Observations

Gazzaniga to Direct Science of Learning Center

The National Science Foundation has awarded $21.8 million to Dartmouth College to establish the Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience, or CCEN. APS President-elect Michael S. Gazzaniga, who will direct the center, formally received the award at the annual meeting of the Science of Learning Centers, or SLC, in January.

The project will seek to understand how education changes the brain and to develop techniques for educators at the K-12 and undergraduate levels. “We want to build bridges between the researchers who study brain activity involved in learning and the teachers who need a deeper understanding of learning processes,” said Gazzaniga, an APS Fellow.

The center will focus on four content areas — reading, math, science, and language — and make use of neuroimaging (like fMRI), genetic, and behavioral methods in measuring the brain mechanisms involved in learning these areas. The studies will include several age groups, from infants to young adults, and multiple learning environments.

“Our approach turns the whole issue of how people learn on its head,” Gazzaniga said. “Instead of treating the brain as a black box and asking what is the best type of learning environment, we ask what are the optimal ways in which the human brain learns, including what types of information does the brain require to learn effectively, when are the optimal periods of learning in development, and what types of changes occur in the brain that facilitate and promote learning?”

The SLC program was created to foster long-term advancements in learning research through a multidisciplinary approach. The annual meeting presents lectures addressing topics on the science of learning.

Janis Cannon-Bowers, University of Central Florida, directs the Partnership for Research on Synthetic Experience, an SLC which integrates cognitive science with entertainment and simulation technology in an effort to optimize learning.

“The idea is to create a synthetic experience, or simulation, where people can develop in practice environments which have pedagogical features like feedback,” Cannon-Bowers said. “Simulation environments are good for things you can’t teach any other way. For instance, interpersonal skills, teamwork skills — all these things you can lecture to people about, but until they have an opportunity to practice, they don’t really learn how to do it.”

With the help of SLC, Cannon-Bowers hopes to research how the features of various simulations and video games affect learning in order to pinpoint which specific features lead to the most engaging and effective simulations.

Dog Days Ahead

A new study of dogs led by researchers at the University of Toronto at Scarborough might end up teaching old humans new tricks. The report, published in the January 2005 issue of Neurobiology of Aging, offered evidence that a combination of diet and behavior therapies can curb the declining ability to learn that occurs with aging.

“We were really surprised just how clear-cut the benefit is of using a combined therapy,” said lead investigator and psychology professor Bill Milgram.

The investigation —funded by the National Institute of Aging and the US Army — followed four groups of dogs over a period of two years. During this time, researchers examined beagles’ ability to learn based on four combinations of behavioral and diet enrichment, both, or neither. Dogs receiving behavioral enrichment were housed with kennel mates, were given toys, and exercised twice a week for 15 minutes. The enriched diets were fortified with vitamins and antioxidants.

As predicted, researchers found a dog’s ability to learn declines with age. What they had not anticipated was seeing such a statistically-significant benefit of combining behavioral enrichment and the antioxidant supplementation compared to giving either alone. Even though dogs served as the basis of the study, Milgram thinks the findings could have an impact on improving human senescence.

“Since humans and dogs have many biological and behavioral parallels, I predict similar results would be attained in people,” he said.

‘Bethschrift’ Honors Loftus

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The day before the 6th biannual conference of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, conference-goers from around the globe gathered in Wellington to pay tribute to APS Past President Elizabeth Loftus for her contributions to science, law, and academic freedom. The “Bethschrift” was sponsored by APS, the school of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, and Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, or LEA, who will publish a volume on Loftus later this year.

The first part of the Bethschrift featured speakers who have authored chapters in the LEA volume — among them Bob Belli, Roddy Roediger, Harlene Hayne, Geoff Loftus, Harlene Hayne, and I — as well as other scholars, including Rod Lindsay, Steven Jay Lynn, Dan Wright, and Amina Memon. The second part of the day was a mix of heartfelt tributes and (especially after the cocktail hour) some good old-fashioned roasting by a prominent lineup of memory researchers, including Jonathan Schooler, Steve Lindsay, Mike Toglia, Tony Greenwald, Randy Engle, and Makiko Naka.

Loftus admitted to having some “strange feelings listening to people say, ‘I first heard about you in my undergraduate psych class,’ and now these people are productive, successful memory researchers!”

Mahzarin Banaji gave one of the most heartfelt tributes of the day, capturing for many the essence of Loftus’s broad impact. “You produced a body of work that shines like a beacon for those who seek what is right and true and scares the hell out of those who don’t,” Banaji said. “For this, generations of scientists will offer you their gratitude, and yours will be shoulders to stand on to gaze past the next horizon.”

Engle pointed out that one word people had used throughout the day’s proceedings was “courage,” and even those scientists not in attendence echoed the theme when excerpts from their chapters were read. Loftus’s mentor Gordon Bower wrote that “Beth is an outstanding example of a scientist who has the pluck, moral backbone, and scientific certitude to stand up to her critics and emerge from the battles even stronger than when she started.” Science writer Carol Tavris said, “Courage is easy if you are daft and delusional, like Don Quixote, or if you are a psychopath, like Don Corleone. For all the rest of us, it takes a tougher kind of courage. … Most academics will never face the kind of challenge to her ethics, science, and public service that Elizabeth Loftus has, and many who are so challenged will back down rather than keep going. Courage is a special grace given to few.”

“It was truly an emotional roller coaster,” Loftus said. “I can’t remember when I’ve gone from laughing to crying and back again so many times in one short period. I’m really grateful to APS, to Erlbaum, and to all my friends at the Victoria School of Psychology for helping to make the day.”

Maryanne Garry
Victoria University of Wellington

Child’s Play

Between the diaper changes, feedings, sleepless nights, and those tiny, adorable faces, new parenthood seems made of three parts stress to every one part joy. New research may help balance the scale, suggesting that constantly responding to pleading infants might hurt their development of perseverance.

This according to APS Charter Member Michael Lewis, Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center, who recently spoke at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“If you start in an environment where it’s very responsive, you might be frustrated with interactions later in life,” Lewis said. “We’ve come to appreciate that maternal responsivity is important. This newest work is suggesting: Are there limits to that?”

In Lewis’ experiment, two- to eight-month old infants wearing a string around their wrists are seated facing a large video screen. When some of the infants tug on the string, an image appears; for others, pulling produces no direct effect. The infants quickly learn the relationship between pulling and the picture appearing, and when extinction occurs — the picture stops appearing when the string is pulled — they pull ferociously.

“Children in their first year of life can learn to operate on their environment,” Lewis said. “When an event disappears that they had controlled, they pull like crazy to reinstate it.”

According to Lewis, 70 percent of infants express anger when they recognize that their environment is no longer contingent on their behavior; the other 30 percent expressed sadness. When control is reintroduced — the image is once again contingent on pulling — children who were angry expressed joy and interest in relearning the task, whereas children who showed sadness did not.

In terms of human interaction, the conclusions suggest that over-responsive parents might produce less angry and less resistant children. “Anger in infancy is related to mastery and persistence later in life,” Lewis said. “Sadness might be more related to compliance … and may be a maladaptive response.”

Lewis may have also unintentionally uncovered an even greater infant mystery: How to get young children to sleep without interruption. All it takes it a trip to Lewis’ lab. “After the experiment, they sleep very soundly,” he said.

Observer Vol.18, No.3 March, 2005

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.

Comments

Leave a comment.

Comments go live after a short delay. Thank you for contributing.

(required)

(required)