Rafael Yuste


"Deciphering the brain will allow us to educate better."

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We are interested in the brain in order to understand ourselves. How we are, and how our whole mental life emerges from what we carry inside our skull.

We still do not understand how the brain works. We have spent more than 100 years, since Cajal, generation after generation, millions and millions invested in laboratories in the world. The idea was that the brain, the unit of functioning of the brain, is the individual neuron. This is a theory that Cajal proposed. But if you look at the brain of any animal, ours for example has 80 billion neurons. Imagine what 80 billion neurons look like. Astronomical numbers. And they are all connected to each other. We have not been able to decipher the brain by studying neurons one by one. Pinching them with an electrode and seeing how they activate or deactivate when the animal is behaving or when the patient has a thought. It is possible that the problem comes from there — that the unit is not a neuron; the unit is a group of neurons working together.

We do not know what happens in the brain when we learn. Cajal put several possibilities on the table. One is that new connections are formed between neurons. Another is that the connections that exist become stronger. Both are now being examined with magnifying glass by neurobiologists.

"Teaching to think is the best gift you can give to someone when you're trying to educate them."

We have learned a lot throughout history about what works and what does not work when educating children. And to learn. Testing things to see what works and what doesn't work. But all this knowledge, which is what is the core of what the teacher teaches and in education systems, is not constrained in the machine that generates it, which is the brain. We have a dissociation between education and neurobiology. Obviously, they must be connected. Because if a child learns, something has changed in their brain. There must be some change, but we do not know the exact relationship.

From my personal experience of learning, I always feel that what has most affected me in my education has been personal contact with a teacher. That is, one to one. The inspiration of a specific person you know, talk to and relate to. I always think that the ideal way to learn is one to one. What I do sometimes is prepare a tutoring plan, where every student, every week, has to write an essay on a subject, I correct it and I sit with the student and discuss it. This is how they teach at Cambridge and Oxford. Motivation is also fundamental, using question-based classes when you have a large group. In my personal experience, I think a direct approach is best. Personal contact, direct inspiration. Encourage them. And to be emotionally involved. Our brain has emotional components that are anchored in the functioning of the nervous system. We cannot dissociate. And emotional components help you learn. Repetition helps you learn because neural circuits are supposed to reactivate and become stronger. And being emotionally involved also helps.

Neurobiologist and professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Columbia University (USA). Rafael Yuste has also been co-director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the University since 2004. He also created the BRAIN project (Brazilian Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), which seeks to create a map of the human brain.