Reading the Road

thoughtful seniorSoon after watching me work with her daughter Julie, 24, to help overcome Julie’s qualms about getting her driver’s license, Geri brought her husband, Gary, to see me.

Gary, 67, had experienced a health crisis last year that left him minimally disabled. Having completed physical therapy, he was beginning to drive the family car everywhere. Yet, when he came in to my office, he had failed a special driver’s exam twice due to his freezing up under stress. As sometimes happens with seniors who have been active all their lives and then experience a setback, he had become impatient and discouraged with himself, afraid that he might not regain previous abilities.

As I’d previously explained to Julie, our attention for driving is similar to our attention for reading comprehension, which is more than just focusing on words. Defensive driving requires this global scope of vision, not just near-point focus.

When Geri heard my thinking and saw the difference in Julie’s ability to keep her focus as she drove, she realized that this might be Gary’s issue, just as it had been their daughter’s.

I reminded Gary that driving requires continual reading of ever-changing situations. I pre-checked him on the ability to focus on the details of driving and simultaneously keep his perspective—which he was unable to do. With the goal of driving his car with a DMV examiner present, Gary role-played at steering the car into a right turn out of the DMV parking lot while being aware of the flow of cars coming from the left. In his concentration, he quickly became overfocused on steering, inhibiting his head-turning ability and losing track of himself within the traffic pattern. He experienced a delayed ability to listen, to think, and to plan ahead as to where he was going so that he could blend into the flow of traffic.

I then shared with him the widely accepted model of neural processing of vision, described by researchers Ungerleider and Mishkin as two visual systems working continually together for attentional skills: the what stream concerned with more focal object recognition (a ventral, or occipitotemporal system) and the where stream concerned with more global spatial abilities (a dorsal, or occipitoparietal system). Without both streams working together, one’s depth perception is compromised and it’s hard to hold the “big-picture” or ambient awareness that is the context for anticipating possibilities and, in this case, defensive driving.

An in-depth pre-check for tracking across his visual midline revealed that he was inhibiting ambient information on his left side as he looked to the right, depending for information solely on the focal object-recognition stream on his right side. He wasn’t integrating both fields on the midfield of attention.

I taught Gary the Double Doodle, one of the 26 basic activities of the Brain Gym® program. This activity calls for drawing with both hands at the same time while soft-focusing with the eyes. Gary was delighted to discover that he was able to draw in this way extremely well. The Double Doodle emphasizes combined use of the two hemispheres through the visual system. We then did the Cross Crawl, the Elephant, and the Footflex—three activities that, like the Double Doodle, create focal awareness within a whole-body context.

After doing these activities, Gary was able to hold his focus without losing his ability to “read” the big picture. An in-depth post-check found Gary easily crossing the visual midfield. As he drove his imaginary car, he was relaxed and alert, looking around effortlessly, clearly holding an ambient awareness as he proceeded carefully and mindfully into traffic. He noticed his improvement, and agreed to do the recommended Brain Gym movements with Geri every day.

Yes, Gary called to let me know that on his third driving test, he finally did well, and his new driver’s license has now been issued to him.


The distinctions of what and where, along with their implications for underfocus and overfocus, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life © 2007.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.

Extrinsic Discipline or Intrinsic Self-Control?

A 12-year-old middle school student I’ll call Aaron had several times been sent to the principal’s office for hitting his classmates and otherwise causing disruptions in his sixth-grade classroom. After repeated warnings, Aaron had been suspended for two weeks. This incident was related to me by  a Brain Gym® Instructor, who learned of the episode shortly after it happened, when she was invited to teach the Brain Gym program in the boy’s classroom.

In each of the hour-long sessions, the instructor led the youngsters through the PACE  activities, ending with Hook-ups. She added a new Brain Gym activity each visit—for reading, handwriting, and other academic skills—and the kids did these while either sitting or standing next to their seats. At the end of each session, she asked the students which activities they liked, and why.

