Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

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Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

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Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

New York City’s 2019 Regional Brain Bee

Students from 23 schools across the five boroughs and Westchester County came together to test their smarts in the New York City Regional Brain Bee this past Saturday. Held in the Great Hall at The City College of New York, the 2019 competition concluded after eight rounds of five brain-related questions each, with the top three winners walking away with cash prizes, plaques, and the knowledge that they probably knew more about the brain than most of the audience.

From left: Bianca Jones Marlin, Ph.D. (judge), Daphna Shohamy, Ph.D. (moderator), Kelly Chan (first-place winner), Rainer Engelken, Ph.D. (judge), Nafew Mustafa (third-place winner), Amelia Korniyenko (second-place winner), Jerome Staal, Ph.D. (judge), and Kathleen Roina (BAW Director). Photo: Jacqueline Silberbush

“The New York City Regional Brain Bee competition is in celebration of Brain Awareness Week,” said Kathleen Roina, director of outreach and education at the Dana Foundation, in her welcoming remarks. “The global campaign was created by the Dana Alliance to advance public understanding about the brain and the promise of brain research.” The Brain Bee is just one of many Brain Awareness Week activities designed to help students become more interested and active in learning about the brain and the research surrounding it.

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New High School Neuroscience Curriculum

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Image: Shutterstock

A neuroscience curriculum for high school students has found a home on The Franklin Institute’s new website dedicated to the brain. Educators looking to generate excitement about brain science with an eye towards the field’s societal implications can now access the expertly reviewed—and free—resource.

The curriculum, developed jointly by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience & Society and The Franklin Institute, is a cohesive blueprint of instructional material designed around teenagers’ everyday decisions as they enter adulthood. The website describes the units as roughly two-week-long sections that can be offered as a semester-long course or as stand-alone components that can be incorporated into existing courses. Continue reading

BrainWorks: Exploring the Brain-Computer Interface

At the end of the day, computers and brains share at least one trait. On a very basic level, both use electrical currents to send messages and commands to accomplish certain tasks. Understanding exactly how that process works within our brain and how it relates to computers may be key for researchers and doctors when it comes to helping various types of patients.

Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D., is back with another BrainWorks video to help educate children on how our brains and computers can talk to each other and why this is an important area of research. Chudler, the executive director for the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington, won a Northwest Emmy Award last year for his BrainWorks video “Exercise and the Brain,” and this new video in the series, “Brain-Computer Interface,” is just as informative and entertaining.

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National Science Teachers Association Conference in Reno

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Now that it’s October, our busiest conference season has begun! We will be exhibiting at a few teacher-focused conferences this year, and our first stop is at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Reno, Nevada.

If any of our readers are attending, please stop by our booth (#804) to pick up some of our free publications and puzzles, and to learn about Brain Awareness Week (March 11-17) and the types of classroom activities you can organize to help inspire the next generation of neuroscientists! In addition to our K-5 lesson plans, we also have some new, middle school-focused lesson plans, addressing such topics as neuroanatomy, memory, and vision. These can be downloaded directly from our website.

The conference starts on Thursday and we hope to see you there! If not, perhaps we’ll cross paths at Boston’s Learning & the Brain conference in November or the National Association of Biology Teachers conference in San Diego, also in November.

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