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.

Share Your Reflection



I so enjoyed hearing Adele Diamond's comments on how children best learn. As one of those practioners on the front lines about whom she spoke at the end, I am heartened to hear a person championing what I believe in my bones and from working with my students at St. Paul's Central High School in Minnesota. All of the decisions that have been made to "reform" education in the last thirty years have been largely political and I am increasingly convinced that that is the biggest damage we have done to education. We need teachers at the table who work with students every day. If asked, we could have told the nation that No Child Left Behind would distort and damage our public schools for the very reasons implied by Diamond in this morning's interview. Learning has reverted to test and drill in an effort to pass students and save schools' reputations. Where is the fun in that? Where is the real learning? I would like you to build on what Diamond said today and create a show where we practicing educators could share our perspectives on the national debate. I can provide you a number of names.

Politicians have no motivation to "fix" education even if they had the expertise. It's the one of the things that it pays them to keep broken. The whole system has also become a factory model with owners vs. unions endlessly slugging it out. The difference happens in individual classrooms by brave dedicated teachers who persevere despite all the incentives to give up and give in.

Ms Tippett -
I enjoy your work and insights. Just finished Einstein's God. Noted the light/dark references. See for my take on this metaphor.
Best Regards

My husband and I were driving on Sunday as we listened to Krista Tippet speak to Adele Diamond about the Dhali Llama and the Mind-Life Project. We were excited because we had just returned home from Atlanta where we attended a conference with the Dhali Llama and a number of scholars from around the world who are studying areas such as the science of compassion. I was happy to hear Adele Diamond talk about her studies about educating children; she is one of the scholars from all over the world who are working with the Dhali Llama and his Mind Life Initiative.
My son David is earning his PHd in Buddhism from Emory University. Since he was in undergraduate school, we have heard about the Mind Life Project and the different people associated with it, so it was a thrill to finally see and hear what they are all talking about.
David is also in medical school at Cornell Weill School of Medicine, wants to be a psychiatrist, and is taking time to earn his Phd in Buddhism--he is hoping that the pairing of eastern and western medicine will yield new and better results for patients suffering from metal illness.
I am a Christian, but sometimes I feel like one of the three kings from the Orient in the New Testament who went searching wide and far for the new wisdom; I search for new answers to the old questions that confront us all today. Perhaps the Dhali Llama and those associated with the Mind Life project will help us with this search toward ultimate truth.

I just listened to this program on my local NPR affiliate and I wanted to say that this has given me some direction for my academic career now.
I'm a senior at Florida State University in religious studies - and realized that I didn't know where to go from there or what to do with myself, but after hearing about this method - a blend of mysticism, cognitive psychology and the ideas of play that the situationist theorists threw out into the popular mind during the 1960's, I've decided to try and go to grad school for education in the hopes that I may be able to use this method and work for change in the American education system.
Thank you for inspiring me to make a difference.


Wonderful thoughts.

Pratibha Reebye
University of British Columbia

Oh nice, thanks
for share!