Solange Dénervaud

What Is Our Added Value as Human?


During her 15-minute talk, Dr. Dénervaud discusses and explains:

  • brain plasticity;
  • self-monitoring;
  • how errors are perceived;
  • positivity and negativity-biases;
  • how Montessori protects children from adults;
  • fixing the adults’ biased-brain problem rather than the children’s

Dénervaud defines a "Prepared Adult" as: A human being capable of observation (reality-driven, not expectation-driven), meaning being ready and trained to explore and adapt to the unexpected (e.g., mistakes, conflict, cultural differences) -- this is more and more important in a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity)! A prepared adult has access to their own creative potential. In my experience, it takes to admit our own limits (our own “blockages” beyond our ego), and to build from these limitations on a daily basis: Ready to fail, ready to learn, ready to enter into a process and never reach a “final” destination.


Dr. Solange Denervaud graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) in bioengineering. She is trained in Montessori education and previously taught at a Montessori School in Vevey, Switzerland. Denervaud’s research focuses on the impact of the learning environment on the development of cognitive-emotional competencies in 5-13 year-old children, with an emphasis on the Montessori method. Her work uses a combination of psychophysics, neuropsychology, electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).


There is one very in my eyes there is one very intriguing question is what is our added value as human? And here we can quote maybe Darwin said that it's not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent that survives, but it is the the one that is the most adaptable to change. So, in fact, if we look at how we are, we cannot fly, we cannot fight, but we can observe and imitate and create. So it means that we owe our autonomy to our survival. I mean, our survival capacity, because we can adapt to continuously changing environment and to boundaries. This is so we we are meant to solve problems and to be creative and it's tightly related. So this is our abilities because we can self monitor ourself when we face unexpected events. We can adjust and we can create. So this is called self monitoring. So imagine it's a very sunny day and you want to go outside for a hike because you have some Swiss Alps in front of you. And this is how you imagine your journey. Journey. However, we know that life is not a steady flow and we always face some unexpected events. So when there is something unexpected, we need to detect it and adapt our behaviour and sometimes we can do it quite creatively. So this is this process of adaptation. We need to detect, evaluate and then change our behaviour. And if we look at this in a young toddler, you will see how obvious it is.

So you can see that she's discovering herself for the first time in front of a mirror and she will just repeat the experiment until she can integrate all the feedback. And one day, hopefully she won't be surprised anymore when she will cross a mirror. So one question is that maybe there are some sensitive periods so we can gain like step one for stepwise gain in self monitoring. First, a young baby need to monitor himself at the physical level and then at the cognitive level and finally at the social emotional level. So it means like we are meant to discover different types of discrepancies of boundaries first physical and later have some cognitive feedback. And that's what we are called also sometimes errors and finally some conflicts. So when we look at errors. And how we learn at school to face these errors might be very different. And if we take like Montessori kids, they are they are at school, they learn to self-monitor themselves. And in traditional school, it's more related to the adults giving feedback. So that was the point of my dissertation. We evaluated how errors were perceived in Montessori versus traditional school children. So we look at their brain activity and their behavior. And when we looked at their brain. All the children shown is a specific window of plasticity related to error monitoring between 6 to 12 years old, meaning that the brain might be more plastic to learn how to self-regulate. Mistake. So it means that what they experience as cool might shape their behavior.

So that's what we measured. Then we looked at the behavior. And we found that. School experience shape children abilities for air differently. In traditional school students, they start detecting error quite late, around six years old, and they are not very good at self-correcting over the ages. However, Montessori school children, they can detect discrepancies for from a very young age on and they are very good at learning to self-correct when they grow up older. And there is another point is that the effect related to the mistakes was quite different. So we know that most of adults are afraid of being wrong. And you can see here, this is one of my colleagues. She's very angry when she gets wrong. However, Montessori school children, they had no effect related to the action. Being correct or incorrect was neither good nor bad. So they just stick to the facts. And this is very important because it's related to how we perceive our environment. And we also measured what is called a positivity bias for how long you can perceive a positive versus a negative emotion. And look at this face, it will change dynamically. And you can just try to see when you like, just make a decision when you have the impression like the happy face is a way. And in fact, the time you look at the positive emotion is very related to your own bias, your own positivity bias. On the other side, you see like an angry emotion going to.

