The following articles were given as handouts by Dr. Richard Cooper at various adult education conferences around the country. Sometimes he does not have enough copies of the handouts or he makes reference to these articles but does not have them as handouts, so we have posted the articles here for the conference participants to download and share with their colleagues and students. The Racing Mind is followed by Right/Left Discrimination Problems.The Racing Mind
Do you often find your
mind flooded with so many thoughts about so many things that you become
overwhelmed? Does your mind race
off to visualize the first step of a series of directions that is being given to
you, so that you do not pay attention to the rest of the steps?
These are two of the many questions I ask individuals about their
behavior when I screen for learning and attention differences.
Although everyone may on occasion experience these behaviors, the person
who frequently experiences these, and a number of similar behaviors, probably
has a racing mind.
The racing mind is the
term I prefer to use to describe the phenomenon often referred to as Attention
Deficit Disorder. Why use a
different term? Although the
behaviors associated with attention problems cause significant difficulty for
those who have a serious attention problem, others have milder symptoms and less
difficulty. There are varying
degrees of attention problems, and if we reserve the term ADD for the most
serious problems, then we can treat other degrees of attention problems
differently. But the same thought
patterns that disable a person with a serious attention problem, to a lesser
degree, can interfere with a person’s ability to function in many areas of
life including school, work and social interactions.
The concept of the racing mind can help a person to better understand
their own thoughts and behaviors as being different rather than seeing
themselves as having a deficit and a disorder which the term ADD states.
The term racing mind is
not inherently negative. By using
it instead of ADD, the individual is able to focus on some of the positive
aspects of this phenomenon. While
the word “deficit” emphasizes the negative, the term “racing mind”
emphasizes the positive. This term
implies different not defective. This
positive perspective can make a significant difference in the person’s
I use an analogy of a
raging river to help people understand the racing mind.
Imagine a river beginning as a trickle high in the mountains,
increasing volume as it flows down the mountains through the valleys, across the
plain to the sea. When this river
swells because of heavy rain, the water rages down the mountains, towards the
sea causing much destruction and chaos. However,
if this same river has a number of hydroelectric dams, the raging waters cannot
only be controlled but also produce productive energy.
There are positive aspects
to the racing mind. It can enable
individuals to be quick witted and, although it can be overdone by becoming the
class clown, it provides the person with a skill which some use to their
advantage. Some people have a high
energy level that allows them, or drives them, to work, play and live faster and
harder than others. Some are risk
takers, willing to go beyond what others believe to be safe or prudent.
Many entrepreneurs fit into this category.
And, although there is a high rate of failure for individuals who strike
out on their own, there is much to be said for those who break through barriers
to go beyond. Hard work and tenacity can result in high productivity.
I find many people who are very good problem solvers because they can
race ahead to consider a myriad of possibilities.
When combined with creativity, which often accompanies the racing mind,
people can be the masters of flexibility and substitutions.
The ultimate toolmaker is the person who can find ways to accomplish
tasks with whatever is available. Quick
thinkers with quick movements enable many with the racing mind to be excellent
athletes; even the sports extremists like those who ski off cliffs, sky dive off
bridges. Being very observant is the positive side of being
distractible, and in many environments, individuals with racing minds excel.
Their high energy levels and quick thinking often enables them to work on
several projects simultaneously
characteristics are the opposites of many negative aspects of the racing mind.
Now look at the negative aspects of the racing mind along with techniques
to reduce the negative and build on the positive.
Not everything about the
racing mind is positive. There are
negative aspects to the racing mind that can limit a person’s productivity,
cause errors and confusion and reduce a person’s self-confidence. If a person is attentive to too many things, it reduces the
ability to focus on tasks at hand. This
distractibility manifests itself in many ways.
Here is a partial list of the negative aspects of the racing mind:
The tendency to listen to more than one conversation at a time, which
usually results in, reduced information, confusion and difficulty with social
The person with a racing mind often has a tendency to race ahead when
receiving multiple directions. When
the first instruction is given, the person’s thoughts race off to visualize or
plan that step and consequently does not process the other steps of the
directions which are being given.
