How the brain works: People are a priority

In this week’s excerpt from How the brain works we look at the central position of other people in the design of our brains. A growing body of research shows how, from very early infancy, even from birth, our brains are designed to recognise and give priority to social rather than non-social signals. Our ‘social brains’ are also key to understanding the prized human ability to communicate with language. We will go on to consider language and the other special human gizmos which make us, from a species point of view, unique.

As ever, if you want to binge and jump ahead, you can. Start here

People are a priority

A lot of what concerns the brain is other people.

The Death of Subculture part 2: learning from the apes and ...

Humans are social primates. Like gorillas and chimpanzees, we live in groups. There are families, friends, enemies, who’s in who’s out, who’s the boss. Social primates have the largest cortex relative to their body size across mammals. Humans have the largest cortex of all mammals, relative to the size of their brains. Across social primates, the larger the social group in which the primate lives, the larger its species’ cortex. This suggests that we have a big cortex to deal with the complications of interacting with the other members of the social group, be they partners, family members, friends, or rivals. Who did what to whom? Who knows about it? What should I do about that?

Anyone who has spent Christmas with their extended family will be unsurprised by this.

Many systems contribute to processing ‘people’ information in the brain. The visual system has specialised pathways for recognising human faces, including the facial expressions and direction of eye gaze. As Robert De Niro snarled, “are you looking at me?” It’s something we’re bothered about.

The visual system is also tuned to recognise movement that comes from people rather than objects (so-called ‘biological’ motion), including the gestures people make when they communicate. Multiple aspects of sensory information (form, location, motion) are brought together to allow us to recognise other people from different angles, in various places, and while they are in motion. The auditory system has specialised pathways for processing human speech sounds separate from other environmental sounds. The motor system allows us to speak to other people, to hug them, wrestle with them: all social motor actions. The limbic system generates emotions around social interactions, be they the bonding of child to parent, the approach–avoid decisions around possible friends and enemies, attraction, maintenance of personal space and defence of resources and territory.

‘How does Jonny tend to behave? Where am I compared to Jonny in the social hierarchy?’

More complex systems allow us to verbalise our thoughts, emotions and intentions, as well as remember factual knowledge of actors in our social group. For example, the front of the temporal lobe develops social scripts through experience – who tends to do what to whom and how does that feel? And factual knowledge of actors in the social group – what do I think of Jonny and what does Jonny think of me? How does Jonny tend to behave? Where am I compared to Jonny in the social hierarchy? (Hey, I think I’m way cooler.)

As we grow up, we create links between different types of knowledge, experiences and actions. For example, the body sensation (or ‘somato-sensory’) system can detect needs and arousal levels in our bodies, such as thirst and excitement. We link the feeling of thirst to the intention of drinking and the action of picking up a bottle. So, too, in our interaction with other people. We learn social scripts, such as the custom that when you meet a new person you introduce yourself, try to remember their name, shake their hand, and ask how they are. You’re in France, do you greet with a kiss on one cheek or two cheeks? Isn’t it awkward when you get it wrong?

Image result for meet and greet people at

Putting these types of knowledge together, we can guess what other people may be feeling and what they will do next, based on our own experience. This is called mindreading or mentalising. If we see someone grabbing a bottle, the neurons that respond to seeing a bottle and those involved in the action of picking up a bottle will activate in our own brain: it doesn’t quite trigger the action itself but it helps us figure out why the person might be making that action: they’re thirsty.

Similar systems allow us to empathise with the feelings of others. We may link certain actions and facial expressions with, say, sadness in ourselves (crying, walking slowly). When we see others crying, we feel sad. We flinch when we see others in physical pain.

‘We only feel other people’s pain if we like them’Image result for brain and empathy

But even here, frontal brain systems come into play, dosing empathy with context. We only feel other people’s pain if we like them. The frontal cortex applies this logic to modulate the sensory or emotional pain we experience in sympathy with others. We feel the hurt of other people’s misfortunes more if we take their perspective. A region at the junction of temporal (facts) and parietal (space) lobes plays this role. In its fashion, the brain takes the act of perspective-taking quite literally – it involves spatial computations to see the world from another point of view: to distinguish our view from the other, our self from the other.

Finally, the frontal cortex must combine the context, its own goals, and emotional states to select plans and control sensory and motor systems, in order to behave in the right way in social situations. Don’t slurp your tea in polite company.

So the social thing is very important and rather sophisticated. But there are other ingredients in the human brain recipe which are key to distinguishing us from even our closest apey relatives.

Human gizmos

Definition: Gizmo

A gizmo is a device or small machine that performs a particular task, usually in a new and efficient way

Image result for rube goldberg

Birds fly, bees buzz, every species has something that it does well. What is the human speciality, what are its gizmos?

