Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Brain Structure Of Adolescent Boys- an interesting talk

Earlier this week M and I went to a talk on adolescent brain development, specifically that of boys. It was so interesting, and explained so much, that I thought I would share the key points with you here. If you are a mother or a father or a grannie/ grandpa/ aunt/ uncle/ sister/ friend of a young lad and you are wondering where your lovely pre-teen child went and where all this strange/ challenging and sometimes disruptive behaviour is coming from this might help.

Firstly, testosterone production increases 10 times during adolescence and with each fresh injection of it the brain structure of boys changes permanently. It makes them tired to the point of lethargy and can reduce their behaviour to that last experienced when they were toddlers (which was the last time they had an equivalent shot of testosterone surging through their system and such a change in brain structure). But this is a really important aspect of male development because too little testosterone is way more damaging in the long term than too much.

Secondly, adolescence is the period when brains transform and reorganise. They lose some neural pathways and create others. This process completes much more quickly in girls, which is why they appear to be more mature than boys of the same age. Their brains are simply more efficient at processing information at this stage.

Boys brains differ from girls brains in two key ways. In girls, the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is large and fires constantly, enabling girls to access and utilise information gathered from either or both hemispheres. This is why women and girls are such good multi-taskers - they can literally connect up the two halves of their brain and process info received from a number of different sources and (as importantly) implement it through frontal lobe activity.

In boys this nerve bundle is much smaller and fires less frequently, which is why men and boys often struggle if asked to do more than one thing at a time. It is also why they don't notice peripheral detail in the way girls do and can easily miss subtle things, such as an awareness of other people's emotional states or what colour jacket someone was wearing that evening. Girls tend to be better at noticing small details because of the way their brains are developed. But this single-mindedness of boys is a tremendously useful thing and not one to berate them with- far better to find a way of  letting them see what a useful tool it can be.

Boys focus when they are set on doing one thing is absolute, which is why when they are watching tv, reading or playing on the computer they genuinely do not hear you when you are telling them tea is ready or asking them to do their homework. 

Boys need simple precise instructions in order to flourish- ask them to do too much, and their brains become overloaded and they sink into primitive responses to deal with the feeling of stress that ensues.

Of the three significant sections in the brain, the primitive brain is most active in infants (as you'd expect), the emotional brain is most active in teenagers and the frontal lobe (responsible for common sense type actions) is most active in girl teenagers. Modern scans show all of this in action.
In addition to this, a section of the brain called the amygdala which has a key role in hormone production, sex drive and emotional responses is much much larger in boys than girls, to the point that in women it is virtually un-noticeable. So boys get a lot of their information this way.

What this means is that boys, particularly when under stress or if overloaded with information, process information downwards from the emotional brain into the primitive brain and that is why you get the aggressive response that so often characterises boys reactions to difficult or frustrating situations. 

It takes them a long time to come down from this, so if they do blow a fuse, going after them and trying to talk to them soon after won't work because their brain and nervous system are still in the primitive mode. To reconnect with a boy you have to give him time on his own to calm and settle, and then talk rationally to him and encourage him to think calmly, which kicks the frontal lobe into action.

The expression we heard more than anything in regard to helping boys cope was 'coach, don't lecture.' And this is because boys have to learn how to use the frontal lobe (a process ongoing until they are in their 20s/ 30s). To help them achieve this, we as parents need to encourage them to do things for themselves calmly, which means that they create the pathways in the brain associated with the specific action or task, which then makes it much easier for them to remember and repeat it next time without descending into the primitive brain for answers. Helping them work out what is the most important of a group of tasks and then showing them how to complete it is the best way to achieve this kind of frontal lobe activity.

Girls on the other hand, process info received in the emotional brain upwards through the frontal lobe and are therefore better able to apply rationale and sequential thinking as a result. They are better at thinking forward to consequences of actions because of this, and this is also why their organisational skills are so much better. An example is the way girls lay their uniforms out the night before, pack their school bags and get everything ready they'll need for the next day. Boys are often so overwhelmed by the list of things to do that they just don't do any of it and then get grumpy next day because there is too much to do in one go, so instead they down tools and descend into primitive reflex and get angry or frustrated. 

Simplify, simplify, simplify is the key with boys.

Spatial awareness is also not good in boys at this age because they are growing so fast that the nerve endings don't always keep up with the extent of their bodies. This makes them prone to knocking things over because they can't always judge distance well and how they fit into spaces. Our middle son is incredibly clumsy and is also shooting up at the moment, so this has helped me understand why he is forever knocking pots off surfaces and breaking things!

