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Dr. Adele Diamond: Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience; Professor, Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/04/15

1. What is your current position?

I am the Canada Research Chair, Tier 1, and Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry at The University of British Columbia (UBC).

2. What major positions have you held in your academic career?

Now, besides being a professor and Canada Research Chair, I am the head of the division of developmental cognitive neuroscience of psychiatry at UBC.  Before coming to UBC, I was at University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMass), where I was professor of psychiatry and director of the center for developmental cognitive neuroscience.  And before that, I was a visiting associate professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Before that, I was an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).  Last, and prior to that, I was an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Washington University (Wash. U) in St. Louis.

3. Can you name a seminal experience in your youth that most influenced your career direction?

I was not planning on having a career.  My high school yearbook says, “Valedictorian; ambition: Housewife.”  I was going to get married and have children.  That changed sometime while in college.  Although, I do not have a particular experience that changed it.  So, no, there is no seminal experience, sorry!

4. Where did you acquire your education?

I went to the New York City Public Schools  (John Bowne High School) and then I went to Swarthmore College, which is a fantastic undergraduate institution in the United States (US).  Harvard University for my Ph.D. and Yale University for my post-doctoral work.

5. What was your original dream?

My original dream was to be home with my kids.  And then, when I decided to go on, in college and beyond, I was not interested in science.  I was interested in understanding people.  I was interested in society and culture, but I was not interested in science.  So I avoided anything that sounded like science.  I had to take two science courses for distribution requirements.  So I took engineering, but, other than that, I did not even take experimental psychology, though psychology was one of my majors, because experimental psychology sounded too much like science.  When I went to graduate school, I said, “I want to do interdisciplinary studies in what I called “human development,” which I defined as including psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I thought of anthropology as doing investigations that deeply inform us about people, society and culture, however, I did not view it as science.  I thought of’science’ as being something more objective and quantitative.  Anthropology gets more at the flesh and essence of things – understanding individuals in social context as opposed to trying to fit lots of people into some general category.  It is the difference between nomothetic and idiographic science.  Nomothetic being the attempt to apply principles that apply across the board, but it will not apply perfectly in any individual case.  Idiographic refers to studying one case, studying it deeply, but realizing that it will not be able to completely be able to generalize to any other case.

I got two national fellowships for graduate school.  One from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Another from the Danforth Foundation.  I was a freebie.  I got nine years of funding – more than any I could ever use.  So the graduate schools said, “Fine lady, you can study whatever you want!”  I went to Harvard.  Although, my home was psychology.  I spent the first four years primarily in sociology and anthropology.  Harvard had a cross-cultural training grant that funded PhD students for three years: one year to prepare to go into the field, one year to go anywhere you wanted to go (I was going to the South Pacific because it seemed the most idyllic, and one year to write it up.  My idea was…I was reading a lot in sociology, psychology, philosophy… that asserted that people need to feel they are masters of their fate.  If they did not feel they are, you see learned helplessness, depression, and suicide.  Everything I was reading said there was an intrinsic human need to feel we are masters of our own fates.  But everything I was reading was western. It seemed to me that was not necessarily intrinsically human.  It might be that someone from another culture might not feel the same way.  At any social gathering people find my idea intriguing. I felt I was not coming up with a good way to study this, however.  If you think about it more deeply, it gets kind of squishy.  What do you want to have control over?  How do you exercise control?  You can exercise control in subtle ways without it seeming to be control.  The more I went into it, the less confident I was that I could come up with a  good study design. Now, I had very famous people at Harvard advising me.  I did not think they had a solid idea of how to study this either.  This did not seem to bother them.  They said, “You’ll go on and do great work.”  I said to myself, “You guys are loonie. I am not going to paradise to be miserable for a year, worried about how I’ll get a thesis out of this.”  I turned down Years 2 and 3 of the funding.  I gave the money back.  I figured I would re-apply for funding if I ever came up with a good way study it, but I was not going to do a lousy job.  So I had to come up with another thesis topic.

