Deirdre Barrett’s article, “Answers in Your Dreams,” brought back memories. In 1960 I was the first woman pioneer in the EEG study of sleep and dreams.
Barrett mentions William Dement’s 1972 study. I took part in an earlier effort by Dement while working on my dissertation at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dement called with a problem-solving experiment he wanted to try: “Tell your subject, ‘The letters ‘O T T F F’ are the first letters in a well-known series. Once you add the next two letters correctly, you can add an infinite number of letters.’” (The next two are “S S” for “six” and “seven.”) I gave the problem to a subject in my sleep lab before she went to bed, and in the morning she said she had dreamt a lot.
“I was in Bloomingdale’s,” she said. “I was looking at a list of things I needed to buy, and at the end of the list was written ‘Silk Stockings’—the point is, on my list, it wasn’t written out, just the letters ‘S S.’ Isn’t that silly?”
I was dumbfounded. After she left I called Dement from a pay phone in the hospital. “I think it means she was trying—she came awfully close,” he exclaimed. “What an incredible coincidence!” Nice, huh?
Judith S. Antrobus
New York City
IN DEFENSE OF PRESCHOOL
As a longtime reader of your magazine, I was quite surprised to open this month’s issue and find the preschool I send my children to savaged in “The Death of Preschool,” by Paul Tullis.
Although Tullis quoted many fine scientific studies about the importance of play, I believe that his own research was shoddy at best. Yes, Montessori Shir Hashirim does include direct instruction, but the children also have a great deal of playtime. His ultimate conceit that sending a child to a school where she gets to learn about all sorts of whales might lead to “toxic stress” and hippocampus damage is specious at best.
Tullis’s most egregious error is that he seems to have missed the possibility that there are many ways to make education fun. Certainly there is not an expert out there who would recommend no education for preschool children: After all, what are we doing when we read to them at night? We are teaching them the basic fundamentals of reading—albeit in a way that is enjoyable for them.
Montessori Shir Hashirim strives to instill a lifelong love of learning in our children. I believe they do that very well. Basically, this school creates future readers of Scientific American Mind.
Your poorly argued, offensive article, however, has created an ex-reader of Scientific American Mind.
The debate over direct teaching versus discovery learning through play is not new. Though not always confined to preschool education, this debate is usually centered on the problem of constructing a discovery learning program in which learning can be observed and assessed. The difficulty stems from the demands of managing a classroom with 12 to 20 children while at the same time trying to assess individual learning. Although it can be done, the variability associated with play-based learning is much greater than that associated with direct instruction. Teachers have often not been adequately prepared to administer and justify play- and activity-based programs and thus have been vulnerable to criticisms of them.
William James Wagner
ABNORMAL EYE MOVEMENTS
Thank you for the fascinating article “Shifting Focus,” by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. As a schizophrenic, I imagine that many patients have abnormal microsaccades, meaning that when they follow a target or scan a display their eye movements are accentuated. Perhaps these eye movements explain the phenomenon of the schizophrenic’s “mad look.”
MARTINEZ-CONDE AND MACKNIK REPLY: No previous research has examined the connection between microsaccades and schizophrenia—or any other psychiatric illness. But there has been extensive work showing that people with schizophrenia do indeed have abnormal saccades, the fast eye movements that direct our gaze from object to object as we explore a visual scene. According to neurologists R. John Leigh and David Zee, authors of the comprehensive The Neurology of Eye Movements (Oxford University Press, 1999), schizophrenics show consistent abnormalities in the voluntary control of saccades, particularly in tasks requiring imagination, memory or prediction.
Research suggests that saccades and microsaccades are controlled by the same brain areas, so it seems likely to us that microsaccades also will be found to be abnormal in schizophrenia. Only directed research will provide a definitive answer to this fascinating question.
“In the Minds of Others,” by Keith Oatley, was an excellent summation of the impact of stories on social skills. This concept has been particularly applicable to the summer camp I run, which allows campers to engage in an interactive storyline with outcomes that change depending on their decisions. We have noticed a high degree of altruistic acts among our kids while they interact with other characters—perhaps because fiction can increase a person’s level of empathy, as the article describes.
Human beings have been learning from stories since the brain could grasp fictional concepts. Oral traditions may have evolved into predominately audiovisual or text format, but we still connect on a deeper level with the person who can weave a well-worded story. (Politicians have known this for quite some time.) Shouldn’t the educational system embrace this concept? If our summer camp can teach chemistry, history, foreign languages, and more using interactive fiction, I think schools can use stories to better reach their students and engage them in learning.
Director, Wizards & Warriors Camp
MANY FACES OF GRIEF
I am a great fan of Scientific American Mind, but as someone who has worked with the bereaved for more than 20 years, I was dismayed by your article “Grief without Tears,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld [Facts and Fictions]. The authors extrapolate from a particular subset of bereaved people—elderly widows and widowers—to the general population. To equate the predictable loss of a spouse in old age with, for example, the untimely loss of a parent in childhood is cavalier at best, dangerously irresponsible at worst.
One child in five is likely to develop a psychiatric disorder following a parental death. Parental bereavement in childhood has been robustly linked to impaired academic performance, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse, as well as a range of mental health disorders as adults. Most children and teenagers will experience anxiety, depression and social withdrawal in the first two years after a major loss. Even when distress is not permanent, it is still real and painful and bewildering for the child.
A key protective factor for bereaved children is quality communication with remaining significant adults. Surely we should err on the side of caution and make support available even for those who do not need it.
ARKOWITZ AND LILIENFELD REPLY: Abrams criticizes us for equating the loss of a spouse in old age with the loss of a parent in childhood. We agree that such a parallel is inappropriate; in fact, we made it clear in our article that “grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience.”
She also says that most children and teenagers will experience anxiety, depression and social withdrawal in the first two years after a major loss. Yet these emotional setbacks develop into disorders in only one out of five youngsters. That percentage confirms rather than refutes our central argument: as emotionally devastating as loss can be, resilience following such loss is the norm, not the exception.