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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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What Makes a Better Team? More Women

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 12, 2015
The teams with the smartest members aren't necessarily the smartest teams.

Researchers who teamed up with Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi of MIT grouped 697 volunteers into teams with two to five members and studied how they performed several short tasks that required such common skills as logical analysis, brainstorming, planning, coordination and moral reasoning. Volunteers took individual IQ tests, but teams with the highest average IQs weren't necessarily the most successful. Nor were the teams with most extroverts nor the most highly motivated members.

The most successful teams with the best collective intelligence, it turned out, had three characteristics. Their members contributed equally to group discussions rather than having a few members who dominated. Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. And the most successful teams had members who scored highest on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes. That test is designed to measure how well people can read emotional states by looking at facial images that only show the eyes. The study is described in a New York Times story by researchers Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher F. Chabris.

An Atlantic story by Derek Thompson stresses the importance empathy and social sensitivity. Generally, the story says, women outperform men on the Eyes test, which helps explain why teams with more women tend to have higher collective intelligence. Elements of that trait include an ability to read complex emotions and skill at interpreting nonverbal clues.

Interestingly, another study showed that good collective intelligence was just as important for teams working virtually as it is for teams working face to face. A study by Woolley, Malone, Chabris, David Engel and Lisa X. Jing in PLoS One examined teams that worked together face to face and teams that worked virtually. Emotion reading skill was just as important in the success of online teams. The other characteristics that helped in person teams-frequent good quality conversation and equal participation-also were crucial online.

Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless wrote the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures and created the Liberating Structures website, which describes simple methods to improve the way we meet, interact and collaborate. Lipmanowicz says the use of Liberating Structures (LS) can help people learn the communication, participation and emotion reading skills that create good teamwork. While traditional paths to learning these skills is slow, expensive and unreliable, Lipmanowicz says, people who experience using LS can learn them quickly.

Are you skilled at reading emotions? Take the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test here. Read some thoughts on the test here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  liberating structures  research 

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Collaboration May Improve Medical Diagnoses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 5, 2015

Doctors working in teams may make more accurate diagnoses than doctors working alone, a recent study suggests.

German researchers recruited 88 fourth year medical student volunteers and showed them videos of simulated patient cases. They then asked the volunteers to select one of 20 possible diagnoses, and order from a menu of 30 possible tests. Twenty eight of the students worked individually and the remaining 60 worked in pairs. Those working in pairs were 18 percent more accurate in their diagnoses. The study also found that pairs were more likely to differ in confidence about the diagnosis when the diagnosis was incorrect.

The researchers said superior accuracy of the pairs could not be explained by differences in knowledge or relevant information. "Collaboration may have helped correct errors, fill knowledge gaps and counteract reasoning flaws," researcher Dr. Wolf E. Hautz and colleagues said. The findings appeared in a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A story by Sabriya Rice in Modernhealthcare.com reports that as many as one out of 20 adults in the U.S. may be misdiagnosed in outpatient visits, and about half of those errors could be harmful.

While hospitals have developed systems for monitoring healthcare acquired infections and surgical errors and other patient safety issues, experts say systems for tracking diagnostic mistakes barely exist and causes of diagnostic error have not been thoroughly researched. The 1999 Institute of Medicine Report "To Err is Human" brought medical error into public consciousness but did not focus on diagnostic error. The IOM report due this fall is expected to probe diagnostic error. Complicating the issue, Rice writes, is that there is no universally accepted definition of a diagnostic error.

According to a 2014 study by CRICO Strategies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based risk-management group, about 20 percent of 23,527 medical malpractice cases filed between 2008 and 2012 were related to diagnostic concerns, she reports, and about 73 percent of the 4,705 diagnostic claims alleged lapses in clinical judgment, such as failure to order diagnostic tests, establish a differential diagnoses or give a referral.

Some surveys and research indicate time and scheduling pressures contribute to the potential for error.

