Me, Human – Our brain as the repository of evolution

We are all individuals, but we acknowledge that we might have inherited grandma’s nose or dad’s extrovert personality. Have you ever thought about what physical and psychological traits, we humans as a species, have inherited from our ancestors?


These are key questions addressed by the “Me, Human” project lead by Dr Gillian Forrester. As she tells it: “As a child, I was fascinated by our closest living relatives – the great apes. I wondered – what do gorillas and chimps think? How similar is their experience of life to mine? I scratched this itch by watching documentaries, reading books and eventually taking degrees in San Diego and Oxford. It was during my studies that I started to learn about brains and how they control behaviour. What struck me as truly incredible was that there are parts of the human brain that come from when humans and fish shared a common ancestor – over 500 million years ago!”

As humans, we are able to think and act in ways unlike any other animal on the planet. Because of these unique capabilities, it is easy to forget that modern human abilities have their origins in a shared evolutionary history. Although we are bipedal and comparatively hairless, we are indeed great apes. In fact, we are not even on the fringes of the great ape family tree – we are genetically closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. As such, we share many brain and behaviour traits with our great ape cousins. But, our similarities to other animals date back much farther than our split with an ancestor common to both humans and great apes (approximately 6 million years ago). Some brain and behaviour traits date back over 500 million years –present in early vertebrates and remain preserved in modern humans. It is our similarities and differences to other species that allow us to better understand how we came to be modern humans.

One of our oldest inherited traits is the ‘divided brain’. While our left and right halves of the brain (hemispheres) appear physically similar, they are in charge of different behaviours. Animal studies have highlighted that fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals also possess left and right hemispheres that differentially control certain behaviours. The divided behaviours of these animals provide a window into our ancestral past, telling the story of our shared evolutionary history with early vertebrates.

Studies suggest that the right hemisphere emerged with a specialisation for recognising threat in the environment and controlling escape behaviours and the left hemisphere emerged as dominant for producing motor action sequences for feeding. The divided brain allows for any organism to obtain nourishment whilst keeping alert for predators. We can think of the brain as acting like an ‘eat and not be eaten’ parallel processor.

Considering the consistency in brain side across different animal species, it seems likely that there has been a preservation of these characteristics through evolutionary time. Effectively, we have lugged our useful brain and behavioural traits with us throughout our evolutionary journey. However, little is known about how these old brain traits support modern human behaviours like the way we navigate social environments, kiss, embrace, nurture babies and take a selfie! – inhibiting a better understanding of how, when and why our human unique capabilities emerged and also how they still develop during human infancy and childhood.

In order to answer these questions, scientists from Birkbeck, University of London and collaborating institutions ran the Me, Human live scientific experiment at the Science Museum this summer. This multidisciplinary team of scientists at all levels of their careers from undergraduate students in psychology and biological anthropology to senior academics at leading London universities invited over 1,700 visitors to take part, using their eyes, ears and hands to find out how their ancient brain was influencing their behaviour.


Participants learnt about cutting-edge research and engaged with fun psychology experiments from solving puzzle boards, testing their grip strength and holding and manipulating surprise objects!  Individuals would watch their brain in action, using portable brain-imaging technology as well as put on our magic headphones to test how their brains processed speech.


All this data will shed light on how we, as humans, share a common evolutionary history with other animals – revealing our extraordinary connection to the natural world.


* Note that the specialisations of the left and right hemispheres are presented here within the context of evolution. As explain on our resource “How the Brain Works”: it does not mean that people differ in how much they favour using their ‘left brain’ or their ‘right brain’ and that this produces different cognitive styles and personalities. That’s a brain myth.

Julia Hofweber – Bilingualism and Executive Functions

In this short video, Dr. Julia Hofweber gives an overview of her talk about “The effects of code-switching on bilinguals’ executive functions”.

Julia carried out this work during her PhD program at the University of Reading. She is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology and Human Development at UCL, investigating implicit learning in the context of sign language acquisition with Chloe Marshall.

You can find her publications here.

