Dr. Adele Diamond is currently a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia (a distinction she has held since 2004), is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has been named one of the 30 most-influential neuroscientists active in the field today. She was among the researchers to pioneer developmental cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary scientific field that studies the development of thought processes as they occur in the brain.
Much of Diamond’s research focuses on the human brain during the stages of growing up. Among her interests are creative and flexible problem-solving, meeting unanticipated challenges, self-control, the ability to reason, the determination to follow through, and finding success in all facets of life. She has given a number of TED Talk presentations on fostering creative abilities in children at an early age and encouraging outside-the-box thinking, and also made an appearance on NPR’s radio program “On Being with Krista Tippett,” where she talked about how the arts can be applied to problem-solving. Brain World recently had the opportunity to sit down with Diamond and talk about her longtime interest in neuroscience and her latest research endeavors.
Brain World: So one of the first things I noticed was that you studied anthropology before you became interested in neuroscience. How did that transition work?
Adele Diamond: That’s a bit of a long story. I was never interested in the more scientific side of psychology or biology or anything like that. I was interested in the development of the person in social and cultural contexts.
When I went to graduate school, Harvard gave me permission to work in three different departments. My home was psychology, but they let me work in sociology and anthropology. I had outside funding but also got some funding for a training grant in cross-cultural research where they prepare you for one year to go into the field, one year to go any place in the world you wanted to go, and I chose the South Pacific because it was the most idyllic place I could think of.
I was planning to do this for my dissertation. My idea was that a lot of what we read in the West says that if you don’t feel like you’re in control, if you don’t feel like the master of your fate, you become depressed. Even suicidal. But I wasn’t sure that was an intrinsic human quality, like everything I was reading had said or something that was the product of culture.
I had all these hypotheses about why it might be different in a non-Western culture. The problem was that as I started to develop the research plan to do this, I didn’t think I was coming up with a good way to study it, because the more you think about it, the more slippery being in control means, because you can be in control in subtle ways that aren’t obvious.
I had very famous people over at Harvard advising me, who said I’d do fine and I was thinking these guys are looney — I’m not going to paradise to be miserable for the year. I ended up giving the money back and said I’d reapply.
So my first year in graduate school, Jerome Kagan [psychologist] proposed the question: “If infants all over the world show the same cognitive changes at roughly the same time, those changes cannot be due entirely to learning or experience, because their experiences are too diverse; there must be a maturational component — what might that maturational component be?”
Africa, Asia, West Europe. Kibbutz. Communal living, family living. Doesn’t matter. So if their experiences are so different, but timetables are so similar, there has to be a maturational component. He was so excited about this that you couldn’t help getting interested, but to answer that, I had to study neuroscience. I had to look at the brain. That was sort of weird at Harvard at that time. They didn’t have anyone to study the brain. When I asked to put someone on my dissertation committee, it had to be someone from outside who knew about prefrontal cortexes and stuff, to see if what I was doing made sense.
I never intended to go into neuroscience. It was only because my original research topic didn’t work out. It was a complete surprise. I’m still an anthropologist in the sense that I look at the behavior — not just at the numbers.
BW: A lot of your research concerns executive functions of the brain. What are executive functions?
AD: Executive functions are the collections of skills that depend on prefrontal cortex and interrelated neural regions of the brain. They include things like self-control and being able to control your attention so that you stay focused. That’s under inhibitory control. Then there’s working memory, holding information in the mind and working with it — like mental math calculations or reordering items on a to-do list or relating thoughts and ideas among each other. Then there’s cognitive flexibility — being able to see the same thing from different perspectives, being able to flexibly adjust to change. Being able to think outside the box. Those are important for reasoning, for problem-solving, decision-making, planning, stuff like that.
BW: How does the prefrontal cortex work in carrying out all these functions?
AD: That’s a huge question. It seems like one of the things it does for working memory is it sustains the firing rate of neurons during the brief time that you’re holding the information in mind. They’re literally keeping the information active by staying active. You can see if someone remembers something by looking at whether the neurons in the prefrontal cortex are firing or not.
Earl Miller’s work on monkey brains shows that neurons change the direction of their firing to help you think about a problem in different ways, and you can see that change at the neuronal level in the prefrontal cortex when you try a different perspective. How it exercises inhibitory control is more by putting the brakes on lower areas of the brain, so for example with the amygdala screaming because you got really scared, the prefrontal cortex will kind of calm down the amygdala. One of the ways it does the stopping is through the subthalamic nucleus — very important when you need to not respond right away, so you can have a better response than the first one that occurs to you.
BW: How early can these executive functions be seen?
AD: Well, my dissertation, which was ages ago, says you can see it develop at a rudimentary level between 6 and 12 months of age, or more precisely, around 9.5 months. You can see the beginning of working memory, of inhibitory control, and on a very small level, the beginning of cognitive flexibility, which really comes in later than the other two.
I was doing my assessments by having babies reach for things. If you have them just look at things, then it looks like it could be even earlier — 5 months maybe. It begins to develop during the first year of life, which is much earlier than the experts thought — they thought it didn’t do anything during the first year. However, it takes a very long time to fully develop, not until your mid-20s.