At Maine Medical Center, a part of MaineHealth in Portland, began an innovative initiative to get clinicians thinking about diagnoses. The hospital's patient-safety officer and clinical educator started a pilot project that ran from January to July 2011 where doctors voluntarily discussed examples of diagnostic mistakes. During the trial period, doctors found 36 instances where diseases such as cancer, stroke and pneumonia were missed, misdiagnosed or not identified in a timely fashion. "Just about every time you talk to clinicians involved in diagnostic errors, it seems like time and volume is an issue," said Dr. Robert Trowbridge, an internal medicine physician who teaches clinical reasoning at Maine Medical Center.

Dr. Gordon Schiff, a diagnostic error researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told Modernhealthcare.com that diagnosis is really a team effort. He said the idea that diagnosis is "this heroic, lone ranger thing" that doctors do behind closed doors is romantic and outdated.

Tags:  buscell  collaboration  complexity matters  health  research 

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Our Genes May Know More Than Our Minds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 29, 2015

Human happiness influences human gene expression, researchers have found, and different kinds of happiness have surprisingly different effects on our physical health.

Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina note that philosophers since antiquity have distinguished between hedonic wellbeing-the kind of happiness that comes from satisfaction from pleasurable experiences-and eudaimonic wellbeing-the kind that comes from striving toward meaning and noble purpose beyond self gratification. It turns out the molecular mechanics of good health tend to favor people who find happiness striving for higher goals.

Steven Cole, PhD, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA and a member of the Cousins Center, and colleagues including Barbara Frederickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychology Lab at the University of North Carolina, have spent a decade studying how stress, fear, loneliness and other miseries impact the human genome. In his paper "Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression: Mechanisms and Implications for Public Health," Cole reported that people who experienced long term loneliness had a gene expression profile showing high inflammation and lower immune function. Inflammation related illnesses include heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer.

The stress-related gene expression profile characterized by high inflammation and low immunity is known as CTRA, for "conserved transcriptional response to adversity." Cole and colleagues wanted to find whether happiness is just the opposite of misery, or whether it would activate a different kind of gene expression. They took blood samples from 80 healthy adults assessed as having either hedonic or eudaimonic happiness, and used the CTRA gene expression profile to examine potential biological differences. Both groups had high levels of positive emotion. Those in the eudaimonic wellbeing group had favorable gene expression profiles, with low inflammation and functioning immunity, while those in the hedonic wellbeing group showed the opposite gene expression profiles. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What this study shows is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion," Cole, the lead author, said in a UCLA release. "Apparently the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are our conscious minds." The UCLA release says this research, showing specific signals and pathways associated with a positive state of mind and gene expression, is the first of its kind.

In his paper on social regulation of genes, Cole wrote that the human genome is influenced by social environment, and that the "regulatory architecture" of the genome lies outside the cell "in the constraints and affordances present in the social ecology."

Increasing knowledge and technological advances that allow researchers to examine the way genes and environment interact on a molecular level can have profound impact in public health, he suggests. "Social regulation of gene expression implies many aspects of individual health actually constitute a form of public health in the sense that they emerge as properties of an interconnected system of human beings," the paper says.

In an interview, Frederickson suggested our bodies may respond better to happiness related to human connectedness and purpose than to hedonic wellbeing, which she called the emotional equivalent of empty calories.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  health  research 

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Risk, Randomness and Cancer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 8, 2015

The risk of developing many kinds of cancer may rely on random luck.

Cristian Tomasetti, PhD, and Bert Vogelstein, MD, cancer scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, report in a Science magazine article that many cancers are caused by random mutations that happen when healthy stem cells divide. Cancers are known to result from life styles, inherited proclivities, and environmental exposures, as well as causes that can't be identified. A New York Times story by Denise Grady reports that the authors found chance was a bigger factor than they'd expected. "It was about double what I would have thought," Dr. Tomasetti, a biostatistician and professor told the Times. Basically, the risk of cancer is highly correlated with the number of stem cell divisions over time.

A Johns Hopkins press release explains that Tomasetti and Vogelstein charted the number of stem cell divisions likely to occur in 31 tissue types during an average life span, and compared these rates with the lifetime risk of cancer in the same tissues among adult Americans. Adult stem cells are a specialized population of cells in each organ or tissue that divide or self-renew indefinitely to generate replacement parts as other cells wear out.

The researchers report, for example, that the large intestines have more stem cells than small intestines, and those cells divide 73 times a year, compared with cells in the small intestines that divide 24 times a year. The lifetime risk of cancer in the large intestine is 4.8 percent, which is 24 times higher than the risk of a small intestine cancer. Their calculations show that about two thirds of the variation in cancer risk was explained by the number of stem cell divisions, and about one third is explained by heredity and environment.

They compare cancer with a car accident. The longer the trip, the higher the risk of accident. They say the mechanical condition of the car is a metaphor for inherited genetic factors and road conditions are like environmental factors. We may not know which of these three conditions contributed most to a particular wreck, but well maintained roads and vehicles can reduce overall risks. Knowledge that some factors are beyond our control may reduce stigma and comfort some cancer patients who blame themselves for their illness. Findings also suggest more cancers will appear simply because aging increases the number of stem cell divisions, the authors say in the release, so research on early detection, treatment and the biology of the disease is more important than ever.

Breast and prostate cancers were not included in the study because researchers lacked data on breast and prostate stem cell division rates. Lung cancer cases were divided between smokers and non-smokers, leading some readers to note that smoking also contributes to many other cancers. The American Lung Association reports that smoking causes nearly 90 percent of all lung cancer cases.

In a lengthy blog post on the article, oncologist David Gorski, MD, cites research suggesting one third to one half of all cancers are "potentially preventable," meaning they come from environmental factors that could be altered, such as smoking, alcohol use and weight control. He has some quibbles with the article, and wishes the discussion of it had been more nuanced. Bob O'Hara and GirrlScientist writing in The Guardian complain that too many news stories about the research confuse the variation in cancer risk with absolute risk of cancer, thereby blurring what constitutes bad luck.

Sometimes luck is randomly good. In the press release, Dr. Vogelstein observes cancer free longevity in people exposed to tobacco smoke and other carcinogens, often attributed to good genes, is likely to be good luck.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  disease  health  luck  research 

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Some Gene Mutations Are Good

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 1, 2015
Updated: Monday, January 5, 2015

For years, researchers have looked for gene mutations that cause disease. Two scientists who started The Resilience Project have flipped that effort upside down and started looking for gene mutations that protect against disease. Discovery of such positively deviant genes paves the way for drugs that mimic the protective qualities.

A New York Times story by Gina Kolata tells the story of a Port Orchard, Washington, man who has a gene for early onset Alzheimer's. The man's older brother, mother, nine of his mother's siblings, and six cousins began showing symptoms in their 40s, and most died in their 50s. The man, now 65, has no signs of the illness, and researchers are trying to learn whether he has a genetic mutation that is counteracting or substantially delaying the horrifying impact of the Alzheimer's gene that he has.

"Instead of trying to fix things that are broken, let's look at people where things are broken but nature finds a way around it," Dr. Eric E. Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute, a medical research institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said in an interview with the Times.

Researchers have found many gene mutations that cause disease or predispose a person to an illness, and those seem to be considerably more common than the beneficial mutations. However, with today's fast and relatively inexpensive methods of sequencing DNA, and the ever-growing databases of study subjects whose genomes have been sequenced, scientists can begin to look for the positive mutations. Dr. Schadt and Dr. Stephen H. Friend, director of Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit research organization in Seattle, are searching databases that hold clinical and genetic information. They are looking for people who, despite having mutations for fatal diseases that strike early in life, have remained healthy far past the age when the illness should have appeared. They have analyzed data from more than 500,000 people, and found only 20 in which a good gene mutation appears to have blocked a bad one. But because no names are attached to the data, the scientists can't contact those people. So they contacted researchers studying extended families with severe genetic illnesses, and they found the Washington man.

