The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children

The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children

The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children

The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children


Despite all our highly publicized efforts to improve our schools, the United States is still falling behind. We recently ranked 15th in the world in reading, math, and science. Clearly, more needs to be done. In The Learning Brain, Torkel Klingberg urges us to use the insights of neuroscienceto improve the education of our children. The key to improving education lies in understanding how the brain works: that is where learning takes place, after all. The book focuses in particular on "working memory" - our ability to concentrate and to keep relevant information in our head while ignoring distractions (a topic the authorcovered in The Overflowing Brain). Research shows enormous variation in working memory among children, with some ten-year-olds performing at the level of a fourteen-year old, others at that of a six-year old. More important, children with high working memory have better math and reading skills,while children with poor working memory consistently underperform. Interestingly, teachers tend to perceive children with poor working memory as dreamy or unfocused, not recognizing that these children have a memory problem. But what can we do for these children? For one, we can train working memory. The Learning Brain provides a variety of different techniques andscientific insights that may just teach us how to improve our children's working memory. Klingberg also discusses how stress can impair working memory (skydivers tested just before a jump showed a 30% drop in working memory) and how aerobic exercise can actually modify the brain's nerve cells andimprove classroom performance. Torkel Klingberg is one of the world's leading cognitive neuroscientists, but in this book he wears his erudition lightly, writing with simplicity and good humor as he shows us how to give our children the best chance to learn and grow.


It’s a hot June day in Manhattan in 2007. On Seventh Avenue, people are jostling in the heat. But down in the conference room where I’m sitting, the light is subdued and the air conditioning seems set to frosty. I’ve been invited, as one of several neuroscientists, to lecture at a symposium titled “Cognitive Neuroscience and Education.” Speaker after speaker projects images of gray brains with orange patches illustrating which areas are active during different tasks. There are a few minutes to go before I’m due up on stage. It’s then that I suddenly get cold feet. Exactly how relevant is all this research, my own as well as other people’s?

Admittedly, I’d accepted the invitation to deliver a talk on the subject. But I should add that I don’t take too much persuading if someone else is going to pay for the flight to New York. Had I been asked to talk on “How Neuroscience Can Bring about World Peace,” I’d no doubt still have turned up in Manhattan with my suitcase and my PowerPoint presentation—not that that would mean I’d have any great hopes of my research giving rise to some global Shangri-La, of course. But now, just as I’m about to step up to the podium and attempt to convince the audience with my reasoning, the question sinks ever deeper into my mind.

On the one hand, all learning is about something happening in the brain, so what can be more relevant than brain research? On the other hand, just what can I say to a teacher that will improve her ability to teach her class next week?

If what we have learned from cognitive neuroscience could be put to practical use, it would trigger a pedagogical revolution. But if our knowledge cannot be thus translated, what relevance does the research to which I and thousands of other neuroscientists . . .

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