Category Archives: Book Reviews

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao

Amidst the adoption of controversial Common Core state standards and as students across the U.S. prepare to take end-of-year exams, it is important to reflect about the implications of a centralized and test-based educational system. Chinese-educated University of Oregon Professor Yong Zhao’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, is a polemic against authoritarian educational systems. He argues that China’s leading performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made western countries, including the United States, admire and strive to emulate China’s educational system so as to avoid China developing a superior workforce. However, Zhao argues that China’s two thousand year old tradition of authoritarian educational system produces good test-takers but extirpates the critical qualities, such as creativity, that actually produce thought leaders and make a society and its workforce thrive. The greatest threat the U.S. faces from China is not that the Chinese educational system is better, but rather that the allure of its flawed educational system might lead the U.S. to diminish its investment in developing entrepreneurial, divergent thinkers thereby compromising what has made the U.S. educational system so successful.

Zhao explains that in 2009 and 2012 students in Shanghai were the top performs in the world in all three PISA exam subjects (math, reading, and science). China’s educational system garnered praise. President Obama described the realization that China was outeducating the U.S. as a “Sputnik moment.” Zhao argues that this hype is misplaced in part because the PISA exam is a flawed measure. Data collection and analysis techniques are widely criticized. Some claim the test is culturally biased. A PISA score is merely an indicator of content mastery in three academic subjects; it does not measure social-emotional aspects of development that are critical for educating young people who will be successful adults. One test cannot possibly serve as a proxy for summarizing the strength of an entire educational system. Zhao argues that PISA scores indicate the extent to which students have been “homogenized” to think a certain way and cannot assess their creative capabilities.

According to Zhao, Chinese students perform well on these exams because of a tradition dating back to at least 605 AD when the Keju testing system was invented to “meritocratically” select people for highly sought government posts. The Keju test, which was administered until 1905, did make citizens highly value education, but it rewarded obedience and respect for authority, while diverting some of China’s brightest minds away from being innovators. Zhao says today’s college entrance exam, gaokao, drives similar intense competition and denies students the opportunity to develop themselves holistically. He describes a secondary school, Mao Zhong, in which students and parents work relentlessly for a year and spend thousands of dollars, to improve college exam scores.

Even if PISA scores were a perfect indicator of an educational system’s quality, the myopic focus on test scores has deleterious effects. Zhao argues that students from rural areas and students with disabilities are disadvantaged and overlooked. The testing culture has fostered an insidious, rampant, billion-dollar cheating culture. In 2013, when a cheating scheme for the college exam was stopped, rioters in the Hubei province chanted, “there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” At several levels of the educational structure a system of rewards and punishments exists to promote publishing academic papers. This has propelled China to become the second largest producer of scientific journal articles; however, some of these are based on false results and those that do not falsify results are not as highly regarded (as measured by citations) as research from other countries. There has been a 32-fold increase in patents, but many are essentially useless. The recent Atlanta test cheating scandal is an early indicator of the corrupting influence that an obsession with test scores can have here as in China.

The Ministry of Education made some attempts to dilute the emphasis on testing and rank, but these changes did not materialize. There is a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts; no individual student or parent is willing to cease doing everything possible to increase his test score and prospect of admission to a selective school when he knows that other students will still be doing the same, regardless of governmental messages to the contrary. Thus, not only does an authoritarian educational system suppress creative thinking, but a society that has become authoritarian in its educational practices is difficult to change. This should serve as a warning to us here. To create and support an educational system that produces globally-minded, innovative, citizens for tomorrow, it is critical to encourage the pursuit of intellectual passions and to scaffold social emotional development.


Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. John Wiley & Sons.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Stephen A. Pinker

Because the 2014 writing guide Steven Pinker authored is truly essential for improving writing, all writers would certainly benefit from reading it. “Purists”, as Pinker calls the sticklers for grammatical rules, might identify four or five errors in the previous sentence. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Pinker, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, argues that the “texting generation” has not ruined English as some fear; rather poor writing has always abounded. Pinker’s aim is to help good writers become better. He draws on psychological and linguistic research to explain in an entertaining voice the underlying principles behind why his practical tips will improve writing.

Pinker reminds us that good writers are avid readers who have honed their writing craft over time. Good writing requires critical analysis of language usage and decision-making in the face of ambiguous and evolving rules. Pinker characterizes writing as an unnatural way to communicate because it deprives us of many of the tools we use in speech. Style is critical for building understanding and trust between writer and reader because it helps preserve the elements of oral communication that can get lost on the page.

Pinker says the most damning obstacle to good writing is the curse of knowledge. Cognitive science research suggests that people are minimally competent in knowing what another person knows or thinks. They are not good at imagining what it would be like for another person not to know something that they know already. The curse of knowledge leads to the overreliance on jargon, abbreviations, and onerous chunks of information. It leads to the underutilization of explanations, examples, concrete descriptions of visual images, and digestible packets of information. The best way to avoid these problems and to write with the needs of the reader in mind is to revise. Asking someone with less knowledge about the topic to edit a work is critical. Pinker says that authors often organize their ideas in an arbitrary order rather than in the order that will facilitate the reader’s understanding and retention. Creating an outline and being clear in one’s own mind about the purpose of the writing can help minimize this tendency. A writer should also repeatedly edit her written work.

Pinker argues that writing in a classic style can help people avoid the pitfalls that make writing stuffy. Good writers assume that they and their readers are equally intelligent, but unequally familiar with the topic at hand. Clarity and simplicity are the hallmark of good writing. Good writers are not anxious, apologetic, or trite. For example, they make claims in the first person and avoid the use of clichés.

Syntax is important because it converts a nest of jumbled ideas into a coherent string of words. Psychological research shows that people more easily comprehend meaning when a topic is introduced before the comments about the topic are made and when related ideas are next to one another; this is also syntactically desirable. Extra words, varied terms for the same concept, and the use of multiple negative words encumber readers with a greater cognitive load and more demands on working memory; brief sentences are preferable.

Pinker concludes with two lists. One is a catalog of grammatical rules and word-meanings that purists might embrace. He argues that the items on the list are not necessarily violations of grammatical conventions. For example, there is a place for “ain’t” in English; beginning a sentence with a conjunction is usually just fine; dangling modifiers with clear subjects are permissible; ending a sentence with a preposition often leads to better comprehension. Those who are sticklers for language will find this list interesting and challenging; those who are tired of having their grammar corrected may find this list vindicating; all English-language users can benefit from being exposed to the controversies on this list. He concludes with a list of common grammatical or word-meaning mistakes made by writers that are true errors to be avoided. Pinker uses humor and pithy comics, has a flexible attitude about writing rules, and explains the underlying cognitive motivation for these rules. This makes his writing style guide an approachable, useful, entertaining, and clear tool to helping any competent writer become great.


Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, New York: Penguin.

Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate by W.R. Klemm

“I will become what I think” (p. 14). Texas A&M professor W.R. Klemm explains in a comprehensible and personable voice how neuroscientific evidence supports the axiom above. Drawing on his experience as a neuroscientist and his training in veterinary medicine, Klemm argues in his 2014 book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, that through our own thoughts we shape what we become. He argues that consciously and unconsciously we construct our sense of self and we do indeed have freewill. This book will be of interest not only to neuroscientists engaged in the debate about free will but also anyone interested in the science of self-improvement, personal responsibility, and the development of a sense of self.

Klemm describes what neuroscience at-large knows about how the brain works and the implications of this for consciousness. He discusses the importance for brain functioning of, for example, the topographical map, synaptic connections and different types of brain cells. Critically, he describes the brain’s circuit impulse patterns (CIPs), which can be thought of as a set of instructions about how every neuron in a given brain circuit should fire. CIPs in the neocortex play a critical role in determining conscious thoughts and binding information together. Klemm asserts that the conscious mind not only arises from, but also is equivalent to, CIP functioning.

Consciousness is a mental state in which the brain is aware of what it knows and feels and is able to fill the gaps of the sensory information it perceives. Wakefulness and working memory are necessary for consciousness. Consciousness is the basis for our formation of sense of self. He explains that there is a two-way interaction between the conscious and unconscious mind. Consciousness and sense of self develop in the last couple of months of a pregnancy and continue developing, certainly into young adulthood, and in some ways throughout life, according to Klemm. He presents evidence that some animals have a rudimentary sense of self and consciousness.