Some amazing beneficial gene mutations have already been discovered. One prevents HIV from entering cells and causing AIDS, and that discovery has enabled scientists to treat HIV positive patients by directly editing their cells. Discovery of another gene alteration that prevents build up of LDL cholesterol led to discovery of a drug that is now in the final stage of testing. Researchers using genetic databases have also found mutations in some genes that confer partial protection against heart disease, osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes.

The Washington man who seems to have defied his dangerous Alzheimer's gene retired recently. He told the Times his life's work now is to help scientists understand the treacherous disease that claimed the lives of so many members of his family.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  positive deviance  research 

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Thought-Controlled Gene Expression

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Scientists at ETH Zurich have constructed a networked system in which gene expression can be controlled remotely by human thought, and they hope that eventually thought-controlled brain implants will help combat neurological diseases.

A team of researchers led by Martin Fussenegger implanted a living mouse with designer cells that can be controlled with light. As a story by John Hewett in Extremetech.com notes, that's challenging enough, but what they did next is jaw-dropping. Electrical signals from the brain of a human wearing a brain-computer interface (BCI) remotely activated genes in the mouse's brain implant by turning on the light. The mouse implant was wirelessly linked to the human monitor by a Bluetooth device.

A story in The Scientist by Jyoti Madhusoodanan says this achievement is the first time two known technologies, optogenetics, which uses light sensitive protein to control gene expression, and EEG based BCI, which harnesses the brain's electrical potential to create a physical output, have been used this way. Synthetic biologist Timothy Lu at MIT, who was not involved in the research, describes the work as "awesome."

BCIs that capture the electrical neural impulses in the brain have been used in the past to control cursors and prosthetic devices. Fussenegger's team developed a gene-regulation method that enables thought-specific brain waves to control gene expression, which means the conversion of genes into proteins.

A Physics.org story says one inspiration for the new system was the game Mindflex, in which players wear a sensor on the forehead that records brainwaves that are transferred to the playing environment by EEG. The EEG controls a fan that enables a small ball to be thought-guided through an obstacle course.

Researchers discovered that the state of mind of the human participant regulated the quantity of an experimentally used protein released by the implant into the mouse's blood stream. Human participants were asked play a focused game of Minecraft for 10 minutes, control their brain activity in response to a visual light display, or just relax or meditate. "In all three mental states, the brain produced very specific (electrical) signatures," Fussenegger told The Scientist.

"For the first time, we have been able to tap into human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network, and regulate the expression of a gene depending on the type of thought. Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we've been chasing for over a decade," Fussenegger says in the Phys.org story.

Eventually, the Extremetech story says, researchers hope the thought controlled implant and the controlling thoughts will exist in one person-or perhaps two appropriately synchronized persons. The idea is that one day someone with a mind-controlled implant might be able to think about something-say you want more adrenaline or more dopamine, or insulin,-- and have the implant dutifully trigger release of whatever chemical is needed.

The extremely complex research that led to this extraordinary breakthrough is described in Nature Communications.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  science 

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For Children Born Poor, Poverty’s Shadow Lingers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 7, 2014

After following nearly 800 Baltimore school children for almost three decades, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found most of the children grew up to have about the same socio-economic status as their parents. Those born poor stayed poor. Those born to more economically successful families fared better.

Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander PhD, and fellow researchers, the late Doris Entwisle, PhD, and Linda Olson MA, tracked 790 Baltimore children from the time they entered first grade through their late 20s. They repeatedly interviewed the students, their parents and their teachers through their school careers, and continued conversations with the maturing students as they entered the work force and started families. Their research is presented in their book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood.

The findings are described on the Johns Hopkins website. Only 33 children born to impoverished families earned high incomes as young adults, whereas 70 would have been expected to have high incomes if the family of origin did not impact the children's prospect for upward mobility, the researchers reported. Only 19 of those born to well off families dropped into the low income bracket as adults.