Fun facts about “How the Brain Works”


In this blog, Michael Thomas, Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, shares some fun facts about the brain. More explanations to be found on the website “How the Brain Works
What is the most common misunderstanding about the brain?
That it stops being plastic when you’re older. The brain is plastic throughout the lifespan. Else you wouldn’t remember anything.
Learn more on Learning


If you were designing a brain from scratch is there anything you would do differently?
Having to take the brain off-line for a third of its operational history (during sleep) seems a bit of flaw. That’s 20-30 years lost when we could be doing something useful (though, in the dark, obviously). We need to sleep because the brain thinks with neurons, and learns with multiple neural systems. Neurons need to be metabolically refreshed during the night, and memories consolidated in brain connections. Even your phone can still be used while its recharging…
Learn more on Sleep


What feature of how the brain works is hardest to implement in artificial intelligence?
All the background knowledge that we take for granted when we’re experiencing the world and thinking about it. Researchers called this ‘context’, the expectations and knowledge we bring to every situation, about what’s likely to happen, who we’re likely to meet, what they’ll expect of us, what we’re likely to see and need to do. This is hard to implement because we’re usually not conscious of all this knowledge. Expectations make computations much simpler. Artificial intelligence that doesn’t have this human background knowledge faces much tougher computational challenges, and ends up being very narrow and inflexible in its abilities.
Learn more on Prediction
What is the most unappreciated thing our brains do?
Reach out and pick up a mug of coffee without toppling forward. Arms are heavy, you have to lean back as a counter-balance. Did you even know you were doing that?
Learn more on the Cerebellum



For more information, grab a cup of coffee / tea and visit How the Brain Works“.

Megan Sumeracki, co-founder of the Learning Scientists

megansMegan Sumeracki is an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College, and the co-founder of the Learning Scientists. Since its creation in 2016, the collaborative group has become a key reference in EdNeuro, broadcasting various resources to better understand learning processes and learning strategies (e.g. podcasts, blog posts, videos). In this blog written for the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, Megan tells us a bit more about the birth of the Learning Scientists, and about her ongoing projects.

Creating The Learning Scientists

In January 2016, I was trying out a new assignment integrating social media into one of my classes. I wanted to teach my students about science communication, particularly how research can be applied in “real life.” I was also thinking a lot about the research I was doing and whether it would ever have an impact. At the same time, Yana Weinstein was having similar thoughts, and we very organically started a Twitter account called @AceThatTest designed to help students find effective study strategies. The account turned into our website,, and the resources grew organically. We realized quickly that the best way to have an impact on education was to focus on bidirectional communication with teachers, and in that way indirectly help the students. As the project has grown, we have had the opportunity to talk with a lot of teachers around the world about science of learning research, and are always learning from teachers about what research questions would best serve education.

Collaborating with the Learning Agency

As a part of my work with the Learning Scientists, we were thinking about ways to create more free resources aimed at how to implement effective learning strategies in classrooms, and we wanted to focus on how the strategies might be applied in specific content areas. Ulrich Boser, the founder of the Learning Agency, was thinking along the same lines. Our Program Officer at Overdeck, Sarah Johnson, suggested we connect and work together. The project was called “The Science of Learning in Practice”, and involved pairing researchers and teachers to implement evidence-based learning strategies into the classroom. Videos were created to showcase these partnerships; these videos now serve as long-term resources for educators and researchers interested in educational neuroscience. The Learning Agency applied for the grant officially, and I served as a consultant on the grant working on two of the videos. These videos were about dual coding and interleaving practice.

This project was particularly relevant for my research. One focus of my program of research is how we can teach students to effectively utilize learning strategies to improve overall academic success. In this project with the Learning Agency, I was able to work together with teachers to figure out ways to implement science of learning strategies into their classrooms, making it a good fit for me.

I learned a lot throughout this process, and it has had an influence on the way I talk about the strategies with other teachers and my own students. In this blog, I talk about some of the things that I learned and note how truly rewarding it was to work with the two teams of teachers. You can read more about my work with the dual coding team in Memphis here.

You can follow Megan and the Learning Scientists on Twitter @DrSumeracki and @AceThatTest.

Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders


At CEN, we are keen to hear from those who are working at the intersection of research and educational practice. We are delighted to introduce Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, former Director of Development & Research at the Swiss Cottage Teaching School Alliance. She shares inspiring resources and insights with us!


How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (e.g. neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I read a lot and I use Twitter to steer me toward things that are beyond my familiar scope. When I am driving or exercising I enjoy podcasts, I sometimes force the whole family to listen!

I particularly like Ollie Lovell’s Education Research Reading Room (ERRR). It broadcasts a series of podcasts. Try the ones with Dylan William, John Hattie or Jon Sweller (you just can’t escape Cognitive Load Theory at the moment), or Podcast 17 for a real challenge to our infatuation with meta analysis – love it!

Provenance of the evidence is what interests me. As an historian I always ask who wrote this? And why? I listened to the ERRR interview with Daniel Willingham – who’s insights on the lessons of cognitive psychology and neuroscience for the classroom are so very popular in our secondary schools at the moment. Willingham is an advocate for teaching of scientific knowledge, so I was delighted to hear him talk about his wife being a Montessori teacher and his children going to Montessori school. This seemed so incongruent based on where Willingham is positioned on the knowledge skills debate. Looking at provenance here helps to unpick the complexities in his position and not be taken in by the polarised positioning translated through the media. To be honest, it made me more inclined to hear him out – however, I’m not shifting!

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

My own experience of learning to teach was based on the ‘clinical practice’ model used by Oxford University to frame their teacher training programme. Here, theory and practice is bridged for beginner teachers through working with experts. The model sees the university tutor and the classroom mentor as equals in the process of helping the beginning teacher see the link between the theoretical understanding and their response to pupils in the moment.

In fact so heavily influenced was I by this theoretical framework, that most of my career has been focused on the practice development of new teachers. I was lucky enough early in my very first year of teaching to work with Hazel Hagger and Donald McIntyre on an Esme Fairburn research project on the importance of mentoring. I didn’t see it as research – I saw the relationship with evidence and with the researchers as simply helping me to get better as a teacher.

Over the last few years my work has focused on how we help new teachers recognise vulnerable learners as their starting point when planning for learning, rather than as an afterthought. Learners with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities don’t need resources dumbing down, they need alternative routes in, to access that learning. The work of Florian and Black on the adoption of an ‘inclusive pedagogy’ through their research of teachers and the challenges they plan for, is a must! I love this presentation by Kristine Black Hawkins.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom?

When I see teachers making confident judgements in their classroom.

Levels of engagement and enjoyment – a sense of ownership – metacognition are all important to me. However, it’s contextual too, a holistic picture. It is important to review all or as many elements against each other to inform planning and actions – triangulating quantitative and qualitative evidence to inform next steps. When I took over my first History Department a simple SWOT analysis showed that GCSE grades were poor yet popularity and passion for the subject were high. Reviewing exam technique and empowering Year 11 to understand the skills of an historian involved them rewriting all their coursework whilst not losing faith in themselves – in fact using that retrograde step to build confidence further, to show them they can control the outcomes, my job is to provide tools to achieve these goals. The results that year were the best the school had ever seen.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e. what are the gaps in our understanding, from a teacher’s perspective)?

Profiling strengths and needs that are specific to a learner and how they learn. Teachers need help to move beyond labels and learn how to profile the learning rather than the learner.

Is there anything you don’t think we should be focusing on?

Let’s not give too much airtime to myth busters (those who are making a living from books about what doesn’t work and why – a focus on Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic for example). Research is on a journey – understanding it’s weaknesses is part of that journey but currently we give too much time to what is wrong. If we make teachers fearful – we deskill them.

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration can be improved between teachers and education researchers?

Through celebration and sharing. The work of Learnus has strengthened the dialogue between teachers and researchers. I am on the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Council and delighted that our partnership is supporting this growth. Co-production is an aspiration too; but lots to be done to model how this can work effectively.

If you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with other teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be?

Don’t promote absolutes; unequivocally support the development of Inquiry mindedness.