Many scientists argue that consciousness does not have a purpose and that free will is an illusion. Klemm details the arguments these scientist use to support that position, but ultimately he disagrees. He believes that consciousness enhances sensations, feelings, thoughts, and social interactions and may have evolved because it helped us outcompete other species. He uses the analogy of an avatar—our CIPs construct a being that acts on behalf of the brain and body. We come to understand that avatar as our sense of ourselves as a subject, as our conscious “I”. Klemm details the brain structures and wave signals associated with consciousness. He discusses the religious, cultural, and political corollaries of consciousness (e.g. investment in language and the arts) and the implications of a belief in freewill (e.g. the appropriateness of a criminal justice system).

Klemm hesitantly wades into the world of “spooky science.” For example, he suggests that quantum mechanics in general and wave functions in particular may one day help us understand consciousness more fully. He also states that our mental life or “life force” is more than the sum of our brain chemistry. For example, science has yet to explain why many people who come back from the precipice of death describe an out-of-body experience in which they see themselves hovering over their body or feel a warm, loving embrace.

Above all, Klemm urges us to remember that we can teach our brains to unlearn maladaptive habits, learn more efficient ways of thinking and embody a better attitude and emotional state. We can change our CIPs by altering what we sense, think and do. We have free will to change our lives and ourselves.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of how the Brain and Mind Relate. Prometheus Books.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

In his 2014 book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When Where and Why It Happens, science reporter Benedict Carey suggests that much of what we are taught about how to study efficiently and how to promote learning are mistaken. Drawing on cognitive psychology and learning sciences research, as well as his own educational experiences, Carey argues that old adages about keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, studying in a quiet, dedicated study space without distractions, and continuously practicing a skill until it is perfected are not the best ways to promote memory and learning. In fact, distractions, interruptions, sleeping, daydreaming and leaving work (temporarily) unfinished all have been demonstrated to increase learning. Carey’s integration of historic psychological studies, the newest learning research, and practical application of that research will make this book appealing to anyone interested in developing strategies for making their learning process more efficient.

Carey begins by describing the anatomical and cellular structure of the brain as it relates to memory. Drawing on well-known research about a man named Henry Molaison (HM) Carey shows the importance of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the brain, for memory consolidation. Memories are stored in throughout the neocortex, on the thin outer part of the brain. Research into HM as well as other work in the field, supports the idea that we have episodic-, semantic-, and motor-memories. Over a century of research about memory and forgetting suggests that using our memory changes it. Although forgetting increases as time passes and as a function of the memory’s storage strength and retrieval strength, forgetting is not necessarily bad; it is actually an effective way of filtering information.

Carey transitions to discussing the ways in which we can harness our memory to retain information. More important than the number of hours spent studying is the way study time is distributed. Cramming can help a student get over an immediate hurdle, but the student is unlikely to remember that information in the more distant future. Conversely, spacing study time over a longer period and requiring one’s mind to recall information over multiple study sessions promotes long-term retention.

Learners should interleave practicing different but closely related skills or types of knowledge. Interleaving slows initial learning, but it bolsters pattern recognition, selection of appropriate strategies, and switching among those strategies. Studying in multiple types of environments, including environments with diversions, can promote retention, but test performance is enhanced when the test and study contexts are similar. Self-testing is important because people easily fall prey to the illusion of knowing; they believe they are more fluent with a topic than they are. Quizzing can help people gauge more accurately what they really know, and actively bringing to mind what they know reinforces that piece of information.

Carey describes how we come to understand information and solve problems. Intentionally taking breaks when working on something we are motivated to master—whether that break is to check Facebook, exercise, converse with a friend, or sleep—allows ones mind to passively or subconsciously work through a problem and may lead to a moment of insight. Carey suggests starting large creative projects early so that they feel doable and so that there is more time to let ideas percolate. People may have a fixed view of the elements involved in a problem. Stepping away from the problem, allowing for a period of idea incubation, and reimaging the problem can help people work through an impasse.

A proper sleep diet is a passive way in which our subconscious helps us learn. Carey says we should not view sleeping as lost learning time; rather we sleep to learn. He describes the contributions of each of the four stages of sleep plus REM. He proposes strategies for how to alter sleep patterns in order to achieve different learning goals.

Carey says that our species’ competitive niche is our ability to think and learn. Long, hard hours of studying alone and a fear of academic failure are not the keys to success in school or in learning. Valuing curiosity, a motivation to learn, and the restlessness of our “inner slacker,” whose desires are contrary to traditional wisdom about studying practices, leads to robust learning outcomes.

Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens. Random House LLC.

Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD by Thomas E. Brown, PhD

Dr. Thomas E. Brown, clinical psychologist, Yale University professor of psychiatry, and associate director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, offers a clinician’s perspective on the manifestations and treatment of ADHD in his 2014 book, Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. He focuses particularly on the often overlooked social and emotional components of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

Brown begins with an explanation of ADHD in terms of its behavioral manifestations. He explains that ADHD is defined as a chronic impairment in executive function and self-management. It interferes with a person’s daily life. Brown shows that people with ADHD can be intensely focused on highly enjoyable activities, while neglecting to initiate focus on material and on deadlines that they know are important. They often have diminished working memory and thus struggle to maintain multiple ideas in their mind at once. People with ADHD are less able to resist immediate rewards in favor of long-term payoffs. They may avoid their commitments or cope with the stress they experience as a result of their disorder by engaging in such activities as heavy marijuana use or extended video game play. They may struggle with anxiety, irritability, boredom, shame about their attentional issues, or have trouble ratcheting down their emotions in charged situations.

Brown also explains the neurochemical and neuroanatomical differences that characterize the brains of people with ADHD. Brain imaging has demonstrated that people with ADHD have more trouble shifting between their default mode and their more active attention network. Areas of the brain associated with executive function mature three to five years later than is typical. People with ADHD have a different pattern of release and reception of two critical neurochemicals.

In eleven chapters, each named for one of his patients, Brown vividly recounts stories about bright and talented teenagers and adults who are severely affected by ADHD—people who are “smart but stuck.” His patients often score in the top ten percent or higher on IQ tests and yet, because of their ADHD, have endured serious setbacks, including delayed college graduation, lost tuition, strained social and familial relations, and divorce. He describes his initial patient consultation, the course of treatment, and the circuitous route to improvement. Brown pays special attention to life circumstances and co-morbidities that must be considered in treatment, as patients often come to him shortly after a major life change (e.g., transitioning to college, illness of a family member, death of a loved one) and have other issues present (e.g., obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety). Seamlessly interspersed among the stories are epidemiological statistics and clinical explanations about how an aspect of a patient’s story manifests in the ADHD population at-large. He ends each story with a summary of factors that helped the patient get “unstuck.”

Brown concludes with recommendations for understanding the emotional component of ADHD in order to help people with the disorder. People with ADHD or who suspect they might have it benefit from having a proper clinical evaluation of their strengths and weakness and a detailed explanation of what the disorder is and is not. Loved ones of people with ADHD must understand that people with ADHD are not simply lacking in willpower and that it is possible for someone with ADHD to be highly intelligent. Counseling (e.g., psychotherapy), medication, (e.g., Methylphenidate), and school or workplace accommodations (e.g., extended time for test taking) may help a person manage ADHD. Most critically, a person with ADHD and those who support him or her need hope that is realistic. They need neither a naïve belief that if they try hard enough they can accomplish anything, nor a fatalistic belief that they are doomed to fail. Rather, they need to understand that there are ways to help people with ADHD cope with inevitable obstacles such that they can improve their situation and be content and productive.

Although Brown illustrates that the manifestation and treatment of ADHD is unique to each individual, he provides simultaneously such a rich representation of the disorder that anyone who is managing ADHD or who has a loved one or colleague with ADHD will find bits of these stories that are uncannily resonant with his or her own experience.

Brown, T. E. (2014). Smart But Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. John Wiley & Sons.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overloads by Daniel J. Levitin, PhD

Daniel Levitin argues that people’s junk drawer, the place they store miscellanea, is a fitting analogy for how people should live their lives. With the objects in a junk drawer, as with the activities and people in one’s life, individuals should ask: Is this still important to me? Am I clear about what I need? Is there enough diversity? The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overloads draws on the neuropsychological and evolutionary basis of memory and attention to explain how to practice good “neural hygiene,” harness a brains’ potential, reduce stress, and be a successful person. Levitin, a McGill University professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music, has written an engaging and insightful book for anyone interested in cognitive adaptations to deal with today’s bombardment of information.

