Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mirror Writing and Neurobics

This entry was a tough one to write.  A friend of mine asked me to investigate mirror writing, the ability to write backwards or inverted from what is the cultural standard.  I was excited to do so, as I am a lefty who used to write backwards and/or upside down as a kid (hey, it looked "right" to me). So before I started  investigating the science behind this, I had preconceived notions that research would have only positive things to say about this topic.  I was wrong.

I'll get the bad news out of the way first.  If you suddenly start mirror-writing out of the blue and unintentionally, you may want to talk to your doctor rather than show off the ability to your friends.  Spontaneous acquired mirror-writing may be a sign of a serious neurological problem. On top of that, even if you are an adult and naturally a mirror-writer, some researchers have concerns. It's not regarded as a real issue if small children mirror-write, as their brains are more flexible or neuroplastic than are adult ones. For them it's perfectly natural if they do it (or if they don't).

At four years of age, the presence of mirror writing is generally nothing to be concerned about. To understand why, it's important to know how the ability to write from left to right emerges in a young child. A young child first develops what's called laterality. This is an awareness of "leftness" and "rightness," or at least that the body has two sides. This internal awareness then matures into what's called directionality, which is the recognition and appreciation of right-left, up-down, forward-backward, etc.

By now you're probably wondering why on Earth would I think mirror-writing is something I suggest you try.  Didn't I just mention it being a feat connected to cognitive processing errors and dissociative disorders.  Well, yes.  But only if it is unintentional.  If you're doing this intentionally, then we're talking about a totally different matter, and it happens to be a good one.  

It turns out that mirror-writing is a very useful (and fun) neurological exercise. As we become adults, our brains make less and less neural connections, instead relying on the old tried-and-true ones it already has established. While this makes you crystallized in what you already know (do you really want to re-learn how to drive a car every time you get behind the wheel?), it can become challenging to learn new things.  
Much like a muscle, the brain needs to be exercised and exposed to new exercises. And mirror-writing is a great one.

You see, mirror-writing tends to correlate with having a thicker corpus callosum, and that is the part of the brain that enables the right and left hemisphere to communicate with each other.  Furthermore, there is some evidence that mirror-writers have bilateral language centers.  With the brain, two isn't always better than one, but in the case of language centers it is. Second-language acquisition comes easier to those with two active language centers, and word play probably does as well.

So give this exercise a try!  Start making new neural pathways and cognitive connections. Maybe you'll find learning a new language easier later on.

I should note to parents who want to give their tyke a cognitive boost that I wouldn't force mirror-writing on a small child.  Forcing a child to mirror-write is tantamount to forcing a lefthanded child to write with her or his right hand, which science now says is not so great.

For everyone else, here are a few videos to see what mirror-writing looks like. The first video is the only way I can mirror-write now.

Some other interesting facts about mirror-writing

  • Mirror writing is likely genetic. So if you are a natural mirror-writer, you can thank your mom or someone from your uterine family line!
  • Roughly 1 person in 6,500 is estimated to be a natural mirror-writer. 

"As with all entries in Mentathlete, this entry is not to be taken as medical advice.  Always consult your physician before pursuing any activity involving your health." 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Autogenics: The brain skill that can save your life.

 Autogenics is great for any stress-related issue. Just some of these include: insomnia, incontinence, hives, high-blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, eczema, and heart issues.  If you or someone you know may be struggling with a stress-related issue, this entry is for you. 

 Lucky me.  I was born with a electrical heart disorder called WPW. Occasionally my heart would seemingly lose its rhythm and take off as though I was in a race...for my life.  At one point my ticker went as fast as 200 beats per minute.  Not good. So why would I consider such a "defect" to be good fortune?  Well, I probably wouldn't have ever discovered autogenic training without the issue.  I know it sounds like a lemonade out of lemons story, but bear with me.

I didn't know I had a heart disorder until I was an adult.  I knew my bio-pumper would occasionally flutter, but I thought everybody's heart did that.  It never ceases to amaze me about life when you're little.  You assume if "X" happens to you, "X" happens to everyone. Or if you can do something, everyone can do it. But I digress.
I had some surgeries to fix my heart issue, and took beta-blockers prescribed to me to assist with the occasional palpitation thereafter. However, I later discovered that beta-blockers are not ideal for those with a higher risk of diabetes, like (gulp) African-Americans, so I just stopped taking mine. Arguably not my smartest moment, but I think being forthcoming is a worthwhile policy, even when it's unflattering.

Now most people can probably guess what happened next: I had a serious tachycardic episode one night.  This was about two and a half years ago, and I remember being terrified that I  was going to die. I've certainly had a few close calls in everyday life, just like everyone who has lived long enough, but this one felt ominously different.   I probably hadn't been in a church in at least four years before that night, but let me tell you, I prayed like a mantis not to die! To my surprise, my heart did regulate itself.  When I left the hospital that night and my heart would go erratic again, I would do a quick prayer as a remedy for each episode. 

