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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Thinking of My Past Education and of Those to Come

by Krista Tippett, host

Krista Tippett Chats with Cognitive Neuroscientist Adele Diamond
(photo: Trent Gilliss)

Adele Diamond is a formative figure in the emerging field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. And she is the kind of person I love to interview — a person with an important body of knowledge who never stops growing and asking new questions and making big ideas come to life in her person. She has nurtured a lifelong love of dancing alongside her love of learning, and so she embodies the delightfully challenging story her research has to tell.

Here, in a very simplified nutshell, is that story — the piece of it that I have been able to internalize, in any case, and that has fundamentally changed the way I think about the education I received and what I want for my own children. Among other things, breakthroughs in neuroscience are helping us understand the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the latest part of the brain to develop in our species (“the new kid on the block,” as Adele Diamond puts it) and the last to fully mature — as late as our 20s — in every individual life.

The prefrontal cortex is vital to how we learn more than what we learn. It controls the cognitive disciplines and flexibility we need to access, apply, and creatively build on what we learn across our life spans. Such skills are a manifestation of the brain’s capacity for what neuroscientists call “executive function.” Adele Diamond’s groundbreaking research has focused on an educational approach called "Tools of the Mind" that strengthens executive function in pre-school age children. It has also shown intriguing promise for children with autism and ADHD, and for helping close the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Serious ideas, all. Yet, wonderfully, play is at the heart of this show. Tools of the Mind and related science-inspired initiatives encourage a child’s natural inclination for dramatic play. They mine that experience for the discipline it holds: of creativity, of putting oneself in another’s shoes, of listening and yielding to others, of character and perseverance.

Cutting-edge science is bringing us back to some very traditional, intuitive, and — as it turns out — educationally savvy modes of human interaction in and beyond school. It is scientifically explaining the educational power of things like drama, music, and physical activity. It is revealing memorization as a form of exercise for the brain and demonstrating that joyful environments are also more efficacious. Stress shuts down the prefrontal cortex. And the kinds of mental discipline the prefrontal cortex enables — manifest, for example, in a child’s ability to interact with others in play at an early age — is a more definitive indicator of future thriving, academic and otherwise, than IQ.

I am also naturally drawn to the spiritual implications of Adele Diamond’s work. Her emphasis is as much on reflection as on information. The kind of science she and others are doing has led the school system of British Columbia to incorporate reflection as a part of the development of whole, healthy human beings within its educational philosophy. I hear echoes of my conversation with Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan in Los Angeles, who are cultivating curiosity and listening between Muslims and Jews as a civic discipline that can enlarge our souls and our practical ability to be present to difference and possibility in ourselves and in the world.

Adele Diamond herself references Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as well as the Dalai Lama as she reflects on the spiritual connections she uncovers between learning, doing, and being. Her robust Jewish identity flows into the way she makes sense of the larger meaning of what she does, and she has also been deeply influenced by her encounter with the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute conversations between scientists and spiritual thinkers. In fact, I met her at a conference in Vancouver, where she interacted with the Dalai Lama and other scientists, educators, and spiritual thinkers.

And next week, we’ll bring another, recent encounter with the Dalai Lama and religious leaders — the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and a preeminent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I moderated that public discussion, on the subject of human happiness. It was a lively and felicitously unpredictable conversation, and I hope you’ll listen in.

HHDL in Badgers Red Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You’ve gotta dig seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama donning a Badgers baseball cap, despite the fashion faux pas of wearing clashing reds!
To celebrate its grand opening, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin is streaming live video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama talking with neuroscientist  Richard Davidson from Wisconsin! We wish they would let us embed it, but we’ll try to post the archival version here. Until then, tune in!
(photo: Trent Gilliss for Speakng of Faith, Flickr)

HHDL in Badgers Red
Trent Gilliss, senior editor

You’ve gotta dig seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama donning a Badgers baseball cap, despite the fashion faux pas of wearing clashing reds!

To celebrate its grand opening, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin is streaming live video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama talking with neuroscientist Richard Davidson from Wisconsin! We wish they would let us embed it, but we’ll try to post the archival version here. Until then, tune in!

(photo: Trent Gilliss for Speakng of Faith, Flickr)

The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.

—Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, as quoted in "How to Train the Aging Brain."

