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"Brain Calisthenics"

Have you ever gone to a new city and driven around and around, lost in trying to find a friend's house? Or have you tried to learn an exotic language -- Japanese, Russian, Greek -- and found it impossible to even relate to?

But then comes that moment, that click! when you start to get it. Some vocabulary word or phrase sticks, and slowly others begin to take hold as well.

In the case of driving, you look for your friend's house one day, totally lost, and the next day you have to drive there again from your hotel, and it's just as bad, seems like a maze, but on the third try, even though you don't remember the exact route, things are looking familiar: you manage to make the correct turns and go in the right direction, so that you get there -- almost on instinct.You "feel your way" and somehow, you arrive.

That, according to a recent article, "Brain Calisthenics" in the New York Times, is what learning is all about. It's not about rote memorization: learning is about pattern recognition.

"The brain is a pattern recognition machine," the article notes. "When focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person's grasp of a principle." The question is how to focus and develop this natural ability. At the New Roads School, Santa Monica, CA, teachers and children are working on just that.

It is known that "the brain registers patterns subconsciously, well before a person knows that he or she is learning." When I am feeling my way through the streets of that new city -- this time it was Providence, RI -- and consulting the map as well, my brain is picking up clues, even though I feel myself still to be bamfoozled, When the breakthrough comes, and I find my friend's house in record time, it seems like luck. But now I am free to put it all together. I have begun to create a picture of the problem and can commence to fill in the blanks.

This process should be no surprise. We know that the way to become an "expert" is through repetition and experience, i.e., practice. Trial and error -- working at the puzzle of mastery -- over many years provide the experiential basis for understanding -- and success.

Consider, for instance, playing the piano, or even pitching a baseball. In either case, you practice again and again, with or without instruction (think of the jazz great who never had a teacher but always loved to play) and eventually your mind and body get it: your fingers play scales evenly; your pitches go right over the plate. You can approach a challenge mechanically and spend years getting nowhere, or you can throw yourself into the problem (actually try learning to play piano or to pitch a slow curve), accepting the clues as they emerge. If you keep at it, you eventually see what works, and you begin to know what to expect. Working with a teacher may show you how, but you only "get it" if you do it for yourself.

Recognizing this process gives us, no matter our age, permission to learn differently, through emphasis on seeing patterns and on what works for us as individuals. It is not just rote memory of facts or even rules ("top-down instruction"). While there are indeed different ways of learning, there is no substitute for learning "from the ground up," and thus internalizing every step of the way.

Thus it is that allowing children to try things for themselves, to try and fail and try again, produces results that constant hovering and advice do not. The child who learns how to arrive at a solution in his or her own way is the child who has learned to trust that subtle patterning that we think of as instinct -- and to check that instinct against experience. (Does the ball go over the plate or not? Does the music sound right or not?) This is the basis of true self-confidence. Having once experienced success independently, a child is free to consider new challenges.

This is not to say that teaching or coaching is bad: good teaching recognizes the value of individual expression and exploration. In the end, constant advising does not allow for independent thought, but easily becomes a distraction to the process of assimilating information already received, a hindrance to putting previous advice into practice.

Let your children try things for themselves. You can -- and should -- be there, that's great moral support. But telling them all the things you wish you'd learned when you were their age is just going to get in the way.

My Plates vs. MyPlates

My partner has kept his weight at the same level for 40 years. He weighs himself daily, and if he's an ounce or a pound over or under, he adjusts accordingly his intake for the given day.

Now that we are cooking and eating together, he finds himself consistently under his "normal" weight. Yet he is not hungry. He is sufficiently disciplined not to snack between meals, though he can't resist tasting everything and nibbling while we cook. He has wine or beer with meals, sherry before, and often an after dinner cordial. And still he is losing weight. What am I doing to him???

Well, whatever it is, it's not bad. He can afford to lose at least five pounds -- he's a little round about the middle.

Shall I share my secret with you?

I think the reason is that everything we cook now is 1) prepared fresh, so it has maximum flavor, 2) vegetarian, with exceptions for occasional fish, shrimp, or chicken, 3) and organic, with its full nutritional value (nothing deleted/added for marketing purposes and of course no pesticide residues or chemical fertilizers, which are partial nutrients that lack the rounded, complementary content of traditional organic fertilizers -- yes, manure plus kitchen and yard compost).

Michelle Obama's nutrition program, called MyPlate, takes its own stab at improving diets, in order to attack the new national problem of obesity. Compared to my all-vegetable, all fresh, all organic approach, it does seem timid, but it is simpler than the Food Pyramid of yesteryear.

You can go to for lots of information and guidance on this. You will find links that let you enter foods to compare their nutritional value, understand terms such as "food group" and "empty calories," or print out useful materials for adults and children, including menus and recipes.

From my viewpoint, the recipes sound good except for their inclusion of prepared foods (graham crackers, lemon pudding mix,...) and low- or nonfat products. I am not convinced that the solution to cholesterol lies in excluding the rich flavor that fats bring to food -- I just think it makes sense not to eat too much of them.

And if you prepare fresh organic foods for yourself, your children, or your family, you may find more satisfaction in these complete and balanced meals than in the splurge on dessert. That's what's happened in my household.

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These articles provide information of a general nature only, and should be used only to supplement your knowledge. We hope you find the articles interesting, but cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in these articles. Nothing in these articles is intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your own physician if you have any concerns about your own health or the health of your child.