Please could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom, so that others could try it as well if they feel it’s relevant. (e.g. Why did you introduce the idea? What did you do? What impact has it had?)

Early in my career – Chris Watkins – short accessible research summaries about metacognition were real favourites and still influence my practice today.

At a time of workload concerns and retention challenges, working with others in the classroom should be part of every school’s Continuous Professional Development. I have used some of the co-teaching strategies explained so well by Colette Murphy. It is an investment in the staff learning together, and the pupils benefit from having two teachers.

I’ve recently been approached by a publisher to write a book about Inclusive pedagogy and I’m so excited to simply understand better and learn more about how we best include struggling learners to access and engage better.

Thank you very much for your time. We are very much looking forward to this book!

You can follow Margaret on Twitter @MargaretMulhol2

Children’s understanding of counterintuitive concepts in maths and science

Dr. Iroise Dumontheil shared fresh results from the CEN Unlocke project, a large-scale school intervention aiming at improving children’s understanding of maths and science. Teachers used a computer software that invited children to « Stop and Think » before answering counterintuitive problems (e.g. What do cows drink?). The intervention lasted for 10 weeks. Each week included 3 sessions of 12 minutes.

As explained in the following video, the outcomes of the intervention varied depending on children’s age (whether they were in Year 3 or in Year 5), and on the subject that was assessed (science or maths). The most promising results indicate an improvement in scientific understanding among Year 5 pupils.

The project was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and was independently assessed by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It was realised in partnership with Learnus.

You can visit the Unlocke website here, and read the full report here.

Successful CEN randomised control trial: Report published on new neuroscience-inspired learning activity to improve mathematics and science learning in primary school kids


How do kids learn in school that the world is round, when they’ve spent several years playing football on pitches that seem flat? And when they’ve successfully learned the world is round, they still need to carry on playing football as if it were flat.

Funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, the CEN, in partnership with Learnus, has spent several years developing a computer-based learning activity to help kids learn these sorts of counter-intuitive concepts in science. The activity, called Stop and Think, also extended to mathematics, where a key skill is to stop previous knowledge interfering with new learning. For example, when kids have learned that 5 is bigger than 4, then they need to learn that 1/5 is smaller than 1/4, and -5 is also smaller than -4.

For both science and mathematics, the key target of the computer-based learning activity is to improve what are known as ‘inhibitory control skills’, the ability to suppress knowledge or expectations not relevant to the current situation (see a similar paper discussing these skills in the context of helping kids to stop making repetitive mistakes).

The new learning activity was evaluated in a large-scale randomised control trial, carried out in 89 schools around the country, with some 7,000 8- and 10-year-old children taking part. Children replaced 15 minutes of science or mathematics lessons with the Stop and Think learning activity three times a week, during a regular 10-week term.

Pupils who participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the lessons-as-usual control group. The cost of using ‘Stop and Think’ is very low and is estimated to be a little over £5 per child over a three-year period. The full report of the randomised control trial from the Education Endowment Foundation can be found here.

When interviewed, a majority of teachers felt that Stop and Think had a positive impact on the mathematical and science abilities of the pupils in their class.

One teacher said: “It allowed me to develop my understanding of how the children in my class learn and to analyse what they know, how clearly they understand concepts and to identify misconceptions that some/most or all children in my class have.”

Another said: “It gave me an insight into how children’s ideas can change when given thinking time and how they are able to reason as to why something is right or wrong.”

In response to the report, Michael Thomas, Director of the CEN, said: “I am really excited about these findings. They show both the viability and value of using new insights from neuroscience to produce low-cost teaching techniques that can improve educational outcomes. Throughout this project, we have been energised by working with teachers to create and improve the learning activities that will allow neuroscience insights to benefit children in the classroom.”



