Brain Science, Memoirs, and Education

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the fourth part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I share some of the ways brain science supports the use of memoir reading and writing to learn about life at any age.

Thanks to rapid advances in brain imaging, scientists are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the way people think. Some scientists, such as Matthew Lieberman, focus particularly on the way the brain’s wiring enables us to live and work in social groups. Lieberman popularizes his observations in his book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.

It turns out, social scientists are not only interested in the hardware of the brain. They are interested in the software, as well. Since every child needs information in order to supply that software, Lieberman offers some interesting suggestions about how brain science could help. By coincidence his suggestions happen to fit in perfectly with the arguments I’ve been making in previous parts of this essay, about the value of memoirs for education.

One of Lieberman’s suggestions for education relates to the fact that we learn better through stories than through facts. He specifically mentions how much easier it is to learn history when it’s presented in terms of stories. I completely agree with his suggestion and believe that many of us are already coming to a similar conclusion – learning is more fun when it is done through stories. The knowledge is not limited to school kids. People of every age are learning about life by following the stories of our fellow humans.

Another fascinating improvement to our educational system was suggested in Dan Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence. In that book, he suggested exercises for empowering kids to communicate their emotions at an early age. Goleman’s ideas have been widely adopted, except for one giant gap.

It would be even more valuable if kids could learn not just how other people feel but how they think. This important knowledge, as important as math and reading, is rarely taught except in specialized courses for psychology majors or grad students. However, the study of other people’s minds becomes infinitely more accessible when we learn it through their stories. By following the scientific wisdom of both Matthew Lieberman (learn through story) and Dan Goleman (increase emotional intelligence), it would make perfect sense to teach kids emotional intelligence by letting them read memoirs.

Lieberman’s second powerful suggestion is to set up the school system in such a way that older kids can teach younger ones. He gives the example of eighth graders teaching algebra to sixth graders. Such a method empowers both groups by combining the act of learning with the act of teaching. In Lieberman’s model, older ones take the material more seriously because they need to teach it, and the younger ones link learning the material to the social act of impressing the older kids.

Lieberman’s suggestion sounds awesome. I can see how it would help math-averse kids learn and retain the material, and teach nerdy math whizzes how to interact with people. My only quibble with his suggestion is that I don’t think it is as futuristic as it sounds. I think adults are already engaging in this method. By reading memoirs, they are learning from those who have gone through similar experiences. And by writing memoirs, they are gaining the social pleasure of becoming teachers.

When serious scientists like Matthew Lieberman and Dan Goleman popularize sophisticated advances in our institutions, they are showering our culture with wisdom from above. In addition, culture is driven by powerful unseen forces from below. Like undersea seismic events, such pressures drive us along lines in social trends that seem to be coming out of nowhere. The Memoir Revolution is such a trend, providing us with a whole new wave of information about the human condition, not from experts but from each other.

Cultural pioneers such as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers Diary show us how to teach kids through storytelling and writing. Memoir writers such as Elna Baker in New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance offer stories about the struggles of growing from childhood into responsible adulthood. Memoir writers such as Martha Stettinius in Inside the Dementia Epidemic offer insights into caregiving for elders and writers such as Kate Braestrup in Here if You Need Me shine a light on grieving.

Neuroplasticity – grow your civilized brain cells
Another advance in brain science also supports the importance of memoirs for training students of any age. We now know that the wiring of the brain improves with exercise, so the more we use a part of our brain, the healthier and stronger it gets.

By teaching kids or adults how to tell the stories of themselves, we “exercise” the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that enables us to tell stories. This new part of the brain is responsible for helping us live together in harmony as well as for self-regulation. By seeing life as a story, we vigorously exercise the prefrontal cortex, improving both the hardware and software that will make us wiser about our selves and each other.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

In the third part, I focus on the way writing life stories is just as important as reading them.


For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

by Jerry Waxler

I first learned about Alex while I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Our host played a video of a talking African Gray parrot named Alex. Alex’s trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg held a tray of objects and asked questions. For example, she asked “which square?” and the parrot answered, “green,” because the square object was colored green. She asked “which same?” and Alex correctly said “key” because the keys were all made of cork. He even concocted his own words, for example describing an almond as a “cork-nut,” a word he was never taught.

Tell me more about that parrot

Alex was cute, zany and unpredictable, and while Pepperberg watched him learn, he was teaching her about the mind of a bird. His bobbing head, hyper-alert eyes, and clever voice mesmerized me, making me an instant fan. I was not alone. Everyone who saw Alex fell in love with him. A few years later I heard that the parrot died, a loss that surprised and saddened me. Then I saw the memoir “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg, and thought, “Hey, I know that bird!”

