May 3, 2010

Leonardo the Polymath

The Renaissance was a time of dramatic cultural change that included a rise in the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of learning, as opposed to more occupational or utilitarian motivations. The idea of empowerment through knowledge helped define the era.

Embodying this sentiment was a host of famous polymaths, or individuals with a wide-spectrum of talents and knowledge. One of the most famous polymaths from this time was Leonardo da Vinci, whose paintings, drawings, sketches, observations and ideas proved to be, at times, centuries ahead of the curve. An outline of just a few of his varied accomplishments would include discoveries in human anatomy (Biology), engineering advanced machinery (Physics), and geological insights (Environmental Science), as well as volumes of artistic masterpieces.

Leonardo’s capacity for invention knew no bounds, and his interests would often overlap and complement one another to a certain degree. For example, it would make sense that an innate understanding of the human skeletal structure would help in an artistic recreation of the human form.

However, there are many other crossover connections: the laws of Geometry, for example, are closely related to one of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, and studies in bird anatomy would certainly play a role in the invention of a few of his flying machines. Finally, Leonardo’s unflinching powers of observation, a common trait amongst artists, would play a huge role in his continued exploration of the world around him, scientifically, artistically, and otherwise.

Of course, nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection has an unprecedented amount of information available at their fingertips at all times. But does that mean it’s harder to really shine as a polymath? One might make the argument that it is easier to invent and discover in a time of great ignorance simply because there is more to be discovered or invented.

Others, however, would state that the rise of information technology brings with it greater prospects for polymath-like achievements thanks to copious cross-disciplinary collaboration opportunities. With a few keystrokes, someone could go from studying painting techniques to discussing mathematical engineering.

If you want to become a polymath, pursue what you like. Try to learn as much as you possibly can on a subject and then relate it back to other areas of interest. While finding a niche specialization might sound tempting, competence (and even mastery) in several different disciplines is now possible thanks to the technologies of the information age. Forget the limits and there's no telling what you may find!

Apr 27, 2010


Life is full of risks. They can range from the remote, like getting struck by lightning, to the everyday, like getting into a fender-bender on your way to class. However, some individuals actively seek-out risky activities, and according to research, that kind of behavior is more commonplace in adolescents. In fact, the military will specifically target a younger crowd when looking for recruits, not just for their physical ability, but for their increased willingness to risk their lives in combat as well. So - why do we like to take more risks when we’re young?

Scientists believe a lot of it has to do with biology and psychology. When we’re teenagers, our brains are still developing, in particular the parts that govern risk assessment and emotion. And if examined under the light of our evolutionary past, it would make sense that greater risk-taking would accompany sexual maturity.

But instead of hunting with spears or interacting with potentially hostile neighbors, humans nowadays typically get their risky-fix from other activities, like partying hard, smoking, or driving aggressively, to name just a few.

However, a recent study that examined the brains of teenagers seems to contradict the widely-held belief that thrill-seeking youth have less developed brains than their less adventurous peers. In fact, the study revealed that adolescents who thrive on dangerous activities actually exhibit more “adult-like” frontal white matter. Whether this development comes from the dangerous activity or the dangerous activity comes the development is unclear.

In general, humans are consummate risk-takers. Thankfully, we no longer have to wrestle with saber-toothed tigers to get an adrenaline rush- modern society can provide plenty of outlets for some “calculated” risk-taking. The next time you feel like doing something crazy, try a roller coaster. Or, you could take your ride out for some fast laps at a local track day. Or maybe try your hand at climbing at a nearby rock gym. The point is- there’s an underlying reason for those crazy impulses. Put them to good use.

Apr 19, 2010

How We Handle Stress

Student life can be full of stressful situations. Social pressures, academic demands, bloated schedules- there really isn’t a shortage of sources for stress. But it’s how we handle these situations that can really affect how we live. We’ve already looked at the importance of relaxation, so this week we’ll take a closer look at the inner workings of the stressed out student.

When people face a challenge, they can react in a pattern known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a hardwired biological process wherein the body basically prepares to either defend itself (“fight”) or run away (“flight”). The response includes rapid breathing and heart beat, dilation of the blood vessels, heightened reflexes, and just about everything else you would expect in preparation of a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, the brain will trigger these types of reactions during everyday, physically non-threatening activities (like public speaking) - it treats talking in front of people and being eaten by a lion in the same fashion.

