The photographs and worn books that adorn Dr. Marian Diamond’s office are a sharp contrast to the spare concrete corridors of the Valley Life Sciences Building at the University of California at Berkeley. And Dr. Diamond herself, an elegant woman with silver hair and a warm smile, is a pleasant contrast to the competitive and often impersonal world of academic science.
In the mid 1960’s, along with colleagues David Kresh, Ed Bennett, and Mark Rosenzweig, Dr. Diamond conducted pioneering research on the effects of “environmental enrichment” on brain development. Her work showed conclusively that early experiences could affect the physical structure of the brain, in particular that intellectual stimulation could act as a sort of “cerebral exercise” to increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex.
Those early studies set off a firestorm of research on cortical plasticity, the idea that the structure of the brain could change in an experience-dependent way. Dr. Diamond herself went on to probe the nature of environmental enrichment, showing that brains of all ages could be enriched, that too much enrichment was harmful, and that real learning was a necessary part of enrichment. The story of her remarkable research career, though, is richer than a bibliography of her publications can tell. Marian Diamond is a scientist in the classical sense of the word; her life and her work flow into each other seamlessly, without either coming up short.
A Child of Sage Brush and Lilacs
Marian Diamond grew up one of six children in a small artist’s colony in Southern California, and her childhood was a wonderful example of an enriched environment. Her father, a highly literate English physician, and her mother, a pianist and scholar of the classics, both encouraged Marian to follow her talents and her intellect as far as they would take her. A precocious youngster, one of Marian’s early role models was Sir William Osler, a physician and educator whom she only knew through a painting in a family friend’s study.
“As a little girl, I’d go in to look at the painting. According to my father’s friend, an artist called Seymour Thomas, Osler was the greatest man he had ever painted. And he had painted Woodrow Wilson, and he had painted the Big Three at Cal Tech, he was a very famous portrait painter.”
As Dr. Diamond began to face the challenges of a woman entering a male-dominated scientific world, she would draw upon the support of her childhood mentors more and more. She recalled the words of a family friend, Ben Sharpstein, who went on to become an art director for Disney:
“I was standing beside him when he was watering his orange tree, and he said, ‘Someday, you’ll be somebody.’ Whenever life got tough, I remembered what he’d told me. So I had phenomenal role models, and when I met people that I didn’t admire and they gave me a bad time, I just felt sorry for them, because I knew that I had grown up with really phenomenal people.”
Blossoming Into Science
Dr. Diamond’s early training in neuroscience was as an instructor at Cornell University. Staff shortages at Cornell created a wide range of available positions, and Dr. Diamond was eager to fill in. Teaching classes when professors were on leave or unavailable, she gained exposure to many aspects of neuroscience and found her particular strong suit in neuroanatomy and development.
With that background, her initial contact with Mark Rosenzweig and his colleges at UC Berkeley was bound to go well. In the early 1960s, Dr. Diamond and her husband both accepted positions at Berkeley, and she began a research program that would significantly influence scientific ideas about early experience and brain structure for decades afterwards.
Dr. Diamond’s research on enriched environments and their effect on brain structure reflects her training as a neuroanatomist. Today, in the heyday of molecular biology, anatomical studies seem staid and tedious. But Dr. Diamond’s approach to neuroscience shows her belief in the value of sound scientific principles. She quotes her friend and colleague Ed Bennett: “The chemistry comes and goes, but anatomy lasts.”
Lessons from the Lab, Lessons for Life
The integrity of neuroanatomy as a discipline was a natural fit with Dr. Diamond’s personal determination and dedication. She arrived at Berkeley the mother of three young children, at a time when scientists were unquestionably scientists first, people second, and mothers… well, mothers were not supposed to be scientists. But Dr. Diamond worked hard at the juggling act. “I had two goals: one was to succeed in my profession, the other was to raise a family. So you concentrate on these efforts and try to interweave them. But when people would say you had to go to meetings and seminars, I would simply say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got to be home.’ I wasn’t doing it the way a man would do it, I was doing it the way a woman who wanted a family would do it. And I knew someday it would come together.”
And it did come together. Dr. Diamond, today a distinguished professor of Integrative Biology at U.C. Berkeley, is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on experience-dependent structural changes in the brain – how learning influences neural growth. Her latest book, Magic Trees of the Mind, co-authored with Janet Hopson, demonstrates her continued commitment to both basic science and parenting. In the rare but noble tradition of socially conscious science, Dr. Diamond uses her position as respected university professor and scientist to improve the lives of children. As she and Ms. Hopson write,
“We like to think this book can change how people view childhood and its cognitive opportunities, how they see human brain development and its ongoing plasticity… Fully two-thirds of American adults have sedentary lifestyles; and the majority have high-fat, high-calorie diets; seldom read or create things for pleasure; and watch television for hours every day. It would be surprising, then, if the average child had a regimen any different. If our book has the kind of positive effect we envision, it will inspire a new level of mental and physical activity in all age groups.
It doesn’t take money to create a climate for enchanted minds to grow. It just takes information, imagination, motivation, and effort. Once the habit of active involvement is entrained, experience will take over and those stimulated minds will do the rest for themselves in surprising and delightful ways.”
Her desire to improve the education of the nation’s youth led Dr. Diamond to begin the Each One Teach One program for the public school system in Albany, California. Each One Teach One mentors, primarily undergraduates from Dr. Diamond’s anatomy classes, go into classrooms to teach anatomy to students from kindergarten through seventh grade. The Albany students, in turn, are encouraged to teach anatomy to their parents.
The program, now in its twenty-second year, is an amazing success in a lifetime of successes for this remarkable scientist. In the laboratory of life, Marian Diamond creates the very conditions that she seeks in the laboratories of science: a nurturing and stimulating environment for her family, her colleagues, and her community. A more honorable thing cannot be said of a any scientist.