Striving for universal literacy


“If you have ever taught a child to read, you know it is a process as full of rewards as setbacks. From letter recognition, to decoding single words, to gains in fluency and comprehension – we have had the gratification of watching our children’s journey from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Yet, on this International Literacy Day we are reminded that this milestone of acquiring literacy skills is not universal. Currently, over half of the world’s 10-year-olds cannot read and comprehend a simple story. And many who started their journey up the literacy ladder in school do not retain these skills into adulthood. 750 million adults in the world end up with difficulty reading and/or writing…”

See here for more on this blog from the World Bank, which discusses a report by the CEN prepared for the World Bank on the science of adult learning. The report is part of a recent initiative from the Bank to improve the effectiveness of adult literacy programmes. The blog is authored by Magdalena Benedini (Economist, World Bank) and Victoria Levin (Senior Economist, World Bank).

Welcome to Stanford’s Brainwave Learning Center by Liz Toomarian

liz-toomarianCan you describe the Brainwave Learning center and your role?

The Brainwave Learning Center (BLC) is a unique partnership between researchers at Stanford University and Synapse School, an independent K-8 school in nearby Menlo Park, CA. The BLC comprises multiple synergistic initiatives, including: curriculum support for teachers, unique neuroscience learning opportunities, and leading-edge scientific research on the developing mind and brain, which is conducted in our on-site EEG lab. The hope is that by building deep relationships between cognitive neuroscience researchers and members of the school, we can more effectively explore how brain activity is transformed through learning experiences, and how those insights can, in turn, enrich how we experience education.

As the Director of the BLC, I’m leveraging my background in cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, and science outreach to act as a liaison between these two communities. I’m part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Stanford, led by Dr. Bruce McCandliss, which is designing novel ways to use neuroscience to better understand the cognitive processes underlying skills such as reading or early numeracy. I’m also a staff member at Synapse (aptly named!), so I actually spend most of my time at the school. We’ve set up a fully functional, on-site EEG lab — the Brainwave Recording Studio — where students not only participate in research studies, but also learn about how and why we’re conducting EEG research.

What’s the benefit of having a neuroscience researcher in a school?

As a school staff member, I’m fully embedded in the daily lives of the teachers and students at Synapse. In addition to conducting research, I teach science elective courses, do classroom visits to talk about neuroscience and being a neuroscientist, attend and participate in staff meetings, and even supervise students at recess! All of these activities familiarize me with the culture of the school and allow me to develop authentic relationships with both the teachers and the students.

blc_img_2311This approach also means that students are much more comfortable and engaged when they participate in our EEG studies because they are already familiar with our tools, our space, and most importantly, with me and the rest of our team. Another key advantage to being on-site is that students can participate in a 45 minute experiment during the course of the school day and go right back to class or recess. This sets us up really nicely for rich longitudinal studies of brain development, and also makes participation much more accessible.

As a researcher now working primarily in a school, what have you learned about teachers?

One thing I’ve learned about teachers is that they have so many research ideas! Because they work closely with their students every day, witnessing the daily challenges and successes, they have an incredible wealth of insight into cognitive phenomena and patterns that emerge over time. For example, our music director shared that over the years she’s noticed a connection between inability to match pitch and certain learning difficulties, such as with early reading. This led to a discussion about congenital amusia, the hypothesized link between phonological awareness/auditory deficits and dyslexia, and how we might investigate that connection. In fact, a recent study has shown support such a link (Couvignou, Peretz, & Ramus, 2019)!

I’ve also had rich conversations with teachers about topics like the neural basis of second language acquisition and the cognitive benefits of physical activity. I’ve really enjoyed exploring these topics with active practitioners, and would highly recommend that anyone doing educationally-relevant research develop a relationship with teachers! I wish I had done so sooner in my career. To account for this perspective, our group at Stanford is working closely with teachers at Synapse as we develop our research questions and protocols for the coming school year. One way we’re doing this is by organizing a listening and brainstorming session with teachers during summer inservice days.

What are some examples of activities/programs/initiatives you’ve started in this role?