Another observed phenomenon is triggering.
The person’s thoughts race ahead overshooting the correct response to a
stimulus. Errors such as the
reading of synonyms, saying the wrong word when speaking and simple math
mistakes are frequent problems for individuals with the racing mind.
Being too quick can have its negative aspects.
This quickness can result in jumping over sequences, going to extremes,
doing too much, too fast for too long.
The racing mind causes tangential thinking which is the mind triggering
to other ideas in a conversation or as a person tries to write.
For example, a person may begin talking about one topic, but an idea
triggers another thought which takes the conversation into another direction.
After a few triggered ideas that take the person’s thoughts far a
field, no one knows what the person is talking about.
Skipping words as one writes, skipping steps in sequences, and skipping
information in conversations are other negative results of the racing mind.
When a person jumps over these things, he or she is often not even aware
that they were omitted.
Impulsive behavior is one of the negatives aspects of the racing mind
that not only causes many difficulties because of mistakes but also it
interferes with social interaction. One
of these is interrupting. Many
adults who frequently interrupt others report that they see it as the lesser of
two evils. If they do not
interrupt, they will forget because their mind will race on to something else.
In order to avoid forgetting, they interrupt.
Others just can’t tolerate waiting so they act or say something as soon
as the thought enters their mind.
Many exhibit a need for immediate gratification.
They want gratification now, quickly and they are off racing, looking for
The opposite of observant is distractible and whereas it is very good to
be observant in some situations, in others being too observant (distractible)
means that you are unable to effectively focus on the tasks at hand.
Although taking risks can be the trade mark of an entrepreneur (which
many individuals with a racing mind are) taking too many risks or impossible
ones often result in failure and some times personal injury.
For some the racing mind results in a high energy level that, again in
the right context, gives the person the advantage while in other situations is
If a person can’t sit or stay still, he or she has difficulty in
school, church and other places where others are calm and focused.
The racing mind is easily excitable, especially able to envision the end
result or product.
However, it is common to find a person with a racing mind who does not
complete tasks, takes on too many tasks, starts too many projects, often not
This same ability drives the person to collect too many things.
Their mind races off to all the possible uses of such things.
The racing mind can be a
gift or a curse depending on whether the person can control it to be productive
or whether it controls the person and causes chaos.
The first step in learning how to control the racing mind is to develop
self-awareness. The better a person
knows himself or herself the better he or she will be able to channel or control
the racing mind. Learning to
appreciate ones differences puts one in the right state of mind.
There are many techniques that can empower a person with a racing mind to
channel it to produce the energy and productivity that enable a person to
succeed. Here is a partial list of
techniques for controlling the racing mind.
If a person with a racing mind can control the environment, then there is
a better chance that things can be structured and planned. For example, clients who visit my office find that I have
chosen the corner office that has no windows and is located far from the other
activities going on in our facility. This
choice of environment reduces my observations (or distractions) so that I can
focus my attention on the person I am working with.
Structure is very important and frequently necessary for individuals with
a racing mind. Frequently, those
who lack internal structure resist external structure (that imposed on them by
others) and frequently spend much time and energy trying to evade or unravel the
structure. Accepting the fact that
one needs structure and requesting help in establishing that structure can often
make the difference between success and failure.
Because the racing mind can create many errors, individuals need to
understand when they are likely to make errors (stress, anxiety, pressure and
fatigue accelerate the racing mind) and learn to check work often.
One technique for achieving frequent checks is small looping tasks.
Tasks are broken into small segments including a method for checking for
accuracy. The person should loop
back and check that each step was completed when the whole task is finished.
If a person can learn to stop and think before he or she acts, some
impulsive behavior and many errors can be eliminated.
This is not easily accomplished, it is not enough to say you are going to
stop and think, the person must practice and often needs the help of others to
learn this new behavior.
Many people with racing minds have difficulty relaxing.
They often seem to be wired and have difficulty using visualization and
relaxing tapes. Learning to
visualize, looking ahead, enables the person with the racing mind to use it to
their advantage rather than using it to deal with the consequences of errors and
misdirected energy. Don’t resign
yourself to the idea that you have no control or that your case is hopeless.