Very happy emotion. So based on the reaction time, then we can measure the bias. How are you bias? Do you have a tendency to look longer at positivity or a tendency to look longer at negativity effects? And in fact, we found that Montessori school children, they tend to be to have a positivity bias. They look longer at happy stimuli, which is very important in life. So then we look at how they bring reacted when they are wrong versus when they are correct. And we found that in traditionally in the traditional schools, the children, they start wiring their brain just to remember correct actions. Whenever. Whereas Montessori school students, what happened in their brain. It's like they start wiring connecting their brain to solve errors. So whenever they are incorrect, they will create roads in their brain just to find a way to go through that problem. And in fact, it was not related to higher capacity to execute. It was not related to higher executive functions, but to hire and increased creativity skills. So it is really important because it might be that there are more trades to the unexpected, and being more trained to the unexpected might just be a way to create the unexpected at one point. So you can see that the way you can keep your mind flexible over development. And that's in fact something else that we could measure. It was the brain dynamic. So the brain discussion and the brain discussion was way more fluid and more recruiting, more brain areas in Montessori children than traditionally schooled children, meaning that they keep a flexible adjustment in life, like an ongoing process.

And they also use more. They will coordinate more brain regions to get together. So it's also how they can create because they have more access to their inner resources. So they created potential is accessible. And this is also related to longer roads that they connect and they wire their brain with longer roads. So it's very important because we we can imagine that's a way they can free them themselves to think they can regulate themselves when they first face something unexpected. So they are they know how to keep themselves free to think. So also when you are able to face unexpected events, it means you have no victimization because you are you you always have a way to access your own creative potential. You're ready to learn and then you're ready for the others because others are different. But if you know that difference is part of life and you know how to adapt, then you can collaborate and cooperate with others. So that's what we are measuring now is how the brain can just coordinate. And we have preliminary results showing that Montessori kids are better at coordinating their brain activity to co-create so creative ideas can travel much faster between. Like children that are trained to self-regulate themselves when they face unexpected events or differences. And the last point that is also very important, and that might explain why we observe some of these results.

Is that Montessori school children. They have a lower tendency to over imitate useless actions. So when we show a child, we ask in this task, which is called the hook task, we ask the child to recover the reward that is inside the bottle. And the child has one minute to go and get the reward with the use of two different tools. Most of the time they cannot make it so. After that, we just show them how to make a hook with one of the two. But we also add one useless action which is just on the top, something that is doesn't mean anything for the goal. And what we observe is that in Montessori school, children, they have a very lower tendency to over imitate. So they will just stick to the hook and they won't add this useless action. However, traditionally school students, they have a persistence in over imitating what adults show, even if it's useless. So this all these points, these findings can give us some insights for changes in education. Because as Albert Einstein said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Because there is a very like in the facts. If we stick to the facts most others. Have experienced. A very traditional school environment. So it means that most adults have a biased brain. We are afraid of errors, mistakes, conflicts. We don't trust each other and we are not good at detecting errors and take ownership of them.

We have we have a high tendency to look for correct answers, meaning that what we already know, we are short sighted and we look for rapid outcomes and we are often not reality grounded. We overuse energy or we don't use any, which is called cognitive inflexibility. And we have a very low access to our own creative potential. Plus we rely on others feedback and we do not co work easily and we have a huge tendency to over imitate useless action. So it means that we have. Brains that are not trained to the unexpected. And that's a very bad leg, because children are completely unpredictable and unexpected. They are so random and they are generating generating errors. And if we are not fine with making errors that we can be like. It started being difficult for us to face children and getting into the unknown. And they are different and they are very dynamic and ever changing. So they ask for a constant and dynamic adaptation, but we have not been trained for that. So we do not feel good with difference or novelty and we are not good at observing reality, but we expect outcomes. So meaning that for the past two years we've tried to fix the child problem, which is related to the attractor states that Professor Angela had mentioned earlier. So. Maybe, maybe. If Montessori works, it might be related to the fact that, as my mentor told me once, that the Montessori protects the child from the adults. Because if you think a bit more about Montessori education, in the early years, the children, they work with material on their own and later they work with peers.

But they don't rely so much on the on the adults because we know that we learn because we synchronize brain activity. But if adults have a biased brain, then students, they will just bias the brain by synchronizing with the teacher. So maybe that's part of the problem. And as I said, also, if I had an hour to solve problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes only thinking about the solutions. So there is a huge in my eyes, there is a huge scientific work to be done just to understand this problem and maybe solution will come up from a bottom up perspective. And also because we need to understand who we are and maybe we don't need to fix the child problem. But more most adults bias brain problem. And that's another fact that is very positive, is that the brain is plastic, even if we are adults. However, it's a time of it's a question of investment. We need time and energy to modify brain connectivity. So we need really to build a culture of education to spark curiosity and understanding about children's reality and try not to overstep free will from adults just to gain these changes that could last. And meaning that we should maybe nurture our added values value as a human and keep a flexible adjusted adjustment in life and optimal use of brain resources.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.