Only four percent of those from low income backgrounds had a college degree by age 28, a figure Alexander found shocking. By contrast, 45 percent of children born to higher income families had college degrees. And race played a significant role in adult outcomes. While 45 percent of white men from low income families had landed one of the shrinking number of industrial jobs in the area, only 15 percent of black man from low income families had such jobs. White men self-reported having the highest rates of drinking, smoking and drug use, though black men had slightly higher arrest rates and white men were more likely to be employed despite their records and substance use. Alexander said white men were more likely to have social networks that helped them find jobs.

In an interview with NPR, Alexander said we expect that if we "Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school ...that will open doors for you." But the Baltimore study suggests that what makes the difference between success and failure is money and family. Still, a few defy the odds against them. NPR interviewed one young woman in the study whose harrowing childhood included drug addicted parents and neighborhood chaos. "I remember being so immune to death, so immune to shootings and killings. I just remember wanting them to rush, like get the body out of the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball," she said. But she managed to get a well-paying job and give her two children more stability and motherly support. She says she has a strong relationship and plans to be married.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  research 

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The Smell of Fear and Inherited Trauma

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, August 1, 2014

Babies can learn very early in life to fear something that frightened their mothers even before they were born. Scientists have known for some time that trauma can ripple through generations. New research on fear transmission may help explain how that happens.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School taught a group of female rats to fear the smell of peppermint by repeatedly accompanying the smell with mild but unpleasant electric shocks. That was before they were pregnant. After the rats became pregnant and gave birth, the team exposed them to the peppermint smell again, without the shocks, to induce the fear response again.

A story on the university website by Kara Gavin explains that the babies of fearful mother rats, and a comparable group of rat pups whose mothers had no fear of peppermint, were exposed to the smell under many conditions with and without their mothers. When babies were separated from their mothers and exposed to the minty smell along with air piped to them from a nearby container occupied by their frightened mothers, they quickly learned to fear the smell. The trigger for learning apparently was the scent the mothers give off when they are fearful.

"Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear very early in life," said Jacek Debiec, MD, PhD, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research. "Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most important, these maternally transmitted memories are long-lived, where other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Debiec and colleague Regina Marie Sullivan PhD, describe how brain imaging, studies of the genetic activity of individual brain cells, and monitoring blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were used to examine the working of fear in the brain. They found a brain structure called the lateral amygdale was the key location for learning fears, and when they gave baby rats something that blocked activity in that region, they did not learn their mothers' fear. That could help explain why some offspring of traumatized mothers don't inherit fears. The authors hope the work will aid understanding of post-traumatic stress and other mental ills in humans.

Debiec, recalls working with adult children of Holocaust survivors who had nightmares and flashbacks related to experiences they had not endured themselves. Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has studied descendants of Holocaust survivors and the children of women who were pregnant and in or near the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. She found evidence of intergenerational trauma transmission that could not have occurred through storytelling. She was not involved in Debiec's work, but she told Arielle Duhaime-Ross of Verge magazine that the study is valuable because it provides molecular analysis that would not be possible in living human brains. She said understanding the brain changes that occur with intergenerational transmission could help people understand the long-term impact of parental experiences. "Your fears are not only a response to your personal experiences," Yehuda told Verge, "but those that your parents had as well."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  resilience 

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Surprising Links between Friendships and Genes

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 24, 2014

We tend to choose friends who share our interests and outlooks, but our selections may have less conscious and more ancient roots. Recent research suggests friends share genetic similarities and that resulting social networks play an important role in human evolution.

In their paper "Friendship and Natural Selection," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nicholas Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Yale, and James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California at San Diego, write that the number of genetic markers shared by two friends is about what they would have if they were fourth cousins.

That amounts to about one percent of a human's genetic markers. That doesn't sound like much, but Fowler explains in a Washington Post story that has huge implications for human evolution. Researchers found the genes that friends have in common seem to be evolving faster than other genes, so our social environments and social networks could be a key evolutionary force.

There's no gene for friendship, and no way to predict friendship among people because of a particular genetic trait. But the genetic data of two people provides clues to whether they will become friends. The researchers developed a genetic "friendship score" that suggests the likelihood of friendship. Individuals don't consciously recognize these similarities, but they are statistically measurable in huge data sets.

