Who’d a thunk it?

Posted by on May 10, 2011 in creativity, education | 3 Comments

Pre-Ramble: Just back from the Learning & the Brain Conference sponsored by The University of Chicago – and my brain is PACKED with new, fascinating ways to look at learning and performance through the lens of cutting-edge advances in neurological research.

This three-day “interdisciplinary forum” brought together researchers, clinicians and educators who provided insight – both heavy on the research and in a user-friendly practical realm – into the dynamics of motivation and focus in academics, athletics and all-around achievement. This was the perfect storm of psychologists, teachers and regular folks, exchanging ideas in a number of different break-out forums.

The line-up of speakers was varied and impressive:

  • Sian Beilock, Director of the Human Performance Lab at UC set the tone with a presentation on performance under pressure. Whether you’re hitting the wrong note, dropping the ball, or choking on a test – her research on the brain reveals the how and why and offers lab-tested strategies to improve performance. (Her book – Choke, 2010)
  • Author, Daniel Siegel, MD, gave an experiential explanation of how practice (lots of it) and mindfulness (meditation) can make a staggering difference in the ability of the brain to support excellence, and how stress physically diminishes the brain’s capacity to perform. (His most recent book – Mindsight, 2011)
  • Psychologist, Ben Bernstein, PhD, provided an entertaining take on the mind-body connection using a three-pronged approach – calm, confident and focused – to mitigate any type of stress. His “seed packet” analogy was particularly powerful, underscoring the importance of “vision” of an end state in pursuit of personal, professional or educational goals. (His book – Workbook for Test Success, 2010)
  • Journalist, Daniel Coyle (could the guy look and sound any more like Tom Hanks?) In researching “talent hotbeds,” Coyle came across a Russian tennis club called Spartak that had produced more top-20 women players than the entire U.S. … “on a single club with one crummy indoor court, in a freezing climate.” That plus a deep inquiry into the behavior of the myelin sheath structure in the brain went into The Talent Code, his recent book about “getting really good at sports, art, music and anything else.”  (Where do I sign up??)
  • Sadly, one of the scheduled keynote speakers, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, researcher and author of several books on creativity ( … he was the first to identify and expound upon the concept of “flow”) … was unable to attend the conference. The only person I felt sorrier for than my disappointed self, was the woman (his close colleague) who was sent to speak in his place.  She actually did a very nice job, (and effortlessly breezed through pronunciation of Mihaly’s last name several times).

The Take-Away: In addition to the realization that you need to write a book if you’re going to be a presenter at these elite conferences, there were many interesting and memorable take-away concepts.  In spite of the fact that it is finally spring, the one which I will leave you with here is Daniel Coyle’s comparison of mental processes in the brain to a snowy sledding hill.

As he describes it, each thought or action is like a sled going down that hill, making a “track” in the snow. The more times you think or do the same thing, the deeper and more entrenched that pathway becomes; and the stronger and faster it becomes as well. If you repeat the action enough times (10,000 is the estimate), it becomes pretty much your default zone.

Apparently it’s all about practice habits. Skill circuits are grown and maintained through deep practice. And, it turns out, the most valuable part of deep practice is mistakes; they point right to the next piece of skill that needs to be mastered in order to progress! Viva la mistakes!!

Post-Note: Chicago was decked out in full spring regalia … Planters of lush tulips bursting with color lined Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park (and the “big chrome bean” shown above … which is actually a nice representation of the inner workings of the brain … I thought … ) were a sight to behold as well. This location was a total value-add for the conference experience.


  1. Ann Holm
    May 10, 2011

    A perfect weekend with cutting edge topics and insightful debriefing sessions! I look forward to our next cognitive adventure!

  2. Catherine
    May 11, 2011

    you never cease to amaze me. Great article. Why did you go to this conference in the first place?

  3. deb
    May 11, 2011

    Sounds like a good conference (a bit more substantive than our museum store tradeshow spring adventures, eh?) Did they talk about the importance of play, too? So glad that the importance of mistakes was included–we come from a generation where mistakes are to be avoided (lots of fear of failure). I’ve come to believe that unless we allow ourselves to fail (and even expect and embrace it), we miss out on a lot of discovery and exciting connections.

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