Now more than ever before, with an overabundance of information and distractions, attention is a precious, limited resource. Levitin argues that the most successful people have systems and assistance that help them attend to and prioritize the information that matters. Although individuals tend to want more information than is actually helpful, they can put structures in place to stay organized and focused. The best tool for staying organized and reducing the burden on our brain, opines Levitin, is externalizing information—writing down key facts about acquaintances, using notecards to track “to do’s”, and setting calendar reminders for upcoming deadlines. Levitin suggests categorizing emails you receive based on the difficulty of responding and the urgency of a response, filing memos in a way that will facilitate retrieval, keeping duplicates of items that are easy to lose, and backing up important documents to the cloud or an external system.

Successful people keep a regular sleep schedule, sleep enough, and are early-risers. Levitin warns that people who think they can multi-task deceive themselves. In actuality they are merely rapidly switching among tasks, which is metabolically costly and stress inducing. Properly encoding experiences into memory is facilitated by being mindful, fully present in the experience, and treating any activity, even the most mundane, as though it were new.

Levitin suggests that there are several reasons that the aforementioned cognitive aids are necessary. While people automatically attend to changes and concepts or objects important to them, there is a “cognitive blind spot.” This makes individuals neglect much of the information that passes before them. Memories are imprecise and readily manipulated. The brain’s default mode is to daydream or creatively mind-wander. Its natural state is antagonistic with the externally focused central executive mode. People are either in one mode or the other and the insula, a deep brain structure, is responsible for switching between the default mode and central executive.

Levitin discusses ways to organize business, personal, and social worlds to manage information overload and support decision-making. Businesses are now more specialized and systemized than previously. Regardless of the hierarchical structure of a company, employees are happiest when they are allowed to think creatively and operate freely within a broad set of boundaries. Levitin argues that an understanding of statistics and probability is important for making reasoned decisions about healthcare. Getting accurate statistics can be challenging. Even when people acquire them they may ignore base rates, accept false correlations, or focus on a frightening story while ignoring the anomalous nature of that story.

Levitin suggests that organizing one’s social world can enrich it. We have a biological need to be in relationships with others. The hormone oxytocin functions to help us seek out social relations. People with stabile, sustained relationships are healthier.

Any bit of information can be acquired so quickly and easily now that simply providing students with information is not a worthwhile goal for education. Levitin concludes with several recommendations about the skills that current students will need and ought to be taught. Students should be educated about how to search for information, evaluate its authenticity and reliability, and check for biases. They should be scaffolded in determining what they know, what they do not know, and what they need to know. A key factor for determining the strength of and satisfaction with ones social relations is one’s agreeableness. Especially given that today’s children will be working with more diverse groups of people than generations before them, it is important that children learn to be cooperative, friendly, and tolerant of others. They should be encouraged to experiment, explore, and develop flexible thinking skills.  Balancing creativity and non-linear thinking with conscientiousness and linear thinking leads to productivity for students, scholars, and business people alike.

Levitin, J. D. (2014). The organized mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York: Penguin Group.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning offers students, educators, and life-long learners suggestions to improve learning and retention. It explains why some common study practices are alluring, but ineffective. Authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel support their recommendations for effective learning techniques by drawing on their own cognitive psychology research at Washington University, the work of other prominent neuroscience and psychology scholars, and the revealing personal stories from students, teachers, and coaches.

Many students study by rereading lecture notes or assigned materials, and they often study in one massed chunk immediately preceding an assessment. These study strategies make the learner feel as though he is absorbing the necessary information quickly and with little resistance. In reality, rereading and cramming fill a student with an “illusion of knowing” but are ineffective for long-term retention or deep learning. Students should seek learning opportunities with “desirable difficulty” because when learning is challenging, it is more likely to lead to retention.

The idea that teaching to different learning styles increases students’ or other types of learners’ success is not empirically supported and the authors consider it an ineffective practice. While people have preferences about the way in which they receive information, matching teaching to a student’s preferred mode of receiving information does not improve performance.

Fortunately, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel suggest several effective teaching and learning practice. Two effective strategies to promote learning are interleaving the study of multiple diverse concepts and reviewing concepts at multiple points in time. Make it Stick is written with these principles in mind; the same concepts are reintroduced and discussed in new context several times throughout the book. Studying multiple types of problems at once (interleaving) facilitates recognition of the unique qualities of a problem so that in a novel context the concept is still identifiable. This is more akin to how we use information in real life. Spacing learning is valuable because it provides some time during which forgetting can occur. The more often a student retrieves partially forgotten knowledge or skills the more easily and completely he will retrieve it in the future.

