Carly Simon And Family Point To Positive, Creative Side Of Dyslexia (Including Theirs)

Grammy award-winning musician Carly Simon struggled with dyslexia as a child. Here she is performing in California in 2012. (Frank Micelotta/Invsion/AP)

Grammy award-winning musician Carly Simon struggled with dyslexia as a child. Here she is performing in California in 2012. (Frank Micelotta/Invsion/AP)

Few parents are thrilled by the news that their child has dyslexia.

But increasingly, families are viewing the language processing disorder in a new light — not as a disability, but simply as a different way of perceiving the world. Indeed in some families, the dyslexic brain is viewed as having distinct advantages.

One celebrated Martha’s Vineyard family is trying to spread the word that a diagnosis of dyslexia doesn’t spell doom; on the contrary, it can lead to more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Carly Simon, the Grammy award-winning musician, is now 70. But few people know that the accomplished singer and songwriter struggled with dyslexia, and a stutter, as a child.

“Being embarrassed at school is a terrible thing…when your peers are making fun of you because they can’t understand what wonderful whimsy your mind may be making up and going through,” she said recently. “While they’re just going 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, you’re going 1-2-4-5-7-8-9-3!”

Carly Simon in West Tisbury on a recent summer day (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Carly Simon in West Tisbury on a recent summer day (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

‘Welcome To The Cool Club’

Still, Simon believes her dyslexia has a direct influence on how she makes music. She says her hit song “Anticipation,” for instance, “came down from the universe into my head and then out my mouth, so it bypassed the mind.”

These days, Simon lives in a lush compound on Martha’s Vineyard, where family members often spend the summer.

Dyslexia tends to run in families, and it runs in Simon’s. Her 38-year-old son Ben, a musician, has dyslexia. So does her 41-year-old daughter, Sally, an artist.

But the family wants to show their dyslexia can be a positive force — a challenge, absolutely, but also a catalyst for new ways of framing the world or problem-solving that might lead a child to become a famous artist or a successful entrepreneur.

Simon’s daughter Sally Taylor (whose father is musician James Taylor) vividly recalls the day, at age 10, when she learned she had dyslexia: She anxiously walked home with the diagnosis scrawled on a piece of paper in her hand.

“I just felt as though it was somehow the end of the world,” Taylor said in an interview. “[W]hen my mom saw my tears streaming down my face, she said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she opened this letter and saw that I was being diagnosed as having dyslexia and she just said, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ like, ‘Congratulations, this is fantastic, and welcome to the family. We’re all dyslexic therefore we’re all going to understand each other better now…Welcome to the cool club,’ ”

Sally Taylor, the daughter of Carly Simon and James Taylor, describes herself as "an artist, mother, wife and dyslexic." (Courtesy of the family)

Sally Taylor, the daughter of Carly Simon and James Taylor, describes herself as “an artist, mother, wife and dyslexic.” (Courtesy of the family)

Simon speaks of her daughter’s struggles at school.

“I remember Sally reading ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ” Simon said. “She couldn’t read enough pages to get the assignment…she’d cry and feel different and feel stupid.”

Sally Taylor’s husband, Dean Bragonier, also dyslexic, was teased mercilessly in middle school for his painfully slow reading.

Now, he hopes to make things better for other kids with the disorder. Bragonier is swimming around Martha’s Vineyard — 50 nautical miles over several weeks — to raise money for his nonprofit, called NoticeAbility.

The end result will be a set of educational tools for middle school-aged kids with dyslexia. It’s an online, project-based curricula that doesn’t replace traditional classroom learning but seeks to enhance it, allowing each child to focus on one of four specific areas that they might be drawn to: entrepreneurial leadership, engineering, architecture and the arts.

In general, these are realms that some dyslexics have excelled at: think Whoopi Goldberg or cellphone pioneer Craig McCaw. Continue reading

When And Where Do You Stress? Ambitious Project Aims To Map Daily Life, Whole City

Passengers squeeze aboard a Red Line train at the Porter Square MBTA station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Passengers squeeze aboard a Red Line train at the Porter Square MBTA station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

Would I make it to the train station in time? Or would I miss my train home? The concern gnawed at me as I fidgeted on the uncomfortably warm and crowded subway platform. As I anxiously scanned the tracks for approaching lights, the watch on my wrist buzzed. It was telling me to check my stress levels. I pulled out my phone. High, it said — surprisingly high.

That may sound like the first draft of a science fiction novel but, in fact, it’s describing events from last month, when I tried out a watch that has sensors to measure the autonomic nervous system, which regulates our fight-or-flight response.

