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This Neuroscientist Explains Why Today's Kids Have Different Brains

By Stephen Noonoo     Jun 26, 2018

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has a lot to say about the brain, and he’s done so in a lot of places. He’s written bestselling books, given a popular TED Talk, hosted a PBS series called “The Brain with David Eagleman” and teaches as an adjunct professor at Stanford. He’s also the founder of the Center for Science and Law, which studies how advances in brain science can shape the legal system (although his work also focuses on brain plasticity, or how we learn and absorb new information).

This week he gained yet another new audience: a room full of thousands of educators as the opening keynote for the ISTE 2018 conference in Chicago.

Before his talk, Eagleman shared a little of his thinking with EdSurge about brain training, what educators need to know about neuroscience and his favorite jaw-dropping fact about the space between our ears. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: You’re a neuroscientist, but your work does not necessarily have an obvious intersection with education technology. Why did you decide to speak at a conference for educators?

Eagleman: As a neuroscientist I’m very interested in what’s called “neuroplasticity,” which is how the brain learns. I’m also interested in the various groups of kids that we typically call “special needs,” but along any axis we measure we find kids are really different from one another in terms of what they take in and understand and what’s confusing to them.

I’ve been very interested in those topics. And separately, I’m interested in equity in education —that’s probably the only place where my TED Talk plugs in to this work—which is how can we help the millions of people with deafness if they want to be able to hear better? How can we bring technology to them? That’s a separate issue from the question of how we structure our education system so we are optimally meeting the kids where they are.

So it is possible to train your brain then? What do educators need to know about that?

The No. 1 thing they need to know is that kids’ brains are physically different from the brains of kids a generation ago because of the way they’re taking in information—because of this fast-paced digital intake, which is different from the way a lot of people here grew up. We were reading textbooks in black and white.

As far as brain plasticity goes, essentially anything you take up will change the structure of your brain. I can look at a brain scan and tell you for example if you play piano vs. violin. If you take up juggling, we can see changes in your brain. It is the case that brains are incredibly plastic in young people—and even in adults and the elderly, just less so than kids.

There are actually tests you can do to look at the ways the brain is very different to how they looked a generation ago. The question is how do educators meet them halfway. Kids [today] are different. Is it ADHD if they can’t pay attention to a boring lecture? Possibly not. That’s not ADHD, that’s just a boring lecture. They have actually grown up used to a certain rate of intake of information.

Do teachers need to be doing anything differently?

They need to be meeting kids halfway and on the kids’ terms. And that is what this conference [ISTE] is all about—figuring out the right ways to do that. I was just talking to a group of school leaders and I was fascinated to learn how complex it is just from a bureaucratic point of view to go about instituting technology in the classroom so that it’s not outdated in three years. It’s a tough problem because it has to be the right tech.

One of the other things that’s become clear to me—because I live in Silicon Valley—is that a lot of programmers will have a good idea about something they want to make for education, but there’s not enough discussion between my colleagues in Silicon Valley and educators. Take special needs for example. Happily, I’m very close with the team at Google, who is doing their accessibility internally. What that means is that people who work at Google who are blind or deaf are designing the software for accessibility. Right now that software is just for employees at the company, but what they’ve discovered is that a very tight relationship between people making the software and people using the software helps them discover the right things that they may open up to the rest of the world with time.

Betsy DeVos was recently in the news due to her association with a company called NeuroCore, which analyzes brainwaves and claims to be able to train brains to function better. The company was recently asked to walk back some of those claims. Is there any validity to using brainwaves in education?

It’s an interesting question. Companies like this have existed for at least 20 years—I’m not saying this same company, but there have been various startups in this space. Here’s what I would say: there’s only a limited amount you can get from brainwaves. The analogy is trying to listen in on a baseball stadium with microphones and trying to figure out the structure of the game. You’re hearing the crackle of the bat and the crowd roaring once in a while—so how deep can you get?

But crudely speaking, the whole notion of biofeedback will probably prove useful. I don’t know anything about this company in particular, but in general what I feel about biofeedback is that in theory it will be useful to know if a kid is in a state where they are ready to learn vs. a state where they are clearly distracted and nothing’s going to go in anyway. And so the whole question is how good is the technology that we have? How good are the the algorithms that the companies provide? And then the other question is about product-market fit: which is how willing is the kid to wear an EKG headset all day?

There are also privacy concerns.

Those are solvable issues. It would be easy to just run the algorithm locally and tell the student, “Hey, you’re really concentrating, you should study right now.” And it’s not connected to the cloud or anything. But if you have a kid with something like ADHD, they might not want to wear this headset all the time.

Your talk will center on creativity. How do we inspire kids to be more creative within the current structure of school as we know it?

You can teach some very basic things about creativity as part of the curriculum and it’s very straightforward. I’ll give an example: We need to be making sure that the education is not an end point but a launching pad. Usually, you learn everything during the course of a semester, take a test, and then it’s over. Instead, we should be offering kids an opportunity at the end of every semester to take everything they’ve learned and bend, break and blend it to create their own version of it. And that works in the sciences, the arts, etc. That’s the important part, and there’s a sense that the only end point that matters is when a kid gets to say, “Ok, I’ve sucked in all this information, now here’s what I’m going to do with it.”

The teaser to your talk promised revelations from your book “The Brain: The Story of You” that will make the reader gasp. Can you give us one of those jaw-dropping facts?

The thing that’s always jaw-dropping to me is that we have 86 billion neurons and each one of them has 10,000 connections with its neighbors. That kind of thing bankrupts our language—we have no way of describing things of that complexity. That’s the 3 pounds that you’re carrying around on your shoulders, and that’s the most complicated thing we’ve ever found in our universe. And somehow that is you—that’s everything about who you are and how you learn. That’s why I’m a neuroscientist, because I find that completely jaw-dropping.

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