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Learning & The Brain: Interview with Robert Sylwester

Robert SylwesterDr. Robert Syl­west­er is an edu­ca­tor of edu­ca­tors, hav­ing received mul­ti­ple awards dur­ing his long career as a mas­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tor of the impli­ca­tions of brain sci­ence research for edu­ca­tion and learn­ing. He is the author of sev­er­al books and many jour­nal arti­cles, and mem­ber of our Sci­en­tif­ic Advi­so­ry Board. His most recent book is The Ado­les­cent Brain: Reach­ing for Auton­o­my (Cor­win Press, 2007). He is an Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon.

I am hon­ored to inter­view him today.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez: Let’s start with that eter­nal source of debate. What do we know about the respec­tive roles of genes and our envi­ron­ment in brain devel­op­ment?

Robert Syl­west­er: Genet­ic and envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors both con­tribute to brain mat­u­ra­tion. Genet­ics prob­a­bly play a stronger role in the ear­ly years, and the envi­ron­ment plays a stronger role in lat­er years. Still the mother’s (envi­ron­men­tal) use of drugs dur­ing the preg­nan­cy could affect the genet­ics of fetal brain devel­op­ment, and some adult ill­ness­es, such as Huntington’s Dis­ease, are genet­i­cal­ly trig­gered.

Nature and nur­ture both require the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions of the oth­er in most devel­op­men­tal and main­te­nance func­tions. We typ­i­cal­ly think of envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors as things that hap­pen to us, over which we have lit­tle con­trol.

Can’t our own deci­sions have an effect in our own brain devel­op­ment? For exam­ple, what if I choose a career in invest­ment bank­ing, vs. one in jour­nal­ism or teach­ing?

We make our own career deci­sions in life, and most of us make a com­bi­na­tion of good and bad deci­sions, which influ­ence our brain’s mat­u­ra­tion.

My father was very unusu­al in his career tra­jec­to­ry in that he worked at one place through­out his entire adult life, and died three months after he retired at 91. I’ve always thought that it’s a good idea to make a change every ten years or so and do some­thing dif­fer­ent either with­in the same orga­ni­za­tion or to move to anoth­er one.

It’s just as good for orga­ni­za­tions to have some staff turnover as it is for staff to move to new chal­lenges. The time to leave one posi­tion for anoth­er is while you and your employ­er are still hap­py with what you’re doing. You’ll take what you learned in your pri­or job to your new job, and you’ll add com­pe­ten­cies from your new job that you oth­er­wise wouldn’t have devel­oped.

I find that, in an emerg­ing field like cog­ni­tive sci­ence, we need to start by clar­i­fy­ing the lan­guage we use. Can you define some words such as Learn­ing, Edu­ca­tion, Brain Devel­op­ment and Cog­ni­tion.


LEARNING: Most organ­isms begin life with most or all of the pro­cess­ing sys­tems and infor­ma­tion that they need to sur­vive. Humans are a notable excep­tion in that an adult-size brain is sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er than a mother’s birth canal, so we’re born with an imma­ture one pound brain that devel­ops addi­tion­al mass and capa­bil­i­ties dur­ing its 20 year post-birth devel­op­men­tal tra­jec­to­ry. Par­ent­ing, men­tor­ing, teach­ing, and mass media are exam­ples of the cul­tur­al sys­tems that humans have devel­oped to help young peo­ple mas­ter the knowl­edge and skills they need to sur­vive and thrive in com­plex envi­ron­ments. Learn­ing is one the main activ­i­ties we do, even if we often are not aware of it.

EDUCATION: Edu­ca­tion, like the cul­ture it sub­sumes, is a con­ser­v­a­tive phe­nom­e­non. Sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy move rapid­ly, but edu­ca­tion doesn’t. So if schools often resem­ble the schools of 50 years ago, that should not be sur­pris­ing. Par­ents remem­ber their school expe­ri­ences, and since they sur­vived them, they are typ­i­cal­ly leery about edu­ca­tors exper­i­ment­ing with their chil­dren. This explains in part why schools have not incor­po­rat­ed many of the recent devel­op­ments in neu­ro­science and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gy.

BRAIN DEVELOPMENT: Child­hood brain devel­op­ment is focused on sys­tems that allow chil­dren to rec­og­nize and remem­ber the dynam­ics of envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges chal­lenges that pro­tec­tive adults will solve for them. Ado­les­cent brain devel­op­ment is more focused on frontal lobe devel­op­ment, the sys­tems that allow us to respond appro­pri­ate­ly and autonomous­ly to the chal­lenges we con­front.

