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Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Studies we are Hoping to Do


The Division of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at UBC, headed by Dr. Adele Diamond, is world famous for research on a region of the brain known as ‘prefrontal cortex’ and for work on what are called ‘executive functions,’ which depend on prefrontal.

Executive Functions (EFs)

The 3 core EFs are:

Inhibitory control

  • self-control (thinking before you act; resisting your first impulse so you don’t do or say something you’d regret)
  • discipline (resisting all the temptations not to stay on task and complete what you started)
  • attentional control (being able to concentrate, pay attention, and stay focused)

Working Memory

  • mentally relating one idea or fact to another (so you can reason and so you can creatively see connections between seemingly unconnected things)
  • re-ordering the sequence of items you are holding in mind or updating that information

Cognitive Flexibility

  • thinking outside the box (so you can conceive of a problem in a new way or come up with a different way of addressing it; creative problem-solving)
  • flexibility (to take advantage of sudden opportunities, quickly adapt to changed circumstances, and admit you were wrong when you get new information)

Not surprisingly, EFs are predictive of achievement, health, wealth, and quality of life throughout life, often more predictive than IQ or socio-economic status (SES).

Vulnerability of Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) to problems in any area of your life

EFs depend on PFC and other brain regions with which PFC is interconnected. PFC is the newest and most vulnerable region of the brain. If you’re sad or stressed, lonely, sleep-deprived, or not physically fit, PFC and EFs will suffer first and most. Conversely, you show better EFs when you feel emotionally and socially nourished and your body is healthy.

We hypothesize that:

Activities and programs that should most improve EFs are those that not only train and challenge EFs (working to directly improving them) but those that also indirectly support EFs by reducing things that disrupt EFs (like stress) and/or by increasing things that aid EFs (like social support).

Because the arts (e.g., music and dance) and physical activities challenge our EFs and address our social, emotional, and physical needs, we propose they may be critical for the best EFs and hence for the best health, educational, and workplace outcomes.

We predict that the way an activity is done and the human qualities of the mentors or teachers (such as their supportiveness and their ability to communicate their unwavering faith in the participants and the program) as well as whether the activity is personally meaningful and relevant, inspiring a deep commitment and emotional investment in participants to the activity and to one another, will likely prove more decisive than what the activity is.

We also hypothesize that:

What we adults are doing with all our helping and prodding often impedes children’s development rather than helping.

We help too much and too often. We are too impatient. We are too over-protective.

Children thrive if we allow them the opportunity to discover things for themselves and solve problems themselves. Children are far more capable than we often give them credit for. We are too quick to help out and do for them. A little nudge in the right direction, a tiny hint, is often all the help they need. We need to be patient and give children the time they need to work things out on their own and discover on their own.

Children thrive if we give them important responsibilities. They rise to the occasion.

Children are naturally curious; they don’t need to be forced to learn; but their curiosity and desire to learn can be extinguished by adults who take all the fun out of learning.

What children need most is to feel loved, respected, and valued. Always solving even the smallest problem for them and never letting them take risks, is not showing them respect.

Examples of Research Projects we hope to begin:

(a) The benefits, including cognitive gains, of empowering youths, giving them a say in how an activity is organized.

(b) The role that restoring communication between prefrontal cortex and the amygdala plays in recovering from adverse or traumatic experiences.

(c)  Can including dance as part of the curriculum change the culture and climate of a school and improve academic outcomes?

(d) The role of belonging and social support in how beneficial a program is, including for cognitive outcomes.

For example, does El Sistema music training (learning to play an instrument by playing in an ensemble from the start) provide more cognitive benefits than individual, private music lessons, even if provided by the same instructors?

(e) Storytelling as an Aid to help Kindergarten Children develop Better EFs

The more EFs are challenged, the more they improve. Evidence shows that it’s harder to keep details in mind (taxing working memory more) and keep one’s attention from wandering (taxing attentional control more) when just listening than when listening is supported by visual depictions. Since EFs are challenged more if information is presented only verbally versus both verbally and visually, listening without visual depictions should improve EFs more.

The eye-contact in storytelling invites audience participation more than does looking down at a page reading. Since the evidence shows that the conversation (the back and forth) that takes place in the course of reading has more benefit to language development than the reading itself, might storytelling aid language development more than story reading?

(f) The role of leaving no child behind in the classroom in making possible larger cognitive advances for ALL the children.

JUMP Math has the teacher start at the level of the weakest student (even if that is grades behind) and yet by year’s end all the children are performing well above grade level, outperforming most other classes. Might the change in the classroom environment and culture account for the remarkable success of this counterintuitive strategy?

(g) What makes mindfulness practices that involve movement (e.g., t’ai chi & martial arts) so very beneficial for improving attention, cognitive flexibility, and creativity?

We have shown that these are markedly better for improving EFs than other physical activities without a mindfulness component (e.g., resistance training or aerobic exercise), other mindfulness practices that are more sedentary, or computerized cognitive training – why?


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