Sunday, 23 December 2012

Brain Bugs

I recently finished reading a book by Dean Buonomano about the brain and some of its imperfections - Brain Bugs: How The Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives.


There were a series of fascinating insights into some of the dilemmas we face, as a result of the human brain's recent struggles to evolve at a rate that is consistent with the rate of change we are experiencing in modern society. There was also plenty of practical advice for how we can help our own brains [and those of others] overcome some of these biologically-stubborn 'flaws'... 


A complex device

"Your brain is a web made of approximately 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses - which in terms of elements and connections surpasses the World Wide Web, with its approximately 20 billion Web pages connected by a trillion links."

Human Brain vs the World Wide Web... 

For a variety of evolutionary reasons, our brains are naturally-inclined to be good at making approximations, recognising patterns and making connections. This points to the importance of students learning about knowledge / skills / concepts in an interrelated manner and being taught to make conceptual connections, rather than being taught knowledge and skills in an isolated, 'stand-alone' fashion - our minds work best by storing knowledge "in an associative manner: related concepts... are linked to each other."

On the other hand, human brains perennially struggle with mathematical calculations - we will "never be able to match the numerical prowess of digital computers". Despite our ability to carry out highly-complex tasks ["... virtually every human brain on the planet can master a language... "], we have to think hard in order to solve relatively simple mental calculations... 
Our brains are also quite poor storage devices - there are limits to how much information we can store and how accurately we can recall that information. Fortunately, technology is fast alleviating this issue for us - there is an ever-lessening need to ask the brain to store information, as we now have Google, YouTube, Internet-connected mobile devices, electronic calendars, etc. to perform these tasks for us.
In schools, we no longer need to be focusing on 'filling up' students with knowledge and content - knowledge is increasingly accessible in the age of the Internet and it is biologically inefficient!


Manipulating behaviour and motivating people

It seems we may be 'hard wired' to seek immediate gratification - particularly for activities that are related to the limbic section of the brain, responsible for some of our more basic functions. 
The term temporal discounting has been coined to describe how "the perceived value of a reward decreases with time." i.e. We become progressively less interested in a potential reward the longer that we have to wait to receive it... 
So we need to provide frequent positive feedback about progress to students [and teachers... ], to ensure that they engage with the journey towards the long-term outcomes - show them the steps along the way, not just the final destination. Gamification, with its focus on short cycles of feedback about the performance of 'players', does this well.

"... our brain is rigged to favor immediate gratification" - people need short cycles of feedback to maximise motivation.

Irrational Fears

We excessively fear many things because it made biological sense to fear such things 100,000 years ago... eg: We have an "innate uneasiness and distrust of outsiders... [because] competition and aggression between neighboring groups was constant throughout human evolution... " This 'innate', but often irrational fear, is routinely exploited by politicians ["amygdala politics"] and others, in order to strengthen their followings.
These outdated fear circuits reflect our genetic encoding, which "can only be reprogrammed on a slow evolutionary timescale". Skunks are a good example of "the consequences of running an outdated operating system". The cocky skunks will nonchalantly turn around and spray a potential enemy with their powerful odor - a tactic that serves them well against most species they encounter, but not against speeding cars... 
These outdated fears also commonly lead to excessive conservatism and reliance upon traditional ways. Partly, this is due to our memories having "no convenient way to delete information" - even proven bad information can be hard to eradicate... 

So how do we overcome conservative and outdated - but tightly-held - views that exist in our schools..? How do we expediate necessary change?

Overcoming our 'brain bugs'

In order to effectively tackle the inherent flaws of our brains, we need to develop our awareness of how the brain works.

The term, asymmetric paternalism [George Loewenstein] refers to the concept of enacting laws and regulations that "take our propensity to make irrational decisions into account." Without restricting our freedom or available choices, such laws "should nudge us toward the decisions that are in our own and society's best interests"... 

  • If we had greater collective awareness of the brain's workings and its potential flaws, would schools be able to put some structures and processes in place to protect against irrational conservatism, or fear of difference..?

Another approach is to use the brain's propensity to value the behaviour of the group - "studies suggest that one of the most important determinants of people's behaviour is what they believe others are doing... ".

  • Do schools need to work harder at promoting and celebrating people who are demonstrating the behaviours and actions we are hoping to 'spread'..?


Anyway, that's enough for now, my brain hurts... 



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