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