Neumitra, a Boston-based startup, developed the technology, and plans to launch an ambitious project this fall that would use it to chart the stress not just of individuals but of professions and institutions — even of a whole city. It may be a no-brainer that catching a train is stressful, but how does stress at Harvard compare to stress at Northeastern? North Shore to South Shore? Emergency room at Boston Medical Center to Massachusetts General Hospital?

“We’re using data from the body and data from mobile phones to understand how everyone is affected by stress,” said Rob Goldberg, co-founder of Neumitra and a neuroscientist formerly at MIT. “Our aim here is for thousands of people in Boston to be using these technologies, so we can understand the difference between a veteran, a police officer, a student, a mother, a nurse — and sometimes you belong to multiple of these categories, so what are the combined effects?”

Sync To See Your Stress

“I’m so stressed!” is a frequent response to the innocuous, “How are you?” The exclamation, or variations thereof, can be heard at the office, between classes, at home…practically anywhere.

But it’s one thing to verbally express feelings of stress, and quite another to quantify those sensations. That’s where Neumitra comes in.

You can track your stress level in real time through an app that displays the data that the watch collects. The app syncs with your calendar and GPS, so you can also look back to see which events and locations cause the most stress. When your stress spikes, the watch vibrates — an alert that it might be time to take a step back and recalibrate.

“We don’t understand what we’re all struggling with on a day-to-day basis.”

– Neumitra co-founder Rob Goldberg

The app displays stress using a color gradient: Blue means relaxed or restful, orange and red signify increasing tension. During my entire subway ride, I was either in the dark-orange or red zone. Once I was back home, I spent more time in the blue regions. Exercise brought me back into the orange (among other things, the watch measures skin conductance and temperature, so physical exertion can register as stress), but it didn’t exceed the stress I demonstrated while standing (read: trying not to fall on anyone) in a crowded subway car.

This technology is certainly fascinating, but does it really tell us anything we didn’t already know? Goldberg’s answer is an emphatic yes. “We think we [know how we feel], but we’re very detached from that,” he said.

Science At A New Scale

In this age of “smart” or “connected” everything, we’re getting used to devices that monitor us, but Goldberg says Neumitra’s plans for the technology’s use on a large scale might lead to a whole new understanding of the effects of daily life on stress. Continue reading

Brain Scientist: How Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Gets One Thing Deeply Wrong

By Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, with Daniel J. Barrett, PhD
Guest contributors

Pixar’s “Inside Out” is the latest in a long tradition of animated entertainment that teaches us about science.

Chemistry, as I learned from Saturday morning cartoons, is about mixing colorful, bubbling liquids in test tubes until they explode. “Roadrunner and Coyote” cartoons—those fine nature documentaries—taught me physics: If you run off a cliff, you’ll hang in mid-air until the unfortunate moment that you look down. Computer science is apparently about robots that kill you. And now, with “Inside Out,” we finally have cartoon neuroscience.

Your brain, it turns out, is populated with characters for each emotion, and they press buttons to control your expressions. This is all good fun and a sweet movie. What is surprising, however, is that some scientists have taken this model seriously for a century and actually search for these characters in the brain. Not as animated creatures, mind you, but as blobs of brain circuitry.

So happiness and fear are not brain blobs — they are whole-brain constructions.

This blob over here is your “fear circuit,” they say, or this other blob “computes anger.” And every time you experience an emotion, your corresponding blob of neurons supposedly leaps into action, triggering your face and body to respond in a consistent way. Your Fear blob makes you freeze with widened eyes. Your Anger blob makes you scowl and your heart speed up. And so on.

The thing is, this science of “blob-ology” is no more realistic than detonating test tubes and hovering coyotes. Today’s neuroscientists finally have the technology to peer into a living brain without harming its owner, and it’s clear that the brain doesn’t operate even remotely in this cartoonish fashion. We might perceive Joy, Fear and Anger as separate entities — even gloriously rendered in 32-bit color — but the evidence from neuroscience is overwhelmingly against it.

For example, my lab has analyzed nearly 100 published brain-imaging studies by other scientists, involving nearly 1,300 test subjects across 15 years, and found that no brain region is the home for any single emotion. (We do have brain circuits for behaviors like freezing and fighting, as do other animals, but not for complex mental states like fear and anger.)