I rather enjoyed this observation and the additive notion of our brains growing older and not just simply deteriorating. And, by regularly jarring our brains with a “disorienting dilemma” (which I hope we accomplish with the many voices on SOF), we can probe and add to that depth and interconnectedness of knowledge.

Trent Gilliss, online editor


SoundSeen: Dramatic Play + the Developing Brain

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

For this week’s show "Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education," Krista interviewed neuroscientist Adele Diamond, who studies how social dramatic play can build “executive function” (EF) skills in children’s brains. As Diamond explains it, EF is a container term for capacities like inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These are skills that are lodged in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which Diamond calls “the new kid on the block” because it’s the part of the human brain to develop most recently through evolution. As we grow from babies into young adults, the prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to mature. When we age, it is the first to falter.

While producing this show, we learned that Diamond serves as an advisor for a nearby charter school that incorporates some elements of social dramatic play into its curriculum. We visited the school a few weeks ago and one result is this narrated slideshow pairing Adele Diamond’s explanation of the nuts and bolts of EF with 5th and 6th graders demonstrating some of the principles she describes through improvisational theater games.

If you have the chance, check out Krista’s full interview with Adele Diamond or listen for more of this ambient audio in the produced show. I don’t know what brain area is responsible for creating an audio slideshow but mine certainly got a workout putting this together.

And, a special thanks to the teachers and students at Quest Academy for their participation in this project.


My Oxytocin Moment

Colleen Scheck, Producer

Our immersion into the world of neuroscience for this week’s program with Paul Zak has given me a label for one of the uplifting parts of my weekdays — my “oxytocin moment.” It’s the moment I exit work to pick up my 7-month-old son. Walking to the car, a rush of energy, excitement, and warmth comes over me as I eagerly anticipate how his smile widens when he recognizes me, and the giggle that bubbles up when I hug him and tickle him under the chin. I can’t get to him fast enough, and I’m certain one day a fender-bender will be the result of my mad dash to exit work and pick him up.

So now I interpret that rush to be a surge of oxytocin in my brain. The hormone has long been known for its role in childbirth and the mother/child bonding process that I acutely experience these days. But as Zak’s research is showing, it has other profound influences on broader social behavior, including our ability to trust. Since my brain fails to fire the neurons needed to comprehend neuroscience, I went looking for easily digestible descriptions of his work, and found a few helpful things.

His article, "The Neurobiology of Trust," in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American is a helpful overview, with simple visuals, of how he became interested in oxytocin’s relation to trust, how his experiment — the “Trust Game” — was conducted and its findings, and some of the implications of his research. Besides its impact on the field of economics, I’ll be curious to see if future insights emerge about oxytocin’s relationship to neurological disorders like schizophrenia or maladies such as social anxiety.

Also helpful, and fun, was a 2005 television segment from the Australian Broadcasting Company science program Catalyst. The reporter participates in Zak’s trust game as well as a related experiment using MRI imaging of his brain. He talks to Zak and other scientists about the biology of trust, from primates to humans.

And, given my current life status as a new mom, I enjoyed stumbling upon Hug the Monkey, a blog about the latest research and issues around oxytocin’s best-known function by science and technical writer Susan Kuchinskas.


Believing in Magic
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

I had a friend in college who summed up his personal theology by saying, ”I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in magic.” I thought of that phrase when I ran across an article in The New York Times about an effort by neuroscientists to study the workings of magic tricks on the human brain. As the Times puts it, “The brain uses neural tricks to [build pictures of the world]: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to ‘see’ and what to let pass…. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.”

It’s a rare example of respect for an art form that is disrespectable almost by nature. The subculture of serious magicians, who treat magic almost as a religion, are acutely aware that only they can really appreciate their own work, because only they know what they are actually doing. As the magician Jamy Ian Swiss said in an article in The New Yorker, “Magicians have taken something intrinsically profound and made it look trivial.”

Magic has been called the oldest form of performance art, and no doubt there was a time when magicians were believed to have supernatural powers. But when a magician performs a magic trick today, we all know it’s just a trick. It’s as if the really great magicians are appealing to our ancient longing for wonder and mystery and at the same time making us suspicious of that very longing. Like Ricky Jay in the video above, they seem to be mocking their art, inviting us to doubt it, and then with a flourish, for a second, they dare us to believe.