The authors advocate frequent quizzing, either by the student herself (e.g., with flashcards) or by an instructor giving multiple low stakes exercises. Reflecting about what one has learned helps a student see what concepts he needs to review and ultimately promotes long-term retention. The authors suggest that mnemonic devices help cue memory. In particular, “memory palaces” are a strategy based on the Greek method of loci, in which one remembers many ideas by associating them with a particular spatial location. Using the visual memory of a place, which is easier to recall, prompts the verbal or conceptual memory. Associative learning of this sort is accompanied by neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, in the hippocampus, which is a memory center in the brain.

People can improve their own learning by focusing on understanding the rules governing a category of information, rather than by attending to the individual exemplars. Understanding the broad framework helps people retain more information because they distill the concept to its essential components. For example, high achieving people with dyslexia have reported that their ability to think creatively about big picture concepts, even when decoding individual words is a struggle, has led to their success.

Learners can increase their achievement by persevering through challenges. Citing Carol Dweck and Anders Ericsson’s work, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel demonstrate that students who believe that their intelligence is fixed are less likely to attempt tasks at which they think they may not succeed. Those who believe effort and learning can increase intellectual abilities will take on challenging tasks. It is engagement with these sorts of challenging tasks and the grit to persevere in the task—even when one fails—that are critical for mastery.

Make it Stick concludes by reviewing how students can implement these tips in their studies. They suggest that teachers, professional trainers, and coaches should incorporate these techniques into their classrooms and coaching. Educators should explicate for students what techniques they are using and why those techniques matter for improving learning and memory. Implementing these strategies increases for the learner the information that will stick.

Brown, P.C., Roediger H.L. III., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel J. Goleman

A focus on oneself, on others, and on larger trends in one’s environment are the three key patterns of thinking that Daniel Goleman suggests are necessary for being successful in any endeavor. Goleman, a science writer, author of Emotional Intelligence, and an expert in the field of social and emotional learning, details inner, other, and outer focuses, how we can cultivate a focused mind, and why these three focuses are critical to success in his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.   With the smooth integration of psychosocial and neurobiological attention research and practical examples of ways to cultivate focus in everyone (from kindergarten children to doctors, monks and top executives) this book is ideal for anyone who is burdened by today’s persistent distractions in our technology-imbued world or who works with others in need of focus.

Inner focus is the ability to understand and capitalize on one’s own strengths and emotions. Accomplishment comes to those with the discipline to engage in deliberate practice by concentrating during training, correcting errors, and following the advice of an expert coach. Goleman sites Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test in which nursery school age children who were able to reallocate their attention from a sweet treat at hand so that they could receive a larger reward later were found to have more executive control. The related Dunedin study found that young kids who could resist temptation were healthier, wealthier, and more likely to be law-abiding citizens decades later than the kids who did not have this self-control. When Mischel’s original marshmallow test participants’ brains were scanned years later while they resisted temptation, those who delayed gratification had more activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus of the brain, a region associated with controlling thoughts and actions. Those who succumbed showed activity in the ventral striatum, which is a key part of the reward pathway.

Goleman describes aids to help children cultivate inner focus. For example, some students are given a “biodot” to wear during tests. This device changes color as blood flow underneath the skin changes to alert kids when they have become anxious and thus may need to take a calming break to think more clearly.

Cognitive empathy (reading others’ thoughts) and emotional empathy (understanding people’s feelings) help us build rapport with others and feel compassion. This other focus is a critical skill across professions—executives who listen to their coworkers are less likely to be resented; surgeons with more caring and less domineering voices are less likely to be sued. Goleman sites Tania Singer’s work showing that when we empathize we feel the other person’s pain on a physiological level; the same brain region that is activated for feeling our own pain—the anterior insula—responds to feeling the pain of others.

Successful people hone what Goleman refers to as outer focus. They are forward-thinking, and they make decisions to increase efficiencies across whole, interconnected systems—even when the components of those systems are distant from one another in space or time. This kind of system thinking generally does not come naturally. Some of the most intractable problems we face today, such as global warming, are ones that require system thinking. Because outer focus is so critical, Goleman argues for teaching children systems thinking in schools. For example, an integrated lesson about pollution and environmental issues could be taught across science and social science disciplines.