In another analysis covering 22,000 test subjects across more than 200 studies over 20 years, we demonstrated that anger, happiness, sadness and other emotions don’t have consistent responses in the body either. And plenty of studies have shown that human facial expressions have tremendous variety, far more than would occur if they were automatically launched by “emotion blobs” in the brain. Continue reading

Ringing In Your Ears? Finally, Researchers Finding New Clues About Tinnitus

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

Alan Starr, an audio engineer, has tinnitus as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of Alan Starr)

By Richard Knox

Alan Starr remembers being blown back by the bomb’s force. He had come to watch a friend cross the Boston Marathon finish line on that fateful April day.

Starr, a 52-year-old audio engineer who makes his living by his ears, suffered no visible injury. But, like at least 70 other marathon bombing victims, he’s left with a never-ending reminder of that moment — a death knell that never stops ringing in his head.

“It’s a very high pitch like a whistle,” he says. “It doesn’t waver. It’s just constant, 24/7.”

It’s called tinnitus, and it’s beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. 

This is partly due to the Boston Marathon bombings. Starr and a few dozen other bombing victims are participating in studies supported by the One Fund, created to help bombing victims, that are aimed at devising an effective treatment.

An even more powerful driver of tinnitus research is the enormous incidence of the problem among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who’ve suffered blast damage. Nearly a million veterans suffer from tinnitus. That makes it the leading service-related disability — far outstripping PTSD.

And tinnitus — most often pronounced TIN-uh-tiss — is surprisingly common in the general population. At least one in every six Americans suffers from tinnitus — around 50 million people. Of these, the condition is “burdensome” for 20 million, according to the American Tinnitus Foundation. Two million of them have severe, disabling tinnitus, often accompanied by depression.

The problem has no cure and no very effective treatment. But after decades of dead-end research, scientists are beginning to figure out what causes the constant ringing, whistling, whooshing or hissing that makes sufferers feel trapped inside their own heads.

New research is providing some surprising clues. Continue reading

Visionaries: MIT Scientist Helps Blind Indian Children See, And Then Learns From Them

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha still gets goosebumps when he thinks about it, he says: “Things just happened so perfectly, so well-timed.”

Back in 2002, Sinha was grappling with a deep scientific question: How do we learn to recognize the objects we see? How do our brains know, “That’s a face”? Or “That’s a table”?

A fateful taxi ride set his research — and his life — onto a new road.

He was back visiting New Delhi, where he grew up on the elite campus of the Indian Institute of Technology before coming to America for graduate school. He was on his way to see a friend one evening, when the taxi he was riding in stopped at a traffic light.

“I noticed, by the side of the road was this little family, a mother and her two children,” he says. “And it felt really terrible to see these two children, who were barely wearing any clothes, very young children on this cold winter day. So I called over the mother to give her a little bit of change.”

When she approached, Sinha noticed that both of the children holding on to her sari had cataracts clouding their eyes.

It was the first time that he had seen children with cataracts. When he looked into childhood blindness in India, he learned that it is a widespread problem, often caused by rubella during the mother’s pregnancy. Blind children in the developing world suffer so much abuse and neglect that more than half don’t survive to age 5, he says.

Sinha wanted to help, but he figured that what he could contribute on his academic salary would be just a drop in the ocean.

“And that’s when the realization struck me that in providing treatment to those children, I would have exactly the approach that I had been looking for in my scientific work,” he says.

“If you have a child, say, a 10-year-old child who has not seen from birth, has only seen light and dark, and in a matter of half an hour you’re able to initiate sight in this child, then from the very next day, when the bandages are removed, you have a ringside seat into the process of visual development.”

Sinha applied for a federal grant to pay for cataract operations, which are relatively simple, and for studying the children who got them. Usually, American research money stays in America, “but I took a chance because I completely, honestly believed, and believe, that in providing that surgery, we are benefiting science that belongs to all of mankind, it’s not just specifically India.”

That grant eventually came though and to continue the work, Sinha founded a nonprofit based in New Delhi. He named it Project Prakash; Prakash means “light” in Sanskrit. Since 2005, he says, nearly 500 Indian children have gained sight through the project.

Now, at 48, Sinha is planning a major expansion of Project Prakash, to create a center that includes a hospital, a school and a research facility. The goal is to serve many more children than the current 40 to 50 a year. Continue reading


A Podcast For Your Brain: The Checkup, Episode 8

It’s the only organ in the human body that tries to understand itself (though not always successfully).

Still, the brain is on our brains in the latest episode of The Checkup, our recently relaunched health news podcast, a joint venture between WBUR and Slate.

Can you enhance your brain through music? Detect dyslexia even before kids learn to read? Alleviate the symptoms of deep depression with a brain implant?

Carey and I explore these and other questions as we delve into some of the latest advances in brain research.

