Teaching Neurodiversity:  The Brain Is Diverse by Design  

Adam K. Anderson is professor of human development and member of the graduate field of psychology at Cornell University. He is interested in the role of the emotions in all human faculties, considering psychological, physiological, and neural perspectives. In recognition of his work, Adam has been a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, received the APA Early Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and received the Cognitive Neuroscience Society Young Investigator Award. He’s a coauthor of Interactive Psychology: People in Perspective, Second Edition.

Adam K. Anderson
Image Credit: Eve D. DeRosa

Human brains are three-pound oddly shaped bumpy footballs in a skull helmet—not much to be struck or charmed by. The apparent biological sameness of our brains provides an opportunity to build a foundation for understanding our uniqueness and diversity as well as our human and even nonhuman commonality. 

We as neuroscience researchers are moving toward a greater appreciation of humans’ inherent neurodiversity, or the naturally occurring differences among individuals in how brains function. Despite how similar our brains look, medicinal and psychological treatments can have widely different effects depending on the person. Evidence that even the basic biology of pain and how it is perceived depends partly on the individual.    

Brains are differently abled, with some more neurotypical or statistically “normal” or average.  Others, of those who may experience autism, dyslexia, or schizophrenia, for example, are more statistically rare.  According to the social model of disability, it is our society that creates limitations when it fails to appreciate these neural differences as potential strengths and to design an inclusive environment that honors them.    

In the classroom, it is valuable to have open discussions about our understanding of where neurodiversity crosses over to illness and is the cause of suffering, rather than an expression of neurodivergence from expected norms.  It can hurt being a square peg continually forced into a round hole, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being square—those innovative angles could and should be celebrated.  These are opportunities for conversations about biases in what forms of neurodiversity society accepts and how cultures, in addition to neuroscience, determine those fuzzy shifting boundaries.    

Here is how I talk about neurodiversity in the classroom: Brains are diverse by design. While all neurons have all the same basic parts, they differ in appearance across the brain. In the early 1900s K. Brodmann discovered that the brain has different regions or areas based on this diversity. This discovery led to a literal map of the brain as comprised of distinct local cultures of neurons. Over time research discovered that this diversity reflected different functions.  We discovered we have a culture of neurons located in the occipital lobe specialized for seeing and another culture in the temporal lobe for hearing. Alternatively, we learned that the occipital lobe was deaf and the temporal lobe was largely blind. A neurodiverse perspective focuses more on celebrating differences in what we are and not what we are not.    

Every cell in your body—including the neurons in your brain—contains a complete copy of your genetic code.  But brains are a product of both your genes and your environment. Neither nature (the biological instructions in your genes) nor nurture (your, or your neurons’, lived experience) is independently responsible for the person you are. What makes your brain and mind so adaptive is their unique responsiveness to, and interaction with, your experiences.     

Even at the level of microscopic neurons, with identical genetic codes, this genetic sameness requires diversity to develop into a differentiated thriving brain. For a stem cell to determine its fate to become a neuron, rather than a heart muscle, requires biological environmental inputs. For a neuron to determine its fate, such as whether it will provide the gift of sight or sound, then depends on its local culture and whom it speaks with, in this case an eye or an ear. Diversity in biological context is built in by design.    

Teaching neuroscience in introductory psychology, or like teaching any challenging material, can be done with neurodiversity in mind. As a science that teaches us about people from many perspectives, it is a great platform for developing neurodiverse teaching practices. Consider the principles below and be confident in developing and testing your own.    

  • Employ diverse teaching methods. Teaching integratively provides multiple paths to understanding the “same” material. A group’s or an individual’s best way to connect with material may change with the topic. Supporting diverse learning strategies celebrates diversity as a strength instead of viewing it as a vulnerability.  
  • Define excellence diversely. It is paramount that diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in our courses align with having high expectations. Mastering challenging material is critical for growth. Rather than holding to a single standard, consider multiple models of excellence and how to evaluate them.   
  • Make a psychologically safe learning environment. Stress is not bad by its nature and is needed for growth. When in an unsafe environment, however, stress turns healthy challenges into threats. Making room for opportunities to try and fail safely rewards effort and persistence. Safety also promotes exploration, supporting diverse ways of learning how to learn.  

Nothing our brains are or can become is possible without embracing diversity. Likewise, nothing in psychology can be explained accurately as 100 precent nature or 100 precent nurture. Rather, your genes give your brain the unique ability to adapt to your environment and to learn from your experiences and make you truly unique—we are all one of a kind. While our brains and genes give us our common humanity, they are also a source of both our individuality and humanity’s diversity and collective resourcefulness. 

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