Minds, Brains, and Learning: Understanding the Psychological and Educational Relevance of Neuroscientific Research. J. P. Byrnes. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.
In recent years, researchers in mental retardation have come to appreciate that specific genetic disorders differentially affect behavior. It now seems clear, for example, that persons with Prader-Willi, Williams, or Down syndromes differ from persons with mental retardation in general. Though not all individuals show their syndrome's “characteristic” behavior, groups with many different syndromes appear more likely than others with mental retardation to show particular profiles or maladaptive behaviors.
In thinking about such etiology-based behavioral work, a central concept is the idea that connections exist between genetic disorders, brain structures, and behavior. Simply stated, genes provide the blueprints for building specific brain structures, brain structures then influence behavior. Many behavioral researchers are excited by such “gene–brain–behavior” connections, and several syndromes have been proposed as models of specific pathways.
Seen against this background, Byrnes' book helps readers understand the brain portion of gene–brain–behavior connections. In less than 200 pages, he provides a whirlwind tour of selected aspects of psychology, neuropsychology, and the burgeoning connections between psychological and neuropsychological findings. Although Byrnes comes from a college of education—where studies of brain–behavior relations are often denigrated—he nonetheless noted that “[I] ended up convincing myself that brain research could be highly relevant to the fields of education and psychology if this research is viewed in a particular light” (p. vii). The resulting book constitutes his spirited defense of the importance of brain research for education.
The book contains 8 chapters. In chapter 1, Byrnes emphasizes the importance of needing to know more about the brain. He argues against computer metaphors as well as charges that brain-education connections are unnecessary or that brain research vis-à-vis behavior constitutes reductionism. In this opening chapter, Byrnes also defines critical neuroscientific terms and provides the basics of brain structure, before evaluating animal and human techniques used in neuroscientific research.
Chapter 2 delves into the many factors influencing brain development. Focusing on major processes of brain development, Byrnes explains how, during the fetal and early postbirth period, many different processes—all of which involve some degree of probability—influence the development of the adult brain. Such processes include vast increases in the numbers of neurons; the migration of newly formed cells “outward,” and the “branching out” of individual cells to allow increased numbers of connections; the differentiation of cells both structurally and functionally; and the “projection” of parts of neurons (axons)—often over long distances—to connect one brain structure to another. Further influences include such environmental factors as one's nutrition, steroids, and teratogens. As a result of these factors, it is probably incorrect to think of one's genetic endowment as a “blueprint” for the adult brain. “Whereas two houses built from the same blueprint would turn out to be identical (e.g., in terms of their size, location of rooms), two brains built from the same set of genetic instructions could be significantly different” (p. 34).
In chapters 3 through 7, he details five distinct areas: memory, attention, emotion, reading, and mathematics. Byrnes chooses these five because each topic has direct relevance to education, and each has been investigated sufficiently by psychologists and neuropsychologists. In each chapter, he provides concise, state-of-the-art reviews of the psychological theories, examines relevant neuropsychological findings, then ends with how psychological and neuropsychological findings co-exist and possible educational implications.
In each chapter, interested readers will find clear, accurate summaries of each area. In discussing memory, for example, Byrnes describes the three components of memory—sensory buffers, rehearsal systems, and records (of four types)—as well as the various processes one employs in forming permanent records. In discussing attention, he briefly reviews the different psychological theories—information-processing, life-span, Vygotskian, emergent motivation (“flow” theory)—while discussing emotions as they are understood by the various “cognitive emotion” theorists (i.e., those who include cognitive appraisals within their theories of emotional functioning). Even reading and mathematics—areas most akin to educational content—are discussed in terms of component processes (Seidenberg and McClelland's model in reading; the relevant declarative, procedural, and conceptual knowledge in mathematics).
For the most part, Byrnes is equally successful in portraying the relevant neuropsychological studies. The problem, however, is that, whereas such areas as memory and reading show reasonably straightforward connections between psychological theories and neuropsychological findings, others do not. Thus, near the end of his chapter on emotions, Byrnes concedes that “Comparison of the psychological and neuroscientific perspectives on emotion reveals that these two traditions have apparently not influenced each other to a great extent” (p. 111). Then why discuss emotions in this book?
In a similar way, educational lessons derived from psychological or neuropsychological findings are sometimes obvious, sometimes interesting. To foster children's memory, teachers should encourage practice and allow children to create elaborated, multicode (i.e., visual as well as verbal) representations. To encourage attention, teachers should employ “content that is interesting to students and [hold] moderately high standards for performance” (p. 89). Although these suggestions seem obvious, Byrnes also highlights developmental findings that “there are aspects of attention that are particularly hard for children (i.e., filtering) and others that are not that hard (i.e., orienting)” (p. 89). Similarly interesting insights include evaluations of the concept of reading readiness, precocious reading, and issues and strategies for connecting Seidenberg and McClelland's four “processors” of reading (orthographic, meaning, phonological, and context). These, at least, seem more reasonable educational implications.
To his credit, Byrnes appreciates how limited brain–behavior connections can sometimes currently be. In the book's last chapter (as well as in the reading and math chapters), he explicitly discusses three critical issues. The first, the “overlap question,” pertains to the degree to which psychological theories and neuropsychological findings overlap. He notes that psychological theories involve “carving the mind at its joints” to identify the correct components of various high-level behaviors. In contrast, neuropsychological findings are “often more concerned with revealing clusters of behavioral symptoms than with testing particular theoretical models” (p. 140). In recent years, however, the two sides appear to be coming closer together. As they do so, psychologists and neuropsychologists attempt to integrate their two areas. To Byrnes, such integration occurs when neuropsychological findings and psychological theories converge on identical component processes and when “non-normative performance” (both high and low) can be explained neurologically. Finally, one must consider the “confidence question,” the degree to which animal or human studies find what they purport to find. Ultimately, only satisfactory answers to the overlap, integration, and confidence questions will allow a true joining of psychological and neuropsychological approaches.
This book, then, is thoughtful, clear, and at times even fascinating; it is also a book that has enormous strengths as well as some significant weaknesses. Its strengths are obvious. Byrnes summarizes and joins two divergent literatures—the psychological and the neuropsychological—in five separate domains of human functioning. He writes well, often providing excellent short summaries of fields that have extensive and complicated research literatures. This is a book that many readers will appreciate having read, one that readers will refer to in the years to come.
At the same time, however, the book also has several weaknesses. With a text that only runs 186 pages and covers many, many topics, the book is packed. To further complicate matters, Byrnes has added only a few drawings or pictures to help readers along. In addition, he does not really deal with the disability portion of brain–behavior connections. Thus, although brief mentions are made of many disorders (e.g., phenylketonuria, attention deficit with hyperactivity, depression, learning disabilities, dyslexia), most arise only to make one or another of the author's points. Down syndrome, for example, is introduced as an example that even a small amount of extra genetic material (one extra chromosome 21) can produce major changes in brain and behavior. Remaining to be written, then, is an in-depth, up-to-date book connecting brains and behavior in the field of mental retardation.
Still, even given its shortcomings, Byrnes' book seems worth the effort. In too many academic works, authors do not allow themselves to go (in Jerome Bruner's phrase) “beyond the information given.” By reviewing and speculating about how two diverse areas are coming together, Byrnes provides a necessary service to anyone interested in brain–behavior connections and in their educational implications. Although researchers have not yet totally connected brain and behavior (or—in the case of genetic mental retardation syndromes—genes, brains, and behavior), Byrnes' book provides the initial glimmerings about how one might proceed.