Imagine for a minute that you are listening to a speaker give a fairly interesting lecture on a topic… and your mind starts to wander. You are still aware that the speaker is talking, yet you are also thinking about your family, or food, or the traffic you will need to deal with when this is over. The speaker’s voice and your own internal voice alternately fade in and out. Suddenly the speaker says your name and you snap to full attention. Your eyes widen and your skin prickles. You realize with rising panic that you’ve been asked a question. Your heart starts to race and your mind goes blank and your inner voice starts yelling at you for being so stupid. You have no idea what the speaker has asked you, much less the topic of this entire lecture. You are acutely self-conscious and embarrassed, and you want to run far, far away.
Somewhere between those two extremes of attention (passively zoned out and panicked hyper-vigilance) is the optimal zone for learning. The stresspoint is the point at which you are sufficiently challenged to pay attention, but the challenge is not too great to induce panic and feelings of failure. This concept is discussed at length by Ray Gottlieb, O.D., Ph. D. in his book Attention and Memory Training; Stress-point Learning on the Trampoline. Much of Dr. Gottlieb’s work is based on the work of another behavioral optometrist named Dr. Robert Pepper. Both men describe this optimal learning point and “operational range” where the stress of the task is just enough to challenge you without causing frustration or anxiety.
What really resonates with me and the techniques they describe for improving attention and memory is the physical motor component. The best way to learn, to process information from the environment, is to interact with it using as many senses as possible. Integrating this sensory information is a dynamic process between the brain and body, and it requires physical skills such as coordination, timing, and rhythm.
When we work with people with either degenerative or traumatic brain injury, we sometimes expect them to pay attention in a passive environment. We talk, they listen. We pace back and forth as we call bingo numbers, and they sit still and try to pay attention. We scoot them up to a table and whip out a crayon and a worksheet, and move on to the next person in need of “cognitive stimulation”. We need to do a better job.
What we need to do for people with attentional deficits is the same thing we do for kids with attention deficit- we get them moving. We swing kids, and spin them, and apply compression to their joints to get their brains firing. Obviously, we have to be more gentle with the aging population, but the brain wants what the brain wants… a better integrated system.
Using the Stress-point Learning approach, we would tie in a rhythmic component into the activity- a task that has been carefully chosen to be challenging yet doable. Using a metronome and clapping, bouncing, or marching while engaging the person in a memory task has been shown to better integrate the information. Learning is easier when multiple senses are engaged, and repeated, in an organized fashion.
“Learning tasks done at the stresspoint force the learner to make an effort to become more alert. Success is possible, but unless the learner is able to shift the brain into a higher gear, he or she will fail.”*
Here are two simple take-home messages from the Stress-point Learning Theory:
1. Find the appropriate task that is matched to the learner’s ability, but are not too easy to cause boredom or slower thoughts.
2. Use rhythm to engage coordination and timing so that thoughts can be better organized.
*For more information and exercise techniques, check out Dr. Gottlieb’s book here.