The fight-or-flight response is critical in certain situations (better reaction time in an auto accident) and annoying in others (sweating during a presentation). Some people actually find pleasure in seeking out very stressful situations. But when stress becomes ever-present (or, “chronic”), the body never has a chance to relax and will quickly deplete itself of vital resources by constantly triggering fight-or-flight.

While stress could stem from a variety of sources, the reaction is generally the same: first, the body produces adrenal hormones as the nervous system (heart rate, breathing, etc.) goes into overdrive. The body is put on full alert and every function works double-time. If the source of stress in not removed after this initial reaction, the body will start to lower adrenal output and try to adapt by utilizing the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates body function at rest. If the stress remains, the body will deplete itself of resources and eventually succumb to illness.

While individual personality can go a long way towards determining how you will react under stress, awareness of the stressors in your life and the way in which your body responds will help you become happier and healthier. Check out this post on a few ways to relax, and the next time you get stuck in traffic, remember- it’s not like you’re being eaten by a lion.

Apr 13, 2010

How to Wake Up When You Want To

Sometimes, dragging yourself out of bed in the morning can be the most difficult thing in the world. Frequently, the transition from sleep to waking is forcibly rendered by a loud buzzer and shot of caffeine as you rush out the door. If this sounds like you, don’t worry- here are a few ways you can rise earlier and make morning time more pleasant!

First, let’s investigate a few of the natural processes associated with sleep. As you may have learned, sleep is directed by two important biological rhythms- the ninety-minute cycle and circadian rhythms. These processes make up the ticking of our internal “clock” and affect things like body temperature, attention, memory, and brain wave activity. Basically, the body requires these rhythms to regulate health and cognitive function. Without proper cycling, several negative consequences may occur.

So, sleep is good. But if you’re the kind of person that wears out the “Snooze” button on their alarm clock, then you already knew that. The key is getting enough while maintaining a busy schedule.

Self-discipline is part of the equation. The next time you wake up to find your motivational side arguing with your sleepy side, start small. Wiggle your toes a little bit. Then flex your fingers. Stretch out and try to make your way from under the covers, one body part at a time. Don’t wait until the last moment possible- the time you literally must jump out of bed.

Light can be a great alternative to stimulants in the morning. Try cracking your blinds a bit before falling asleep so sunlight will accompany your alarm- the light will help you produce serotonin, which will give you a boost as you come out of the sleep cycle. Darkness, on the other hand, produces melatonin, which will put you (or keep you) asleep. If your bedroom doesn’t get a lot of light, or you need to wake up before sunrise, try a “sunrise” alarm clock, which is basically a bedside light that slowly gets brighter as the preset time approaches. While expensive, these gadgets will go a long way towards starting your day right.

One final tip- go to bed whenever you’re tired, but wake up at the same time every day. If you aren’t ready to sleep at a specific time in the evening, don’t try to force it. The next morning, however, push yourself to get up at your set time. If your body didn’t go through its rhythms, you’ll probably feel sluggish during the day, but that will put you to sleep earlier at night. The faster your body falls into a pattern, the better you’ll feel. While difficult at first, you eventually won’t even need to look at a clock- you’ll have your own ticking away inside you!

Apr 5, 2010

A Case for the Arts

Alongside widespread concerns over shrinking budgets, there seems to be a lot of focus on cutting down course offerings to only the absolute barebones “essentials”. Unfortunately, that means programs like music and painting are usually the first on the chopping block. That’s bad news for any student who looks forward to art as a brief respite from the regular scholarly rigor of tests and lectures. Obviously, art classes provide an essential opportunity to indulge in the creative over the analytical, and give many a much sought-after avenue for self-expression. But is there more value to art class than simple creativity? Could creating art actually make you smarter?

As scientists learn more and more about how the brain functions, certain aspects of human thought become a focus in an effort to explain and possibly boost mental performance. Aspects like intelligence and creativity are of particular interest and in the quest to unravel the secrets behind these dauntingly complex functions, a few interesting correlations have been discovered.

Music lessons, for example, can actually increase IQ. Other studies point to improvements in attention, memory, reading, and science and math.

These benefits stem from a variety of activities, such as acting, dance, singing, playing an instrument, and the visual arts.