‘We don’t have the biggest brains – that’s elephants and whales’

We like to feel special; we like to feel we are apart from other animals. So what will it be? Do we have the biggest brains, the wettest blood? In the animal kingdom, our brains are not exceedingly special.1 We don’t have the biggest brains – that’s elephants and whales. Sure, we have a high proportion of cortex (the outer layer) in our brains, but it’s on a par with chimps, horses, and short-finned whales. We have quite a lot of brain for our body size, but amongst primates, this proportion isn’t strongly linked with thinking ability. Now, we do have a decent number of neurons: over twice as many as gorillas. But even then, not close to the number that dolphins have.2 And to be honest, we probably have the same number of neurons as our ancestors in the wider archaic homo family tree, including Neanderthals – and we like to think we’re specialer than them, don’t we?

Not sure about the wettest blood thing.

There are five human gizmos. Tool use, language, conceptual power, a clutch, and niche building. They are linked.

The first human gizmo is tool use. One of the things we do exceptionally well is to build and use tools, particularly to shape and interact with our physical world. As we saw in the previous section, evolution tends to innovate at the periphery, out in the body. We have dextrous hands and opposable thumbs. We don’t use them for walking. In the same way the bat has no special new part of the brain to support echolocation, we don’t have a special new part of the brain to support tool use. The motor functions are supported by the front part of the brain. We do have more ‘front of the brain’. Our brain develops using a similar recipe to other mammals and primates, but the front bit of the cortex grows for a longer time and becomes larger. The recipe is tweaked. The extra cortex allows us to develop fine motor control and coordinated movements to create and use tools.


The second gizmo is language. In one way, this is similar to tool use. Language is a sequence of complex movements, but now used to shape and interact with our social world. The innovation of evolution is in the articulators – lips, tongue, larynx – and mechanisms of airflow, which together enable us to make the range of speech sounds. In the brain, language also requires the extra cortex to learn the complex and precise motor movements to produce words. But there are no new special parts for language. Language utilises circuits used in making sequences of movements, circuits for perception, concepts, processing situational scripts, social intentions and agents. It fashions these together into a system that allows for fluent use of this motor skill. And if we want, we can use movements of the hands to communicate, in sign language. 3

Image result for david and goliath
’This football match is like David vs. Goliath’

Language is a great gizmo because it is an enabler. It allows you to acquire knowledge without direct experience. You can learn by being instructed. It supports building abstract concepts, by using a language label (like “six”) to bring together all the different situations involving six-ness (an Arabic numeral, a group of six things, an object with six parts, a sequence of numbers where six falls between 5 and 7, a pile of sweets bigger than 3 but smaller than 20, a length of 6, and so forth). Language can be used to bring to mind knowledge that is not automatically elicited by the current situation, via verbal analogies (e.g., ‘This football match is like David vs. Goliath’; ‘You can view electricity like the flow of water along a pipe’). Beyond the individual, language supports sophisticated socially coordinated activities, greatly increasing the potency of group behaviour.

The third gizmo is more conceptual power. With more cortex, especially in the front of the brain, more complex ideas can be developed. The evolutionary reasons for the larger cortex are murky. Maybe it was to support language, maybe tool use, maybe to support social cognition to deal with life in larger groups (keeping track of who likes whom, who did what to whom, what does everyone want, who’s lying, etc.). Maybe all these things at once. But once you have more power, the game changes.

We talked about sensory and motor systems in terms of towers. The lower floors see patterns, each higher floor sees patterns within a patterns. The larger cortex means humans have higher towers. In sensory systems, they can see deeper patterns of meaning in what they perceive, in motor systems they can plan motor sequences that reach farther into the future.

The deeper patterns of meaning include mental models of how the physical world works. This can include inventing invisible forces to explain physical events (electrons, germs, gods, ghosts). In the social world, it can include more sophisticated knowledge of social scripts, episodes, situations, and motivations. Although our basic emotions are probably similar to other social primates, we can attach these to more complex social scripts (W does X under Y circumstances and feels Z; Sophie snubs Bill at the party and feels guilty). This leads to a wider palette of emotions: pride, hubris, dignity, honour, admiration.4 Our mental simulations can include ideas about ourselves, in so-called meta-cognition, self-awareness, where I form a theory about how I behave, and use this knowledge to alter my future behaviour. More pre-frontal cortex, where the modulatory system lies, also gives the modulatory system more precise control over the meaning systems in the rest of the brain. It can separately control bits of ideas. I’ll have this bit of the idea, but not that bit. It allows for thinking about ‘what-if’ counterfactuals, about hypothetical situations. I mean, what if the moon was made of cheese?

One particular advantage of more precise internal control is that it gives us a clutch.

Image result for clutch

Definition: clutch – a mechanism for connecting and disconnecting an engine and the transmission system in a vehicle, or the working parts of any machine


The fourth gizmo is a clutch. Part of the modulatory system (sitting in the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, sigh) is a disengage system. Brain activity can be decoupled from perception and turned to internally focused thought. You hear a sad story, and it makes you _think_… When disengaged from the present moment, the brain can run mental simulations. Fantasy and imagination. It can retrieve memories of past experiences to envision future and alternative perspectives and scenarios, conceive the perspective of others, simulate the navigation of social interactions, ruminate, generate and manipulate mental images, decide on moral dilemmas. All the things we do when we sit and think rather than perceive and respond to our immediate environments. The brain can even disengage while it carries out automatic activities. You daydream while you do the washing up. When the clutch is pressed down, we have the opportunity to learn not from the world but from our imaginations.

The final gizmo builds on all the other four: tool use, the social coordination enabled by language, the planning and imagining of other worlds enabled by greater conceptual power. It is a gizmo that most marks us out from other similar species: niche construction. Image result for nicheA niche is the particular environment that a species lives in, and to which it is adapted. Unusually, you can find humans almost anywhere. Jungles, swamps, savannahs, mountains, deserts, tropics, icy wastes. Birmingham. Humans use their gizmos to adapt to all these environments, to build their own niches. Clothes, dwellings, modes of transport, hunting and farming equipment. We change our environments to fit our biology.5

So there you have it. Human do have some gizmos, without being biologically particularly special.

‘You can’t explain how the modern human brain works just by looking inside it’

Unfortunately … these gizmos aren’t enough to explain how the modern human brain works. And that’s because you can’t explain how the modern human brain works just by looking inside it.

To get to the bottom of that, we need to go back. A long way back. And that’s what we’ll do in the next excerpt. If you can’t bear the suspense, you can jump ahead instead


[1] See this book for what makes humans smart in an evolutionary context: Paul Howard-Jones: “The evolution of the learning brain: Or how you got to be so smart” (Routledge, 2017)

[2] See who wins the my-brain-is-specialer-than-yours competition

[3] You may have heard theories that various abstract properties of human language, like grammar, are special genetic features of our species (‘grammar is innate’). All I can say, for the purposes of this resource, is that these theories are probably wrong.

[4] See Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s book on “Emotions, Learning and the Brain”, for an idea of how this works. Chapter 9 covers admiration!

[5] For the enthusiast, here’s a scientific paper that debates the special human ability of niche construction.

What teachers say: Tom Colquhoun, Assistant Headteacher and Research school director

tom-colquhounWelcome to our blog series where we ask teachers about their experiences of accessing and using research. We are delighted to introduce Tom Colquhoun who is Assistant Headteacher, Teaching & Learning at The Blue School in Wells and Director of West Somerset Research School.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

I believe that those with an interest in educational neuroscience aim to try and better understand how the brain works, how we learn and how this can help teachers and learners to be more successful.  The core business of all teachers and educationalists is to improve the life chances of those in their care.  This is best done through helping children to learn, develop knowledge, skills and understanding and to develop as a person.  If we can become more informed about some of the challenges involved and the potential barriers to learning, we can start to become even more effective in our work.

How do you keep up to date with the latest research?

As Director of one of 22 Research Schools across England, it is a requirement that I remain well-informed of the latest education research and the evidence that is generated.  Fortunately, this has become so much easier in the last five years with organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) on the scene. Here, some very good people spend considerable time and effort producing clear, accessible summaries that busy teachers and school leaders can use to help inform their decision-making and to improve classroom practice.  If you haven’t done so already, I would strongly recommend that you register to receive ‘Best Evidence in Brief’ from the IEE – a fortnightly mail shot with all of the key education research headlines from across this country and indeed the world. This is an excellent example of how teachers and school leaders, with little or no time and effort involved, can keep abreast of the latest developments. I would also urge colleagues to sign up for the EEF’s ‘News Alerts’ and to consider becoming a member of the Chartered College of Teaching.  In particular, the College’s Impact Journal comes through the door each quarter, packed on every page with interesting, evidence-informed writing from some of the world’s leading researchers and writers.  One last signpost is to The Learning Scientists who have helped many teachers across the world to access some really useful strategies and resources for improved teaching and learning.  Sign up to receive their weekly digest too, for an interesting and thought-provoking read!

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

At The Blue School in Wells, a large comprehensive secondary school, we have invested heavily in improving the quality of teaching and learning in all lessons.  All teachers are members of a group of fellow professionals who work closely with one of ten appointed teaching coaches.  With a focus on sharpening up the first ten minutes of lesson, the coaches have encouraged their group members to be innovative in their practice and to implement the recommendations of the EEF’s Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning.  As part of this new model of CPD, colleagues have been supported to read more about memory, cognitive load theory and effective modelling and to consider how this could improve their practice.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

All teachers are assigned a teaching coach who will visit lessons, offer feedback and facilitate the sharing of effective practice across the school.  We have included the engagement in this new type of CPD as a target in this year’s cycle of Performance Management.  We’re not expecting all of this innovative practice to work, but we are hoping that our staff will become more comfortable to engage with and believe what the best evidence suggests.  They will hopefully then consider what might be the ‘best-bets’ for our children, going forwards.  Our students have already been quizzed about the impact of these changes in practice through our system of regular student voice interviews.  We were mightily relieved to hear that the feedback from them was overwhelmingly positive!

Are there areas where you think research should focus next?

