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HEAD TRIPS A PERSONAL TRAINER FOR THE MIND SUGGESTS FLEXING YOUR MENTAL MUSCLES

Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Jun 11, 1998; Connie Lauerman, Tribune Staff Writer.;

Abstract:
(Donalee) Markus, a onetime junior high teacher turned cognitive-restructuring consultant, has a solution: brain exercise.

Markus, who is based in Highland Park, uses sequenced exercises involving visual imagery to diagnose gaps in thinking skills such as categorization, analysis and inference. Then she uses other types of exercises designed to remedy an individual's specific cognitive problems.

The process is called "mediated learning." A client is presented with a visual problem, say a series of shapes or combinations of letters and lines, and asked to determine the next in the sequence. If he or she doesn't know, Markus might ask questions, such as, "Is there anything the same here?" Or she would point out something that, in effect, reorganizes the information to make it seem less confusing. Then she presents a similar but different puzzle, repeating a "test, teach, rehearse, retest" sequence.

Full Text:
Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Jun 11, 1998

`Even smart people make silly mistakes and dumb decisions," notes Donalee Markus.

Some people, she says, "sense that there's a missing link, a reason why their intelligence is compromised in certain areas, but they're unable to learn from their mistakes and failures."

Instead, she says, they develop tactics to compensate that may involve avoiding certain situations or falling back on routine solutions, especially when under stress. Others may spend tremendous amounts of time "reinventing the wheel" with each new assignment or client.

Markus, a onetime junior high teacher turned cognitive-restructuring consultant, has a solution: brain exercise.

"You spend several hours a week working out your body, why not flex your mental muscles?" she asks.

Markus, who is based in Highland Park, uses sequenced exercises involving visual imagery to diagnose gaps in thinking skills such as categorization, analysis and inference. Then she uses other types of exercises designed to remedy an individual's specific cognitive problems.

The exercises are content-free puzzles that require people to connect dots, figure out graphic progressions and such. The objective is not to solve the puzzles but rather to generate as many ways of approaching the puzzles as possible.

The beauty of this gamelike method, Markus says, is that "you loosen up, and if you make a mistake, you learn from that mistake."

In effect, the exercises allow participants to observe their thinking processes.

Markus, who has corporate and individual clients, leads her clients through the exercises in a series of sessions.

The process is called "mediated learning." A client is presented with a visual problem, say a series of shapes or combinations of letters and lines, and asked to determine the next in the sequence. If he or she doesn't know, Markus might ask questions, such as, "Is there anything the same here?" Or she would point out something that, in effect, reorganizes the information to make it seem less confusing. Then she presents a similar but different puzzle, repeating a "test, teach, rehearse, retest" sequence.

"What I'm really testing," she says, "are my skills. If you didn't get it, I missed something."

Her clients have included people from all walks of life: physicians, lawyers, commodities traders, salespeople, accountants, unsuccessful college students and children with learning disabilities.

Steven Coven, who owns North American Polymer Co., a distributor of paints and industrial coatings in Chicago, says that a year or so of weekly sessions with Markus allowed him to "develop a set of tools" to help remedy a tendency toward disorganization that he calls his Achilles heel.

"That's not to say that I'm the A-1 example of organization -- it's a progressive thing -- but now I feel I'm able to approach a complex problem, break it apart and dissect the pieces," Coven says. "That allows me to look at problems and situations differently.

"And I no longer have anxiety attacks when five or six things are thrown at me at once."

Los Alamos workshops

Six months after Markus conducted a series of workshops at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 1990 for 12 key staffers, all of whom have advanced degrees, the participants reported personal and professional benefits.

John Fox, chief of staff in the environment safety and health division at Los Alamos, says that "the personal changes they indicated were an enriched sense of pattern recognition, new skills in redefining problems, learning problem solving from multiple perspectives and learning to appreciate others' methods of thinking."

"The other applications they saw were training their trainers to be more effective in the classroom and helping managers with clarity in all their communications," he added.

When Markus first sees clients, whether in a group or individually, she makes a sort of fluid assessment of the way they function. She wants to determine if they have a "system."

A system, she explains, is "any way of organizing. We talk about people who will say, `Intuitively, I knew.' Intuition means that on the basis of a salient characteristic you've clustered a lot of other variables, and that's OK.