Friends are likely to share genes associated with the sense of smell. Being drawn to the same scent could attract us to certain environments, the authors suggest: people who like the smell of coffee might be drawn to coffee shops where they meet others who like the smell. The authors think our sense of smell may be one of the mechanisms humans use to identify genetically similar friends, though they emphasize more research is needed to discover how that happens.

Christakis and Fowler examined genetic information and details of social relationships documented among nearly 2,000 people who participated in the Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948. They and colleagues analyzed nearly 1.5 million markers of gene variations, and compared the data for pairs of unrelated friends and pairs of unrelated strangers. Because nearly all the people in the study had similar European origins, the findings weren't explainable by the tendency to gravitate to others of similar background.

Interestingly, friends are less likely to share genes associated with immunity to specific diseases, the authors note, and that that could be an evolutionary advantage. We're somewhat less susceptible to the things that sicken our friends.

In their book Connected, Christakis and Fowler write that social networks are in our genes. After studying friendship networks among 1,110 twins drawn from national health data of 90,115 adolescents, they discovered that social network structure was influenced by genes: kids located at the center of their networks had a different genetic makeup than those located at the periphery, and those whose friends were closely connected had different genetic make than those with friends in divergent groups.

In the new paper they discuss the role of genes in a broader social environment where we interact and collaborate with friends and strangers. "Our results support the idea that humans might be seen as metagenomic not just with respect to the microbes within them, but with respect to the humans around them. It may be useful to view a person's genetic landscape as a summation of the genes within the individual and within the people surrounding the individual, just as in certain other organisms."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  relationships  research 

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Our Hands May Say More Than We Know

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget Descartes' mind-body duality. A more recent perspective known as embodied cognition is based on growing recognition that thinking isn't confined to our brain cells. Our understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by our bodies and our experiences in physical reality. Research shows even the way we use our hands offers clues to how we think, what we know, and when we're ready to learn.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied hand gestures used by adults and children and discovered that when gestures accompany language, they can provide visual and intuitive evidence of important meanings not explicitly put into words. She reports an experiment in which young children were asked whether two identical rows of checkers had the same number of pieces. The experimenter then spread out the second row and asked again whether the number was the same. One child said the number was different because the checkers were moved, and made a spreading gesture with her hands. The answer is wrong but the gesture matched the speech. Another child gave the same answer, but pointed at the first checker in each row, and continued moving his finger between the rows. In that case, the child's gesture conveyed different information from what he said, so speech and gesture were mismatched.

Interestingly, kids who mismatched benefited more from instruction, and learned faster than kids who matched. Further, when experimenters taught a strategy for solving a math problem correctly, with matching and mismatching gestures, kids taught with the mismatching gestures were more successful. Why? Goldin-Meadow wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science that a conversation in gesture seemed to be taking place along side a conversation in speech, perhaps adding information, perhaps lightening the cognitive load, and perhaps aiding memory. Gestures let speakers convey thoughts they may not have words for, and mismatches may signal readiness to change a thought or learn new information.

Researchers from Michigan State showed 184 elementary school children a video about mathematical equivalence (an equation: 7+2+9=7+__________.) Half of the kids saw the teacher sweep her left hand beneath the left side of the equation as she spoke about that side, and her right hand under the right side when she spoke of the "other" side. The rest of the kids just heard her talk. When the children were given a different problem based on the same principle, those who saw the hand gestures were more successful.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the Business Insider Brilliant Blog, notes that the act of gesturing "seems to accelerate learning, bring nascent knowledge into consciousness" and aid understanding of new concepts. She cites Goldin-Meadow's work and a 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Iowa, in which third graders who gestured as they learned algebra were three times more likely to remember what they learned than classmates who did not gesture. In another study, Cook found that college students who gestured as they retold short stories remembered the story details better.

Embodied cognition is a relatively young concept. A Scientific American story by Samuel McNemey explains its roots in early twentieth century philosophy and its later development by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  research 

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