My first year in graduate school, which, by that time, was three years earlier.  My advisor, Jerry Kagan, had been jumping up and down about the cognitive advances seen in babies in the first years of life such as stranger anxiety and finding a hidden-object.  Things like that.  These changes appeared at roughly the same time in babies all over the world –babies living at home, babies in daycare, in kibbutzim, in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, and so on.  It didn’t matter.  He said, “It cannot be all learning.  It cannot be all experience because their experiences are too different.  There must be a maturational component.”  He was jumping up and down about it.  He was so excited that you could not help but feel excited about it.  However, at the time, I had another thesis topic. But when I gave up my original thesis topic, I came back to this question.  Clearly, the maturational bit had to be in the brain.  So I had to begin learning about the brain.  That’s how I got into neuroscience.  There was no one at Harvard in Psychology at the time studying the human brain, which is hard to believe now.  I said to them, “There should be someone on my thesis committee that knows something about the brain, especially the parts of the brain I am talking about — prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus — just to see if what I am saying makes sense.” (My thesis was just behavioral studies with babies, but the hypothesis behind it was based on the brain.)  Harvard replied, “We don’t have anyone who does this, so we don’t think it’s important.” But they allowed that I could add an additional member to my thesis committee from outside Harvard who had this expertise.  I was very lucky that Nelson Butters at the Boston VA accepted my invitation to join the thesis committee as the fourth member.

Until I did my Postdoc in the Department of Neuroanatomy at Yale Medical School, I was pretty much self-taught because there was no one around to teach me.  I mispronounced all sorts of words wrong – such as pyramidal neurons which I pronounced as pyr·a·mi·dal (ˈpir-ə-ˌmi-dal) but which should be pronounced py·ra·mi·dal (pə-ˈra-mə-dəl) – because I was only learning by reading.

It is ironic that I never expected to be a scientist; I never wanted to be a scientist; yet I have worked not only worked in cognitive neuroscience and developmental cognitive neuroscience but in many different disciplines like molecular genetics and visual neuroscience that even after I went into neuroscience I never imagined do any work in. It was never because I wanted to study another discipline or another technique in themselves.  It was because I had a question that required that I go there.  So I went into neuroscience because I wanted to answer the questioned posed by Jerry Kagan.  All of the other times were that I wanted to answer the next question that came from what I was doing.

6. What have been your major areas of research?

All of my research has been tied to prefrontal cortex and the cognitive abilities dependent on prefrontal, whichare loosely called executive functions (EFs).  That involves being able to exert self-control to not blurt out something you regret.  You think before you act rather than reacting or acting impulsively.  Another part is reasoning and problem-solving – being able to hold different pieces of information in mind and relate one fact or idea to another, to be able to play with ideas in your mind.  That involves working memory.  Another aspect of the inhibitory control component of EFs besides self-control is selective attention, to be able to inhibit extraneous things so that you pay attention to the most important things.  The third core EF cognitive flexibility, involves being able to flexibly react to a situation rather than rigidly sticking to one plan, being able to creatively think outside the box, being able come up with something that perhaps nobody has thought of before.  All of my work has been about that.  It turns out that the abilities, which were beginning to develop in babies in the first year of life all over the world, were elementary EFs: working memory and inhibitory control.  After I got data from monkeys that made an argument that the frontal lobe was involved in these changes, the next question was, “What about the frontal lobe was changing?”  It is too vague to say the frontal lobe is maturing.  It is like saying, “Children develop.”  What about prefrontal cortex was changing?  Probably a lot of things.  But we knew in the monkey brain that the level of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is very important in prefrontal cortex was increasing in the whole brain, and particularly in prefrontal.  I thought increasing levels of dopamine in prefrontal might be part of the biological change making possible those cognitive changes in the babies.  So how are you going to study this?