The field of educational research is huge and growing by the day.  The EEF have already published ten guidance reports on high-priority issues for schools (literacy, maths, parental engagement, etc) and plan to publish many more in the coming months (feedback, digital learning, etc).  One that I particularly look forward to reading is their offering on ‘Behaviour’, due to be released very soon.  Many teachers question their ability to help children learn effectively when the behaviour presented is so difficult to manage.  I look forward to reading what the experts recommend and to thinking about how I can bring that practice in to my own teaching.

To find out more…

If you’d like to find out more about The Research Schools Network, visit the website to track down your nearest school, read their blogs and view their training and events calendar.  Register to receive their monthly newsletter, which will be packed full of research findings and opportunities to get involved.

“The Research Schools Network.  School-led support for evidence-based practice”

You can also follow West Somerset Research School, where Tom is director, on Twitter @WSomResearchSch

How the Brain Works: It’s all about layers part 2

Last time we looked at the outer layers of the brain and how they worked together to be able to work out what stuff was and where it was.  Today we’re looking at those deeper layers underneath the cortex..


Cingulate cortex

Let’s move a layer deeper into planet Earth. The next layer, underneath the cortex, is called the cingulate cortex. We combine two ideas to understand what’s going on here. The deeper in you go, the closer you get to the emotions, what matters for the organism. And in terms of content, once more where you are is what you do. The cingulate cortex is a system that negotiates between the content of the cortex above and the emotions of the layer below.

In the cingulate cortex, content is now more coloured by emotions and goals. Cingulate cortex under parietal cortex (processing space) will deal with emotions for space (sense of self in space). Cingulate cortex under motor cortex will deal with emotions for action (the drive to act). Cingulate cortex under frontal cortex will deal with emotions around decision-making and the initiation of behaviour (am I doing it right? is this fun?). However cold the processing of information is in the cortex, it simply cannot be separated from the emotional dimension that lies in the cingulate cortex underneath.


Limbic System

‘The limbic system is the lava world of the emotions’

The next layer in combines a set of different structures, together called the limbic system. It’s the lava world of the emotions. Unlike the cortex, which is mainly the same across the sheet, the limbic system has a set of structures with specific functions. The set of structures are pretty similar across the primates. In fact, my neuroanatomist friend said if someone gave him the limbic system of a human and a limbic system of a chimpanzee (casually, perhaps at a dinner party), he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

WARNING: BRAIN NAMES COMING UP. The structures in the limbic system are (roughly) the amygdala, the insula, the septum, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. Latin and Greek names again. Almonds, islands, partitions, seahorses, and below-the-bed, respectively. There’ll be a quiz on these later.

‘Emotions are the way evolution has built long-term goals into the structure of the brain’

Here’s how to think about what’s going on. Emotions are the way that evolution has built long-term goals into the structure of the brain to give an organism the best chance of surviving and reproducing (two things evolution especially likes). The structures of the amygdala, insula, and septum are specialised for specific roles in emotion. For the amygdala, it’s about fear, aggression, whether to approach or avoid, to fight or fly or freeze. For the insula, it is about the bodily basis of emotion, what the body wants and what the body needs, the bodily self, feeling emotions in your guts. For the septum, it is about pleasure. These structures compete with each other for who is going to take control of the body, putting it in a state for whichever emotion wins. The structures compete to drive the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in turn communicates with the distant bodily organs, by releasing chemical signals (called hormones) into the blood stream, putting the organs in the correct state to carry out different behaviours. 1

The hippocampus, by contrast, is a memory system, which brings together information from all the senses to create snapshot memories. The emotion structures can command the hippocampus to lay down strong memories. ‘Remember this situation, it’s important, it’s where we saw that scary spider!’

The idea that different parts of the limbic system deal with different emotions shouldn’t be taken too literally. Emotions are functions carried out by circuits, which involve detectors (of particular situations), modulation (of the activity of other brain regions, of the state of bodily organs), and memorisation (of experiences). Emotions themselves are sets of highly variable instances, which depend on the current situation, your own history of experiences, and your response. Fear may revolve around the amygdala as a threat detector, but fear isn’t just fear: you can tremble in fear, jump in fear, freeze in fear, scream in fear, gasp in fear, hide in fear, attack in fear, even laugh in the face of fear. 2

Lastly, the limbic system likes to talk to the front of the cortex. The frontal cortex provides the emotions with some context. The two systems are always chatting to each other. The limbic system might say, ‘Eeeek! A spider! Panic!’ and the front of the cortex might say, ‘Calm down. The spider you’re seeing is on TV. Should I change the channel for you?’

The conversation can go the other way. The front of the cortex, with time on its hands, might start to imagine the public speech that you have to give tomorrow and conjure up a nightmare of forgetting what to say. The limbic system hears this and plays along helpfully by setting the heart racing and stomach churning at the very thought of it.

The Basal Ganglia

Okay, let’s go deeper, to the next layer down, to the basal ganglia. Up top, there are lots of parts of the brain competing to decide what to do. Look at this! Pick this up! Scratch your nose! Check your email! Smile at your neighbour!

