This post has been moved to the Right Brain Child. You can read it here:
Playing with jigsaw puzzles have been touted to be beneficial for our brains. Although many of the claims have yet to be substantiated when we conducted our research of the literature, we did find that playing with jigsaw puzzles was good for developing short term memory and visual-spatial ability.
Why is short term memory important?
Short-term memory acts as a kind of “scratch-pad” for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time, and has been refered to as “the brain’s Post-it note”. It can be thought of as the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time (typically from 10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes up to a minute). – The Human Memory
Short term memory is one component of working memory – which we know is important if want our children to do well at school and in life. Short term memory is also the precursor to forming long term memories. If we can’t hold the information in our minds for even a short while, it will have no chance of ever being transferred into our long term memories.
Why is visual-spatial intelligence important?
Spatial ability is the capacity to understand and remember the spatial relations among objects. – John Hopkins University
Many tasks in everyday life require visual-spatial skills to help us solve them, for example:
- using a map to navigate through an unfamiliar city
- driving a car – being able to switch lanes, parking the car
- packing – how many items can fit into a certain box
Visual spatial ability is also important in certain areas of study, such as science, mathematics, and engineering. It is required when:
- Architects and engineers design buildings.
- Chemists work with the three-dimensional structure of a molecule.
- Surgeons navigate the human body during their surgical procedures.
- Sculptors visualise the end result of a sculpture trapped inside a matrix of stone.
As an avid jigsaw puzzle player, I believe that working on jigsaw puzzles also sharpens our observation skills, especially in detecting differences in colours and shapes. For instance, in some puzzles, the colour differentiation between one patch of blue from another is so minute that we are often unable to detect the difference initially. After working on the puzzle for a while, our eyes become more discerning to the differing shades of colours and where they belong. We also become more aware of the individual puzzle shapes – sometimes observing that a particular puzzle piece matches a corresponding.
Jigsaw puzzles are available everywhere but unless you can get the kids excited about them, it is difficult to realise their benefits. Additionally, for a jigsaw puzzle to develop these skills, it needs to be sufficiently challenging for your child.
We received this challenging 500 piece 3D National Geographic Jigsaw Puzzle of a shark from HappiKiddo. It was more challenging than the average jigsaw puzzle because it is a lenticular puzzle – that is, the image moves depending on the angle from which you are looking. Nevertheless, G1 eagerly took on the challenge (with my help) and we finished the puzzle after a couple of hiccups – it was dismantled twice while we were working on it!
Tentative research results demonstrate that simply looking at pictures of nature can improve brain function. If that is so, perhaps working on jigsaw puzzles of nature images might also lend some added advantage as well…
Regardless of whether it is or isn’t so, jigsaw puzzles are not only a great way to develop observation skills, short term memory and visual spatial intelligence, they are also a fun way to spend some family time together.
For the parents who are still on the early learning journey or about to embark upon it, I thought I should share this…
Positive Emotions Help Infants Remember
Early learning experts – Doman, Shichida, Heguru, TweedleWink – have always stressed the importance of being joyful, happy, and loving when teaching young children. In fact, four of Doman’s early learning rules are devoted to it:
- Be joyous at all times
- Teach only when you and your child are happy
- Create a good learning environment
- Remember the fail-safe law: if you aren’t having a wonderful time and your child isn’t having a wonderful time – stop. You are doing something wrong.
If you want to know why this is important, an article from PsyBlog explains the science behind it: The Basic Emotion That Makes Infants Remember What They’ve Seen –
“Babies can remember what they’ve seen if it is paired with a positive emotion, a new study finds, but nothing otherwise.”
In the study, researchers tested the effect of a positive, negative and neutral tone of voice and found that infants could only remember what they had learned if the voice was positive. When neutral and negative tones were employed, the infants remembered nothing.
So remember, when you are teaching your infants, always be joyful, happy and positive.
Notes on Choosing a Preschool
Although the study was done on infants, I would probably also be inclined to extrapolate this effect for toddlers and preschoolers. If you are sending you child to preschool or considering it, another factor I think we should add to our list of considerations for choosing the right school would be to see how the teachers interact with the children and whether they convey these positive emotions during their teaching.
- How to Choose the Right School for Your Child
- Right Brain Kids: Right Brain Education Begins with Relationships First
- Right Brain Education Philosophies, Principles and Practices
- Right Brain Education Rule: Love, Relationship, then Knowledge
During pregnancy, they say that the brain shrinks a little and they attribute that as the reason why pregnant women are so forgetful. Supposedly, this is all meant to return to normal after the pregnancy (give or take a little bit of recovery time) – “should” and “normal” being the operative words. Except that it’s now seven years on and I’m still battling the Mom Brain. I don’t seem to have made much recovery at all. If anything, the Mom Brain feels worse than ever.