It so happened that at a conference a colleague mentioned that she was looking into children with the disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU).  These kids cannot metabolize an amino acid called phenylalanine.  If you do not treat this disorder, levels of phenylalanine become so high that they are toxic to the brain, and you have gross damage brain and severe mental retardation.  The treatment is to try and remove phenylalanine as much as possible from the diet.  However, phenylalanine never occurs in isolation.  It is a component of protein.  So the only way to take out phenylalanine is to take out protein.  You do not want to deprive kids entirely of protein.  Doctors needed to do a delicate balance between getting a child some protein and not having the child have too much phenylalanine.  Phenylalanine competes with tyrosine to enter the brain.  So if the compromise the doctor works out involves the level of phenylalanine in the blood being a little more elevated than it should be, the level of tyrosine reaching the brain will a little less than it should be.  Now, what the person at the conference told me was kids with PKU on the dietary compromise prescribed by doctors had EF deficits, but doctors were ignoring those reported deficits because nobody could imagine a mechanism by which only certain functions of the brain would be affected.  Besides, the kids looked great on IQ tests, and they had normal head circumference.  So the doctors did not want to hear about problems.  They said, “We solved this.  They are no mentally retarded.”  Well, when I was a postdoc, on the floor below me, there was a lab headed by Bob Roth who happened to be studying the competition between tyrosine and another amino acid.  What they showed was that if tyrosine is lowered only a little bit (tyrosine is the precursor of dopamine, by the way) it does not affect most dopamine systems in the brain.  They are robust in the face of having a little less raw material (a little less tyrosine from which to make dopamine).  However, Bob Roth’s lab showed that prefrontal cortex is different; it is affected by even small reductions in tyrosine.  So I said, “This fits what is happening with these kids with PKU.”  If they are on diet, phenylalanine levels are only slightly increased, which would reduce the amount of tyrosine reaching the brain only slightly.  So it should selectively affect prefrontal cortex and selectively affect EFs.  We did an animal model to show this.  We followed children with PKU longitudinally to show this.  We showed the mechanism causing the EF deficits in PKU children and we showed the EF deficits more definitively than had been done before.  In response, almost overnight, the guidelines for medical treatment of PKU changed because once they had a mechanism, once they understood the cause and what to do about it, it was easy to react.

In the course of doing the longitudinal study, I got some information I did not want to hear – which was that the special property of the dopamine system in prefrontal cortex that made the effects of PKU selective to prefrontal were also true of the retina.  Every last one of the special properties.  To be consistent, I had to predict that the retina would be affected in kids with PKU too.  I contacted the world’s expert on the retina at Harvard.  He got all excited because ”we know this”  and he started telling me at the cellular level.  But I wanted to know at the behavioral level so I could study it!  He said, “Well, we do not know as much about that.  However, we do know that if dopamine is dramatically reduced, as in Parkinson’s disease, there is a deficit in contrast sensitivity.  So I teamed up with a pediatric optometrist, Chaya Herzberg.  We studied contrast sensitivity in the kids.  Sure enough, they were impaired.  We had two totally different behavioral deficits predicted by the same underlying mechanism.  I can keep going on, but I will not.  There is a paper in a book called Malleable Minds, edited by Rena Subotnik and others, which talks about how I went from one thing not finding, or that I did not understand, to investigating what might be going on there. How can I try to understand the thing that is not fitting?  Or, what are the implications of what we know now for something else? Or, now that we know enough to help kids, how can we go about helping kids, and showing that it helps?

