Psyched! event from the ‘Me, Human’ team on the evolution of language


‘Lovely cabaret style set-up and relaxed mood. Excellent quality of content.’

For its public engagement event on the origin of human language, the ‘Me, Human’ team chose an intriguing yet straightforward title: ‘Blah Blah Blah’. This leaves some room for interpretation. So, what was it all about?

On stage, Dr. Gillian Forrester, Dr. Natasha Kirkham, and Dr. Simon Green shared some fun facts about the development of human language, both at the scale of evolution (e.g. from chimpanzees to humans), and at the scale of a human life (e.g. from babies to the elderly). Let’s start with an example of our extraordinary language skills… Can you understand this?

The middle-aged lady who was wearing a long red scarf was eating a chocolate ice-cream in front of the shop that was very busy and situated in the main street, because it was Christmas and she liked the squared bubbly vibes of the end-of-the-year celebrations.


Weird and long sentence? Maybe, but it is still plain English. The capacity to generate an infinite number of sentences, expressing various events in the past, present and future, is one of the unique characteristics of human language. Although other species, such as chimpanzees, use vocalisations to share information about specific things, such as food or predators, their language does not seem to have generative properties. Most importantly, their language is not necessarily voluntary: they cannot always inhibit their screams even if there is no one around. Imagine if you were shouting ‘chocolate!’ every time you saw a chocolate bar, even when you are alone in the house…

But since we share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, we still have a lot in common. Tool use, for example. Chimps can do crazy things such as cracking nuts with stones. Over the course of human history, multiple tools have been used to transform our natural environment (e.g. lighting up a fire), process food and create necessities (e.g. clothes). Fine motor skills, such as the ones used to manipulate tools, actually recruit the same areas of the brain as language. Have you ever found yourself sticking your tongue out as you were trying to put a thread into a needle?  Well, that’s it. As humans evolved to use tools more and more frequently, it became useful to not only use gestures but also oral language to communicate. This way, hands could be kept free for manual work. The development of language skills occurred in parallel with changes in the configuration of the mouth and of the larynx, as well as with the adoption of a bipedal posture.


‘Excellent knowledgeable presenters. Fun vibe, not too heavy.’

One of the disadvantages of being bidpedals is that human hips are relatively narrow – and are brain-body ratio is proportionately larger than other primates. Although the brain is folded like a little nut within the cranium, a baby’s head is still relatively big relative to the size of the cervix. Mothers, you know that… When babies are born, they are still quite early in their development. They are dependent on other people’s help. Babies need eye contact to communicate. Being progressively helped by adults’ scaffolding, they use and understand pointing to share their attention to external objects. They learn to be aware of their facial expressions and to progressively shape their vocalisations in a specific language. Until 6 months of age, babies are not yet ‘tuned it’ to any specific language. Then, they get accustomed to the specific sounds and boundaries of their native language. Learning where words start and end in a given language actually requires quite a lot of expertise. A great deal of statistical learning occurs here – with experience, children compare different sentences and learn that some words and sounds can, or cannot follow each other. ‘This is a pretty baby’. You could understand: ‘this is a prettyba by’, but this is not very frequent, is it? The importance of segmentation is quite obvious when we hear a foreign language. When hearing people speaking another language, does it seem to you to be like an endless sentence, or just a blurry ‘BlahBlahBlah’? Well, that is it.

Furthermore, as if it was not complex enough, language is multisensory. Most of the time, we establish visual contact with the people we talk to. We see their lips and can follow the movements of their mouth to get more cues if we have difficulties to hear what they say. But what happen when the sound we hear and the lips movements are not congruent? We start to hear funny sounds. Try it by yourself. This shows that we integrate both visual and auditory information when we process language.

The ‘Me, Human’ event was the opportunity to be bewitched by the fantastic skills primates and humans have developed throughout history. From the new-born babies who needs vocalisations to express their needs, to the mature adults who are playing with words with a Scrabble, there is a lot to learn, and to share.

So if you have not been to this event but are interested in attending the next one about lust(!), you can book you ticket here. You can follow the team @Me__Human  #MHPsyched.


Written by: Jessica Massonnié

Dr. Roberto Filippi – The effects of multilanguage experience on cognitive development

rfDr Roberto Filippi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at University College London, Institute of Education. He is the Director of the Multilanguage & Cognition Lab at UCL, Institute of Education, part of the Centre for Language, Literacy and Numeracy: Research & Practice. His research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy, focuses on second language acquisition and its effects on attention, memory, executive functions and metacognition across the lifespan.

As Roberto explains it, the issue of whether bilingualism/multilingualism is beneficial or detrimental to cognitive development has been an area of research interest for decades and, understandably, a concern for parents and educators of bilingual children.

Despite the initial belief that learning a second language early in life can delay cognitive development, there is now a general consensus that multilanguage experience is inherently advantageous for communication in modern multicultural societies.

However, one of the most exciting yet controversial current scientific debate is based on some reported evidence that the lifelong use of two languages may have positive effects on attentional processing and executive functions (e.g., Bialystok Craik, Green, & Gollan, 2010) and even protect the brain from age-associated cognitive decline (e.g., Bak, Nissan, Allerhand & Deary, 2014; Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). Remarkably, the positive effects of being raised in a bilingual environment are observed even before children begin to talk, suggesting that comprehension processes alone may be sufficient to trigger such advantages (Kovács & Mehler, 2009).

However, recent evidence has challenged the bilingual advantage hypothesis. In particular, the work of Paap in the USA, and Duñabeitia in Spain, has questioned the validity of previous findings and generated a heated debate among the scientific community.

In this video, Roberto summarises the current debates and shares some of his own findings.

You can follow Roberto on Twitter @psyrob

Nathan Morland, Director of the Staffordshire Research School


As part of our series of blog posts written with/for educators and school leaders, we had the pleasure to interview Nathan Morland. Nathan is the Director of the Staffordshire Research School. As such, he infuses his work with educational research, while being aware of and attentive to his staff’s needs and aspirations. In this interview, he shares his experience and key resources with us.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

For me, it means expanding foundation in our level of understanding about cognitive development and how young people acquire and enhance knowledge and skills, and more importantly…remember them! It also means a number of opportunities and challenges for teachers and school leaders too.

I cast my mind back to when I started out in teaching 15 years ago and I don’t recall the word ‘neuroscience’ featuring in CPD or department meetings. Enhancing or evolving practice seemed to be much more organic, based upon feedback from a middle or senior leader, with little evidence or research from neuroscience used to back it up.

On occasions the term ‘research-informed’ can be carelessly misused or superficially applied to strategies without the true depth of research findings being fully explored or understood. There are many green shoots though with growing traction and a sense of enthusiasm in research-informed practice in the profession. Pleasingly, the drivers of this movement are from both bottom up (Research Schools Network, twitter, new authors, researchED events) and top down perspectives (School Inspection Framework overview of research).

The Challenges are very apparent too. The NFER’s recent report on teachers’ engagement with research indicated that only 16% of the teachers surveyed said decisions about their CPD were based on academic research and, ‘teachers were most likely to draw on their own expertise, or that of their colleagues, when making decisions about teaching and learning or whole-school change’. (NFER, 2019)

So there is still a great deal of work to do. How do we distil complex and specialist research into a digestible format, that enables our time-strapped teachers to apply them effectively in their bespoke contexts?  The EEF’s Guidance Reports do a great job of the distillation process, alongside the Research School Network in mobilising the research and providing the practical tools for their application.

What does that mean for you to be involved in a Research School?

The most common question we were initially asked upon becoming Research School was ‘What does that involve?’ One of our first steps was to paint a clear picture of what Research Schools do, and do not do. This can be seen in our concise infographic and blog here.  This question is then increasingly being followed up by, ‘so how can we work together?

It is a privilege and provides an additional sense of purpose. It means there is an additional (and non-judgemental) avenue of support for schools to enhance outcomes for their students, particularly in areas of deprivation, that are free from Multi Academy Trust, Local Authority, Teaching School or geographical alliances and loyalties.


How do you keep up to date with new neuroscience research?

 It is a challenge with the amount of emerging research.