At the bottom of the basal ganglia, there’s a structure called the striatum. It’s a stop-go system with looping connections to and from the cortex up above. What each loop processes depends on the cortex overhead. Again, where you are is what you do. The striatum decides what actually gets done: it’s the driver pressing the brake or the accelerator. Do an action or don’t do an action. Have a thought or don’t have a thought. Have an emotion, don’t have an emotion. The striatum decides. Its default is to leave the brake on, and only a winning signal will press the accelerator and drive a voluntary action. 3

The Core

Lastly, we reach the core of the planet. Here, we have the structures that relay basic sensory and motor information into and out of the brain (the thalamus), and structures that control basic functions like heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating (brain stem).

Can maths apps add value to early education?

Dr Laura Outhwaite talked about her research testing early years maths apps. Here’s a short video summary of her talk:

The apps were developed by re developed by onebillion, a not-for-profit organisation; find out more here

Laura and her team have also written about their research both on the onebillion maths apps and on the possible benefits of app-based learning more generally. Check out their articles in the Chartered College of Teaching Educational Technology Special Issue and in the Conversation

Keep up to date with Laura’s work by following her on twitter @LAOuthwaite

What can genetics tell us about educational achievement?

Dr Emily Smith-Woolley talked to the CEN about her research looking at genetics and the role it plays in education. Below is a short video summary of her talk. Following it is a link to another video based on TEDS (Twins Early Development Study) findings about genes and educational outcomes in different types of secondary schools.

For more from Emily, follow this link to watch a video about her latest paper on genetics and schooling


How the Brain Works: It’s all about layers part 1

The brain has a layered structure. You can think of it a bit like the layers of the Earth, from the crust, to the mantle, down to the burning, ancient core.

The outer layers of the brain process information without caring too much about goals or emotions. Some call it ‘cold cognition’. The inner layers increasingly process information in terms of goals and emotions, so-called ‘hot cognition’.

spider-1403889352yvkThe innermost layers coordinate with the functioning of the rest of the body. When I see a1280px-man_running_scared_cartoon_vector-svg spider, cold cognition recognises the visual pattern, hot cognition gets worried, the body is informed that its heart should race in preparation for fight-or-flight action, and cold cognition prepares the instructions to jump. The layers work together as an integrated whole.

This week’s blog explores how the outer layer, the cortex, works.

The Outer Layer (aka The Cortex)

As we’ve seen, the cortex is big in humans compared to other animals. The back and the front do different things.

The cortex, is a sheet of neurons for processing information. The sheet of neurons, 2 millimetres thick, is just a bit smaller than a sheet of A3 paper, and it needs to be crumpled up to fit it in the skull.  The sheet processes information without caring too much about the results. Where you are on the sheet doesn’t radically change how the information is processed, it just changes what is processed.

The back part of the cortex houses regions involved in sight (vision), hearing (audition), and the processing of space. Senses are processed along two routes. One route, called the ‘what’ pathway, tries to identify what things are. The other route, the ‘where’ pathway, processes where things are in space. You might want to combine this information: catch a cricket ball (howzat!) but don’t catch a snowball (duck!).

The motor areas are towards the front. At the boundary is an area for sensing the body, and the motor circuits for controlling parts of the body. Further towards the front are areas involved in planning, decision-making, and control. As we’ll see, these are still sort of motor circuits.

Between the back and the front, the sensory and motor systems are organised in hierarchies, moving from simple to complex. You can think of these hierarchies as being like a tower with many floors, with a separate tower for each sense. Each floor combines the work done below, and each floor has a farther view than the floor below. The lowest floor spots patterns in sensory information. The next floor up spots patterns within patterns. The next floor, patterns within patterns within patterns. Sensory and motor systems are trying to see patterns within patterns within patterns – and then make connections between the screenshot-2019-03-13-at-18-30-44patterns.

After a while, the upper floors of the towers might know a thing or two about what patterns are likely. Based on their knowledge, the upper floors like to make suggestions to the lower floors on what they may be perceiving (just to help out, mind). The upper floors of the towers for the different senses talk to each other, across cables strung between the upper floors, to see if they can agree what’s out there in the world. The upper layers are connected to the frontal parts of the brain, to pass on conclusions and see if their view fits with expectations.

The motor system has a hierarchy too, but its higher levels are different. They’re about patterns more distant in time. The lowest levels are about immediate actions. The higher levels are about more complex sequences of actions, further forward in time. The lowest level says ‘Do it!’ (primary motor cortex). The next layer says, ‘Prepare to do it’ (supplementary cortex). The next layer up says, ‘You may want to do it sometime in the future’ (prefrontal cortex). A complex sequence of motor actions to be carried out at some future point in time can be described as a plan. Pre-frontal cortex, the planning and decision-making part of the brain, can also be seen as the top of the motor system hierarchy, looking the furthest forward in time.

We saw in the section on evolution that humans have more cortex. This means that humans can build their towers higher than other animals. In their senses, humans can discern more patterns within patterns, more complicated concepts; and in their motor systems, they can build further forward, creating plans into the more distant future.