And in case you missed our last episode, “Scary Food Stories,” where we tell the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offer sobering news to kale devotees, you can listen now, or download it anytime.

Make sure to tune in next week, when we present: “Grossology,” an episode on how the dirty corners of your life might benefit your health.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues.

Blue/Black Or White/Gold, And Why Care? A Neuropsychiatrist Examines ‘The Dress’

Sometimes it just seems like the whole world has gone crazy. Like when your colleagues, all serious people, cluster for precious minutes around a computer screen debating the color of a dress. And you see that, online, many other serious people are doing the same thing — say, at On Point or The New York Times.

So though I was curious about the science behind the recent viral phenomenon known as “The Dress,” my first question for Boston-area neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jon Lieff was a more mundane “Why?” To quote one top Slate commenter, “How is this a thing?”

Not that it’s a bad thing. The dress phenomenon “informs people that perception is not what it seems,” Dr. Lieff says. “We think we see reality when in reality, what we see is what the brain wants us to see. And that leads us into philosophy…”

But let’s not go into philosophy just yet. (And you can read Dr. Lieff’s thoughts at more depth on his website, Searching for the Mind.) Let’s talk instead about why this of all optical illusions swept the Internet.

His bottom line: “Our brain is correcting for an imagined light source. That’s the problem.”

And what’s unusual about it: “This doesn’t usually happen with an illusion: In any crowd, you have half the people saying one thing and the other half saying another thing. And because of the type of illusion it is, once it’s fixed, your brain is going to keep you on the blue side or the white side. I’m sure you’ve seen other kinds of illusions where it flips back and forth.  This is different. Once people choose their sides, they’re saying, ‘This is it, and I’m the right one and you’re the wrong one.’ So it’s captured the imagination, but in truth there are hundreds of these occurring all day long, that people don’t realize.”

“An example: if you’re watching a waterfall on the TV and your hand is on the desk, your hand thinks the desk is rising up. Continue reading

Could Tsarnaev Argue, ‘My Immature, Pot-Impaired Brain Made Me Do It’?

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

By Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD
Guest contributor

This week marked the start of what promises to be a four-month public reckoning: the trial of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If the press reports about the evidence against him are accurate, most of the trial will not be about guilt or innocence; it will be about sentencing. Not a who-done-it, but a why-done-it.

If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the death penalty will be on the table, and the proceedings will turn to a grave question, part jurisprudence and part moral philosophy: Is this defendant the most evil and culpable of all? A human being who deserves the most severe of all punishments?

One thing, I believe, is certain: If this case proceeds to the sentencing phase, the black box everyone will be talking about will be the cranium, and how the brain drives behavior will be the central story.

In these protracted sentencing hearings, the scales of justice balance lists of aggravators and mitigators, all outlined by law.

Aggravating factors in this case might include the political motive for the bombings, the risk posed to others during the course of the Tsarnaev brothers’ dramatic attempt to flee, the “heinous”, “cruel” or “depraved” manner of the crime’s execution, and the substantial planning and premeditation that might have preceded the bombings.

In the end, behavior trumps brain scans.

Mitigating factors — factors that weigh in favor of life in prison rather than a death sentence — cast the broadest net. Any aspect of a defendant’s background, record, character or circumstance is fair game for the defense team. It could try to demonstrate that Tsarnaev had some kind of impaired capacity to appreciate that his acts were wrong or illegal, or that he was under some kind of demonstrable duress. It could also bring to light hardships during his upbringing that limited his opportunities or narrowed his ability to choose wisely.

The defense team has already given public hints as to the central themes of its mitigators. They will feature life within the Tsarnaev family, including Dzhokhar’s relationship with his parents, his brother Tamerlan, and his sisters. Will anything in these family dynamics rise to the level of psychological duress or impaired capacity? There will likely be plenty of traditional testimony from forensic psychologists and psychiatrists regarding whether or not Tsarnaev was under the sway of his radicalized and perhaps dominant older brother, particularly after the Tsarnaev parents left the country. The prosecution will likely counter with a line of evidence regarding Dzohokar’s relative independence and his network of friends and activities outside of the family structure.

Then comes the brain.

Judy Clarke, lead defense attorney and one of the nation’s premier death penalty litigators, will surely not overlook the new body of neuroscientific evidence regarding the immaturity of adolescent brains. In a recent trilogy of cases (known as Roper, Graham, and Miller ) the U.S. Supreme Court was influenced by neuroscientific evidence about the juvenile brain when making sweeping changes in how adolescents are tried and sentenced. The court concluded that adolescent brains were less mature than those of adults in ways which warranted differential treatment under our criminal laws.