  • As the Director of the Staffordshire Research School, being part of the Research Schools Network enables us to learn directly from the colleagues at the EEF and the IEE. It also means we are directly engaged in working with schools to apply research in a range of settings, which will only be effective if we have a broad foundation of knowledge ourselves.
  • I receive a range of newsletters and journals including ResearchED, The Chartered College Impact Journal, ASCD (in the USA) and Best Evidence in Brief from the IEE.
  • In the John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust and via the National Forest Teaching School we invite the researchers to share expertise at our training and conferences. The value of face-to-face interaction and training with researchers can be underestimated, as some schools can be cautious about releasing staff for training to save cover costs the risk can be a lack of depth of understanding and possible weaker implementation models.
  • Twitter is great. I rate it as one of the best sources of information and collaboration I have and would encourage any non-users to take the plunge.
  • I also have a set of go to organisations that I check in with regularly for updates. You can find these in a free handout and hyperlinked infographic here.


From a practical point of view, I take a fairly methodical approach using two IT tools called Pocket and Padlet. Whilst these are not evidence based, they are simply practical tools that help me filter and organise the sources of research and reports that I come across and leave a breadcrumb trail back to where I found them. I put sources of research, reports or blogs in the Pocket app (a simple tap and drop feature), either to read or come back to at a later date. When ready, I then upload the link to a Padlet page. Padlet is virtual pinboard that enables people to bring together and store a range of e-resources in one place. I can then categorise it for colleagues, delegates or for personal use into aspects of research, evidence, pedagogy or school focus area and save time in having to search the internet all over again. Its power is in its simplicity and you can see an example here.

 How do you get teachers and students involved?

  • Each Monday we hold short briefing that is supported by a takeaway resource (maximum of one page of A4 or a postcard) that covers a ‘nugget’ of research-informed practice and links with one of the T&L principles in our ‘inside-out’ CPD model (see question below). It keeps the flow of research regular and digestible for staff.
  • Staff receive a ‘DNA’ paper each half term. A deeper insight into an element of research, again linking to one of our key T&L principles (e.g. Long Term Memory) or school targets (e.g. Pupil Premium students). This introduces the research concisely and provides a number of signposts to journals, white papers, podcasts or guidance reports.
  • Practical teaching methods and templates are created and provided to staff each half term to model how to turn the research into a tangible teaching methods or resources and how to articulate them to students.
  • In addition to the training courses, free twilights and more sustained work with schools across the West Midlands, colleagues also receive the Staffordshire Research School’s newsletter which is free to sign up to here.

In all honesty, the students get involved through their lessons. We keep it simple, they already have a lot on their plates. We do not necessarily teach them explicitly about neuroscience research but we do model practices for learning and help them to experience what successful learning feels like through well-designed lessons and tasks.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you as a school leader?

It has allowed me… no us, as a leadership team… to:

  • Provide precise informed feedback where practices have been less effective e.g. a retrieval practice starter done with books open or resources is not retrieval practice, in turn allowing staff to adjust and improve.
  • Upskill staff in their pedagogical knowledge through the design of a CPD model that is built upon a solid foundation of emerging research.
  • Consider the extent to which staff are engaging with research and provide a range of timely tools that allow staff to do so at different depths (briefings, 15 minute reads, full reports, extended CPD)
  • Provide focussed training opportunities at John Taylor High School, the National Forest Teaching School and the Staffordshire Research School.

It has helped significantly, however the amount I learn from our most innovative and well-read staff means that they help me equally in return.

Can you give some examples of how a scientific approach to education has helped your school?

At John Taylor High School we operate an ‘inside-out’ CPD model whereby, informed by previous student outcomes and middle leader guidance, staff select an area of T&L to improve from a range of T&L principles (the Rosenshine Principles feature heavily). It is a ‘bottom up’ model that is very personalised and takes inspiration from Huntington Research School’s ‘Disciplined Inquiry’ and Durrington Research School’s six principles of evidence-informed teaching. This year alone, 48 staff have chosen Long-Term Memory & Retrieval Practice foci and 30 more have chosen modelling, scaffolding or the teaching of disciplinary literacy. Each member of staff has a Coach to engage in reflective practice, alongside the use of Iris. A key component of our ‘inside-out’ model is that staff are expected to engage with reading research (supported by the Padlet example here) and implement the strategies in their classrooms, with key milestones calendared over the course of the academic year. Autonomy remains with the teacher and they are encouraged to trial and test methods – but the curriculum design, craft of lessons and decision making have to a rationale in that they are informed by research.