We’ve already explored the benefits of music in a few different forms, including the so-called “Mozart Effect” and the practical benefits of musicianship. As modern science continues to uncover the many benefits of practicing the arts, students should think about taking up an elective that interests them. If your particular choice is not offered by your school, think about checking out an after-school alternative and talk to your school administration to see if you can get course credit. Finally, make it known that you value arts education and take action before these important courses fall to a limited budget.

Mar 29, 2010

Teach English Abroad

We’ve always been big promoters of travel and international experience. As a means towards new opportunities, travel has a lot to offer, from self-directed learning and résumé building, to simple expansion of world understanding. This week we’ll look at how speaking English can help you get where you want to be.

No matter where you want to go, odds are there will be a demand for competent English teachers. While interested individuals should not expect to make a fortune in this profession, a living wage and ample opportunities to explore are a given. Typically, English teachers remain in the same locale for many months. The extended stay, coupled with direct and daily interaction with locals, makes for a truly enriching experience far beyond what any tourist trip could ever offer.

Like most professions, preference and higher pay are typically given to those with more experience. If you think teaching English abroad would be a good fit for you, start locally. Try volunteering your time in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and get a feel for the kind of work you’ll be doing. The more experience you have on your résumé, the more likely it is you’ll find your perfect job down the road.

Once you are certain that you want to teach English abroad, it’s time to get certified. There are a ton of programs out there, most containing some kind of acronym, including: TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), ESL (English as a Second Language), TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and so on. Programs vary greatly in price, schedules, and post-training job assistance, so do some research to find the best fit for you. It’s best to find a program with an established job track to help you on your way once you’ve completed certification. There are even some programs that offer training on-site in certain foreign countries, making the transition from student to teacher that much easier. If you can’t find that perfect program for your chosen destination, look for something close by. Downtime can be spent visiting that ideal place if you’re just a bus, train, or plane ticket away.

Of course, one of the biggest benefits to teaching in a foreign country is all the things you’ll learn. So if you want adventure and low-cost travel, check out becoming an English teacher in a foreign country.

Mar 22, 2010

What is Intelligence?

It’s easy to define improvement in sports. Making another save on defense, clipping time from your fastest lap, scoring more points against the opposing team – it’s obvious when you “get better”. But what about improving intelligence?

“Smartness” is tricky to pin down. Throughout history, there have been several attempts at defining and measuring this surprisingly elusive concept, and so far, a unanimously acceptable definition has remained out of reach.

Why has it been so difficult? One reason is the seemingly endless variety of ways in which someone could be considered “smart”. For example- is a theoretical physicist “smarter” than a master mechanic? The physicist can create elaborate mathematical theories for the explanation of natural phenomena, while the mechanic can diagnose a malfunctioning internal combustion engine just by listening to it- skills that both require intelligence. With such extreme variation, the quest to standardize intelligence may seem impossible.

Yet despite these difficulties, there remains a modern system that attempts to do just that. Understandably, the true efficacy of this system is still under debate. Critics of the modern IQ (intelligence quotient) test state that it is a falsehood to believe that an individual who does not perform well is not “smart”. They say that while a high score does generally correlate to some kind of “proof” of intelligence, the opposite is not necessarily true.

So, if the system in place is not perfect, what can we do to improve upon it? One popular theory is that of “Multiple Intelligences”. Proposed in the 80’s by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, multiple intelligences tries to encompass all the ways in which an individual could be deemed “smart”. These varied definitions tie back directly to individual learning styles, and embrace the idea of employing unique methods for teaching unique minds.

Unsurprisingly, multiple intelligence theory is not without its own critics. But while a perfect definition for what intelligence is and what it is not may be far off in the future, it’s important to remember that there are more ways to be smart than a record high test score.

Feb 8, 2010

More Ways to Learn a Foreign Language

One of the most popular topics covered here at the HippoCampus student blog is the process of learning a second language. In past posts, we’ve covered some of the benefits that come along with multilingualism, as well as a few methods to consider when pursuing such a talent. This week, we’ll take a look at a few other ways to learn another language.

With the advent of social networks, it should come as no surprise that cyber-immersion is good way to go for a bit of conversational practice. Some sites, like, actually specialize in bringing together like-minded language learners. Becoming a member is free, and in a few minutes you could be browsing through a cornucopia of possible pen-pals. There are even brief video lessons for some supplementary viewing. Of course, it might be a good idea to join such a site with some baseline skill in your target language, as the initial communication barrier will be rather big. Of course, with the right teacher, you might be able to start anywhere. You never know until you look.