7. If you had unlimited funding and unrestricted freedom, what research would you conduct?

That’s easy.  I want to study the benefits of theatre, music, dance, storytelling, youth circus, and so on, for kids.  EFs are like the ‘canary in the coal mine.’  They are the first to show the effects, and they show them most dramatically, if you are sad, stressed, lonely, not physically fit, or sleep-deprived.  In other words, if you want kids to be able to function well cognitively, if you want them to succeed to school and careers, you need to care about their emotional, social, and physical health.  If any of those needs are unmet, they will pull EFs down.  It will pull school or job performance down.  If you think about the activities that address all the parts of you, it is activities like those I just mentioned.  They challenge EFs, which is critical.  They require holding information in mind, paying close attention and concentrating, and so on.  They give kids great joy and feelings of pride and self-confidence.  The things that I have been talking about are ensemble activities like orchestra, social, communal dance, and so on, where everyone is part of a group or team and working together.  Everybody is an important part of a whole (social connection and belonging).  All of them involve developing physically.  It is most obvious with something like dance or circus.  However, even something like playing an instrument requires eye-hand coordination, manual dexterity, and so on.

That is what I would do.  I had an ad in Variety that asked for funding to do this because the eyes of grant reviewers (who love my basic science work) galze over when I ask for funding to study the benefits of music,  dance, storytelling, or youth circus.  I am considering trying to raise funds to serious, state of the art studies of this through crowdscource funding.

The arts have been around since the beginning of civilization.  And they have been in every civilization everywhere.  If they were just a frill, would they have lasted so long and been found everywhere?  If they were just a frill, you would not think they would have that staying power.  You would not think they would have independently developed in so many different places.  They must  address fundamental needs of people.

8. You earned the Tier I Canada Research Chair Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in 2004.   What is involved in this position?  What social responsibilities does subsequent funding and influence entail?

The Canada Research Chair means that I am freed from other responsibilities to do research.  I do not have to teach.  I teach every other year because I love to teach; I do not get paid anymore to teach.  I do not have to run my conference, and I do not get any more pay for running the conference.  The conference is for the general public.  It is transformational for the people who go to it and it has a ripple effect, helping many more people than just those who attend.  Every single person of the 700+ attending gave it a standing ovation at the end.  For the last two conferences (2010 and 2013) 98% of attendees gave it an outstanding review.  The effects reach medical practice, educational practice, and parenting.  If you go to my website, you will see several different social service things that we are involved in.  For the conference, I worked hard with people from countries that Canada is not so inclined to give visas to such as the Philippines, South Africa, or Palestine.

The only child and adolescence psychiatrist in Gaza emailed me that he was coming to the conference.  He was all excited.  Two weeks later, he emailed me, very disappointed, that his institution had spent all of its travel funds for the year.  I emailed him back right away, “Do not worry, you can still come.  We will not charge you registration for the conference and between the Arab-Muslim and Jewish communities in Vancouver, each will raise half of the funds for your travel expenses.”  Of course, I had not asked anybody yet.  So now, I had to ask people! (Laughs) People were great.  They raised the money.  Jews outside of British Columbia (BC), even as far as Israel, sent money.

About 6 weeks before the conference, I received another concerned email from the doctor in Gaza.  Obviously, there is no Canadian embassy in Gaza or anywhere in Palestine.  So his visa had been sent to the closest Canadian embassy – the one in Cairo – but there was unrest in Egypt and Canada had closed its embassy in Cairo.  Also, he was supposed to fly out of Cairo but the border between Gaza and Egypt had been closed because of the unrest.  The wonderful, wonderful man who was the Representative of Canada in Ramallah (Hussein Hirji) arranged for the doctor’s visa to be sent to Tel Aviv, but Israel, bless its heart, would not allow a Palestinian to go from Gaza to Tel Aviv to pick up the visa and back.  So Hussein had it couriered from Tel Aviv to Sami Owaida (the doctor in Gaza).  Then I had to quickly change Sami’s flight to go out of Amman, Jordan, instead of Cairo.  But he needed a visa to enter Jordan.  All of that happened and he was at the conference! (Laughs)

It was great.  One of the big topics at the conference was trauma.  In particular, the ways to recognize unusual signs and how to try and help people recover.  It is hard to think of a place where there have been more traumatized people.