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

The evidence behind dual coding and cognitive load theory is sound. However, some teachers’ interpretation of how they combine this research to design/present their teaching resources can be varied and cause the two to be in conflict with each other. The desire to include dual coding can unintentionally cause some teachers to create cognitive overload for students. Finding the balance and optimal combination of each is less understood. I’d like to see more exploration of how the design and presentation of teaching resources that integrate different ratios of both cognitive load theory and dual coding. Having the same teacher, teaching the same content, using resources designed with these in mind would be interesting.

That said, the variables of the students themselves and over 240,000 bespoke school contexts across the country will always remain, rendering any research a ‘best bet’, not a ‘sure bet’ of what could work with the correct implementation.

Thank you very much for your time!

You can follow the work of Nathan’s research school @JTStaffsRSch

Dr. Rebecca Gordon – Measuring executive function in children

Dr. Rebecca Gordon is Academic Head of Learning and Teaching in the Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education. Her work focuses on executive function and how it might explain individual variation in academic attainment and cognitive profiles of people with developmental disorders such as dyslexia.

Rebecca has recently published a new paper in which she investigates the relationships between processing time, working memory and academic performance. You can find a summary in the video below.

You can follow Rebecca Gordon on Twitter @DrRebeccaGordon.

Dr. Sue Whiting – Critiquing Hölzel’s (2011) mindfulness paper

Sue Whiting earned a doctorate in Astrophysics from Oxford University and later became a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser. While on a career break, looking after her three young children, she entered the World Memory Championships for mental stimulation, becoming a Grand Master of Memory and achieving the title of the Women’s World Memory Champion on five consecutive occasions. She became fascinated about how the brain works and in particular on how stress affects learning. In 2017 she completed an MSc (Distinction) in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck College, London University. She is continuing her research on transferable benefits from whole classroom interventions involving memory techniques that manipulate vivid mental images in working memory. Sue is a school governor.

In her CEN seminar, she discussed Hölzel et al.’s (2011) paper: “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”.

 You can find a summary of what she discussed in the video below:

New CEN paper – “Unified: Bridging the Researcher-Practitioner Divide in Mind, Brain and Education”

UCL researchers Michael Hobbiss and Jessica Massonnié contribute to the current debates in educational neuroscience* with their new collaborative paper: “Unified: Bridging the Researcher-Practitioner Divide in Mind, Brain and Education”.


The paper aims to offer practical solutions to “bridge the gap” between research and practice, or, if you have enough of bridge metaphors, to better connect educators with researchers so that they can construct research projects together.

The paper was born from the 2018 EARLI SIG 22 “Education and Neuroscience” conference. In an innovative Open Space Session, educators and researchers could share their concerns, questions, and advances within the field of educational neuroscience. Attendees from various backgrounds were interested to reflect on the creation of a common “Database for Schools and Researchers”. A working group emerged, composed of educators (Charlotte Hindley, Sharon Baker, Alastair Gittner), researchers (Michael Hobbiss, Jessica Massonnié, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Megan Sumeracki, Alice Tovazzi, Ignatius Gous and Thomas Wassenaar), and of a school psychologist (Mónica Lemos). The group worked together during, and after the conference in order to: 1) review the current tools available for researchers and educators to communicate; 2) identify what was needed for collaborations to be further facilitated and flourish; 3) propose a web platform aiming to answer these needs. These three processes are fully described in the paper, and summarised below.

1) The current tools designed to facilitate communication in educational neuroscience were classified into three categories, according to their primary goal: to transmit academic findings, to receive information about educators’ expertise, to promote collaboration between educators and researchers. Most of the resources were classified as transmitting information from researchers to practitioners, which corresponds to a somewhat unidirectional model. The group noticed the scarcity of resources aiming to foster collaborations. Although Research Schools in the US and in the UK form notable exceptions, there are difficulties to find a unified resource to promote large-scale, and bi-directional collaborations.