The book starts with Alex’s sudden, unexpected death in 2007, followed by the outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Pepperberg read a sampling of the letters and obituaries from Alex’s many admirers. As each one played upon my heart, I was amazed at how much compassion they stirred. Like a group hug, Alex’s well wishers were drawing me in to Pepperberg’s pain.

Outpouring of compassion creates secondary compassion

I looked for a similar effect in my own life and remembered my mother’s memorial service. Her old friends came up to me and said “You were lucky to have such a great mom” and “I admired her so much,” and “We miss her.” Later, I turned their comments over in my mind, and was awed at the complexity of emotions.

How much were they seeking to support me, and how much were they hoping that somehow my presence could help them relieve their own grief? These moments showed me how intertwined we all are. During our communal grieving, we were each trying to make sense of what just happened, while supporting each other as we moved forward.

Writing Prompt
When in your life did empathy flow towards you? Was it related to the death or illness of a loved one? Or did others reach out to comfort you when you were in the hospital yourself? Describe the scene, keeping in mind that it will give the reader an opening through which they too can feel connected.

Emotional Bonds to Our Companion Animals

Dr. Pepperberg and Alex were close companions and so the book turned out to be a buddy story between human and bird. Sharing genuine emotions with animals has become widely respected, as evidenced by the runaway success of “Marley and Me,” by John Grogan, a memoir about the author’s relationship with a dog.

To make the relationship even deeper, Dr. Pepperberg showed how it evolved over the years. At first, she tried to maintain distance in order to create an objective, scientific perspective. She worked with him closely for years. Then after Alex died, Irene cried and cried, making her and her readers realize how deeply emotionally involved she had become..

Writing prompt
List your pets, and other encounters with critters. When you remember a scene, stop listing and start writing. See if you can string a few scenes together to show how the relationship changed over time.

Structure of a story, beginning, middle, and end

Every memoir writer seeks excellent story structure. Pepperberg’s memoir offers a couple of insights. For one thing, she grabs our attention with a bang, shocking the reader into the midst of the action, a technique the Greeks called “in medias res.” Then the story returns to the beginning, and moves forward through the long middle, towards an ending that resolves the dramatic tension. I love this structure.

Writing Prompt
What powerful event can you start your book with, to grab readers and yank them into the action. Worry about the transition to the flashback later. For now, just consider what event would get readers into the thick of your story.

Alex and Me ends with a Personal Witness to the Evolution of Knowledge

At the end of Alex and Me, Alex dies, as we already knew he would. So how does an author finish a book about loss? Pepperberg has chosen to review what Alex contributed to her and to the world. It turns into a poignant eulogy that contemplates a life well-lived, during which, Alex contributed not only to his trainer but to the world’s understanding of humans and other animals.

Considering his brain was the “size of a shelled walnut,” the vast majority of scientists were confident that Alex could not possibly be learning as much as Pepperberg claimed. But she doesn’t need to debate her findings with me. Even though I don’t have an advanced degree in bird brains, he seemed pretty smart. In fact, I believed that the other scientists were wrong and Pepperberg was right. It turns out that most people believe they know more about their own companion animals than scientists do.

Irene Pepperberg’s experiments herald a sea change in our attitude towards animal intelligence. With incredible persistence and love these two creatures demonstrated a thinking capacity that science had not yet imagined. As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than your philosophy dreams of.” After reading “Alex and Me” I can feel this little creature’s beautiful influence on Irene Pepperberg and everyone else he touched. And their relationship touched me. My respect for pets, for intelligence, and the evolution of knowledge has been expanded by this loving connection between a scientist and her little winged companion.

Writing prompt
Do you have a story about your pet that demonstrates intelligence, loyalty, curiosity, or other “human” characteristics? The writing exercise may come in handy in unexpected ways for comic relief or to help readers identify with particular situations in your life.

Click to visit Amazon’s page for Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

According to Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” science regularly changes its idea about what is True. My favorite example is that in the 20th century, all neuroscientists claimed that brain cells can never grow, but only die. Around 1995, science changed its mind. After the shift in perspective, scientists have agreed that adults can use their brains and grow. In fact, if you don’t use your brain it will die. This sort of shift in Truth from one decade to another is an ordinary occurrence in the history of science. And so, to study science is to study the constant evolution of ideas.

For another book that shows how the brain has a capacity for wholeness, read Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight – in which she was forced outside the box by direct perception. Click here for my essay.

For another example of starting in the middle of the action, see Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days. Click here for my essay about Fugitive Days.

For another famous buddy memoir read “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan”