In class, he fidgets, every auditory and visual stimulus distracts him--
he gets up, talks to other students and disrupts the class. Nothing
seems to hold his attention; he looks at the page, and moments later
turns around and disturbs the boy behind him. At home, he grabs his food
and leaves the table. He is continuously distracted. The only thing
that seems to capture his attention is his computer games.
Health is optimized when we live in harmony with our biological and evolutionary background.
behaviors allowed survival for thousands of generation. Disorders often
occur when we neglect our evolutionary background during infant,
toddler and childhood stages of development. Diabetes, obesity,
allergies, asthma, attention deficit disorder —ADD — and attention
deficit and hyperactivity disorder — ADHD — and other illnesses are more
common in our modern life style. ADD/ADHD disorder is only a disorder
if the behavior is too dysfunctional in the cultural setting, or if the
learning style is not supported by the prevailing culture.
Lynda and Michael Thompson — directors of the ADD Centre &
Biofeedback Institute of Toronto — observed that in running a boys’
camp, and ADHD boys are often sent off to camp, that ADHD children were
the best on really difficult canoe trips. They were far faster learners
of difficult mathematical concepts concerning the relationship of sails
and wind if they were taught in those conditions — such as wild
approaching hurricane winds. However, they were terrible if it were
insisted that they just sit on a dock and listen.
disorders have become epidemical during the last 30 years. Now one in
seven boys has received this diagnosis by the time of reaching age 18,
according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as shown in
the following graph.
The increase in ADD/ADHD or diabetes,
obesity and allergies cannot be explained by genetics alone. It may
depend upon the interaction of genetics and the environment. Diabetes
and obesity have increased because sugar intake has increased from about
10 pounds in the 19th century to 150 pounds per year today. Similarly,
allergies previously were rare; however, during the past 20 years they
have tripled. This spring I was shocked when I asked my students at San
Francisco State University how many had allergies and more than 25% of
the students said they did. When these illnesses occur, we attempt to
remedy them with medications.
Medications such as Adderall,
Concerta and Ritalin are prescribed for ADD/ADHD and provide an $8
billion revenue stream for pharmaceutical companies. Yet, there is
little or no evidence of long term benefits.
approaches such as neurofeedback have demonstrated long-term benefits in
improving reading, writing, and mathematical scores as well as
decreasing impulsive behavior. Neurofeedback training teaches children
how to control their brain function. It is similar to learning a new
language, mastering a musical instrument, or becoming proficient in a
sport. It takes time and practice to retrain and rewire the brain.
Medications often mask the symptoms.
It also means respecting
different learning styles; since numerous people with diagnosed or
undiagnosed ADD/ADHD are highly successful. They have learned how to use
their brain in a style to make them perform even better.
health education needs to focus on prevention and supporting optimum
brain development from birth through early childhood and encourage the
following factors which are in our control.
- Breastfeed children for up to two years and concurrently introduce new foods slowly after the 6 or 8 months.
- Respect the importance of face-to-face contact to provide safety, develop empathy and nurture social connection.
Encourage motor development such as crawling, playing in nature, and
physical movement to support brain development instead of sitting and
being entertained by smart phones, computers, tablets or TV screens.
Physical movement during play — without being distracted by the
overwhelming rapid changing stimuli shown on LED and TV screens — is
necessary for brain development.
- Provide constancy and reduce novelty
cacophony of sounds, I could not make any sense of it. I finally
comprehended one word when it accompanied the action a polite bow and
words were repeated time and time again. All of a sudden I could
recognize and even say “Konnichiwa” – good afternoon in Japanese. My
hosts wanted to help me learn some more words; however, they said one
Japanese word after another. I could not remember any of them. Only when
a few words with appropriate action were repeated time and time again
could I remember them.
When reading a bedtime story, the
child wants to hear the same story again and again. If part of the story
is skipped, the child interrupts and reminds us to read correctly. When
the child is stressed, it wants to hear a previous story for comfort
and safety. Repetition while feeling safe allows memory to create
appropriate neural connections.
Having too few stimuli
hinders brain development. Rumanian orphans who were warehoused with
limited stimuli had brains with less grey and white matter than children
who were brought up in an enriched environment. These Romanian children
had difficulty keeping focused attention and making social connections.
Having too many novel stimuli also decreases brain
development. A sensory overload environment — such as too many toys to
play with and too many choices to make. The more hours children watch
TV, the higher is the incidence of ADD/ADHD. Babies and toddlers are now
entertained by watching smart phone screens and monitors instead of
kinesthetically exploring the world and integrating/connecting visual
and auditory stimuli with touch and movement.
This lack of
interconnection is seen in some people with learning disabilities. Some
have incomplete motor development — when skipping, they tend to lift the
arm and leg on the same side of the body instead of lifting their
opposite arm and leg. This incomplete coordination may have been caused
by the repeated triggering of the defense (fight/flight) reaction to
excessive auditory and visual stimuli.
Children need more
time crawling, walking and playing in nature to develop an integrated
motor pattern. Researchers Taylor and Kuo showed in 2011 that ADD/ADHD
children re-exposed to nature and play in nature children have decreased
Rapidly changing visual stimuli from the
screens and monitors evoke biological reflexes to attend —which is
something new, and it could be dangerous. The stimuli do not train
self-control or internally generated attention. The flood of novel
visual and auditory stimuli trains the brain to react — to react again,
and again. The ongoing external novelty captures a child’s attention,
instead of directing attention from within.
A similarity is
also observed in college students. Professor Andrew Lepp and colleagues
at Kent State University discovered that the more the students use their
cell phones and texted, especially while studying, the lower were their
grade point averages, and the higher their anxiety levels. Their
attention was continuously interrupted instead of staying focused.
Adults also experience the paralysis of too many choices and stimuli. If
you have only one or two choices, you become happier and content. With
too many choices, you keep thinking, “May be the other one would have
Infants are often bombarded with visual and
auditory stimuli without the opportunity to feel safe through
face-to-face contact with mother/caretaker familiar faces. Until the
19th century babies were commonly carried facing the mother’s chest.
Babies also faced their mothers in 19th century baby carriages. Now
babies are often carried facing outward on the chest or in baby
carriages/strollers facing forward — where they lead the charge into the
unknown — instead of facing the parent, touching the parent or hiding
behind the parent for safety.
Let us create an environment
that is in harmony with our evolutionary background instead of being
parked in front of smart phones, tablets, GameBoys, computers and
television screens. Such an environment would be one where infants play
interactively with objects, explore nature and have face-to-face
contacts with their caregivers.