Although Tsarnaev was 19 at the time of the bombings, his lawyers might argue that much of this brain research applies, as it outlines a period of relative immaturity that stretches from mid-adolescence all the way into the early 20s. Generally speaking, this research shows that adolescents are less mature, and they are more likely to make ill-considered decisions. They bow to peer influences and respond excessively to thrill seeking and immediate rewards. Think money, sex, drugs and friends.

Beginning in the teens, there are major changes in brain architecture and function that temper these qualities — among them, synaptic pruning of the prefrontal cortex, improved connectivity and changes in dopamine receptors — all of which support self control, delayed gratification and the development of a moral compass.

Here’s the rub. What the research doesn’t show makes it problematic for defense attorneys. The research does not show that adolescents are incapable of making well-considered choices. Quite the contrary. Continue reading


2014: CommonHealth Year Of The Brain, From Depression To Dyslexia


A map of nerve fibers in the human brain (. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

A map of nerve fibers in the human brain (. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

Happy almost 2015. Instead of doing our usual “Top 10 CommonHealth stories of the year” post, we’ve decided instead to look back at our tip-top, far-and-away #1 organ of the year for 2014.

Hint: It’s well above the waist. The brain is, to quote Pink Floyd: “All that you touch/All that you see/All that you taste/All you feel./All that you love/All that you hate/All you distrust/All you save.”

Etcetera. The brain is also the focus of some of the most fascinating research in modern-day science.

Our 2014 series, “Brain Matters: Reporting from the Front Lines of Neuroscience,” tried to capture a partial snapshot of this pivotal moment in brain science, a time of new tools and insights so promising that scientists themselves are saying this is the most exciting time ever to work on the brain.

The series included the set of gorgeous images below, compiled by former intern Suzanne E. Jacobs, and a collection of short video interviews with young neuroscientists, produced by WBUR’s Jesse Costa: 11 Young Neuroscientists Share Their Cutting Edge Research.

The individual “Brain Matters” pieces, in reverse chronological order:

Wishing you a wonderful new year. Special thanks to WBUR’s Iris Adler, who supervised the “Brain Matters” series. And now, for your visual pleasure, the wondrous view inside your head: Continue reading

Brain Science, Dangerous? Not So Fast, Says Poverty Expert

Back in June, we wrote about a novel program in Boston that seeks to lift women and their families from poverty, in part by using the latest research in neuroscience. Specifically, the program (developed by the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union) takes into account recent studies that reveal how trauma, and poverty, can rewire the brain and potentially undermine executive function.

In an Op-Talk piece in this week’s New York Times headlined “Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?” writer Anna North cites our story, and then goes on to question whether this type of approach might be problematic. In the article, North refers to sociologist Susan Sered:

Dr. Sered…says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.”

She worries that neuroscience could be used to discount people’s experiences: “In settings where medical experts have a monopoly on determining and corroborating claims of abuse, what would happen when a brain scan doesn’t show the expected markers of trauma? Does that make the sufferer into a liar?”

We asked Elisabeth Babock, president and chief executive officer of Crittenten Women’s Union, to respond to the Times piece. Here, lightly edited, is what she wrote:

Moving out of poverty in the U.S. today is an extremely complicated and challenging process. It involves trying to maintain a roof over your head when the minimum wage doesn’t cover the minimum rent; and trying to get a better paying job when almost all those jobs require education beyond high-school and the costs of that education, in both money and time, are well beyond the means of most low-wage workers. It involves trying to care for a family while filling in the gaps in what the minimum wage will buy with increasingly-frayed public supports. It involves a lot of juggling.

We at Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) understand this process all too well because we work with hundreds of people trying to navigate their way out of poverty every day: homeless families living in our transitional housing and domestic violence shelters, and people who are living on the edge of homelessness, struggling to make ends meet. What we at CWU see is that the stress of this everyday struggle creates an additional set of monumental challenges for those we serve.

Our families often describe themselves as feeling “swamped” by their problems to the point that they can only think about how to deal with the crisis of the moment. And in those moments, they may not have the mental bandwidth to strategize about how to change their current circumstances or help them get ahead.

One of the most valuable things brain science research does for this struggle is that it validates what our families share about the way being in poverty affects them. Instead of saying that stress leaves people “irrevocably debilitated”, or worse still, that people should somehow rise above this crippling stress to “just move on” the science actually suggests something much more important. It calls upon all of us to understand that poverty, trauma, and discrimination are experiences whose cumulative effects impact our health, decision-making, and well-being in tangible and predictable ways, and because of this, we as a society can and must do our best to remediate it. Continue reading