This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/
and the end of this newsletter.
Using Your Brain to Retrieve and Process Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Information
"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English writer; 1825–1895.)
“In the book of life, the answers aren't in the back.” (Quote from
Charlie Brown in a Peanuts comic strip authored by Charles Schultz.)
The previous issue of this newsletter discussed fiction from a brain
science and education point of view. Our brain stores a very large
amount of information of varying levels of trustworthiness. We
routinely feed information into our brains that we know has a low level
of credibility. Our brain locates and processes this stored information
as we work to solve problems, answer questions, accomplish tasks, and
make decisions. In the remainder of this document, we use the term
“problem solving” to refer to dealing with simple and complex problems,
tasks, questions, and decision-making situations.
This issue of the newsletter focuses on some of the capabilities of
a human brain’s memory and processing system. The next issue focuses
mainly on computer capabilities as an aid to a human brain.
Retrieving Information from One’s Brain
is a one-question number-fact test. Respond rapidly to the question:
“What is 9 x 7?” While a good many adults will quickly and accurately derive the correct answer,
quite a few will provide a different answer.
Human memories are by no means foolproof. Memories tend to fade over
time if they are not used. After you produced an answer, did you think
a little bit about whether the answer was correct? If so, did you
attempt to check it for correctness? For example, you could think about
9 x 7 = 10 x 7 – 1 x 7. The 10 x 7 = 70 part can be retrieved from
memory or calculated with confidence, and subtracting 7 can be done
mentally with a reasonable level of confidence.
Here is another interesting example about human memory. As you are
walking through a crowded store, you see someone you are sure you
recognize. Your conscious brain asks your subconscious brain to
retrieve the person’s name. Your conscious brain “knows” that the
information is stored in your memory—but it may be that that the
information cannot be retrieved in a timely fashion. Most people find
that retrieving names becomes more difficult as they move toward being
By the way, how is your brain able to recognize a person and have
confidence that it is someone you know? Your eyes are taking in a huge
amount of information. Most of it is not brought to your conscious
attention. Your ability to see a familiar face in a crowd gives you an
indication of the powerful pattern storage and recognition capabilities
of your brain.
Many people have difficulty in quickly retrieving the name of a person
they know. And, of course, it is not just names of people. Most likely
you have experienced this memory retrieval problem from time to time in
other areas. As an example, many people are not very good at spelling.
Poor spellers are greatly helped by the spell-checking feature
available in most computer word processors.
Dealing with Complex Problems
Arithmetic calculation such as 9 x7 and 183.4 x 96.28 are very simple problems and they have exact answers.
Now, think of some of the more complex problems that exist in our
world. How do we solve or substantially alleviate problems such as
aging parents or grandparents, budgeting, disease, drug abuse,
education, homelessness, hunger, information explosion, poverty, racial
prejudice, religious prejudice, raising children, saving for
emergencies and for retirement, sustainability, tax preparation, and
In our everyday lives, we are surrounded by a combination of personal
problems that are quite complex. Through informal and formal education,
training, and experience we get better at dealing with complex
problems. All of us know something about each of the problems named
above. (See Thomas Huxley’s advice given as a quote at the beginning of
this newsletter.) A healthy human brain has tremendous capabilities!
In many complex problem areas there are experts who have spent
thousands of hours developing their expertise and who make a living
providing help to people with less expertise. Perhaps you hire someone
to do your tax returns, or make use of a computer program to help you
in this endeavor.
The simple versus complex problems situation identifies a major
challenge to our educational system. How much educational time and
effort should be spend on relatively simple problems that have been
substantially researched in the past, and for which information
retrieval and simple information processing techniques can solve the
problem? How much educational time and effort should be spent on more
complex problems and learning to learn on one’s own?
As you think about these questions, you should take into consideration
the steadily growing capabilities of the Web and computers both to
store information and to solve certain types of problems.
Our Brains Attempt to Cope With Incorrect and Uncertain Information
brain and mind routinely deal with a wide range of correct, uncertain,
biased, and incorrect information. From this informational hodgepodge,
your brain and mind make decisions and direct the rest of your body in
taking actions based on the decisions. The fact that the human race has
survived indicates that a healthy brain and mind are able to adequately
cope with a huge collection of information of varying levels of
How does your brain cope? This is a very difficult question, and here
we give a quite simplified answer. Suppose that a problem situation
comes into your consciousness and you start to think about it. This
thinking activates your subconscious, which locates and processes
information by an electrochemical pattern matching process—perhaps
involving a billion or more neurons and trillions of dendrites—and then
feeds results back to your conscious brain. Your subconscious and
conscious work together, somewhat in a cyclical fashion, mulling over
and working to solve the problem that you have in mind. In many cases
it is helpful to use writing as an aid to organizing and storing
intermediate results in the process.
Unfortunately, your subconscious may not retrieve the desired
information in a timely fashion and/or it may retrieve incorrect
information. Consider a person working under the pressure of an
important, timed test. Some people handle such pressure much better
than others. Do you think that quick and accurate memory recall under
pressure should be an important consideration on whether a person
passes a particular course or graduates from high school?
To continue the example, let’s assume that your subconscious brain
provides a response to your conscious request for information. For a
variety of reasons, the information that is retrieved may be
questionable or wrong. What do you do next?
At a conscious level, you should have your conscious brain do an
analysis for plausibility, correctness, appropriateness,
trustworthiness, and other aspects of the results provided by your
subconscious. Does the information produced by your brain make sense
and is it “logical” in terms of the problem or decision situation you
face? Check the results against things that you “know” are true or that
you strongly believe are true. In your checking process, you may well
ask yourself if the proposed action is morally, ethically, and legally
appropriate. You have a set of values that are strongly immersed into
your overall being and sense of self. You may do an emotional check.
How do you feel about the proposed solution? You may do an intuitive
check. Does the answer agree with your intuitive sense about the
These types of analysis allow you to make a reasoned decision on
whether to act on the information that has been received from your
subconscious or to seek additional information. You might seek
additional information from your own brain, from other people, or from
the Web and other sources of collected information.
The processes just described are by no means easy to master. Skill in
such analysis comes from years of practice. One measure of an
increasing level of expertise in a discipline one is studying is an
increasing level of ability to self-assess one’s own thinking and work.
You realize, of course, that this checking process is by no means
foolproof. People often make poor or incorrect decisions. Even if they
think about their decisions before taking action, they may lack the
knowledge and skills to detect major flaws in their reasoning and
problem solving activities.
In addition, people vary widely in what they “know” is correct. For
example, think about the two theories creationism and evolution. Or,
think about what you learned about child raising while you were being
raised. Think about politics and political parties. It is easy to
extend such a list, and it is easy to see why people can disagree on
possible answers to a complex problem.
Moreover, if a decision has to be made quite quickly—on the spur of the
moment—then there is not time for your conscious brain to carefully
analyze the information retrieved from your subconscious brain. If you
are in an excited emotional state (for example, very angry or
experiencing test anxiety) this also lowers the chances that you will
make good decisions.
Education Implications and the Next Newsletter
Each human brain is different from each other human brain. Informal and
formal education, training, and life experiences allow us to develop
our brain’s capabilities. One of the capabilities that can be
substantially developed is the ability to deal with our brain’s memory
and processing capabilities that are not perfect, and with a world that
provides us with a continual barrage of information of varying degrees
The next issue of this newsletter will continue the discussion of
learning to effectively use your brain in a world that provides you
with a mixture of correct, doubtful, and incorrect information. The
focus will be on making use of the Internet and other information and
communication technology systems.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE
is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology
museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki
with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter
you are now reading.
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