Learning & the Brain – assorted

Having written a lot about the various Learning & the Brain sessions I attended, there are just two more about which I will eventually write in greater detail. However, that will mean skipping over the Monday afternoon Keynotes on Brain Plasticity, Stress & Adverse Experiences. Not to diminish their importance, I will give them their due now.

What struck me at first about Bruce McEwen was his initial resemblance to Mel Levine. McEwen talked about Stress and Neuroplasticity in Learning. He noted there are three types of stress:

1. positive, which consists of positive challenges
2. tolerable, which consists of adverse life events coupled with good social and emotional support
3. toxic, which consists of a sustained stress agent and a lack of social and emotional support

McEwen went on to state that “Structural plasticity in the adult brain is modulated by experience”, so stressful experiences will take their toll on neuronal activity. He further discussed the impact of stress on various developmental stages and concluded with some additional concepts.


Seth Pollak gave a funny, personal talk about Developing Brains and At-risk Children. He left the podium and walked around making eye contact with those in the front. He engaged us with his slides, which were packed with visual imagery and very little text. (Garr Reynolds would have quite approved!)

Pollak talked about how “emotions tend to emerge in the same order and same time frame across cultures, and questioned if this is due to the hard-wiring of emotions or that cultures tend to treat infants and children in the same manner.” The focus of his engaging talk was about how neglect and other types of negative behavior can impact the development of an infant’s and child’s brain. He concluded with three points:

1. Experience matters, and early experience REALLY matters in terms of the development of the emotional system.
2. The type and pattern of deficits reflect the specific kinds of experiences children encounter.
3. Development = Experience + Biology


The last speaker of the day was Elkhonon Goldberg. I had been eager to hear him talk, as I have seen him referenced in quite a number of books and articles. As Goldberg began his talk on Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Fitness, I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. However, despite my interest in his topic, it became difficult for me to follow his talk as he digressed and then skipped over information in order to end on time. More helpful in understanding his points was watching A Change of Character, the movie made by Neal Goodman that focuses on a patient of Goldberg’s.

Goldberg did make some early points about novelty and pattern recognition. “As we age, our expert knowledge remains strong, and our capacity for solving problems within our areas of expertise can often exceed that of those who are younger.” He went on to state that the main cognitive asset of aging is pattern recognition, and that our arsenal of patterns grows with age. “As one ages, the domain of the novel shrinks, and the domain of what is known (pattern recognition) grows”. Goldberg employed us to “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:

1. Welcoming novel challenges.
2. Beware of being on mental autopilot.
3. Remain cognitively active.
4. Take note that cognitive fitness will be the trend of the future and be sure to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when considering these programs.


You can read more about any of these presenters at the following sites.

[July 4, 2013 UPDATE: These last two links are no longer valid, but you can read a pdf of the article here.]


3 thoughts on “Learning & the Brain – assorted

  1. synapsesensations Post author

    Thanks, David, for the pointer. See my next post, thanks to your tip 🙂

  2. Alvaro

    Laurie, a pleasure to come across your blog (via your link to my interview with Elkhonon).

    I am enjoying your content very much. I spoke at the same conference at a panel before his keynote, together with Gabrieli, Pascual Leone and Doidge, you may have attended that one too.

    In any case, I wanted to say Hello, congrats on a great blog, and offer the possibility of contributing to our SharpBrains blog, where you may have seen we already have a good team of neuroscientists and psychologists but I’d love to have more educators to act as bridges between theory and practice. Pls email me if interested.

    Have a nice day!

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