The 38th Clayesmore Lecture: Professor Lord Winston FMedSci FRSA FRCP FRCOG FREng


Last night, hundreds of students, staff, parents, governors and other friends of the School gathered in the Sports Hall for the 2018 Clayesmore Lecture, given by Lord Winston. It proved a wonderfully riveting, educational and entertaining evening as the eminent peer enlightened us all on the subject of “learning”.

After an assured introduction from Head Girl, Hannah, Lord Winston took to the stage and led us through a plethora of awe-inspiring, witty and moving examples of how mankind has absorbed information over time, touching on the “nature versus nurture” question a number of times and repeating the importance of environment to encourage learning.

He told us how we use a huge variety of factors to improve knowledge: through stories, music, laughter, empathy, metaphor, talking, listening, emotional intelligence, bodily sensations, truth, lies and even sleep. In fact, the subject of empathy featured very strongly and left one feeling Lord Winston is a warm and wise advocate of a very human, nurturing approach, both to his research and in his message.

He also reminded us all of our potential when he told us about how the study of the preserved brain of Albert Einstein had proved his was no different to those of everybody else and was reassuring to those who view the relentless march of Artificial Intelligence as less than appealing when he said that scientists have a history of predicting the future and always getting it wrong!

Perhaps the most enlightening illustration of how we learn came in the form of a video of Lord Winston crossing a deep ravine. He explained this is what happens to information, when it is first trying to communicate between one brain cell and another: that, the first time it attempts to traverse the gap, it is difficult but subsequent attempts become easier until one can bridge the ravine with ease and expertise and a “solid pathway” is created.

And he used some splendid examples of animals learning through growth and habit (a dog catching a ball) and even by observing others (a fish watching television)!

“Learning is soft-wired,” he declared, giving encouragement, therefore, not only to our assembled pupils but also to the older members of the audience, stressing the importance of exercising both the brain and the body to aid learning and retention of knowledge, even as we age.

After taking questions from the floor, Lord Winston was given rapturous applause then Theo, our Head Boy, said a few words of thanks to round off the evening, followed by the Head, before the assembled throng moved to the Main House for a drinks reception and plenty of inspired contemplation over canapés.

A wonderful return to form for the Clayesmore Lecture.

Lord Winston is donating his fee for the evening to his charity, The Genesis Research Trust. He is Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London.