You would imagine that I would have become a religious zealot from then on, but instead I wondered if I really had to resort to orisons in order to preclude an episode.  So the next time a palpitation happened, I just said "Stop" instead of appealing to the divine.  My heart "behaved itself" in response.   I no longer had  to call upon divine intervention for the heart issue any more than I needed to to scratch my nose.  This event made me even more curious, as it seemed to me that what I began doing was a healthy version of psychosomatics, the mind influencing the body in a good way.  After a bit of research, I discovered the name for it, a type of psychophysiological self-regulation called autogenic training. Lucky me.   

I had to admit, I was a bit disappointed to discover that what I could now do--speed up or slow down my heart through my emotions--could not be branded as a superpower, but in fact quite ordinary!  Medicine has known about this ability for a loooong time.  Yoga, biofeedback, progressive relaxation techniques, and autogenics are all disciplines that can lead to the ability to control involuntary aspects of your physiology, like your brain-waves, blood pressure, and heart rate. And I did indeed later learn how to control all of these things about myself.   I hesitate to use absolutes, like "always" and "everyone" but autogenics evidently is something that practically anyone can do.

I wondered why aren't people prescribed autogenic training rather than surgery  and/or drugs for certain health issues.  It's cheaper (my old beta-blockers cost about $40/month. My surgery bill soared into the thousands. On the other hand, autogenics--once you learn it--is free to use.) and always at your beck and call to utilize. And you can't forget to bring it with you, like you may with a bottle of pills. But the question of why autogenics and its variants are not more commonly prescribed is a question for another day.  I hope that one of the physicians I contacted will answer this question. If and when one does, I'll post the Q&A here.     

Of course in the meantime, you may want to try autogenics yourself. It's one of those things that you can go to a trainer to learn, or try to learn on your own.  I personally did a mixture of both.  Because of my circumstances, I learned heart control--which is considered one of the more advanced feats-- on my own before I learned the supposedly simpler ones like mentally erasing a tension headache via formal training.  Formal training helped me "fill in the blanks."

You can click here for a very thorough six step-plan for learning autogenics.  It typically takes 90 days to master, but people's learning curves vary, and you can expect some results in about 3 weeks, if you do the exercises daily.

--Nathan (Nth)

"As with all entries in Mentathlete, this entry is not to be taken as medical advice.  Always consult your physician before pursuing any activity involving your health."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

First entry

Hello Everyone:

Thank you for stopping by my blog about honing various mind skills and applying them to everyday life.  My name is Nathan Fields, but I go by Nth BarFields.*  I'm a mnemonist returning to competition, training to be an exponentially better mentathlete than I was in my first foray into mind sports. Other than that, I'm an online tutor and aspiring writer, formerly an autogenics trainer/biofeedback therapist, and I do volunteer work for a missing persons group called Find Me.

I am very much interested in mind sports.  So what exactly are mind sports, you may ask?  Great question.  They are mental skills tests, or games of skill.  We're talking about events like memory competitions and chess tournaments.  My own personal take is that mind sports fall into two categories:

1) Games of strategy.
    Some examples include backgammon, checkers, go, othello, scrabble, and poker.

2) Cognitive skills.
    Some examples include mental calculation, IQ, speed reading, creativity tournaments, and spatial puzzles,
    and word puzzles. 

Undoubtedly there will be some "mind sports" that will in the future blur the lines between the categories, and even between mental and physical sports.  Biofeedback tournaments like the proposed Brainball comes to mind. 

Anywho, as I previously mentioned,  come 2011 I hope to win a multiple number of mind sports events.  This blog will help me to stay focused on this goal. This time around I plan on competing in the following type of tournaments:

01) Backgammon
02) Creativity
03) ESP
04) Memory
05) Mental Calculation
06) Mind Mapping
07) Reasoning & Spatial Puzzles (IQ)
08) Speed Reading
09) Trivia
10) Word Games

If I return to college, then I may also compete in academic competitions like the Rudolf Ortvay International Competition in Physics.I'll likely compete in competitions open to the public, like short story competitions.

I'll post my strategies for how I plan to accomplish champion level scores in these different fields, and how I apply the skills to everyday life.  I gladly appreciate your feedback and additional suggestions.

I have seven months to get ready for the first two mind sporting events on my agenda, the USA Memory Championship and the American Crossword Puzzles Tournament. They are both in March and in New York.  I also plan on making it to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the same month, for a nice trifecta.  

* My 2009 five minute digit stats were actually 78 numbers, not 5.