just boys, and aren’t just social elites.

I’d be interested in seeing further research on this topic. For one thing, it would be very interesting to somehow go back and interview the professors to try and find out the thought process behind which letters they chose to reply to and those they didn’t. I’m not sure it would even be possible to get an honest assessment, but it might be worth trying. Also, it would be even more informative if the researchers could do a longitudinal study in which they tracked the careers of students who were identified as being top mentees of the top professors at the top universities. Would those students achieve the more successful outcomes predicted by this study? Or perhaps the research could be done retroactively: Select the top 250 leaders…or powerful CEOs…or wealthy Americans, and ask them who their mentors were. The results could be very informative, to say the least.

*  *  *  *  *

Further exploration:

– The myth of the Model Minority: Persistent stereotypes about Asian Americans.

– Stereotype Threat: When fear of confirming a negative stereotype leads to anxiety and decreased performance.

– Women are more inclined to undermine rather than help other women in a professional environment.


10 Life Lessons from a Former Navy SEAL

With graduation season upon us, sometimes it feels like at any given moment there is a commencement speech happening somewhere in America. As many a speaker (and audience member) will readily admit, these speeches tend to be forgettable (I liked Jonathan Safran Foer’s take on the phenomenon of forgetting the commencement address: “Among the many things that I am unable to remember about the speaker that spring morning: name, gender, age, race, physical build and voice. I’ve run out of fingers”).

But here’s a speech you might actually remember. Former Navy SEAL Admiral William H. McRaven spoke at the University of Texas at Austin on May 17, and he gave the audience 10 valuable life lessons he learned in SEAL training. It helps that the tips are in list form; it’s easier to remember things when they’re attached to a number. It also helps that these tips can apply to anybody; these ideas are relevant to anyone at any age or stage in their career. You’ll have to listen to the whole speech to hear all 10 (or read a transcript here). But here are a few highlights:

#1: Make your bed every morning. Accomplishing this first, small task of the day gives you a touch of pride and sets you on the path to achieving more and more throughout the day. “Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

#5: In SEAL training, when you failed to meet expectations you were given a “circus” – two hours of grueling calisthenics designed to wear you down. “Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.”

#8: “[During SEAL training] the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.”

In summary,

To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world—for the better.

It will not be easy.

But start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up.