The Brain Gym Instructor said that Aaron at first just sat in his chair passively and observed, refusing to do the activities or to share. She said that she emphasized to the children that they could use the activities, especially Hook-ups, to develop choice-making skills and the ability to stop and think, rather than  losing self-control and being at the effect of their stress or anger.

As the six weeks of sessions went on, Aaron began joining in to do the movements, and eventually started commenting on various activities. During the last session, he said, “I like doing Hook-ups. It helps me stop and think, and I don’t get angry over nothing.” Aaron’s teacher told the Brain Gym Instructor sometime later that, as the school year continued, Aaron went on to become a model young citizen at the school, one who took pride and pleasure in helping others to learn the Brain Gym activities.

Through the years, I’ve heard hundreds of similar reports, from parents and educators alike, and in some cases even from formerly difficult children themselves. One teacher said that the Brain Gym activities had replaced use of the rod at her school. In some juvenile detention centers, Hook-ups has been offered for years as an alternative to “take down.” Many classroom teachers have told me that they use Hook-ups to address discipline problems, freeing them to do the quality teaching for which they entered the profession.

I believe that children are naturally loving and cooperative. It’s been my experience that few people of any age enjoy losing control of their feelings or actions. Most people would rather have self-control and talk things over, instead of lashing out (either physically or verbally) without thinking and then having to deal with the unhappy consequences of their actions.

While it isn’t a subject area in most schools, the nurturing of self-discipline underlies the whole development of a child. What if Aaron had continued being punished by being blamed or shamed in front of his classmates, or even spanked or otherwise physically reprimanded? Would he then have learned self-restraint and how to calm himself? It’s unlikely.

In many public and parochial schools, the practice of hitting students is still seen as an acceptable form of discipline; in many states, it’s actually still legal for teachers and school administrators to paddle children. The latest report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights showed that in 2006 (the last year data was available) more than 200,000 students received some sort of physical punishment at school. Fashion designer Marc Ecko has initiated a campaign to end school spankings, or, more precisely, corporal punishment. Ecko makes a good point: in all 50 states, it’s illegal to hit a prisoner or an animal, but in 19 states it’s allowable to deny children due process before they go over a teacher’s knee.

For more information, see Ecko’s Unlimited Justice website.

Photo credit: © Greenland |, used with permission.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Just Do Your Best or “I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could”

LittleEngineFrom my earliest teaching of Edu-K, I have delighted in showing people that they can be effective learners when they don’t try, but simply do their best. Often trying harder simply intensifies the stress learners already feel when they haven’t yet developed a skill. Yet most learners, when doing their personal best, discover their capabilities on their own, once they’re encouraged to explore the physical skills related to the task at hand. In Brain Gym® and Me*, I described it in this way:

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be struggling all the time, but dedicated effort of the right kind is always needed until it’s no longer needed. If you’re learning the piano, you stick to your lessons until you master the instrument so well that you can forget you’re playing the piano and simply enjoy the music. If you’re going to run a marathon, you train hard and follow a schedule so that, on the day of the meet, you can enjoy the bliss of reaching that exquisite state in which you’re effortlessly in the flow.

Life is a continual process of going from low gear to high gear. Low gear is the appropriate state for new experiences, as we consciously and methodically do whatever is necessary to learn them, code them, and follow through on them. It’s the phase in which we climb the mountain with care until mountain climbing is installed in the body. Finally, when we reach the pinnacle of high gear, we enjoy the “I thought I could, I thought I could” experience of The Little Engine That Could as detailed in the well-known 1940s storybook by Watty Piper, that came with a phonograph record; as a child, I played that record so often that I wore it out).

What gave effort a bad name is that, as children, we were expected to try hard for no reason—at least none that we could see or understand. When adults fail to nurture, at home or at school, a child’s intrinsic interest in learning, they are compelled to replace it by external motivators that co-opt the soul in the name of education. This disconnection from our own inner sense of purpose and destiny carries on into adulthood and accounts for the well-known ‘mid-life crisis,’ triggered mainly by the heart’s rising need to have its own frustrated purposes listened to.”