We’ve accomplished quite a bit since the Brainwave Learning Center was established less than six months ago. We have a BLC classroom, where students explore commercially-available brainwave-sensing tools (e.g. Backyard Brains), make neuroscience crafts, experience sensory illusions, and curriculum specific lessons. For instance, first and second grade students learned about the concept of reaction time by seeing how fast they could catch a falling ruler, in conjunction with their science unit on the human body. I’ve also conducted small seminars with middle school students on the brain basis of sleep, adolescent brain developments/risk taking, and cognitive control. Middle schoolers also had the opportunity to hold real human and animal brains and devised their own EEG experiments in my science elective class. Five middle school students acted as research assistants for the BLC by reviewing scholarly research articles (including reviewing an article for Frontiers for Young Minds) and consulting on our study design.


Is this a unique approach or are there other similar institutions around the world doing this kind of thing? If so, where are they and do you / how do you connect with them?

While no one has taken this kind of multifaceted approach to educational neuroscience, there are several groups that are doing school-based EEG research, such as Nienke van Attevelt at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Jennie Grammer at UCLA, and Suzanne Dikker/David Poeppel at NYU. The NYU team, including Wendy Suzuki and Ido Davidesco, has a high school program called Brainwaves, which combines teacher professional development with neuroscience outreach and curriculum. We worked with Jennie Grammer when we were just starting the BLC to learn more about her lab’s work in schools, including best practices for communicating with parents about the research and unique challenges of actually collecting EEG data in schools. In terms of the teacher experience, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning is based in a school and has been incorporating MBE and learning sciences research into professional development. Notably, however, there hasn’t really been an attempt to combine in-school research with a fully-embedded neuroscientist facilitating teacher PD and fostering general student engagement and curiosity around neuroscience. To my knowledge, we are the first group to attempt this much more integrative approach, and I think the field is really moving towards this kind of model.

What’s been the response from families? Teachers? Students?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive! We have been really heartened by how supportive and encouraging both parents and teachers have been about this initiative. I had no idea how teachers were going to feel about working together, but the Synapse teachers have been such a pleasure to work with. They’ve actively brought me into the conversation when they are planning curriculum and have been very supportive of things like occasional pullouts for research sessions.

I’ve also been getting positive feedback from parents. One parent sought me out at a school event to tell me that all week her young son had been talking about activities and lessons he’d learned in the BLC. He had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia, so learning about individual differences in brain and behavior in a school context helped to support the kinds of conversations that were happening at home.

At the end of the year, when I asked students for ideas about how to grow the BLC in the coming school year, many students asked for more opportunities to get involved in research, wear the EEG net, and learn more about brains- I take that as a very good sign!   

You can keep up with Liz and her work by following her on Twitter


Using narrative non-fiction as a teaching technique in primary classrooms, by Emma Browning


Emma Browning, from the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College, presented a fascinating seminar evaluating whether narrative structure might help with the teaching of non-fiction content to primary age children.

She explained how narrative is seen as fundamental to human thought, yet in the Key Stage 2 classroom, is mainly associated with reading for enjoyment. By contrast, non-fiction is commonly used to support learning in content-based subjects, such as history.

If narrative plays a powerful role for children, it might be harnessed as a tool to support learning.


Emma presented the results of an intervention study with 9-10 year olds, with a sequence of three lessons teaching a history topic (World War 1). One group was presented the content in a narrative format (with a protagonist, a sequence of specific events, and a writing style to encourage engagement), while a second group was presented the content in a conventional factual format. She then assessed the children for their development of understanding of the topic after the lessons, as well as retention of information 3 weeks later. The narrative presentation of content supported a greater degree of comprehension, both in tests of chronological and causal links between information. There was also evidence for enhanced long-term retention.

Notably, while the narrative presentation of non-fiction information induced greater enjoyment in the children, degree of enjoyment did not reliably predict learning outcomes. This suggests that engagement was not the key driver of the narrative effect, rather it was likely due to deeper processing and active construction of meaning during comprehension. Emma presented samples of children’s discourse to support this view.

In the subsequent discussion, Emma considered how to ensure that narrative presentation encouraged the children to learn the information in the best format for future flexible use, rather than as simply a story about someone. Examples of children’s discourse around the learning showed how carefully even 9 and 10 year olds consider the reliability of information.

Emma Browning is currently completing her PhD, and is also a Year 5 primary school teacher.