9. What do you consider the controversial topics in your field? How do you examine the controversial topics?

One controversial topic is, what EFs are – if they are distinct or all one?   Whether EFs can be improved in children, and how, is controversial.  In addition, there is a lot we do not know such as the optimal timing of programs to improve EFs, how long programs should be – in terms of months/years and in terms of how long a single session should be.  Many of the programs that have worked have had multiple components.   There is disagreement about whether we should try to discover which discrete part is most responsible for the benefit, or whether it is a gestalt and trying to study individual features in isolation would be the wrong way to go.

There are disagreements about how to interpret behavioral findings on EF tests.  Exactly, why did somebody fail or succeed?  There are disagreements about most everything.  So in that sense, most everything is controversial.

10. What do some in opposition to you argue? How do you respond?

Sometimes, it is an empirical question.  We respond by saying, “Let’s do a study together.”  I did that with a colleague from England.  We published in 2013.  He was right.  I was wrong.  We say this in the paper.

Sometimes, it is very clear that they are wrong, and they are just being stubborn to say what they say, because the data so clearly show they are wrong.  I try to say that, but it usually falls on deaf ears.

Sometimes, we, alone, will try to do a study to answer the question empirically.  It may at times send me back to the drawing board to re-think things.

11. What advice do you have for young psychologists?

I think that they should follow their heart, what excites them, and not worry about whether they will get a job or even tenure.  Sometimes, they think that they should study x because x is more marketable.  I do not think that they should worry about marketability.  I think they should follow what really is their passion.  And the opportunities will come from that because they will do the best work in what they are most interested in doing.  There is no best time to have kids.  If somebody is waiting to have kids until there are no pressures or the right time;there is no right time and there always be pressures.  You might as well do it.

There is no point in holding a grudge or being ungracious.  There is no point in making enemies. Let things roll off your back, and to just be kind and considerate to everybody, even if someone has not been that way to you.

12. Whom do you consider your biggest influences? Could you recommend any seminal or important books/articles by them?

Jerry Bruner, Pat Goldman-Rakic, George Goethals, Robert Swearer, Elliott Stellar, Jim Stellar.

13. In an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus from In-Sight Issue 2.A, I quote an acceptance speech for an award from the AAAS for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.   In it, she said, “We live in perilous times for science…and in order for scientists to preserve their freedoms they have a responsibility…to bring our science to the public arena and to speak out as forcefully as we can against even the most cherished beliefs that reflect unsubstantiated myths.” How important do you see criticizing ‘unsubstantiated myths’ in ‘perilous times’ for Science?

I wonder if that was done during President Bush, seriously, because he would say things that were not true. There were political ads by “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”that were full of lies first against Senator Max Cleland from Virginia, a Vietnam veteran who was paraplegic, and they challenged his patriotism and military duty.  After that, they did to the same thing against Senator Kerry when he was running for President.What they said were lies, just lies.

A lot of times, if you look at the discussion section of a scientific paper, what is said there is not substantiated in the results section.  Oftentimes, what people will say in the press, or a discussion paper, is unsubstantiated, even though they make it sound like it is substantiated.  That is very serious, a very serious problem.

I think it is very important to speak out against lies, to speak the truth, and the to stand up for justice and what is right.  It is important to speak up when scientific findings are ignored or mis-used.

Prime Minister Harper is making it difficult for scientists in the federal government here to get the truth out.  If he disagrees with the truth, they are not supposed to publish it.  That is a huge problem.

14. I noticed in conducting a rather large literature review with a professor from the University of the Fraser Valley, in some of our research for environmental psychology, the discussion on the great level of lobbying involved in environmental issues.

Look at fracking, the evidence is that it is bad.  We should not allow fracking.  However, there is so much money coming from the industry that the material is not coming through.  President Obama supports fracking now, and he is a good man.  I think if he saw the evidence, he would change his mind.  It is a huge problem.  People claim x, y, and z is evidenced-based.  That a, b, and c are not.  Even though, the evidence shows the reverse.