Read more at!

Language and Executive Function Development in Deaf Children

CEN member Chloë Marshall is Professor of Psychology, Language and Education at the chloeUCL Institution of Education, were she runs the Acquiring Language and Literacy in Challenging Circumstances (ALLICC) Lab. In this blog she discusses her research on deaf children’s language and executive functions.

Deaf children’s language development

The term “deafness” refers to all types of hearing loss from mild to profound, including deafness in just one ear. While assistive technologies such as hearing aids and cochlear implants may improve a child’s ability to hear sounds, they don’t “cure” deafness. Oral language development is delayed in the majority of deaf children because they are having to acquire a language that they can’t fully access, and this impacts their learning to read and write, and their academic learning. In contrast, for the minority of deaf children who are born to deaf parents who use a sign language – i.e. a visible and accessible language – language development generally proceeds normally.

Deaf children’s executive function (EF) development

There is a growing awareness that EFs are associated with children’s learning and academic success. Evidence is also mounting that many deaf children experience delayed EF development. Although researchers have proposed a close relationship between EF development and language development, it is not yet clear whether EFs drive language development or vice versa. Knowing the answer to this question could be important for working out how to best support deaf children in achieving academic success.

Our research study

I am one of a group of researchers led by Professor Gary Morgan at City, University of London, and funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at UCL. For several years we recruited and assessed a large group of deaf children aged 5-11 years, and a comparison group of hearing children. We measured their EFs using a range of experimental tasks, and also assessed their vocabulary using a naming task where responses could be given in spoken English or in British Sign Language (BSL). Importantly, we used EF tasks which were non-verbal, in an attempt to not disadvantage our deaf participants, who were likely to have lower language abilities.

Our research findings

Even though our EF tasks were non-verbal, the deaf group as a whole scored more poorly compared to their age-matched hearing peers (although there was a lot of individual variation, and many deaf children scored well). They also scored more poorly on the vocabulary task. By testing children twice, two years apart, we were able to investigate whether growth in vocabulary scores over those two years predicted growth in EF scores, or whether growth in EF scores predicted growth in vocabulary. We found the former – vocabulary development was driving EF development (even though EF had been measured non-verbally). In contrast, developmental changes in EF did not predict vocabulary development. Although we haven’t yet done any detailed analysis to compare the results of deaf children who signed versus those who used oral language, a preliminary analysis of our two visuo-spatial working memory tasks revealed that signers who had started learning BSL when they very young performed as well as their age-matched peers, but that later signers scored more poorly.

Implications of our research findings

Our research findings underscore the importance of language for cognitive development, and highlight the need for deaf children to be supported in their language development. There needs to be greater awareness on the part of parents and of medical and educational professionals that early access to sign language may benefit deaf children’s oral language and EF development. Deaf children are at risk of under-achieving at school, but this under-achievement is not inevitable if we understand the factors that contribute to variation in outcomes, and in particular those factors can be leveraged to improve success.

To find out more about what support is available for deaf children, visit the National Deaf Children’s Society

Read more from this research:

Deaf children’s non-verbal working memory is impacted by their language experience

Nonverbal Executive Function is Mediated by Language: A Study of Deaf and Hearing Children

Expressive Vocabulary Predicts Nonverbal Executive Function: A 2‐year Longitudinal Study of Deaf and Hearing Children



Teen Brain Film – we want your strategies!

Dr Georgina Donati and Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne, researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, were keen to share the latest research in adolescent brain science with teachers and sought out a film-maker to help them out.

We are Georgie and Annie, researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, and we are interested in sharing the latest research in adolescent brain science with teachers.

A few years ago, we participated as scientists in an interactive play, with a theatre group called Cardboard Citizens. The play, META, was performed in front of teenagers, and explored how changes in the teenage brain can impact their lives, and even lead them to spin out of control. During performances, we (and our colleagues) were there to explain the adolescent brain science underlying the play. We were often approached by teachers and parents after the play, who said that they found the science fascinating and useful, wishing they had known it sooner.

This feedback inspired us to work on a resource for teachers (parents are also encouraged to get involved!). We teamed up with a film-maker and some great professionals from Small Films to bring you this short film. The aim of the play META had been to encourage teens, armed with new knowledge about how their brains work, to think about how they might be able to change their behaviour for their own benefit. The aim of the film is similar for teachers: how can knowledge about how the teenage brain works influence the way teachers interact with, respond to, and ultimately teach teenagers?

As part of the interactive play, teenagers came up with some interesting strategies to better manage their emotions and stay focused on the task at hand. We’re interested to find out what strategies teachers come up with (or already use) to engage the teenage brain, deal with their quirks, and essentially take advantage of the special world that is the social and emotional rollercoaster of being a teen…

At the early stages of creating the film, we spoke to teachers about our ideas. Based on this discussion, we decided to keep the video short and with basic science, but with more detailed resources about the topics covered on this website. The teachers we spoke to were particularly keen to get ideas for specific strategies to use in the classroom. We are experts in adolescent brain science, but not in teaching, so we are handing over to you, to crowdsource strategies that draw on this science.