2) In order to better understand how such collaborations could be facilitated, the working group then carried out a SWOT analysis of transdisciplinary partnerships in educational neuroscience. This type of analysis, borrowed from business project planning, allows to classify the current Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as more long-term Opportunities and Threats of transdisciplinary partnerships. The Strengths and Opportunities are numerous. Research in Psychology and Neuroscience feed each other, while also informing, supporting and/or questioning current classroom practices. Conversely, teachers’ input helps to build more impactful and “real-world” projects, increasing the potential benefits for learners. Ultimately, lab-school partnerships can increase scientific support for good practice in classroom interventions, while empowering teachers as “learning scientists”. However, current Weaknesses and anticipated Threats seem to prevent the field from reaching its full potential. The obstacles are both conceptual (there is a risk of implementing “evidence-informed” interventions that would not be fully contributed by teachers), and practical (such as increased ethical and logistical considerations, and increased time commitment).

To offer practical solutions to these problems, and not only to discuss them conceptually, the working group developed a web platform aiming to directly connect educators and researchers, so that they can develop projects together. On their profile, users can define their interests. The information they provide includes space and time practicalities (e.g. where and how often they would like to be involved in research), the population they would like to work with (e.g. elementary school children, high school students, adults), and the topic they would like to investigate (e.g. memory, stress). The working group worked on some practical solutions to address conceptual issues related to lab-school partnerships, such as difficulties to share a similar vocabulary. Research topics are organised into tags. Each tag consists in a short word (e.g. memory) with a hyperlink showing the profiles of all the users interested in the given topic. This way, users from an educational and a research background can specify their interest from a common bank of words.


As commented by Michael Hobbiss (former secondary school teacher, now researcher at UCL): “The platform seemed necessary because currently both researchers and educators are desperate to meet professionals from the other side, but they don’t quite know how to make the first step to find others with similar interests. UNIFIED aims to bridge that gap. As well as hopefully allowing for research partnerships to be created more easily, this system will let teachers and schools become involved in research at a much earlier stage, allowing them to shape it more successfully to meet their needs”.

The platform is now in a piloting phase. We are happy to receive feedback from new users, and will have a larger scale launch in January!

If you do not manage to access the paper, please email: 

* For the purpose of this blog, we will consider the phrase “educational neuroscience” to be equivalent to “Mind, Brain and Education”, which is most often used in the American literature (and in the published research paper).

Rae Snape – Headteacher and National Leader of The Spinney Primary School, Cambridge

raeRae Snape is the Headteacher and National Leader of The Spinney Primary School, Cambridge. She is famous for carrying flamingos with her as a symbol of hope. She spoke at multiple educational conferences, including the “Educated Brain” conference hosted by Cambridge University, and our own CEN seminar. Here, she shares inspirational resources to bring educational neuroscience research into the classroom, putting them into perspective with her core pedagogical values.

Thank you Rae for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, what are the core values you aim to implement in the Spinney School?

Our core values are Child-centredness, Teamwork and Community, Excellence, Learning, Improvement, Responsibility, Optimism.  These values successfully inform both the long term strategic vision and the quotidian work of the school.

The intention of our school curriculum is to ensure our young people flourish in five domains; personal, interpersonal, academic, societal and global. We describe ourselves as #pragmaticians. We train our young people to do well in tests and we teach for life!

Our curriculum is designed to teach the statutory national programmes of study in addition to promoting positive behaviours and attitude, and good personal development through the global competencies for deep learning: character education, citizenship, communication, creativity and imagination, critical thinking & problem solving, compassion, and collaboration. Our Spinney Curriculum Intent is:

“We want our children to be happy today, fulfilled in the future and able to make their world an even better place.”

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Education neuroscience is a relatively new phenomenon in our profession.  But it is very exciting and has enormous potential to support us to do what we do well and to do that even better!

Can you give some examples of how a scientific approach to education has helped your school?

Having a scientific approach has helped ensure that we take an evidence based approach to teaching in our school to ensure that our curriculum is effective, efficient and enjoyable!

We have a number of examples of scientific approaches to education that have helped our work:

Where possible we try to integrate research and scientific approaches into our teaching. Access to research and scientific approaches has become much easier through blogs and social media and this is a great way for education and the research communities to connect. If we come across something that is beneficial and transferable, one of the teaching faculty will read about it and share it with the rest of the team. We will then discuss it as a faculty and try it out in our classrooms.