There were a few other key points, such as there is no value in getting deep, meaningful and emotional with boys because their brains won't process that kind of information and they feel uncomfortable and switch off. Instead, you need to remain calm, rational, sensible, logical and help them to work out practically the important bits for themselves. They also need lots of praise, but focused and realistic, so for eg if they're good at maths celebrate it, but if they haven't tidied their room don't tell them that's ok or praise them for it! 

Boys don't always want physical contact with their mums in particular at this age so you shouldn't force them. They question everything you say and do because it is at this age that their brains are starting to have the capacity to evaluate instead of simply accept information they are given- this helps keep them safe in adulthood because they are learning how to evaluate and separate good advice from bad, so it's a really crucial stage and not one you should take as a personal rejection of your own wisdom- essentially, they are learning to think for themselves which is a hugely important skill. Natural consequences to poor behaviour are also good teachers, as long as the consequence is reasonable. A good example is missing the school bus and getting a detention or a telling off for being late. And they can be utterly horrible to younger siblings who's brains are actually working better than theirs at this point. All of this is natural, normal, healthy, if exasperating to live with sometimes!

I hope that's all made sense and that somewhere in all of that there are some useful bits of info. We found it hugely useful and gained some good insights into why our lads behave the way they do at times and also how to help them through those times. The teacher also said boys are sweet, kind, gentle, disarmingly honest and straightforward, that they are less in need of peer approval than girls, less bitchy, easier in many ways to live with, quick to anger but also quick to smile. I wouldn't change ours for the world.

CT :-)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Chocolate Brownie And Congo Bar Recipes and Birds In The Garden

I have L home unexpectedly today feeling unwell so I decided it would be a Baking Day, as everyone is home this weekend and we've got all the Grannies And Grandpas coming over for supper on Saturday. As well to get ahead, no?

I've made a batch of Congo Bars to cheer L up and a chocolate brownie for Saturday night. I'm also doing a trifle but will leave that till Saturday afternoon. I promised you the fail-safe and easy-peasy choc brownie recipe that has done the rounds of Romsey among other places so here it is, making it's Blog Debut...

8oz chocolate
4oz butter
2 eggies
4oz granulated sugar
2oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder

1. Melt choc and butter in a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water
2. Off heat stir in all the other ingredients
3. Wack in a 22cm lined tin (square or round)
4. Bake at 160 or thereabouts until the middle has stopped wobbling when you move it and a skewer comes out clean
5. Cool and then turn out on a tray, dust with icing sugar or drizzle melted choc over the surface
6. Serve with ice cream or cream
7. Yum!

About to go in the oven

Just out of the oven

Dressed and Ready To Go


In the middle of cooking I got a Nice Surprise, when I looked out of the kitchen window and saw a female Siskin perched on one of the feeders. No pic sadly because she skedaddled when she saw me, but doubtless she will be back and if last year is anything to go by she'll get used to seeing me so I should get some photos. They are such beautiful birds with incredible plumage and I'd never seen them until they started arriving here last year. I estimate the flock to be between 50-100- it is enormous. I have recorded them chattering in the alders and will attempt to upload the resulting vid so you can hear for yourself the racket they make. We usually get 2-4 in the garden from Jan onwards so I'm wondering where all the others go to?

I did manage to get some snaps of some Familiar Faces.....

My Lovely Friend Mrs Sparrow, who spent most of last summer either leaving her chicks with me or forcing me to duck quickly as she zoomed past, often brushing my nose with her wings. I have missed her and am glad to see her back.

'Are you taking a picture of me?' Our resident Pige taking a break from all the bowing and beak nibbling he's putting on for his VERY disinterested missus.

Our Lovely Robin, who is stretching his head up and backwards whenever he comes across the other two- it's either courtship or territory posturing, but they're all doing it at the moment.

Mrs Sparrow and her husband in the hedge by the feeders

'Take Off!'

Also on the Wildlife Front, blogging pal and fellow moth-enthusiast Caroline at Ragged Robin recently put me onto a book about the moths of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. As with all these tomes it was pretty expensive (£35) but I was thrilled to find it second-hand at the Oxfam Bookshop for £20. Bargain. Anyway, needless to say I ordered it and it has just turned up. I've had a quick flick through it and it looks fab, so I'm even more excited about mothing season starting now.

Back to cakes...

Here is the recipe for Congo Bars. Again, very simple, takes minutes to make and they are delicious (and if the photos don't make you want to go out and get the ingredients and cook some up this afternoon then there is something wrong with you.  Unless of course you happen to be my niece or sister in law and don't like chocolate. I know - shocking isn't it?).