COGNITION: Every expe­ri­ence will alter our brain’s orga­ni­za­tion at some lev­el, so our brain’s pro­cess­ing net­works con­tin­u­al­ly change through­out our life. This process is called brain plas­tic­i­ty. For exam­ple, since my brain has adapt­ed to my switch from a type­writer to a com­put­er, it would now be dif­fi­cult (but not impos­si­ble) for me to write again on a type­writer. Now, cog­ni­tion is linked to oth­er con­cepts: emo­tion is the pro­cess­ing sys­tem that tells us how impor­tant some­thing is; atten­tion focus­es us on the impor­tant and away from the unim­por­tant things; prob­lem-solv­ing deter­mines how to respond, part­ly on the basis of our mem­o­ry of pri­or relat­ed expe­ri­ences; and behav­ior car­ries out the deci­sion. The gen­er­al term cog­ni­tion encom­pass­es these var­i­ous process­es.

You recent­ly pub­lished a book titled The Ado­les­cent Brain: Reach­ing for Auton­o­my (2007. Cor­win Press). What advice would you give to par­ents and edu­ca­tors of ado­les­cents?

Bio­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na always oper­ate with­in ranges. For exam­ple, leaves fall from trees in the autumn, but typ­i­cal­ly not all at once. Devel­op­men­tal changes sim­i­lar­ly do not occur at the same time and at the same rate in all child and ado­les­cent brains. And just as it’s pos­si­ble for wind or tem­per­a­ture to alter the time when a leaf might fall, unex­pect­ed events can alter the time when an ado­les­cent has to con­front and respond to giv­en envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges.

The impor­tant thing for adults to do is to care­ful­ly observe an adolescent’s inter­ests and abil­i­ties, and insert chal­lenges that move mat­u­ra­tion for­ward at a rea­son­able lev­el. If you push too fast, you end up with a stressed out ado­les­cent. If you do not chal­lenge suf­fi­cient­ly, you end up with a bored ado­les­cent. No mag­ic for­mu­la exists for get­ting this just right. This means, for exam­ple, that we cel­e­brate the skills of artists and ath­letes who func­tion beyond typ­i­cal human capac­i­ty, and we cre­ate judi­cial sanc­tions for those whose behav­ior does not reach cul­tur­al­ly accept­able lev­els. Most human behav­ior is per­son­al­ly cho­sen and exe­cut­ed with­in wide ranges. We can eas­i­ly observe this wide range in such phe­nom­e­na as polit­i­cal dis­course and reli­gious belief or prac­tice. Ado­les­cents strive towards autonomous adult­hood as they grad­u­al­ly dis­cov­er their inter­ests and capa­bil­i­ties, and what is bio­log­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble and cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate. They adapt their life to wher­ev­er they’re most com­fort­able with­in the mar­velous sets of pos­si­ble and appro­pri­ate ranges that exist.

Ado­les­cents take risks, no doubt about that. If you want to even­tu­al­ly func­tion with­in any range, you have to locate its out­er pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive lim­its. Speed lim­its and oth­er reg­u­la­tions pro­vide direc­tion, but ado­les­cents (and adults) still tend to move towards the lim­its – and maybe just a smidgen beyond. Bad things can then occur. Part of learn­ing, that each per­son needs to learn to self-reg­u­late.

In short, par­ents and edu­ca­tors need to pay atten­tion to observe where adolescent’s inter­ests and abil­i­ties lie, and engage them with expe­ri­ences that will enable them to move for­ward. The­o­rists, such as Howard Gard­ner, Robert Stern­berg, and David Perkins have pro­posed that intel­li­gence involves mul­ti­ple com­po­nents, and can’t be reduced to a sin­gle point on a numer­i­cal scale, as I.Q. attempts to do.

Edu­ca­tion is still a field with many com­pet­ing, frag­ment­ed, approach­es. A typ­i­cal ten­sion is between move­ments that advo­cate focus­ing on intel­lec­tu­al strengths, vs. those that advo­cate train­ing and shoring up weak­ness­es, or bot­tle­necks. What is your take?

The answer is prob­a­bly both– but do let me know when you’ve fig­ured out the cor­rect bal­ance in that issue, and I’ll con­tact the folks in Stock­holm who give out the Nobel Prizes.

I take good note of that offer…what are the most excit­ing areas of brain research, and what are some resources for edu­ca­tors to learn about brain and refine teach­ing? Web­sites, books?

The cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sciences are cur­rent­ly so dynam­ic. It seems that an excit­ing new devel­op­ment occurs every day, and many of these new devel­op­ments are report­ed in the mass media.

I write a month­ly non-tech­ni­cal col­umn on edu­ca­tion­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments in the cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sciences for the Inter­net jour­nal Brain Con­nec­tion. All 90 of my ear­li­er columns are archived with­in the fol­low­ing link, so many ques­tions of read­ers have prob­a­bly been explored in pre­vi­ous columns: here. is anoth­er great resource. Both web­sites will link folks to oth­er use­ful web­sites.

In terms of books, I always think an author’s most recent book is the best one to read, since it incor­po­rates new devel­op­ments that have occurred since ear­li­er books were pub­lished. For exam­ple, I’m now read­ing Steven Pinker’s intrigu­ing new book, The Stuff of Thought: Lan­guage as a Win­dow into Human Nature (2007, Viking). It’s the fifth in 14 years in his series of books for gen­er­al read­ers, and I’ve ben­e­fit­ted from each, and from their cumu­la­tive effect. As indi­cat­ed above, my most recent book is The Ado­les­cent Brain: Reach­ing for Auton­o­my. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a com­pan­ion book, A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nur­ture, which Cor­win Press will pub­lish in 2009.

One nice thing about com­mit­ting to write a book is that I now have to stay alive or at least lucid for anoth­er year or so.

And you will be both. Robert, many thanks for your time, and see you in San Fran­cis­co next month.

Same. Always a plea­sure to talk.


You may enjoy some of our pre­vi­ous inter­views:

- James Zull on the Art of Chang­ing The Brain.

- Yaakov Stern on Life­long Learn­ing and build­ing a Cog­ni­tive Reserve.

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12 Responses

  1. Michelle B says:

    Very inter­est­ing and enjoy­able inter­view!

  2. Alvaro says:

    Glad you liked it, Michelle!

  3. Laura says:

    wow, very useful…thanks!

  4. Renata says:

    Great news! you arti­cle was accept­ed for our Nat­ur­al Sci­ence Car­ni­val! Vis­it the Car­ni­val here and don’t for­get to com­ment, link back, spread the word!

  5. JHS says:

    THANKS for par­tic­i­pat­ing in this week’s Car­ni­val of Fam­i­ly Life host­ed by Karen at Write from Karen. The Car­ni­val will go live on Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 14, 2008, and I invite you and all of your read­ers to peruse all of the excel­lent sub­mis­sions this week!

  6. Kim says:

    As a teacher I’d like to have access to pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn about the ado­les­cent brain. Sug­ges­tions?

  7. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Kim, I rec­om­mend you attend the Learn­ing & the Brain con­fer­ence men­tioned at the end of the inter­view. Anoth­er good resource is Eric Jensen’s Brain Expo.

  8. Inter­est­ing read! I was just con­tem­plat­ing the teen brain the oth­er day after read­ing an arti­cle in a mag­a­zine. The arti­cle men­tioned a study that stat­ed that a major­i­ty of pre-indus­tri­al cul­tures don’t even have a word for adoles­ence! Could it be that this teen brain thing is a prod­uct of our cul­ture?

  9. Alvaro says:

    Good point,…but the “ado­les­cent” brain dis­cussed above is not less real because of that. Our cul­ture shapes our envi­ron­ment and our expe­ri­ences which shape our brains, which is part of what Robert refers to at the begin­ning of the inter­view. Both nature and nature.

    It is also true that today we live around 80 years on aver­age in devel­oped coun­tries, while life expectan­cy was around 30–40 years in pre-indus­tri­al societies…so there is room for more life stages.

  10. Sherin says:

    WOW … LOVED the arti­cle … but too pro­fes­sion­al. How about some­thing my stu­dents could under­stand? hmm? Well keep up the good work … I LOVE YOUR NAME!

  11. Karmen Durán says:

    Very inter­est­ing. Enough that I get to ask you what is the career name that would study some­thing like this. I am a teacher and love my job, but I see me going fur­ther to a mas­ters degree to teach teach­ers about the learn­ing brain devel­op­ment, basi­cal­ly the answers to why the child does this or that, or why doesn’t he do it!
    What career am I pur­su­ing?
    I have a bach­e­lors in ESE/VE with an endorce­ment in read­ing. Please reply, I am ready to go back to col­lege.

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