Are there any particular strategies you use, that are really successful in your lessons?

Particular evidence based strategies include:

  • STEP4SEAS – Dialogic Literary Gatherings of classic texts promoting improved academic outcomes and social cohesion
  • Mind Up – Combines an understanding of basic neuroscience, daily mindfulness practice, and positive psychology
  • Maths No Problem – An evidence based approach to teaching maths with a focus on creativity, collaboration and problem solving
  • EmpathyLab – EmpathyLab builds children’s empathy, literacy and social activism through a systematic use of high quality literature.
  • Relational Schools Foundationto improve society by strengthening the quality of relationships between people, starting with children in schools.

How do you evaluate their effectiveness?

Children leave our school capable, confident and happy, with positive self-esteem and a love of learning.

In addition results in Standardised National Tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (age 7) and Key Stage 2 (age 11) in Reading, Writing, Maths and Science are higher than Local and National results and progress through the school for all children from their starting points is very good.

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

I have recently learned about a pedagogic approach developed by Kate McAllister called Hive Learning. This is where the children are responsible for researching and sourcing information and facts on a subject (such as the Vikings) and then collaborate to turn it into teachable content.  I would like to know whether this approach with the children taking the lead would result in better memorisation and retention than typical teacher led instruction.

Are there any tips you would like to give to facilitate partnerships between researchers and educators?

Building positive, reciprocal relationships are key, so meeting face to face and talking things through with the headteacher and then the administrative team is really important! There’s a lot of admin to coordinate before a research project can happen in a school including safeguarding checks and induction, securing parental permissions and finding an available time and space for the research to be undertaken. Once this is all in place researchers need to be as self-managing as possible as there is very little additional human resource to help out. That being said it is also important for researchers to be flexible. Despite the best laid plans it is possible that a researcher could turn up and the group that they are expecting to work with is out on an educational visit – so patience and understanding is key!  The ideal researchers are positive, undemanding, friendly, well-organised, are able to make their own cups of tea and will also help out with the dishwasher rota!

This paper “Lessons for Successful Cognitive Developmental Science in Educational Settings: The Case of Executive Functions” by Michelle Ellefson, Sara Baker and Jenny Gibson, University of Cambridge Faculty will be of interest to readers. “The article gives a reflective account of lessons learned from the experiences of three cognitive developmental scientists conducting psychological research in educational settings” and includes experiences of working in The Spinney.

Thank you very much Rae for your time!

You can follow Rae on Twitter at @RaeSnape

CBCD Anniversary

The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development turned 21! The research centre was born in 1998 at Birkbeck University, and has, since then, steadily contributed to foster our understanding of children’s development. More specifically, the CBCD focuses on the relation between postnatal brain development and changes in perceptual, cognitive, and linguistic abilities of typically and atypically developing children.


To celebrate the anniversary, a two-days event was held at the Mary Ward House on the 15th and 16th of November. Forty speakers presented their research. The multidisciplinary approach of the CBCD could not be more salient. Studies used a broad variety of methods, including Electroencephalography, Near Infrared Spectroscopy, genetic analyses, or eye-tracking. Multiple areas of knowledge were covered, such as the development of body awareness and goal-directed actions, the organisation and reorganisation of brain networks during language development, or the development of attention and interpersonal communication in typically developing children and in children with autism. Over 15 000 babies and their families came to the Centre, making all these advances possible.

The anniversary was also the opportunity to celebrate the international outreach of the Centre, collaborations being carried out with multiple European countries, the USA, Gambia and India. This is not to forget the diversity of the 125 doctoral students and 65 postdocs who have been trained at the Centre, and who will carry their legacy across the world.

o The program below will give you an overview of the range of speakers and themes that were addressed at the anniversary.

o You can also read Annie Brookman-Byrne’s report about the anniversary, published in the Psychologist. It is full of anecdotes and fun facts about the CBCD. 



Dr. Stuart Ritchie – Polygenic prediction of cognitive traits

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience had the pleasure to receive Dr. Stuart Ritchie for a talk on polygenic scores, and their association with cognitive traits.

You can find Stuart’s most recent publications here, and follow him on Twitter @StuartJRitchie

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.