One Hundred Columns

sylwesterI’m not sure why we tend to pay more attention to 100 of something than to 99 or 101, but we do. This is my 100th Brain Connection column, going back to the first issue, posted right after The Millennium in February 2000. My assignment was to develop non-technical explanations of educationally significant new developments in the cognitive neurosciences. It’s been a stimulating challenge for me, and I hope that my columns stimulated readers’ thoughts about the incredible period of scientific discovery that we’re experiencing.

Much of this discovery occurred because advances in neuroimaging technology now provide access to living brain systems and functions that had previously been hidden from scientists. My February 2004 column, Brain Imaging Technology: Observing Our Brain at Work, provided a non-technical introduction to this amazing technology.

The first decade of the 21st century has certainly been significant in terms of advances in our understanding of our brain and its processes, and in proposals for appropriate educational applications. I reread all the columns prior to writing this, and believe that they provide an intriguing record of what occurred during the eight years. Two related columns seem especially prescient now. I wrote one immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attack How Our Brain Processes Terrorist Carnage, and the other on the day of the Iraq invasion, Emotion and Feelings in a Time of War.

All 99 columns are archived in case you want to glance through the sequence of titles: http://brainconnection.positscience.com/library/?main=talkhome/columnists

About 30% of the columns focused on new discoveries about our brain systems and functions, about 50% focused on cultural and educational issues that emerged out of the new discoveries, and about 20% were about issues and developments that simply intrigued me. Email messages indicated that one such off the wall column was widely distributed in the Internet. The column responded to Internet mass mailings of a seriously misspelled message that most folks could still easily read. My December 2003 column Are Reading and Writing Innate Skills? explained the phenomenon.

Another column that was distributed across the Internet focused on a 2005 cultural argument over year-end holiday greetings and rituals. I wrote my column, Year End Rituals and Traditions, for a January 2006 posting, after things had calmed down a bit. Several people emailed me this past December to let me know the column is still scooting around the Internet.

Seven columns focused on the arts and aesthetic movement, and these always received a lot of positive response. It’s odd that school arts and physical education programs are being curtailed and dropped at a time when it’s becoming increasingly evident that both play very important roles in the development and maintenance of our brain. One hopes that the current political shifts will reverse this biologically foolish decision.

The development that most intrigued me during the past eight years was the discovery of mirror neurons, a class of neurons that activate both in the execution of basic movements (such as grasping and throwing) and when we observe others making such movements. Mirror neurons are thus central to the development of basic movements and to other imitative behaviors (such as our tendency to yawn when we observe another person yawning). They are also central to the development of speech, empathy, and metaphor — and they help to explain our fascination for observing virtuoso performance. Some evidence suggests that autistic people have a deficient mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons may provide the same kind of conceptual framework for our understanding of the underlying neurobiology of teaching and learning that the discovery of DNA provided for our understanding of the underlying biology of genetics. The initial discovery of mirror neurons occurred through primate studies in the mid-1990s, and research with humans is now occurring. Two columns focused on mirror neurons, the most recent in February 2006.

Rereading the set of 99 columns, I was somewhat surprised to note that I didn’t focus any columns specifically on stem cells and brain plasticity, although elements of both appeared in related columns. Both of these phenomena are central to understanding our brain and cognition, and so they are high on my agenda for upcoming columns. I suspect that existing Federal policies about stem cell research will change during the coming years.

The School Administrator, the journal of the American Association of School Administrators, devoted its entire December 2006 issue to the relationship between cognitive neuroscience research and school policy and practice. The editors asked me to identify the areas of cognitive neuroscience research that I thought would most affect K-12 education in the coming years. I identified eight:

1. Neuroimaging technology will be increasingly used in teaching/learning research, and in the diagnosis/treatment of learning disabilities.

2. The emerging understanding of the central role that the mirror neuron system plays in learning will lead to the development of instructional strategies that enhance its effectiveness.

3. The emerging understanding of how brain plasticity functions will lead to instructional strategies and technologies targeted to students with learning difficulties. The FastForward Programs are such a development.

4. The current limited perspective of emotion and attention will shift as educators develop a better understanding of the key roles that emotion and attention play in learning.

5. The conventional perspectives of the roles the hemispheres play in cognition will shift as new perspectives emerge.

6. The importance of the arts, humanities, and physical education in brain development and maintenance will become widely understood, and this will lead to an increased curricular emphasis.

7. Theories of multiple intelligences have dominated educational thought and practice during the past 25 years, but new perspectives of the nature of intelligence are emerging that will expand current beliefs.

8. Consciousness, the last major enigma in biology, is currently a very active area of research. Since teaching and learning are primarily conscious acts, the new developments in this area will have profound significance for educational policy and practice.

If you want to read the entire article (and issue, for all that) click on this link: http://www.aasa.org/publications/saissuedetail.cfm?ItemNumber=7809&snItemNumber=950&tnItemNumber=

So after 100 columns, I’m still intensely curious about what new cognitive neuroscience discoveries await us – and I trust that you share that curiosity. Brain Connection will keep you informed.

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