2 eggies
4oz light brown sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
4 oz butter
2oz self raising flour
pinch salt
200 grams chocolate
1 tbsp cocoa powder if you like 

1. Melt the butter and vanilla in a saucepan.
2, Whisk eggs and brown sugar till smooth.
3. Beat melted butter into egg and sugar mix.
4. Sift the flour and salt onto the egg mix and fold in.
5. Line a 22cm square tin with greaseproof paper and crack the chocolate into chunks of varying sizes into the bottom of the tin.
6. Pour the cake mix over the choccy pieces.
7. Bake at 160 for about 20 mins till a skewer comes out clean.
8. Leave to cool then cut into bars and either eat or store in an airtight tin.

Just out the oven and cooling down
Cut into bars
The chocolate melts and forms a lovely gooey base while the sponge is light and fluffy on top


 Wouldn't it be great if wildlife programmes combined with baking ones? Just a thought....

Hope your day is going well?

CT :-)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Two Go Mad In The Garden, A Time Of Water, and Introducing Shanti

After walking round the woods with my friend Mrs Massey and her two dogs Oscar and Lucy first thing, Ted, Poppy and I continued on to ma's so they could see their doggy cousins Dylan and Dougal, and I could meet Shanti.....

She's a Haflinger (an Austrian breed), and mum's new pony. After the very sad start we had to the new year when we lost our mare Lou, I am hoping Shanti will prove to be a new chapter for ma and her riding. 

Ted is more than used to horses (too used to them- he can often be found sitting nonchalantly under their bellies), but Poppy isn't, and today she came face-to-face with Coco, our rescue pony. I rather think she was glad of the fence between them.....

After that she spent the remainder of the time we were there chasing and being chased by Dylan...

They had Great Fun and she was gratifyingly exhausted when we got home.

The sun was shining this morning which made for some nice photos....

Single Apple left on the tree

Daphne growing outside the house. Wish I could take a picture of the smell- it's heavenly.


Robin in the sun

Collar Dove

 I'm back at college tomorrow, supposedly working on hedgerow management, but the forecast is dire so we'll see. It's only when you really start to learn about hedgerows that you appreciate their value and important fully- they provide everything from food to shelter to somewhere to hibernate to corridors for safe passage across the landscape for such a wide variety of wild things.

Talking of wild things, we had some sad news from The Chalk over the weekend- Vera, one of the sheep, has had to be put to sleep due to a dicky heart. She was losing condition and starting to limp badly and really wasn't looking at all good when I saw her last. Animal husbandry does have these sad moments. So now there are 28 sheep to look out for.

To balance the sad news, there was the Most Beautiful Rainbow shining in the sky as I went to collect L from school this afternoon. The photo doesn't do it justice- it was really vibrant, almost painful to look at......

We've had snow forecast here for Thursday. Whether it will materialise or not remains to be seen, but we certainly don't need any further rainfall- there is no-where for it to go, and all this water is destabilising the trees. 

Walking through the woods this morning, a great many of the paths were blocked with fallen trees and there are branches down everywhere. I can't remember a time when so many trees fell, and those that haven't aren't necessarily safe which makes walking and driving under them dicey.

It is a time of water indeed. I can't remember so much rain falling over so many consecutive weeks before. M could tell you exactly how much we've had, and even I know that we're fast approaching record-breaking-territory. 

In Chinese medicine terms water governs the emotions and the organs of water, namely the bladder and the kidneys. They are connected with feelings of grief, worry and anxiety. If watery energetic flow is compromised, it can make you more susceptible to experiencing these feelings and a good and simple way to avoid or combat this is to keep warm and dry and to eat warming foods.

Water is of course absolutely necessary for life, but too much of it can be damaging. And of course, when water freezes ice forms and we all know where that can lead.... Incidentally, M's check-up yesterday was reassuring. The bone continues to heal well and has remained in the right place, so as long as he continues to be careful there's no reason at all why it shouldn't heal up and be fine and dandy.

I'm in the middle of inputting my moth data from last year onto a spreadsheet for the county recorder. Moths don't like too much rain either, although they will cope with surprisingly more than you'd think.
The data entry is proving to be a rather a long job so this year I think I will do the entries as I go. Believe it or not, there are moths flying at this time of year, so as long as we get a dryish warmish night soon I shall be putting the box out and seeing what's there in the morning. Last year's total was 311 different species in the end- it'll be very interesting to see what this year's total is. I'm missing my moths considerably- writing up the results from 2013 has brought them all back into sharp focus and I can't wait to see them again.

