Information Age Education
   Issue Number 38
March, 2010   

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

Here 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 senior citizens.

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 war?

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

Your 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 correctness.

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 problem situation?

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.

Some Difficulties

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 of correctness.

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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