Being Absentminded Versus Having a Bad Memory
I used to think it was because I had a bad memory. I would train my memory on Lumosity hoping to fix the problem only to realise that my problem isn’t my memory. In fact, by Lumosity’s standard, my memory isn’t bad at all. So why don’t I remember what I need to remember when I need to remember it?
The Absentminded Professor
The absentminded professor is a common stereotype describing a talented academic who is usually so engrossed in her ‘own world’ that she fails to keep track of her surroundings. Now that sounds like me! Except that my mind is usually not preoccupied with fantastical theorems or something significant such as the cure for cancer – it just has a propensity to wander off with the fairies and forget to come home.
For example, I might be brushing my teeth and I’ll remember that I need to take my phone off the charger and put it into my handbag. Since I’m in the process of brushing my teeth, I don’t do it immediately, but after I’m done brushing, I get distracted by other things, like making sure my sons have packed their bags for school and getting out of the house and into the car. We’ll be in the car halfway to school when I’ll remember that I forgot to take my phone.
Here’s another example that commonly happens to me: I’ll be in the process of replying an email (or SMS) when my boys will interrupt me with a request for assistance or something. I’ll stop to help them and then I never end up replying that email or sending off that SMS, except that in my mind, I remember writing a reply and it gets checked off the “to do” list even though it hasn’t been completed.
What’s happening in the brain?
I was reading an article about parents who forget their children in the backseat when I stumbled on the explanation of why the brain temporarily forgets the things it needs to remember. According to memory expert, David Diamond:
The human brain is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.
In situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.
Ordinarily, this delegation of duty “works beautifully, like a symphony. But sometimes, it turns into the ‘1812 Overture.’ The cannons take over and overwhelm.”
By experimentally exposing rats to the presence of cats, and then recording electrochemical changes in the rodents’ brains, Diamond has found that stress — either sudden or chronic — can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia.
How do we fix the Problem?
In all honesty, I don’t have any answers, but I suspect that these will be good places to begin:
- physical activity and exercise – improves circulation to the brain and overall brain health
- practice mindfulness – focussing on the now and being fully present
- stop multi-tasking – especially with that smart phone we carry around with us everywhere that has half our attention at any one time
If you have any other ideas, feel free to suggest them in the comments.
We know that exercise makes you smarter, but if you want to get the most bang for your buck, the exercise of choice should be yoga. At least that is what a recent study indicates…
Yoga Improves Brain Function More Than Aerobic Exercises
From the Journal of Physical Activity and Health (2013) – The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function:
Results showed that cognitive performance after yoga exercise was significantly superior (subjects had shorter reaction times and increased accuracy) as compared to the aerobic group and baseline conditions for both inhibition and working memory tasks.
- 30 college-aged women participated in three sessions:
- 20 minute Hatha yoga exercise session
- 20 minute aerobic exercise session on a treadmill working at 60-70% of maximum heart rate
- baseline assessment
- Cognitive performance was tested after each session using:
How Yoga Changes the Brain
Using MRI scans, Chantal Villemure of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda detected more gray matter—brain cells—in certain brain areas in people who regularly practiced yoga, as compared with control subjects.
Yogis had larger brain volume in the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body, the superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention, and the visual cortex, which Villemure postulates might have been bolstered by visualization techniques. The hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress, was also enlarged in practitioners, as were the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas key to our concept of self. – Scientific American
Given that mindfulness meditation has also been shown to offer brain benefits, it ought to be expected that yoga would be superior to plain cardio exercise since yoga offers the combined action of exercise and meditation. Are the effects really synergistic? Well, as always, further study is required, but while we’re waiting, it’s worthwhile to opt for yoga over a mindless run on the treadmill if you had to make a choice.
Yoga Offers Other Benefits
Besides, even if you aren’t fully convinced, yoga has also been shown to offer many other benefits:
- Reducing stress – I think this is particularly important with the increasing awareness of children who are suffering from stress and anxiety
- Enhancing parts of the brain that is responsible for memory
- Elevating mood and reducing anxiety (which is greater than that shown for other exercises) – which can help with depression and insomnia
- Reducing blood pressure
From Your Brain on Yoga by Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD who has been fully engaged in basic and clinical research on the effectiveness of yoga and meditation practices in improving physical and psychological health for over 10 years.
About Sat Bir Singh Khalsa
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa is a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor who has practiced a yoga lifestyle for over 40 years. He is the Director of Research for the Kundalini Research Institute, Research Director of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
- Effects of Yoga on Mental and Physical Health: A Short Summary of Reviews
- This is Your Brain on Yoga – Psychology Today
- This is Your Brain on Yoga – Yoga International
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