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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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”

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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

 

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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, learningscientists.org, 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.

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.

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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

 

The role of relational categories in mind, brain and education by Dr Micah Goldwater

Dr. Micah Goldwater from the University of Sydney presented a trio of studies from his lab which have taken different approaches to studying how people use relational categories and analogies in learning.

He says ‘For decades, cognitive lab-based research on category and concept learning, and education research on learning in the classroom have been disconnected in many crucial ways. Even for the moment forgetting the sociocultural, and motivational differences in the two distinct settings, the nature of the concepts to be learned are typically of two distinct kinds. Cognitive research has focussed on how people learn to categorise objects by their intrinsic features – although key concepts in education are about the extrinsic relations between objects and events. For example, consider catalysts and reagents. These labels classify molecules not by their intrinsic features but the roles they play in chemical reactions. In my work, I have argued that a focus on relational categories can help bridge the gap between cognitive and educational research. In my talk, I presented basic cognitive research on the representation and learning of relational categories, how relational category learning is implemented in the brain, and classroom research that leverages how relational categories are learned to improve STEM education.

You can access the full papers here and here and you can stay up to date with Micah’s work via his Sydney lab or by following him on @Mic__G on Twitter

Imitation and sensorimotor learning in autism by Dr Spencer Hayes

spencer-hayesAutism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by differences in restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities, and persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction. In addition to these core characteristics, autistic people show differences in sensorimotor functioning – such as gait, motor planning, motor learning, and imitation. Whilst autistic people imitate the goal of an action (e.g., picking up a cup), it has been reported for decades that autistic people show behavioural differences associated with imitating observed movement execution properties that constrain/describe the movement (e.g., speed of a movement). It’s thought that this behavioural difference is  underpinned by autism-specific sensorimotor processes involved in mapping self-other actions.

In this talk, I reported data from a series of autism studies (published and under review) from our lab that examined the imitation of biological motion kinematics. The data showed that autistic adults successfully imitated novel biological kinematics during voluntary imitation. These positive effects only occurred when participants imitated the model in a predictable blocked practice trial order (same model on a trial-by-trial basis), rather than a random practice trial where the different models were imitated across trials. This blocked practice order seems to allow the integration of observed biological motion with the executed sensorimotor information.

pldIn addition to imitation learning, we also reported data indicating that although autistic adults acquired visuomotor sequence tasks across a period of practice-with-feedback, the executed movements were less accurate and more variable than in non-autistic adults. Examination of movement kinematics indicated the underlying sensorimotor control processes associated with movement planning and feedforward control were less effective than non-autistic learners. But importantly, over practice movement variability was reduced, suggesting intact operational sensorimotor processing.

Taken together, the data indicate that whilst there are some differences in the function of the sensorimotor system in autism that leads to deficits in imitation learning, and more variable motor execution, the practice effects show these differences can be ameliorated with training. Understanding these practice effects might therefore offer opportunities to develop motor based interventions involving physical activity and dyadic play that supports motor-social interactions.

Papers:

Low Fidelity Imitation of Atypical Biological Kinematics in Autism Spectrum Disorders Is Modulated by Self-Generated Selective Attention

Sensorimotor learning and associated visual perception are intact but unrelated in autism spectrum disorder

If you cannot access the papers, please feel free to contact Spencer to get a copy. His e-mails is spencer.hayes@ucl.ac.uk.

Dr Spencer Hayes, Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL

Paying tribute to my own primary school teacher by Dr. Roberto Filippi

roberto-filippiThe role of educators in primary school is crucial for the formation of each child. Their work, unfortunately not always carried out in easy conditions, is the basis of the cognitive and social development of future generations.

After many years, I still feel the impact of primary school on my personal growth. The memory of my Teacher, Mrs Rina Bottai, prompted me to sponsor a creative writing award in her honor.

roberto1School leavers picture. The signs says “Farewell elementary school”. Mrs Bottai retired that year after a long career in primary education. I am the one on her right.

As well as my family, Mrs Bottai was the architect of my individual development, giving me the tools and fundamental values to face life: education, self-confidence and respect for others.

With this Creative Writing award I therefore want to celebrate all primary educators, their dedication to serving children, their families and the future of our societies.

roberto3The winners were awarded on the 5th June 2019 at my old primary school, the Carlo Bini Elementary School in Livorno, Italy.

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It was a great thrill for me to get back there after 47 years!

 

The children have done some fantastic work that I am still reading with pleasure. I have to admit, their Italian is much better than mine!

roberto4In total, there were 6 individual winners whose work was judged by a panel of teachers and parents. However, the largest part of the donation was used to buy books for the school library so that all children could benefit.

A sample of the children’s work: an essay titled “Cara Maestra… (Dear Teacher) in which they pretended to be grown-ups and told their teachers how they fulfilled their dreams after primary school. Each essay was accompanied with a drawing.

I’m already thinking about the 2019-2020 edition, where I would also like to involve an English primary school. In these sad times where the divisions between peoples always find a main title on the media, our role as educators is to encourage exchanges and cultural knowledge among the new generations.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the Director of the Livorno’s educational headquarter, Gianna Valente and the head of my former primary school, Katia Burlacchini who, together with their collaborators, have made this event possible. A special thanks goes to the children who participated in the competition!

roberto5Gianna Valente (on my right) and Katia Burlacchini (left) and all the teachers who made this initiative possible.

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Parents and children of the Carlo Bini primary school attending the ceremony

Links:

Article about the award in UCL news

Dr Roberto Filippi’s UCL profile page and his lab page

You can also follow Dr Filippi on twitter @psyrob

Social, Emotional, and Academic Development report

Georgie Donati presented a recent report from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank. The report was the result of findings from a commission set up to look at Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in young people – with the aim of re-envisioning what constitutes success in schools.

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There is a wealth of information available from Aspen here and Georgie’s slides of the presentation are available on the link below:

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Spatial cognition and children’s science learning

Dr Alex Hodgkiss from Oxford University’s Department of Education, talked about his recent research looking at whether spatial cognition is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success in science – at primary school and beyond. See his short video summary as well as links to his papers and other resources below.

You can read more about the research in these papers:

Spatial cognition and science achievement

Development of spatial skills and maths

Development of children’s spatial scaling skills

Alex’s University webpage, which is regularly updated with new research, is here

You can also keep up to date with his research by following him on twitter @hodgkiss_alex