Media consumption can also be a huge help. The next time you watch a movie, try switching on the sub-titles for a real-time translation to follow as you are entertained. Other possible supplementary sources include television, talk radio, music, books, news, and even comic strips- if it’s in a language that you wish you knew, try to understand it!

Vocabulary-building is critical to confidence in communication. Try signing up for a word-a-day email, or write down any words you don’t understand to look up later. You could also try pinning small notes with translations for household objects throughout your home. This way, every time you go to the fridge, you’ll be reminded what the word for “refrigerator” is in your target language.

It’s important to remember not to be afraid of making mistakes. While communicating in a perfect accent with flawless grammar is a great goal to have, it will take a while to get there. But like most things, if you break the task into smaller goals, you’ll have more fun and learn faster. Don’t be afraid of looking silly if you stumble through a conversation- most people will be delighted to see you trying to learn their language, and will probably take steps to help you out. Just keep practicing!

Feb 1, 2010

More on Homework

In our previous post, we covered a few of the basics when it came to homework, including recognizing “burnout”, finding the right place to work, and getting others involved in the daily schedule of assignments. We’re back this week with more in-depth information and a few other ways to simplify school stuff that follows you home.

Like we said last week, the work environment is crucial if you want to cruise through homework. A few symptoms of choosing the wrong space includes: distractions, not enough room to spread out your books and papers, lighting, and lack of comfort. Take ownership of the right space and make it yours- put on music that helps you study, organize your materials at arm length, bring in lamps, put out some brain food to keep you going, and shut out anything that might interrupt that next brilliant thought. Think about the best position to study- math, for example, might take a rigid chair and desk to keep the brain alert and focused. Lying down on a bed would probably make you sleepy, but attaining that dreamy head space might be perfect for writing poetry. Use your environment like a set of tools to control how your brain works.

With the right space ready to go, it’s time to get to it. It can be tempting to get into the easier stuff first and put off the harder material for later- don’t get sucked into that mindset. If you get the harder stuff done first, you’ll have more energy to quickly finish up the easy stuff at the end. This will help you avoid burnout and give you energy to spare for post-homework activities.

Focus on getting stuff done quickly, but make sure you don’t blur the line between finishing an assignment and cutting corners. There’s nothing wrong with getting it done fast, as long as it’s done right.

For example, you may want to speed-read through a few passages. However, the faster you read, the less material you are likely to absorb. The fix is to write down notes as you go so you can look back later and remember what was covered. This way, you’ll be much more involved in the material, and also have a resource for future quizzes and tests.

Spend a certain amount of time on an assignment- if the teacher says it should take 15 minutes, don’t bother spending an hour on it. If you aren’t picking something up in class, ask your teacher to go over it again. Odds are someone else in the class didn’t understand it the first time either. Remember- homework is just practice!

Jan 26, 2010


One of the hottest areas of contention amongst teachers, parents and students is the role that homework plays (and should play) in the academic careers of American learners. Surprisingly, this debate has been raging for quite some time, and yet new opinions on the subject seem to spring up on a regular basis. Rarely, however, do we see the scientific approach taken when dealing with this hotly debated issue.

To move beyond the various attitudes and points of view surrounding homework, Countdown to College Radio host Beth Pickett interviewed Dr. Harris Cooper, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Psychology at Duke University, and author of the book The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents. Throughout the interview, Dr. Harris explains how his research and meta-data analyses showed a strong correlation between academic achievement and homework. This, however, does come with certain stipulations.

There is less success, for example, when homework is “overdone”. When a student feels tired and frustrated with an assignment, homework begins to lose its efficacy- essentially, more is not always better. Also, students may begin to identify themselves as “good” or “bad” students based on their ability to complete at-home assignments, both in terms of time spent and overall correctness.

Students should watch for signs of “burnout” and adjust their work schedules appropriately. Just like studying for a test all-night won’t necessarily equate to a better grade, grinding away on a difficult assignment won’t necessarily help you learn the material. Homework is practice, and while it is crucial to academic success, it should be treated like an afternoon at the batting cages, not the bottom of the ninth at the World Series.

Give yourself a chance to really complete an assignment. Working at home can be difficult due to a myriad of distractions- try to limit these as much as possible. If you devote a few blocks of time where you won’t have annoyances like television and background conversations to pull your attention, you’ll complete your daily work more quickly and more efficiently.