Individuals who have difficulty controlling their racing mind may need to
learn to use external controls, such as reminders from other people or memory
An example of such a memory clue helped one person who was consistently
leaving her things behind.
She learned to stop and look around when she came to a door.
This became habit and she forgot very few things thereafter.
610-446-6126 or visit us on our website: www.learningdifferences.com
by Richard Cooper
A young lady was referred to me for an assessment because she was doing poorly in some college courses. She reported that she suffered from test anxiety, but when I completed the assessment, I found that she had what I call a right/left discrimination problem. This young lady found herself becoming more and more frustrated by her difficulties with multiple choice tests and with social interactions. She was doing well in her courses, understood the material, participated, and was able to complete assignments. However, she failed every multiple-choice test she took. Socially friends were calling her less because she would drive them crazy with her indecisiveness of things like where to go, what to do and what to buy.
Another woman came in for an assessment because she thought she was losing her memory. She had forgotten which way to turn out of her driveway to go to the store. She also had a problem with right/left confusion and was unable to remember how to get to the store because someone had cut down the tree at the end of the block that she used as a landmark. Without the landmark she could not remember which way to turn.
A student enrolled at a university was having difficulty with certain courses. During the assessment I asked him if he was ever fired from a job. He reported once. He was working a summer job at the customer service department of a large store. His task was to take returned merchandise out of the packaging, place it on a conveyer belt and shred the packing material. The third time he reversed the procedure, shredding the merchandise; he was fired.
What is a right/left discrimination problem? I define a right/left discrimination problem as a thought process that results in confusion when processing or communicating anything that has an “either/or” relationship. The three areas in which I have observed this phenomenon are spatial relations, language and quantity. The right/left discrimination thought process causes reversals, memory problems, and confusion.
Reversals are not perception problems but rather processing and communication problems. The person who reads a “b” instead of a “d” does not see a “b”. The individual sees a “d”, just like everyone else, but because of the right/left problem, this person does not know whether it is a “b” or a “d”. This is easier to understand if we start by looking at young children who confuse their right and left. Many of these children will put their shoes on the wrong feet, confuse their right and left sides and write numbers and letters backwards. These are all reversals and each of them involves the same confusion. Either this shoe goes on this foot or the other, this is either my right or left side and I write this number or letter by going to the right or to the left.
Confusion is caused by this thought process because the person continually focuses on the ‘either/or’ possibilities rather than approaching the problem or idea from a different direction. Take the b/d example again. The individual who is not sure if a letter is a “b” or a “d” continues to decide if the letter in question is a “b” or a “d” instead of using a motor memory of writing the letter, or thinking of another word which begins with the same letter shape, or using some memory clue to remember which one is which. The more the person tries to distinguish between one or the other, the more confused the person becomes. The end result is either frustration or a guess. If the person guesses incorrectly, an error is made, frequently without the individual being aware that it is an error. If the person guesses correctly, it does not mean that any learning has taken place because the next time the same task is encountered, the student will find him/herself in the same quandary. Only when the student is sure that the dilemma of the “either/or” is solved with the correct answer does learning take place. If this is not reinforced quickly and frequently, the item learned will fade back into the confusion of ‘either/or”. This is how it affects memory. It is not uncommon for a student to appear to learn something and use it for a short period of time and later appear as if the item was never learned. For example, a student guesses that a number is even, when it is odd. If the student is corrected, he/she may be able to remember for the rest of the period or day that the number is odd, but the next day this same student will guess again because no learning took place. As long as the person is not able to distinguish between the “either/or” aspects of what is being learned, no learning takes place and although the correct information may reside in the short term memory, it does not get moved to long term memory.
The right/left discrimination problem causes reversals, and since reversals are the most visible type of reading and writing problems, they have become directly associated with the term dyslexia. Although many students with severe reading problems do manifest reversals, not all students with such problems make reversals and making reversals does not mean a reading problem. There are many individuals with a right/left discrimination problem who reverse many things but not letters and words and are excellent readers. Their reversals may come out in spatial relationships or with numbers.