Under each topic there is the opportunity to add your own thoughts about how you might use, or have already used, this science to inform your teaching. We hope you will take this opportunity to share your ideas with other teachers. We will regularly update the website to include the strategies that you suggest (anonymously). Our hope is that this will become a useful resource of strategies designed by teachers, for teachers, and informed by research. We are excited to hear from you!

You can also get in touch with us on social media – we have a Twitter account @TeenBrainFilm – come and ask us questions, give us your feedback, or share with your colleagues and friends!


You can also read more about topics touched on in the film in more detail in the CEN pages dedicated to each area…


Sleep      ***      Hormonal Changes      ***      Prefrontal Changes
Inhibitory Control      ***      Mental Time Travel      ***      Limbic Changes
Sensation Seeking       ***       Risk taking       ***       Social Development
Theories of Adolescence      ***     Evolution      ***      Mental Health
Neuroconstructivism      ***     Educational Neuroscience


How the brain works: the brain is mostly for movement

In today’s excerpt from our resource How the brain works, we must come to terms with a rather humbling revelation. We like to believe we are rather clever. If we were asked, we might say our brains are so big and complex because that’s what it takes to create our wonderful, deep, imaginative thoughts. By contrast, reaching out to pick up a cup of coffee and bringing it to our mouth without spilling it isn’t something we’d typically boast about. Well it might be time for a rethink. Grab yourself a cuppa (careful, now) and read on…

gymnastWhy do you need a brain? Not all organisms have brains. Jellyfish don’t have brains. They do all right, floating about.

The main reason for having a brain is to coordinate movement. Sight, sound, and other sensory information is brought together; muscles are controlled to produce coordinated movements of the body in response to perception, to achieve the goals of the organism (e.g., eating, not getting eaten).

Trees don’t move and they don’t have brains tree-with-face

Organisms that don’t move don’t need centralised coordination of information. Trees don’t move and they have no brains, not even a nervous system. Jellyfish float, gently swim, and stay upright waiting for prey to hit their tentacles. They have a different type of nervous system for this less demanding repertoire, with separate sets of neurons to synchronise muscle actions in different parts of their bodies. There is no integration in a single central brain.

Sometimes, your spine will do the thinking for you

Even humans don’t always need their brains to move. Sometimes, your spine will do the thinking for you. Touch something hot, and in half a second, you will snatch your hand away. Temperature and danger receptors in the skin have rapidly signalled to the spine, candlewhere local neurons have already decided to trigger the withdrawal reflex, and the arm muscles spring into action. Quick, withdraw your hand! It is, as they would say these days, a real no-brainer. But anything beyond a reflex movement is going to involve the brain.

At the other end of the scale, human actions can be vastly subtle and sophisticated, aimed towards long-range goals. Studying for a university degree, for example. But it is worth remembering the primary design influence of the brain: make the right movement.

This influence is still discernible in our ‘high-level’ cognitive skills. Take attention. We focus attention on particular objects in our visual field or on particular sounds around us. The ‘attention network’ in the brain involves the circuits of the particular sense (sight, hearing) and two other regions – a system that processes space and a region that controls eye-movements. In the brain, attention isn’t some abstract part of thought: it is about orienting to objects in space and preparing to make the right movement – including movement of the eyes to look to that region of space to get more information. While ‘paying attention’ in the classroom may be held to be a high-level cognitive skill, inside the brain it is about planning for the right movement.

Hang on a minute, what’s this other bit?

cerebellum_animation_smallThe cerebellum! There’s, like, this whole extra ‘mini’ brain at the back, like a petite cauliflower. And you know what? The cerebellum is so densely packed with neurons, it contains around 80% of all the neurons in the brain. What does it do? Is this where all my brilliant thoughts happen?

Well… No. The cerebellum is also all about movement. It is dedicated to the job of coordinating movement and sensation. It needs to make everything hang together, to make it run smoothly and automatically. Because, you know, you may have decided you’re thirsty, and you may want to reach out for that glass of water next to you, but actually your body is already busy. There are muscles holding your posture, keeping you balanced, holding your head up. And if you are going to reach out your arm, a limb is heavy, it’s going to change your centre of gravity. You don’t want to topple over, so lean back a bit, adjust, subtly, unconsciously. A reach of the arm needs to be fitted in with everything else, so that overall movement and posture is smooth, so it all flows together. This takes a lot of integration and monitoring of sensory input and adjusting of motor output. Some heavy-duty number crunching, requiring a lot of neurons and connections. It’s a job for a specialist.

‘When your coffee cup doesn’t quite reach your lips and you spill your coffee down your front . . . only then do you notice what the cerebellum has been up to’

Yet when everything is running smoothly, you don’t notice the cerebellum is there. Only when things go wrong – when your coffee cup doesn’t quite reach your lips and you spill the coffee down your front; when you step off a pavement and misjudge the height of the curb, landing heavily and jarringly – only then do you notice everything the cerebellum has been up to.

