The brain controls our emotions, senses, and behavior; it is the organ that undergoes learning and experience driven changes as we acquire, maintain, and master world knowledge and skill in language usage. It is crucial for studying brain processes, and specifically learning processes and the conditions that enhance them, from a brain perspective in order to fully understand how literacy is mastered.
To this end, the scientists at the Edmond J. Safra Research Center conduct innovative brain research on a variety of cognitive functions and academic abilities, using imaging equipment and diverse research methods.
Among our domains of inquiry and ongoing projects are:
- Brain activation during literacy assignments, comparing between spoken and literary Arabic and Hebrew.
- Skill learning: The neurological mechanisms and neuro-behavioral constraints of human brain plasticity
- Artificial mini-language learning as a model for natural language acquisition.
- Interhemispheric Interaction and executive functions, using behavioral and imaging techniques, in special populations.
- Numerical neurocognition: ‘Size congruity effect’ and the way it involves specific brain areas (i.e., the cortical intraparietal sulcus; IPS).
- The neural bases of Diglossia (a situation in which a single language community uses two dialects or languages).
- Neuro-phenomenological research: Studies connecting brain, mind and behavior, focusing on the neural mechanisms underlying various meditation training techniques, and their effects on brain (using fMRI, MEG and EEG), behavior (using different cognitive tasks) and phenomenology (using interviews), in the context of their relevance to education, both teachers and students.
- The effects of contemplative training in educational setups. It incorporates a mindfulness intervention on children with ADHD, teacher-students’ relationship and Jewish vs. Arab schools. These projects combine self-reports, behavioral and neural measures.
- The neural underpinning of flexibility in the embodied sense of self and its effect on social processing.
In the past year 2019-2020, we conducted fascinating Brain studies. Here are a few highlights.
During this last year at the Unit for the Study of the Arabic Language headed by Prof. Asaid Khateb, a PhD dissertation using fMRI methodology was completed, with a special emphasis on the diglossic situation of Arabic and the brain’s representation of spoken and literary Arabic. In addition, this work addressed the question of language and cognitive control systems in the brain and the extent to which brain structures are involved in control mechanisms overlap.
Dr. Yafit Gabay, head of the Learning and Language Research Laboratory, aims to better understand the cognitive aspects of learning and their breakdown in neurodevelopmental disorders. Specifically, she is interested in exploring the mechanisms by which listening and reading are successfully learned, and the difficulties encountered by some in acquiring these skills. By combining two sub-disciplines (cognitive psychology and speech perception), her research aims to shed light on how the processes underlying speech and language skills might be affected in neuro-developmental disorders. From a practical perspective, a greater understanding of how higher-level cognitive function influences speech processing can provide new opportunities for the diagnosis of and intervention in neurodevelopmental disorders.
Research at Prof. Avi Karni’s Laboratory of Human Brain and Learning (HBL) addresses the neurological mechanisms of, and the neuro-behavioral constraints on, human brain plasticity, learning, and memory, and specifically the ability to master and retain skilled performance in long-term memory. Studies focus on skill acquisition processes (the generation and mastery of “how to” knowledge) in healthy individuals as well as in individuals with developmental and acquired neurological disabilities. Two broad fields of human abilities are studied: motor skill acquisition, learning from action or observation, and the acquisition of literacy skills and language use. The latter studies address the acquisition of fluency in using artificial rules or a mini-language, developed in the lab, in relation to one’s native language. Also explored are the role of sleep and the importance of circadian processes in advancing cognitive abilities in persons with developmental learning disabilities and in older adults. The studies combine behavior analyses with neuroimaging technologies¾to follow and quantitatively visualize changes in performance and the brain’s activity during learning and during the process of generating long-term memory. A central theme emerging from these studies is that skill acquisition – via practice – is a generative process leading to modifications of function and structure in neuronal populations activated during task performance; practice generates unique new knowledge. Work supported by the Edmond J. Safra Center and the Sagol Neuroscience Network, as well as current grants from the US-Israel BSF and the US National Science Foundation-BSF, addresses conditions under which the potential for skill acquisition in individuals with learning disabilities are best engaged. New research projects address how an intense light schedule affects attention deficits (ADHD).
In Prof. Zohar Eviatar’s lab, interhemispheric interaction in the context of executive functions is examined both behaviorally and via neuroimaging. Her research topics include: hemispheric division of labor in error detection and correction; the interaction of handedness with interhemispheric transfer and the effects of this interaction on performance of a battery of cognitive tasks; interactions between cognitive mechanisms that might be differentially lateralized (in collaboration with Prof. Avi Karni).
Prof. Orly Rubinsten and her team study populations with developmental dyscalculia (DD) using a variety of tasks, such as comparative numerical judgment, ordinality, affective priming, and visual attention. Because some of the significant neurocognitive roots of numerical knowledge are considered to be implicit (e.g., numerical estimations), the research emphasizes the need to examine the effect of a variable when it is irrelevant to the task at hand and can therefore be implicitly processed (e.g., in Stroop tasks). By using and developing implicit cognitive measures, the team aims to understand how people acquire and use numerical knowledge.
The lab is one of very few in Israel that study dyscalculia from the Mind, Brain, and Education perspective (i.e., the combination between biology, education, and the cognitive and developmental sciences). Its scientific aim is to better understand computations throughout the brain and the cognitive system, and to contribute to the predictive markers of intact and deficient development of numerical skills. Over the years, scientific knowledge from the lab has been translated into practical tools that help with the assessment and remediation of dyscalculia and with the enhancement of intact numerical development.
At her Neuro-phenomenological Lab, Dr. Aviva Berkovich-Ohana is engaged in projects focused on mindfulness in educational setups, sense of self, and consciousness. Her current projects address the effects of contemplative training in educational setups and investigate the impact of mindfulness intervention on teacher-student relationships, social well-being, and math anxiety, by combining self-report, behavioral, and neural measures.