Where science and music collide

Dr. Adele Diamond will lecture at Portland State on May 7 at 12 p.m. on the subject of her most recent research on brain development, which uses knowledge about the brain to improve education systems and help children thrive.

Diamond is the research chair professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Her work effectively created the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience and has made signifigant progress in integrating developmental psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience.

Diamond will discuss her research in child development and the brain, which can inform parents and educators on ways to improve academic, career and health outcomes for children.

“My focus will be on the [neuroscience and psychology] of what children need to thrive, and the science behind why programs like El Sistema address so many elements of what children most need,” Diamond said.

El Sistema is a system of youth orchestras started in Venezuela in 1975, which has spawned similar programs in more than 50 countries.

Diamond’s work highlights programs that create a supportive, caring environment in order to foster development. Her TEDx lecture names not just music programs, but also dance, youth circus, theater, positive sports which, she said, address our physical, cognitive, emotional and social needs and Montessori Schools that focus on kids training other kids.

“They learn much better from a child teaching them than from an adult teaching,” Diamond said. “There’s lots of research on that. And that’s done in El Sistema. It emphasizes community. It doesn’t emphasize that you have to start out playing perfectly. It emphasizes that you have to start out playing together,” she continued.

Diamond said children don’t learn as well when they’re stressed, feeling alone or ostracized.

“So if we reduce stress in school, if we increase joy and motivation through programs that they love, if we create community by having them work together and having them all pulling for each other to do well, we know the kids are going to do better,” she said.

Much of Diamond’s research focuses on executive functions, which depend on the prefrontal cortex and the other brain regions to which it is connected.

Social Determinants of Health Initiative, and local NPO, Oregon Bravo’s El Sistema program in Portland are bringing Diamond to PSU as a part of their May 4–9 series of events called Discover Bravo.

SDHI is an inter-disciplinary group of academic and community partners from PSU, Oregon Health and Science University, state and local agencies and community organizations and local health systems. SDHI focuses on creating shared research, education and action in an effort to increase social health equity for all, according to their website.

Oregon Bravo is a tuition-free youth choral singing, symphony and orchestra after school program at Rosa Parks Elementary School, directed toward at-risk youth. Bravo began in 2013 and currently has 60 students in their program, which takes place after school two hours per day, five days per week.

“Dr. Diamond cites El Sistema as a helpful example of structured activity which leads to development of executive function in participating youth, and our contention is that this leads to prosocial behavior,” said Seth Truby, co-founder and executive director of Oregon Bravo.

“Bravo is the first El Sistema-inspired program in Oregon, so we are a local case study of the example she cites in her research presentations,” Truby said.

“I focus on what things impair executive functions, like stress, and what things improve them‚ like school programs such as Tools of the Mind or MindUp, and presumably programs like Bravo,” Diamond said.

She also looks at how biological factors—such as chemical, hormonal, or genetic factors—influence executive functions.

Though Diamond’s work often moves into the realm of social programs, it is founded on scientific data.

“It uses hard science to look at what would be a good social program and to evaluate social programs,” Diamond said.

In the 1990s her work made advances in treating phenylketonuria, an inherited amino acid processing disorder.

In the 2000s, she made discoveries which changed common understanding of the dopamine system. She has also studied ADHD.

Now her work on school curriculums and the executive functions of the brain is approaching education issues that could affect participating school systems and possibly the entire American education system.

Many of the programs that Diamond cites are in-school programs, but others, such as Bravo, are now after school programs.

“I think kids need to do things after school that they love, that make them feel like they are part of a community bigger than themselves, and they need to be active,” Diamond said. “So I think El Sistema is at least as good as going outside and organizing a game and playing together. I don’t see a negative.”

The seminar will take place at PSU in the Smith Memorial Student Center, 1825 SW Broadway, Cascade Room 296, on May 7 at 12 p.m.