I'll leave you with a picture of three doggy people having a ball chasing each other round the garden....Animals have a lot to teach us about the simple joys of life, don't you think?

Hope all are well.

CT :-)

Monday, 27 January 2014

Who Would You Invite To Dinner?

M and I have this conversation quite often. I was wondering how many of you do? If we see or hear someone on TV or in the newspapers we postulate as to whether or not we would have them to dinner. 

The criteria is that they have to be 1) alive today and 2) entertaining/ educational/ interesting, not horrible, divisive, irritating. They generally have to have useful jobs as well and not be famous for the sake of it.

Who would you choose?

Our list runs thusly :

The Queen (because I think she is an amazing woman)
Prince Phillip (because I think he would be hysterical)
Boris Johnson (Mayor of London)
Stephen Fry (M, not me because he is soooo scornful about anything remotely spiritual in nature that can't be scientifically tied down, explained and labelled)
Brian Cox (physicist, another one of M's)
Rowan Atkinson (actor)
Ricky Wilson (lead singer Kaiser Chiefs and my new addition)
Ian Hislop (editor of private eye magazine)
Sandi Toksvig (writer/ presenter/ comic)
David Mitchell (comic)
Bill Bailey (comic and wildlife person)

Paul Merton (comic)
Fred MacAulay (comic)
Miles Jupp (comic)
Francis Wheen (comic)
Judi Dench (actress)
Maggie Smith (actress)
Hilary Mantel (writer)
Billy Connolly (comic)
Miranda Hart (comic)
Joni Mitchell (singer-songwriter) 
C J Sansom (writer)
Kate Bush (singer-songwriter)
Margaret Atwood (writer)
Tony Robinson (presenter with a bent towards history)
David Attenborough (naturalist and presenter)
Brian Blessed (this is L's choice- an actor and explorer with a booming voice)
Phil Harding (archaeologist specialising in Neolithic history) 
Martin Clunes (actor and extremely funny man with naughty twinkly eyes)
Benedict Cumberbatch (actor - my choice :-) )
Hugh Dennis (writer and comic)
Eddie Izzard (cross-dressing comic)

We're a bit low on women which is slightly depressing. It's also not meant to be an eye-candy list, otherwise I would have added the TVBF's Damien Lewis and Cillian Murphy, amongst others....

Then I suppose you have to decide what you'd feed them. My staple for feeding large amounts of people is usually something like lasagne with a huge bowl of salad and a loaf or two of crusty bread, followed by home-made sherry-drenched trifle or homemade chocolate brownie cake with M's blackberry ice cream. 
If we have a spare trout in the freezer we sometimes do that instead with dauphinoise potatoes and steamed veggies from the garden, or we'll do roast pheasant from the local shoot with all the trimmings, because M is widely acknowledged to be the best roast tater chef for miles around. Risotto is another good one, as is sausage, apple and marmalade one-pot (just bung whatever you want in (I usually add tomatoes, onion, courgette, chunks of apple and beetroot), top off with stock, herbs, salt and pepper and stick in the oven for 40 mins).  M makes a mean Chilli complete with all the fancy stuff like chilled sour cream in a dollop on the side, as well as a pretty divine plum tart which is best with organic double cream.
We always have G&T or something sparkly to start off with, along with nibbles in the form of posh crisps, and move on to wine with the meal, topping everything off with coffee and tea and (if I've been feeling particularly energetic) homemade chocolate and brandy truffles. Usually (if it's our friends from Romsey coming in a minibus) we end up finishing the night off with a bottle of whiskey, port and/ or homemade mulberry vodka, and get up the next morning with one of those hangovers that fools you into thinking you've escaped when really the worst is still to come.

D'you know what? All that food talk has made me starving- think I'll go and see what we can have tonight....

CT :-)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Great Soggy Garden Bird Watch

Having rushed about yesterday working, checking the sheep and taking L to badminton, I was looking forward to settling down for an hour in the afternoon and doing my 'RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.'

M and I spent longer than was strictly reasonable arguing the toss about the parameters of the survey. His view is that you adhere absolutely to the criteria set down ie you don't go over an hour and you only put down birds you actually see. Mine is that if the whole point is to get an accurate picture of which birds come to your garden regularly you should write down all those that you know are regular visitors, even if they don't happen to appear within that hour.

M won.

So, I got out paper and pen and crisps (essential for any period of intense observation) and fixed the camera to the Christmas Tripod and perched myself in the kitchen at 3.30 to start observing.