Emile Durkheim said, ‘Words really are not nearly as powerful as we thought.  They do not really have the power to persuade you if your mind is set against it.  The only time words have power is if you were already sort of inclined to think that way.’  If you were not inclined in that way at all, words will not likely persuade you.

15. Regarding Durkheim’s statement, this might support more foundational education.  For example, rather than a smart group of people selecting the appropriate thoughts and ideas for everyone in their education, you have students learn the tools for effective reasoning.

Right!  You want people who can reason, problem-solve, can think, and can use executive functions.


1)  [On Being] (2009, September 30). Soundseen: In the Room with Adele Diamond. Retrieved from

2)  Dalai Lama Center [dalailamacenter] (2013, June 20). Heart-Mind 2013: Adele Diamond – Cultivating the Mind. Retrieved from

3)  Dalai Lama Center [dalailamacenter] (2012, January 25). Adele Diamond with the Dalai Lama. Retrieved from

4)  Diamond, A. (2014). Want to optimize executive functions and academic outcomes? Simple, just nourish the human spirit. Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, 37, 205-232

5)  Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 335-341.

6)  Diamond, A. (2001).  A model system for studying the role of dopamine in prefrontal cortex during early development in humans. In C. Nelson & M. Luciana (Eds.), Handbook of developmental cognitive neuroscience (p. 433-472). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Reprinted in M.H. Johnson, Y. Munakata, & R. O. Gilmore (eds.). (2002). Reader in brain development and cognition. London, UK: Blackwell Press.

7)  Diamond, A. (2011).  Biological and social influences on cognitive control processes dependent on prefrontal cortex.  Progress in Brain Research, 89, 317-337. (special issue entitled “Gene Expression to Neurobiology and Behavior: Human Brain Development and Developmental Disorders”)

8)  Diamond, A. (2007). Consequences of variations in genes that affect dopamine in prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 17, 161-170.

9)  Diamond, A. (2012). How I came full circle from the social end of psychology, to neuroscience, and back again, in an effort to understand the development of cognitive control. In R. F. Subotnik, A. Robinson, C. M. Callahan, & P. Johnson (Eds.), Malleable Minds. (p.55-84). Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, U. of Conn.

10)  Diamond, A. (in press). Want to optimize EFs and academic outcomes? Simple, just nourish the human spirit. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: Developing cognitive control processes: Mechanisms, implications, and interventions, 37.

11)  Diamond, A., Ciaramitaro, V., Donner, E., Djali, S., & Robinson, M. (1994). An animal model of early-treated PKU. Journal of Neuroscience, 14, 3072-3082

12)  Diamond, A. & Herzberg, C. (1996). Impaired sensitivity to visual contrast in children treated early and continuously for PKU.Brain, 119, 523-538.

13)  Diamond, A., Prevor, M., Callender, G., & Druin, D.P. (1997). Prefrontal cortex cognitive deficits in children treated early and continuously for PKU. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Monograph #252), 62(4), 1-207.

14)  Garrison Institute [GarrisonInstitute] (2011, January 10). Adele Diamond at the Garrison Institute. Retrieved from

15)  Garrison Institute [GarrisonInstitute] (2011, December 5). Adele Diamond on Why Disciplining the Mind May Be Critical for Children’s Academic Success. Retrieved from

16)  Garrison Institute [GarrisonInstitute] (2012, July 16). Child Development and the Brain: Insights to Help Every Child Thrive. Retrieved from

17)  Kiefer, F. [Fanny Kiefer] (2012, January 24). Adele Diamond on Studio 4 with Fanny Kiefer Part 1 of 2. Retrieved from

18)  Kiefer, F. [Fanny Kiefer] (2012, January 24). Adele Diamond on Studio 4 with Fanny Kiefer Part 2 of 2. Retrieved from

19)  Seattle Children’s Hospital [SeattleChildrens] (2012, October 18). Understanding EF. Retrieved from

20)  Towson University [Towson University] (2012, January 24). MSDE – Dr Adele Diamond. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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