The Brain in Search of Itself

21st April 2022

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Month

The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich.  What a magnificent book!  Longtime fans of Learning How to Learn know that we’re in turn longtime fans of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience.  As a youngster, Santiago struggled markedly with his learning, as this remarkably well-researched and beautifully-written book describes.  We can’t help but wonder whether Santiago might have had dyslexia coupled with dyslexia’s frequent comorbid companion: ADHD. Hints and clues abound through the text:

  •  “…though he struggled to remember the spelling of words or their order within a sentence, Santiagüé never forgot an image… his talent allowed him to reproduce even the most intricate maps to perfection.
  •  “… his academic reputation was far from stellar. Cajal ‘was the typical student who was inattentive, lazy, disobedient, and annoying, a nightmare for his parents, teachers, and patrons,’ one teacher at Huesca recalled. He ‘will only stop in jail,’ predicted another, ‘if they do not hang him first.’ [This is the typical mischaracterization of those with dyslexia as “lazy” and “inattentive.” And it’s pretty tough not be disobedient and annoying when the world doesn’t understand your learning challenges!]
  • “[Santiago] passed his examinations at the end of the year in Latin I, Castilian I, Principles and Exercises in Arithmetic, and Christian History and Doctrine, earning the lowest possible grades—no doubt aided by the fact that [his father] had performed a life-saving surgery on the wife of one of the examination judges.
  • “Careful not to slacken ‘the creative tension of the mind,’ he avoided gossiping and reading newspapers, ceased writing short stories, abandoned the study of hypnotism, and even quit playing chess. He exercised his will not because he was uninterested in the world around him but precisely because he knew himself to be so distractible.  [Those with ADHD can have hyperfocus in what they are interested in—but also be easily distractable.]
  • “All who had known the Nobel Prize winner as a young delinquent responded with the same expression: utter shock.”

Cajal was a fabulously gifted and prescient researcher who pushed back against the stodgy “academic reactionists“ who, then as now, clung to outmoded ideas.  (One of Cajal’s colleagues disparaged the new truths of microscopy as “pure fantasy.”) This is a brilliant, literary coup of a book for all who wish to have a sense of how neuroscience was moved to a solid, modern foundation. A great biography of a great man.

(Incidentally, here is an inspiring story of a modern-day teacher, Lucy Senior, with dyslexia. Lucy observes: “Teachers thought I wouldn’t make it through high school, teachers said to me on graduation, ‘I didn’t think I’d see you here’.” Note her love of and gifts for imagery! [Hat tip Pat Bowden.]

Barb’s visits to Hungary and Romania to promote advances in learning

In case you’d like to brush up on your Hungarian or Romanian, here is an interview with Barb from the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office in Magyar Nemzet, Hungary’s top newspaper (the article was on the front page). We have to say, the University of Szeged, Barb’s host and now the top university in Hungary, is an exemplar of what higher education can do to improve outcomes for students! (Here is the plenary she gave at Szeged for the European University Alliance for Global Health.) And here are part 1 and part 2 of an interview with Raluca Ion of the popular Romanian online magazine Republica.  

“Why I got a PhD at age 61”

Speaking of Hungary, here’s a wonderful story in Nature of Zoltán Kócsi, an Australian originally from Hungary who decided, at age 53, to change his life and become a part-time doctoral student in biology, receiving his doctorate nearly a decade later at age 61. What an inspiring story!

Bringing ideas to mind right before sleeping to “lock them in”

We frequently allude to an idea that Terry particularly recommends. That is, in the two or three minutes right before you go to sleep, bring to mind the key idea or concept you are trying to solve or understand, to help the brain know that that’s what you want it to be solidifying during sleep. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should be doing all your studying right before sleep!) Barb mentioned this recently in a talk, and heard back from one elated participant, “JK”: 

“[Your talk] really resonated with me, particularly the topic of retrieval techniques for learning. My father, Z’L, was a great person and brilliant physician who got me through law school back in 1991. At first, I thought he was crazy when he told me not to study too much and the most important strategy was to run through the main concepts and ideas right before going to sleep. He would call it “do a run through” and “lock it in.” Thanks to this retrieval method, I graduated law school magna cum laude and did half as much studying and re-reading as the rest of my class…  I passed on the retrieval techniques to my 18-year-old son who was studying for his IB exams last year and did not re-read or highlight. He scored 43/45!”

Students Have Different Thinking Speeds. Inclusive Teaching Means Realizing That. And More!

Here’s Barb’s podcast interview with EdSurge about the advantages of slow learners. (If you consider yourself to be a slower learner, this interview is “don’t miss”!)

And here’s Barb’s podcast with Tyler Chessler: “Understanding neuroscience and cognitive psychology to maximize your investment portfolio.” 

For those concerned about misleading representations about math education in California

Facts matter a great deal in scientific research, and in laying the groundwork for education. This article provides insight into the lack of evidence behind proposed new revisions to California math curricula. Key graf: “California is actively considering the adoption of flawed and inequitable guidance on math curricula based on misleading data and inaccurate success metrics reported by San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). In 2014, SFUSD introduced a new K-12 math course sequence to address issues of inequity in math learning. The curriculum delays Algebra 1 by one year and mandates all students to take the same set of courses sequentially from 8th to 10th grade. For the past seven years, SFUSD has traveled nationwide celebrating its successes in spite of lacking evidence for such claims.”

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

View more Cheery Friday e-mails >