How the Brain Learns

Researchers study timing, sensory systems, how regions connect.

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Cottrell says the idea for the study originated with Khalil’s observation of students in his elementary school music class, where he was teaching Gamelan.  “He had a dozen kids playing instruments, and they were supposed to be doing it exactly in time with each other,” Cottrell says.  “He noticed there were some kids who were having a lot of trouble with this, and they tended to be the kids with ADD (attention deficit disorder).  He wondered whether teaching these kids Gamelan might improve their attention skills in general, so the Gamelan Project was born.”

Other center research includes, among other things, studying whether training autistic children to become “face experts” will improve their social skills; trying to develop robots trained to “read” a student’s facial expressions in order to improve intelligent tutoring systems; and figuring out how brains change as people become experts at perceptual skills, such as scanning for explosives in suitcases.

The scientists believe that a better understanding of the role of time and timing on scales ranging from milliseconds (when brain cells connect) to years (the time it takes to become an expert) potentially could transform education, “giving children a better chance of success in school, and, ultimately, in life,” Cottrell says.