Goleman emphasizes the importance of attention that is deliberate and effortful (top-down) because in a focused state people are generally happier, and they produce better work. However, he does acknowledge the value of fast-paced automatic attention (bottom-up). Mind wandering, our default mode of thinking, can offer flashes of insight that solve complex problems we are passively pondering. It has been associated with creativity.

Every person is or can be a leader, whether of a giant corporation or of one’s family. Goleman argues that to lead effectively we must integrate inner, other, and outer focus. We must be able to listen to our own instincts and to be able to push ourselves to engage in high-quality practice. We must be able to read others’ thoughts and emotions to ensure that those we lead feel satisfied and fulfilled. Finally, exceptional leaders vigilantly monitor emerging trends. They understand how their organization affects and is affected by those trends. They see the critical goals, direct others’ attention to those goals, and possess the courage to look past the immediate in order to make the decisions that are best in the long run.   A brilliant leader utilizes his focused mind to lead with passion.


Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker

The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker, provides insights about managing family life and rearing healthy children from infancy through teenage years amidst the omnipresence of technology.  Steiner-Adair recognizes that technology can be a constructive learning and socializing tool—it allows us to see and speak to faraway family and enables us to learn at any time and from anywhere.  However, she urges parents to be measured about their own use of technology and about the influence they let technology assert in their children’s lives. Steiner-Adair draws on her experience as a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and clinical instructor at the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School to sprinkle The Big Disconnect with illuminative personal stories from her clients.

Steiner-Adair labels technology and media as addictive, ubiquitous, laden with damaging content, fast-paced, permanent, and invasive. We are all hyperconnected all the time, and yet we are also less present in the moment and less comfortable with face-to-face interactions. Intimacy gives way to superficial social connections, which (among other problems) facilitates more vicious bullying.  Children may perceive parents who are distracted by technology as emotionally unavailable.  Children who get less practice with in-person interactions get less training in interpreting conversational nuances, and those with an iPad always in-hand get less practice in learning to play creatively on their own.  Further, technology makes cynical, stereotype-ridden, violent, and sexual adult content intrusively present to even the most innocent children. Finally, technology assumes quick decision-making.  These decisions, however, can have serious and permanent consequences (e.g., kids making expensive purchases online without their parents’ knowledge or posting cruel content about a peer that can go viral and damage that person’s reputation).  The incessant blinking and buzzing in modern technology may contribute to the increased prevalence of ADHD as technology cultivates children who are more distracted.

Steiner Adair outlines the risks and challenges associated with technology usage for five age groups of childhood. She believes that there is absolutely no productive role technology can play in the life of a baby under two years old, and she goes so far as to suggest that electronics should come with warning labels stating that they may be hazardous to a baby’s development.  For preschoolers, Steiner-Adair says that some technology can contribute positively to development (e.g., Sesame Street), but most shows, even those targeted to this age group, contain harmful messages.  Technology use among children five and under can make them less persistent learners, less creative in their free play, less facile and empathic communicators. It can have an addictive quality to it.  Steiner-Adair says that media consumption among non-white and female children ages six to ten negatively impacts their self-esteem and introduces gender-stereotypical, homophobic, and violent messages.  For children under ten a vital message a parent can impart is that her child should always tell her what she has seen online, even if the child feels embarrassed.

Tweens and teens are consumed by their social media personas during a time when their real-life identity is developing. The Internet has emerged as the primary, albeit deficient, source of sex education for tweens. The average American child sees pornography by age 11. The media teach tweens and teens about a problematic “friends with benefits” model of romantic relationships that separates physical intimacy and interpersonal social interactions. Teens send sexually explicit texts (“sext”) as a way of courting one another. In response, Steiner-Adair offers a script that parents can use with male and female tweens and teens to discuss how to form healthy romantic and sexual connections and how to avoid being “friends with benefits.” Given the pervasiveness of technology in tweens and teens’ lives, Steiner-Adair argues that more important than limiting adolescents’ use of technology, is teaching them about appropriate use. The same questions that parents might ask a teen before he is allowed to use the car (who, what, where, and when) should be asked of a teen about his technology usage.

Steiner-Adair offers recommendations about how to be an approachable parent  (i.e., how not to be a parent a child would describe as “scary, crazy, or clueless”).  She recommends creating an “amnesty policy”: parents will not get mad if the child admits to having gotten in trouble online. Parents should model for their children the tech rules that their children should follow. Steiner-Adair ends by saying strong families are those that are deeply connected.  These families play together across generations, have conversations about feelings and values, learn how to disagree constructively, appreciate each family member for his or her unique qualities, and spend time with one another with and without technology.