It’s keen to take on more work, too. As practised actions become less voluntary and more automatic, the cerebellum takes over from cortical commands to deliver movements swiftly and smoothly.

The cerebellum doesn’t just contribute to movements, but also to thought. Instead of movement, cortex can manipulate images or ideas. When these objects are repeatedly manipulated in the mind, the cerebellum can help make their manipulation smooth and automatic. Here’s some single digit numbers. Six. Eight. Add them together. Adults have years of experience adding single digit numbers. Up pops the answer, 14, smooth as you like, no thinking required, cruise control.

human-pyramidSo our brilliant brains are mostly designed for movement. Now that you’ve got your head around that, in our next installment we’ll take a look at how the layers of the brain are organised and start to get an idea of how the whole set up works together.

If you prefer bingeing and can’t wait, you can leap ahead here

What teachers think about educational neuroscience: Mark Miller

mark-millerAt CEN we are always trying to improve dialogue between academic researchers and teaching professionals and are always pleased to hear from practitioners who are working to bridge that gap. Today, we are delighted to welcome Mark Miller, Head of Bradford Research school.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

It’s important that we can further our understanding of the complexity of learning. The interdisciplinary nature of educational neuroscience helps to draw together education, psychology and neuroscience to make more sense of how we can support teachers and pupils. For me, it is the ‘educational’ part that matters most, and it is always our goal to try and make what we know practical and effective in schools and classrooms. But I think that neuroscience needs a ‘bridge’ into education, and I can see cognitive psychology as that bridge.

How do you keep up to date with the latest research?

As Head of Bradford Research School, I am lucky to be able to engage with the Research Schools Network, and learn from colleagues across the network, the EEF and the IEE in York. While it helps to be knowledgeable about a range of topics, it’s hard to be expert in them all, so I constantly rely on the kindness of others to share their knowledge and wisdom.

I have found The EEF’s guidance reports to be accessible and useful. For example, as a secondary English teacher I have learnt much about literacy from the Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 guidance report. Furthermore, the extensive references offer a reading list for anyone keen to find out more about the evidence base. I am looking forward to some of the forthcoming reports, including Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, Behaviour and Digital Technology.

I read a great deal. My desk will often have the latest copy of TES, whose revamped research coverage is excellent, the Chartered College’s Impact journal and at least a couple of books: today it is How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby and The Teacher Gap by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims. I am indebted to those who signpost, filter and curate on social media.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school? Is there a specific research-informed idea that has had a positive impact in your school, one which others could potentially try?

Across Dixons Multi-Academy Trust, and in my school Dixons Kings Academy, we ensure that our work is evidence-informed. We have explored the best available evidence on cognitive science and tried to use it to help inform our school-wide understanding of how we enable a change in long-term memory.

Knowledge organisers have been a useful tool to explore some of the key ideas and we have focused on three principals, supported by evidence, that can facilitate their use. Principal one is to facilitate retrieval practice, informed by the work of Roediger (2011) among others. Principals two and three are designed not just to ensure that material is learnt, but that it is ‘usable’. Principal 2 is elaboration, where material to be learnt is elaborated upon, by relating it to additional knowledge associated with it, often in the form of ‘why’ questions. The Learning Scientists have written extensively on this, and Weinstein (2018) is particularly helpful in explaining this (and other principles of cognitive science).  Principal three is to organise the knowledge – ironically Knowledge organisers don’t always help the mental organisation of knowledge! Reif (2008) offers a clear explanation of why.

You can read more about the evidence here.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

There is always a tension with how much teachers need to know about the cognitive science. At Dixons Kings, we don’t want gimmicks and practical tools that are easily replicated with little understanding of the evidence behind them, but nor do we need to overburden with multiple readings of all the original studies. We have explained the principals and practical implications in CPD sessions and assemblies. The staff CPD is followed up with subject-specific CPD, and the message is communicated regularly.

It’s also the same with students. There is real power in students understanding how the advice we give them about studying is determined but there are many demands on students’ time that we may well need to keep it simple. With students, initial assemblies exploring how to use effective revision strategies for knowledge organisers have been followed up with exploration of how to explore things in individual subjects e.g. elaboration in Physics is different from elaboration in English Literature.

Looking more widely, as a Research School, we share evidence through free events, training courses, blogs and newsletters. Again, there is a balance between keeping things concise and watering down the evidence. Where our blogs and our twilight events keep things concise, our training courses allow for implementation of strategies and deep and thorough knowledge.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next (ie what are the important gaps in our understanding)?

40% of our pupils at Dixons Kings Academy are eligible for the pupil premium. According to Becky Allen, “SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention.” I would like to see more research into these aspects and particularly how we can mitigate for factors affected by disadvantage.


To read more about some of the research mentioned, see the references below. And you can stay up to date with Mark by following him on Twitter

Roediger H, Putnam A and Smith M (2011) Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 55: 1–36

Reif F (2008) Applying Cognitive Science to Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Bradford Books

Weinstein Y, Madan C and Sumeracki M (2018) Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications Open Access