As stated above, many, if not all, children during their development confuse right and left. However, for most of them, it does not take long before they are able to remember the right and left side of their bodies and do not have difficulty remembering which way to form letters and numbers. It seems as if this natural developmental process is delayed, or non-existent, for individuals who have problems with right/left discrimination. Many children who exhibit problems with reversals seem to outgrow them. This is why it was believed that children outgrew learning disabilities. When the reversals faded, it was assumed that the problem was corrected. However, this is not the case because the same thought process, right/left discrimination, which caused the reversal of the writing of a number, later makes it difficult for the person to distinguish between “subjective” and ‘objective’ and other terms with have an “either/or” relationship. Other terms which have such a relationship and are confused, or reversed, are “defense” and “offense’; “inductive” and “deductive reasoning”, “greater than” and “less than”, “clockwise” and “counterclockwise”. So the obvious reversals in reading and writing are replaced with the less obvious confusion in vocabulary and concepts. Children therefore do not outgrow this thought process, but rather it matures with them into adulthood.
The confusion about odd and even numbers is a good example of a right/left problem that affects skills at a higher level. Many teachers are not concerned that a child cannot remember odd and even numbers. They do not think it is important enough to worry about. However, without the concept of odd and even, many children and adults do not see the patterns in math. Additionally, because they do not know that the addition and subtraction of likes result in an even number, these students are not able to check their work with this pattern. They are stuck guessing, and when you guess the only way to check your answer is to guess again.
Some Solutions to the Problems
Caused by Right/left Discrimination
The first and most important thing that a person who has a right/left discrimination problem must do is to understand it. The person who makes reversals or has difficulty learning items that are similar usually believes that it is due to a low intelligence or to put it in a crass way, “because I am stupid.” This belief lowers the persons self-esteem and leads to patterns of avoidance because “why should I try if I am so stupid”. When an individual comes to understand that reversals and right/left confusion is a thought process that is both positive and negative, the self-image can be modified from stupid to different. Coming to understand that the different thought processes caused by a right/left, discrimination problem allows a person to more easily see both sides of an issue, enhances creativity and enables a person to be more tolerant of others with differences. This allows the person, who previously felt stupid and helpless, to feel adequate and in control.
The second step in dealing with right/left discrimination differences is to learn techniques that remove the “either/or” dilemma or provide a way to remember the difference. One such technique is weighted learning. This technique for learning and remembering involves learning one side of an “either/or” rather than both. With odd and even numbers, the person only learns the even numbers of 2, 4, 6, 8 and 0. When a number is not one of these, then the number is odd. You weight the “t” in “witch” to differentiate it from “which”.
The use of mnemonics is another technique for dealing with the right/left discrimination problem. There are commonly known mnemonics, and there are those which are custom made to help the individual to learn and remember things which are confusing. Mnemonics that are used in conjunction with weighted learning are most effective. These memory aids should not be created to help remember both parts of an “either/or” since this leads to the confusion of the memory aids.
Another technique for helping a person break the confusion caused by “either/or” is that of prioritizing. This is particularly effective for decision-making. Many people who have right/left problems find it difficult to make up their minds, especially on simple things such as shopping for necessities. A trip to the store can be an agonizing experience, not only for the person with the problem but also for those who accompany that person. Take for example Mary who could not make up her mind about which kind of bread to buy. She would find herself spending many minutes trying to decide if she should buy white or wheat bread, this brand or that, the cheap or expensive brand, the regular size loaf or king size. By learning to prioritize ahead of time, Mary learned to choose a loaf of bread quickly and easily. She decided that cost was her first concern, then wheat was her preference and finally she would always by the larger loaf when it was available.
Some students are able to use conceptualizing and associating as a way to reduce the right/left confusion and increase memory. Using the example of odd and even numbers again, we can see that if a person is able to understand that even numbers are pairs, then numbers which do not represent a pair are odd.
Repetition sometimes can reduce the number of reversals and confusions. However, stress, fatigue, pressure and anxiety will exacerbate the right/left confusion, reducing any gain obtained by repetition.
Learning items in a series instead of in pairs is another technique for reducing the confusion caused by the right/left discrimination problem.
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