“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.


Teaching Students How to Learn

640px-La_scuola_di_Atene copy

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?”

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


Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 6.46.37 AM

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.


Mind the Gap


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough….” Stuart Smalley, a.k.a. Al Franken.

A recent article in The Atlantic Magazine has been the topic of lots of “water cooler” chat at work lately. Titled The Confidence Gapthe article was written by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, both news reporters and co-authors of the book Womenomics. In their piece for The Atlantic, Shipman and Kay explore the persistence of a significant confidence gap between men and women. The overarching idea is that confidence matters as much, if not more, than competence in the world of work, and that women are having difficulty keeping up with their male co-workers in that regard.

It’s a lengthy piece, and well worth reading when you have the time. But what struck me the most were the statistics surrounding what happens in the workplace. For example, men are promoted more frequently than women and often paid more (a national topic currently, but differences in pay aren’t the main focus of this particular article). One of the reasons men seem to be promoted more frequently and more readily is that men ask for promotions more than women do. The authors cite research conducted by Hewlett-Packard that showed men apply for a promotion when they felt they could meet 60% of the new job’s requirements. Women didn’t apply for promotions until they felt they could meet 100% of the new job’s requirements!

Contributing to this dynamic is the tendency for men to overestimate their abilities on a variety of tasks, and for women to underestimate their abilities…even though their actual performance does not differ in quality. Another contributing factor is that women are much harder on themselves when they make a mistake in a work setting; women tend to ruminate on their mistakes, which in turn erodes confidence. In contrast, when men feel self-doubt they move forward anyway; they don’t let it stop them from doing what they want to do. And in studies with groups of undergraduate students, those who displayed the most confidence were rated more highly by their peers than those who displayed the most competence. In other words, it’s not the smartest person in the room who is admired, it’s the person who is most confident.

This made me think of Al Franken, the comedian who became a politician. For roughly 30 years, Franken worked as a writer, performer, and comedian. Then, at some point he decided he wanted to serve in public office so he ran for the senate race in his home state of Minnesota and won. If he had waited until he felt 100% qualified to run for public office (i.e. to ask for that promotion), do you think he would ever have taken that chance? Probably not. Mr. Franken is just one example, but he’s the man who brought us Stuart Smalley’s self-affirmations and it sounds like some women could use more self-affirmation in the workplace.

Smalley’s mantra was: I’m good enough,  I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me. According to Shipman and Kay, worrying too much if people like you is a potential pitfall for women. So I’m going to revise the mantra just a little bit to I’m good enough and I’m smart enough. If more women simply told themselves that, perhaps the confidence gap would be on its way to closing.


Children’s Choice Book Awards Announced

This year’s winners of the annual Children’s and Teen Choice Book Awards were announced at the seventh annual Children’s Book Council gala in New York last night. What I like about these awards are that the children vote for their favorites themselves, so this list is truly a reflection of what our nation’s kids like to read!

“The Children’s Book Council’s vetting process ensures that voting is done by children and teens, or submitted from classroom ballot boxes, they said.”

Here are the top winners in each category (click on thumbnails for more information):

K-2nd grade Book of the Year:
The Day The Crayons Quit
by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.






3rd-4th grade Book of the Year:
Bugs in My Hair!
by David Shannon.

Bugs in Hair





5th-6th grade Book of the Year:
National Geographic Kids Myths Busted!
by Emily Krieger, illustrated by Tom Nick Cocotos.

Myths Busted





Teens Book of the Year:
by Veronica Roth.






Illustrator of the Year:
Grace Lee
Sofia the First: The Floating Palace.

Sofia First





Author of the Year:
Rush Limbaugh
Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.

Rush Revere

The Problem of Perpetual Cynicism

Drawing by Henry Marks.

But what is it? Drawing by Henry Marks.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, written by the president of Wesleyan University Michael S. Roth, points out something disturbing that seems to have infected our youth: A type of perpetual cynicism born of teaching students to think critically about their world, but not following up with teaching them to also find meaning in it.

Mr. Roth suggests that the traditional liberal arts goal of teaching critical thinking has devolved into something focused too much on the critical, and not enough on the thinking. It starts when professors teach students how to tear apart written texts, as if being critical (i.e. cynical) were the sole purpose and pursuit of education.

Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?…Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. 

And it continues when students assume the role of distant and disdainful commentator, one step removed from the object of their scrutiny. The sad result is that these students have come to believe intelligence reveals itself in their ability to describe everything that is wrong with a written work, but nothing that is right.

The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Mr. Roth gives the example of having to ask his students to “put their devices away” when he shows them movies in class. As a former film studies major, I find this especially distressing. When I was in school, we read essay upon essay about film’s transformative power, largely related to the obvious analogies between dreaming and watching a movie. But to feel cinema’s power in that way, you have to give yourself over to the experience. In other words, you have to take emotional and intellectual risks. From what Mr. Roth describes, today’s students prefer their culture served cold, and at arm’s length.

As debunkers, [today’s students] contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.

I agree with Mr. Roth that cynicism is no achievement. And, if his assertions about modern-day students’ lack of interest in being inspired by art and culture and thought are true, then my next question would be, where did they learn to take such a cynical view of their world? Is this an effect of our modern culture, which some call corrosive (although, really, don’t those voices erupt in every generation)? The inevitable aftermath of postmodernism? The result of education trends going back to the 1960’s, when nearly everything about higher education was called into question? Maybe Mr. Roth will write a follow-up piece in which he teases apart the roots of the problem he has identified. I’d be interested in his thoughts.

Further exploration:


FlowFlow. “Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.”

100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects. “When did people first start to wear jewelry or play music? When were cows domesticated and why do we feed their milk to our children? Where were the first cities and what made them succeed? Who invented math-or came up with money? The history of humanity is a history of invention and innovation, as we have continually created new items to use, to admire, or to leave our mark on the world. In this original and thought-provoking book, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has selected one hundred man-made artifacts, each of which gives us an intimate glimpse of an unexpected turning point in human civilization. A History of the World in 100 Objects stretches back two million years and covers the globe. From the very first hand axe to the ubiquitous credit card, each item has a story to tell; together they relate the larger history of mankind-revealing who we are by looking at what we have made.”


Technology: Myth of Multitasking.  “[T]here is no such thing as multitasking —  at least not the way you may think of it. The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the “technological-industrial complex” to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.