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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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