This passage is excerpted is from Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul Dennison, © 2006.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


Research Nugget: The Energy Yawn

~ The Energy Yawn ~


Neuroscientist and therapist Mark Waldman, co-author with Andrew Newberg, MD, of How God Changes Your Brain, says that, in culling research on the brain, he found that yawning is one of the top five things we can do to exercise the brain. In fact, yawning about 10 times has been seen to be as effective as doing 10 to 15 minutes of relaxation exercises.

According to the research cited in the book, yawning increases blood flow and oxygen in key areas of the brain. Yawning has been shown to calm an overly active frontal lobe, release busy thoughts, heighten consciousness and relaxation, generate the sensorimotor rhythm or “coherent state” that happens when the mind is both relaxed and alert at the same time, and build intimacy with those around us.

Further, the act of yawning is said to stimulate alertness and concentration; optimize brain activity and metabolism; improve cognitive function; increase memory recall; enhance consciousness, introspection, and athletic skills; lower stress; improve voluntary muscle control; fine-tune one’s sense of time; increase empathy and social awareness; enhance pleasure and sensuality; and relax every part of the body. Who knew?!

So get your yawn on with The Energy Yawn, an activity that we’ve been doing with our students in Edu-K for more than 30 years! Make a yawning sound and begin to open wide (pretend to yawn a few times) as you gently massage or stroke away any tight facial areas near your jaw, just below your cheeks by your back molars. Continue until you induce a few real yawns and tears come to your eyes. Make some long, deep exhalation sounds.

For a lovely story and illustrations of animals doing the Brain Gym activities, check out Into Great Forest: A Brain Gym® Journey, by Shelley Petch.

The Deskbound Brain

Frustrated Student WritingIn most school classrooms, children are too sedentary. Where their grandparents and great grandparents counteracted all that deskbound sitting by walking to and from school, working on the farm, or going out in nature to play, most modern kids come home from school just to sit indoors texting, doing homework, watching TV, or playing digital games.

During one of Gail’s recent classroom presentations of the Brain Gym®  activities to some grade-schoolers, more than two-thirds of the students answered yes when she asked if they sometimes found it difficult to pay attention due to tension, stress, or discomfort from sitting too long. Another third raised their hands when asked if their eyes sometimes felt strained or tense when they were reading. Imagine the challenge of having to override those bodily signals in the midst of the learning process!

Regarding research on movement and learning, in the years that I’ve been developing and teaching Edu-K I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth. Since the 1940s, many researchers (Montessori, Getman, Gesell, Kephart, Barsch, Ayres . . .) have seen the movements of infant development as essential to school-readiness and have acknowledged the learning benefits of continued integrative sensorimotor activity. Yet others who’ve done research summaries on movement have questioned those findings as being inconclusive or unsupported.

Today, a growing number of experts are pointing out that movement is essential to learning. John J. Ratey, M.D., states in SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, that “When we exercise, particularly if the exercise requires complex motor movement, we’re also exercising the areas of the brain involved in the full suite of cognitive functions. We’re causing the brain to fire signals along the same network of cells, which solidifies their connections.” In A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain, Ratey says, ” . . . exercise raises the level of all kinds of brain chemicals . . . which make most people feel brighter and more alert. It also releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein I call ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain, which helps build and maintain the connections between brain cells.”

Educational neuroscientist David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, translates current research into strategies. He writes, “The more we study the role of the cerebellum, the more we realize that movement and learning are inescapably linked.”

In discussing the importance of movement to learning, Sousa says: “The mainstream educational community has often regarded thinking and movement as separate functions, assigning them different priorities. Activities involving movement, such as dance, theater, and occasionally sports, are often reduced or eliminated when school budgets get tight. But as brain studies probe deeper into the relationship between body and mind, the importance of regular movement breaks and alternatives to sitting passively must be taken seriously by educators.”


© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


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