The Big Disconnect is an insightful guide for parents that offers advice about using technology to our advantage and knowing when to unplug.


Steiner-Adair, C., & Barker, T. H. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. Harper Business.

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel

Artists and neuroscientists alike will be drawn to The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to The Present.  Author Dr. Eric Kandel, a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and Nobel Laureate in Medicine, argues that the time is ripe to pursue questions in a new, interdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics.  This field would address neuroscientific questions about how the brain processes perceptual information, especially when that information carries emotional salience. Also, neuroaesthetics would help artists understand more deeply the critical aspects of emotion and the perceptual information that captivate the mind and brain.  The field could ultimately lead to new and creative art forms.

Kandel uses turn-of-the-20th century Vienna as an exemplar of the productivity of a cultural and intellectual milieu that facilitates cross-pollination among painters, writers, psychologists, doctors, and other intellectuals.  Using the tools of their respective disciplines, Vienna’s elites began exploring unconscious human mental states.  They turned inward to grapple with their own internal emotional and thought processes. Social gatherings at salons, like those hosted by Berta Zuckerkandl, were fertile ground for the exchange of ideas. Among the Viennese intellectuals Kandel examines are:  Carl Von Rokitansky, a doctor who espoused the view that medicine should be rooted in sciences (rather than philosophy) and pioneered the practice of literally looking inside a person to understand disease;  Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer whose works focused on themes of eroticism and relied on stream-of-conscience and inner monologues; and Sigmund Freud, who is well-known for delving into deeply rooted human motivations and desires.

Kandel focuses in particular on three Viennese modernist painters:  Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoscka, and Egon Schiele. Through their portraits they showed what an emotion feels like and how it is experienced.  They depicted faces, often with emotionally ambiguous expressions. The brain’s processing of faces is well researched. Nancy Kanwisher’s research from about a decade ago suggested that there is a particular region in the inferior temporal cortex of the brain, known as the fusiform face area, that responds strongly and specifically to viewing faces. Kandel draws on the fact that both art and neuroscience have a deep understanding of the importance of faces in order to help illustrate the ways in which art and psychological and brain sciences can learn from one another. Portraiture may serve an evolutionary purpose by offering practice in reading faces, a skill that psychologists suggest is important for using clues about avoiding threats and finding rewards.

Alois Riegl, an art historian in Vienna, introduced an idea now known as the “beholder’s share”.  Riegl believed that there is a collaboration between an artist and the viewer of his art; without both parties, the artwork is incomplete.  This idea is compatible also with the German Gestalt psychology movement, which created abstruse images in which it is possible to see two different objects (e.g., the Rubin Vase that depicts either a vase or the profile of two men facing one another). In this way, the viewer’s mind fashions the image that he sees as much as the image’s creator chooses the subject of the image.  Kandel states that what we perceive about the outside world is as much inferred as it is observed.

Kandel details the brain and neuronal bases for our perceptual abilities.  Vision begins in the eye and the optic nerve and involves several brain areas (including the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus and the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe). He describes the function of photoreceptor cells called rods and cones; rods detect light and the three different types of cones facilitate color discrimination. Kandel describes the cues we instinctively use to understand depth, like comparing the relative size of objects or comparing the size of an unfamiliar object to a familiar one. Artists draw on these visual habits and use lines and contours to help viewers perceive three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface.

Just as the modernist artists explored how people experience emotions, so too have biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists examined how the brain and body process emotions. Klimt, Kokoschka, and Shiele were able to reveal their subjects’ internal feelings.  Neuoroscience suggests that mirror neurons help us imitate another person’s behavior, which is a first step in developing a theory of mind—the ability to understand another’s internal thoughts and goals.

Kandel argues that through various means artists and scientists try to reduce the world to its component parts in order to make it more comprehensible. This newly proposed field of neuroaesthetics might shed light on the nature of conscious and unconscious thought, the nature of creativity, and the relation between consciousness and creativity. Kandel calls for the recreation of environments like the Zuckerkandl salon with the fluid exchange of ideas across disciplines.  Neuroscientists, artists, and beholders of art alike will benefit from attempting to bridge the chasm between science and art.