Within ten minutes the sky had turned from blue to grey to black to purple (much in the way a bruise does, except for the blue bit- swap that for pink and you'll get the picture), then the wind got up and kept on getting up so that half an hour in to my BGBW the bamboo was prostrating itself on the ground every two seconds like a horribly obsequious person trying to get on the good side of a visiting dignitary.

The birds had started looking iffy at the first sign of wind, and far fewer of them were about than normal anyway. This is the view from the kitchen window after about ten mins of BGBWing....

Whatt few birds there were promptly took refuge in the hedge as the typhoon swept across the garden, egged on by the hurricane.

When it finally eased off a bit, the light was so dark (if that makes sense) that the camera had seven fits and started to do this when faced with the LTTs, who were bravely battling the elements and the Blue tits for the coconut halves.....

Apologies if that made you feel sick. It did me a bit. It seemed to think the light required a shutter time of approximately half an hour.

Sadly, neither the photography nor bird appearances got much better. There was no sign of the blackbirds, the nut hatches or the GSWs, all of whom can usually be relied upon to turn up at least once in any given hour. The sparrows obliged with an appearance, but again the camera had a hissy fit on me and did this...

When it finally decided to play ball I got a clearer shot of Mr S- I think his expression just about sums the whole experience up...

'Managed to get it working at last have you? Well done- you're just in time for dusk and our bedtime.'

There were brief pauses in the deluge during which the birds returned in small numbers to the feeders, but M managed to sabotage each and every one of these by slamming the side gate, or letting the dogs into the garden, or switching on the hose at the crucial moment. 


I did managed to get two or three decent shots, despite the weather and my husband.....

Blue tit

Mrs Sparrow

Sweet Robin
Long Tailed Tit

But it was largely a lost cause so I gave up and decided to attempt it again today, because, despite the appalling forecast, there was no way it could be worse than yesterday's pathetically doomed attempt.

I went for the morning slot because I reckon the feeders are busier first thing while everyone stocks up on energy after the chilly damp night. But no sooner had I set things up than this happened again....

Undeterred, I gritted my teeth, gave the camera a good talking to and hovered by the window with my fingers crossed. Husband were banished from going outside for an hour, dogs were told to cross their paws and hold on if they needed a pee and children were shut into the study and planted in front of their computers.

I waited.....and waited.....and waited....

And suddenly, the garden was alive with birds!

I saw every one of my regulars during a much better hour, with the sole exception of the jackdaws who were busy next door (but I was good and didn't add them to my survey despite encouragement from M which I thought undermined his argument of yesterday about sticking strictly to the parameters of the experiment as laid down by the RSPB considerably). I didn't see my wren either, but then she is a secretive little soul and not always visible.

The camera had a strop a couple of times, especially when Woody turned up and began hammering at the coconut halves, but as the resulting photo shows how fast a woodpecker's head goes when he is drumming I thought it was quite a good pic anyway....

And I ended up with a couple of cracking shots which I am thrilled with, because as we all know, GSWs are very hard to photograph clearly- they disappear at the merest hint of movement, so all these were taken from deep inside the bowels of the kitchen....You can see from his eye he knew I was there, just at a safe enough distance not to interfere too much with coconut-half consumption.

He's been busy drumming on the oak tree next door today too in-between garden visits. Can you spot him?.....

Both the nuthatches graced me with their presence more than once in the hour which was a relief.....

And all three of our resident robins were there too...

Love this shot with the fluttery wings. You'd never guess Robins are ground-feeders would you?!

I counted five dunnocks in all...

 Mrs Sparrow and her husband and son were in evidence...

Mr and Mrs Blackbird came along (although separately)....

As did several Blue tits, two Great tits and one of the pige's...

Our final visitors were the collar dove pair who are besotted and inseparable. After they'd been in the garden I spotted them snuggled up together in the apple tree nibbling each other's necks....

Bit Gorgeous
So, there are a few morals to this story which I will remember for next year and am passing on to you so you can also benefit from them:

1. Don't do a BG Bird Watch when it's blowing a hoolie and pi**ing it down.
2. Don't do a BG Bird Watch with a husband on the loose.
3. Don't let your dogs go rampaging up into the garden while you're trying to count birds.
4. Do lock your children away for the duration.
5. Don't do the BGBW an hour before dark because a) the birds are all thinking about heading off to bed and b) it's too dark to see them or take photographs.

Other than that it's HAPPY DAYS and I am thrilled we saw everyone today we should have done.

CT :-)