If you feel frustrated on a regular basis by assigned homework, do something about it! Try to pinpoint the cause- do you have a good space to work in? Is the material really difficult? Do you have other concerns, like a part-time job, eating away at your time? Talk to your teacher, talk to your boss, and talk to your parents. Odds are that if these interested parties can help, they will. You’ll still have to do your homework, but making it manageable should be a top priority. Don’t suffer- the worst thing you could do is nothing!

Jan 12, 2010

Build That Vocab

The digital age has expanded and evolved communication, and the average person is now expected to textually express themselves in many different forms every single day. Most of this writing is in non-formal bits and pieces that have been whittled down to the bare essentials for the expression of an idea, with text and instant messages leading the way in acronym-laced short-hand. This makes the importance of a wide vocabulary even more pronounced- not only are there more opportunities to throw in that $5 word, but with proper use, you could really make yourself stand out from the crowd. Choosing just the right word has benefits all over the place, whether you are writing a blog, taking the SAT, applying for a job, or merely just trying to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Without a doubt, reading is your best friend when it comes to building up your word-repertoire. And if you’re reading this blog post, odds are you have an Internet connection at your disposal, which will make finding appropriate material simple. Start with a subject you find interesting and track down articles that delve into the complex issues and opinions that surround it- the establishment of an argument or point of view is often fertile ground for challenging words.

Another great way to build your vocabulary is by studying word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, let’s take the word “pseudonym”. While you may not know the exact definition, you could pull out the root word “pseudo”, which means “false”. In context, it might then be possible to deduce the definition (“Samuel Clemens wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain as a reference to riverboat terminology.”).

In terms of speed and volume, repetitive rote memorization is often the best method for vocabulary building, but if you are looking to have a little fun while you learn, gameslike crosswords or hangman are a good choice. Word-a-Day emails are also an easy source for word-knowledge.

And of course, don’t hesitate to look up the definition to any unknown word that you come across. Usually, this is as easy as typing it into a browser search box, but don’t forget that paper and binding dictionaries are just as effective if you don’t mind spending an extra ten seconds turning pages.

Jan 5, 2010

Escape Plan

James Cameron’s latest bonanza, the sci-fi epic “Avatar”, has sailed past the $1B mark for global box office ticket sales and now rests at fourth for all-time highest grossing movie ever. This feat of financial fortitude is a tell-tale sign of the power that “escapism” has on the human psyche.

Escapism is a psychological term used to describe a mental retreat from the reality of daily life, or a willing “immersion” into a fictional existence. A brief list of the various forms that escapism could take include: television, movies, art, literature, music, videogames, and simply browsing the Internet. Even activities that are completely natural, such as eating or sleeping, can be a form of escapism. While the term usually arouses a negative connotation, escapism is quite common and can be one component of a normal, healthy life. However, it is important to mention that some individuals could become addicted to their specific form of escapism , usually resulting in a refusal to acknowledge the real aspects of life, such as personal relationships, work, and health.

In a fascinating multi-blog series from Psychology Today, Norman Holland, Ph. D., explains escapism: “1) with literary works, even the humble comic book, we suspend disbelief; that is, 2) in order to comprehend, we believe; we have poetic faith; 3) we believing humans detect lies poorly, no better than by chance, and literature is a form of lying”, and finally, “we believe because we don't act on narratives we are perceiving.”

This final component is particularly interesting because, as Dr. Holland points out, “the primary business of any brain is to move its body-to act in relation to what that body and brain perceive.” We don’t, for example, duck and cover when we see a bomb falling to the ground and explode during a movie. We permit our brains to involve the self in the “unreality”, but only to a point.

Dr. Holland points out that the importance of this belief to the human psyche is similar to play- it is a simulation, rather than the full-blown experience, permitting some of the associated benefits (for example, the exhilaration of riding a giant dinosaur-like bird amongst floating mountains in “Avatar”) without the negative consequences (crashing).

There are a few things that can throw off this belief, with unrealistic effects being one of the most common diversions. This might, in part, explain the huge success of “Avatar”, which is presented in a new 3-D digital format that puts the audience even deeper into the story by making the images seem more real.

The next time you feel like sitting down with a good book or flipping on the TV, take a minute to analyze what’s going on in your head. You may be surprised by what you permit yourself to believe in, even if it’s for just a little while.