"But before you had an intuition, you had a system, a way of analyzing a problem, a way of looking at something. A system lets you make decisions based on bits and pieces of information."

This process may be below most people's level of awareness, but Markus says it's not "below their ability," and it is a key to being organized and making wise decisions.

Markus' work builds on that of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist who honed his theories on intelligence in the late 1940s while working with children who were orphaned or separated from their parents during the Holocaust.

Many of these children suffered from severe emotional disorders and scored very low on standardized intelligence tests. Feuerstein reasoned that it might be better to measure their capacity to learn rather than what they knew.

With that in mind, Feuerstein and his colleagues gradually developed an assessment tool very different from traditional tests. The testing sessions were like tutorials, with the examiner presenting a task and observing how far the subject could go with it if taught. The examiner intervened, giving explanations and pointers when necessary and asking for repetition.

Feuerstein discovered that many who performed poorly on the standard test were far more capable than their IQs suggested and that their "thinking problems" could be remedied with "mediated learning experiences."

Markus, who is married to a plastic surgeon, worked as a junior high teacher for five years, stopping when she was pregnant with the first of her four children. She later went back to school to work on a doctorate in the department of communicative disorders at Northwestern University. But she became frustrated because, she says, although she could use her teaching skills to engage handicapped individuals, she lacked "an understanding of neurology and cognition and how everything fit together."

She quit just shy of her dissertation and entered another graduate program at Northwestern in the school of management, earning a doctorate in administrative and management sciences.

Reading about Feuerstein's work in 1981 changed the course of her life.

"Feuerstein was the first person I had read who said that the brain is an open, complex system and that we can affect intelligence, that intelligence is plastic and modifiable at any age," she says.

"To ignore the role of heredity is foolish, but it just doesn't have to have the last word, and we can improve on it."

Classes for children

She studied with Feuerstein and became so excited about the possibilities that she began holding after-school classes for her own children and other kids in her home, using brain exercises that her mentor had developed.

Markus had experienced the exercises herself, and she was sold on them.

"Even though I had the benefits of wonderful experiences with teachers and schools and wonderful parents, (the fact) that this program could assist me at the PhD level in reorganizing information and appreciating things I had never seen before was almost scary," she says.

She later began designing original exercises for high-functioning adults, called Designs for Strong Minds™, and soon was contracted to provide programs for workers at such corporations as McDonald's, Ameritech and Quaker Oats.

Currently, Markus is writing a book, developing a computer game to cultivate creativity, and working with NASA to develop an interactive computerized learning program.

And she is anxious to plunge into scientific research to prove the theory that brain exercises open new neuro pathways in the brain.

Lukasz Konopka, director of neurophysiology in Hines V.A. Hospital's biological psychiatry section and an assistant professor at Loyola University School of Medicine, has been working with Markus to devise a research protocol.

Konopka says that a combination of available brain-imaging tools, including MRI, SPECT and quantitative EEG, would allow scientists to "determine whether or not specific brain training actually changes the structure or function of the brain.

"The old notion was that the brain is a pretty much static organ and the only thing that happens to it is that it diminishes in its capability postpuberty,' he says.

"Most neuroscientists now would agree that's not true. With children we know we can do many things (to modify brain function), but the question is can we modify the brain function of adults as well. I think the answer is yes, and the other question is what are the most optimal ways of doing it."

In the meantime, Feuerstein's intervention program, called Instrumental Enrichment, is being used in schools and industrial settings around the world.

Carl Haywood, professor of psychology emeritus at Vanderbilt University and dean of the graduate school of education and psychology at Touro College in New York City, conducted extensive research on Instrumental Enrichment in the 1970s and 1980s.

"There is a very clear effect on the teachers who have this kind of training," he says. "Their teaching style changes. The emphasis is not on pouring in information. The emphasis is on thinking and stimulating the children to think for themselves.

"The ability of children -- or adults -- to solve problems that require abstract reasoning goes up, sometimes dramatically.

"It increases their motivation to do school-related work, to use their minds. That's probably the biggest thing that happens. They get turned on to their minds and to the fact that they can do things they didn't know they could do."

That's the kind of thing that excites Markus.

"My real love is bringing about change," she says.

 
     
 
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