A Conversation with a Learning Scientist: Melina Uncapher

Published May 7, 2019

What’s the connection between neuroscience and learning science? What has neuroscience taught us about how we learn? What should educators know about the brain? Melina Uncapher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology at UC San Francisco and co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, sat with Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to talk about neuroscience and the mysteries of the brain.

Watch the interview here:

Highlights from this interview:

BF: What made you choose neuroscience as your field of study?

MU: I was excited about the powers that animated people and became even more excited because I have a beautiful grandmother who developed Parkinson’s disease. She lost part of her memory, which really impacted me and made me want to explore learning and memory as well. It made me realize that our memories are really at the heart of who we are.

BF: How does our understanding of the brain impact learning science?

MU: Many people believe neuroscience and education are not related and will argue that you need to go through neuroscience and cognitive science in order to understand the brain in the classroom. However, I am both an educational neuroscientist and cognitive neuroscientist, so I think about the systems of all parts of the brain and how every part of the brain talks to itself. By having the framework around how the brain learns, we can start to optimize learning.

BF: What are some of the key mysteries that exist in the brain?

MU: There are so many! We already understand the building blocks of cognition and what the fundamental pieces of how we perceive are. But how those build into higher-order, complex things like reasoning and decision-making, we’re really just at the beginning of our understanding of this, so there is a lot more to learn.

BF: What are some of the key things that educators want to know about the brain?

MU: The fundamental piece of the three-stage structure about how we learn. For example, teachers would want to know what are some practices that can be done to lay down stronger memories, what are the practices that help us store those memories deeply, and what are the practices that allow us to retrieve the right information at the right time.

BF: What are you reading right now?

MU: I am reading The Pentagon’s Brain that has documented the history of DARPA and a book called How Behavior Spreads, which is about how social contagions of ideas can matriculate through a system.