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7 minutes reading time (1405 words)

Seven Ways to Fine-tune Your Brain

My IAE-pedia entry about Brain Science has now had over 95,000 hits. I strongly recommend the site to preservice and inservice teachers—because teaching, learning, and brain science are closely related topics.

I recently viewed the short video and read the article Seven Ways to Fine-tune Your Brain by Caroline Williams (Williams, 10/1/2014). Quoting from the introduction to the article:

The human mind is the most complex information processing system we know. It has all sorts of useful design features but also many glitches and weaknesses. The problem is, it doesn't come with a user's manual. You just have to plug and play.

But if anyone knows how to get the best out of our brains, it's neuroscientists. So we asked some of the best to explain how the human brain performs many of its most useful functions and how to use them to the max.

The accompanying 2-minute 45-second video explains why it is hard to control your brain. The video is suitable for use with a wide range of students. It begins by showing a picture of a white polar bear and the instructions, “Whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear.” This is a fun way to get a person thinking about thinking and controlling their thoughts. This video can be used to facilitate a whole class and/or small group discussion about the capabilities and limitations of the human brain.

Short Summaries of Williams’ Seven Ways

     1. Attention: How to hack your attention span. Quoting from the Williams article:

In simple terms, the brain has two attention systems. One, the "bottom-up" system, automatically snaps awareness to potentially important new information, such as moving objects, sudden noises or sensations of touch. This system is fast, unconscious and always on (at least when you are awake).

The other, the "top down" system, is deliberate, focused attention, which zooms in on whatever we need to think about and, hopefully, stays there long enough to get the job done. This is the form of attention that is useful for doing tasks that require concentration. (See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-89.html.)

     2. Working memory: Get your memory working.

Attention has been extensively studied. (See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-138.html .) Quoting from that reference:

Emotion activates our attentional system, which identifies the nature and location of the variability. Attention then activates memory, thought, and problem solving systems—and finally a behavioral response emerges. Attention is thus a cognitive gateway, leading to a cognitively based response.

Quoting from the Williams article:

But working memory is much more than just a clearing house for long-term memories. It has been described as the brain's scratch pad: the place where information is held and manipulated. If you are doing anything that requires effortful, focused thought, you are using your working memory.

     3. Logical and rational thought: Become a logical and rational being.

In brief summary, it takes considerable training, experience, and cognitive development to think logically using both one’s left and right hemispheres. Here is a “use it or lose it” quote from the Williams article:

For now, he [Vinod Goel, a cognitive psychologist at York University]says, practice is your best option. Recent studies have shown that a few months' training in rational thought, as part of law degree training, increased the number of connections between frontal and parietal lobes and between the two hemispheres (Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, vol 6, p 32). The catch is, without regular practice this effect would almost certainly fade a few months after the course ended.

     4. Learning: Think like a child to learn faster.

A child’s mind is more open and less cluttered than a typical adult’s mind. Quoting from the Williams article:

What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them? The answer won't come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been to school: focus attention, engage working memory and then, a bit later, actively try to recall it.

[When Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas] taught adults to learn more like kids, [with a strong mix of enthusiasm and attention] they picked up skills much faster.

     5. Knowledge: Harness the power of knowledge.

I find it helpful to think about knowledge as a region on a scale: 1) Data; 2) Information; 3) Knowledge; and 4) Wisdom. See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-60.html. The Common Core State Standards and related “modern” curriculum revisions place a great deal of emphasis on understanding (at a knowledge and wisdom level) rather than on rote memory (at a data and information level). Quoting from the Williams article:

Knowledge isn't so much about what information you store as how you organize it to create a rich and detailed understanding of the world that connects everything you know.

     6. Creativity: Creativity on demand.

I believe that each of us has a great deal of creative ability. Making use of creativity in problem solving begins with having a good understanding of information about the problem. Quoting from the Williams article:

Once that's taken care of, it's time to cultivate a more relaxed, positive mood by taking a break to do something completely different – like watching a few entertaining cat videos. Studies where people have either watched a comedy film or a thriller before coming up with new ideas have shown that a relaxed and happy mood is far more conducive to ideas than a tense and anxious one (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 1770).

       7. Intelligence: Can you increase your IQ?

We know that people vary in intelligence, and that learning to perform well in some occupations and endeavors takes more IQ than in others. However, over a very broad range of IQs, humans have the ability to learn a great deal and to live responsible, fulfilling, productive lives. Quoting from the Williams article:

While the brain is developing, everything from diet to education and stimulation plays a huge part in developing the brain structures needed for intelligent thought. Children with a bad diet and poor education may never fulfill their genetic potential.

In addition, we have long known that lead, mercury, PCBs and other chemicals can severely damage a human brain. (See http://malibuunites.com/in-the-news/across-the-nation/lead-mercury-arsenic-pcbs-toluene-these-are-common-chemicals-that-researchers-know-can-damage-developing-brains/.)

Final Remarks

Educational cognitive neuroscience is now a well-established discipline of study. For example, see https://my.vanderbilt.edu/ecnlab/. Quoting from that website:

Welcome to the Educational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, [at Vanderbilt University] led by Professor Bruce McCandliss (Principal Investigator). We study developmental cognitive neuroscience, with an emphasis on questions of how the neural substrates of several cognitive abilities change via learning and education.

Our research group employs several diverse techniques to investigate cognitive change across development and learning, including training studies in adults and children, longitudinal research in school-age children, naturalistic school-based studies, and observational and intervention studies. Changes in neural structure and function are measured primarily through functional magnetic resonance imaging, diffusion tensor imaging analysis of white matter tract structures, and high-density EEG recordings. Cognitive domains of central interest include reading/language development, numerical/mathematical cognitive development, and domain-general attention abilities.

Our steadily growing knowledge of educational cognitive neuroscience is providing an increasingly strong foundation for improving our educational systems.

What You Can Do

Reflect on your current knowledge and understanding of the discipline of educational cognitive neuroscience. What are you doing to steadily increase your knowledge of this area and to make use of this knowledge? In your work with students, parents, colleagues, and others, what do you do to help increase their understanding of brain science? My recommendation is that this should be an important part of your lifelong professional activities.

Reference

Williams, C. (10/1/2014). Seven ways to fine-tune your brain. New Scientist. Non-subscribers can view the video free and read short summaries of the “seven ways” at http://www.newscientist.com/special/mind-guide?cmpid=NLC|NSNS|2014-1002-GLOBAL&utm_medium=NLC&utm_source=NSNS&.

Readings from IAE Publications

Moursund, D. (2014). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Moursund, D. (2014). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.

Moursund, D. (9/18/2014). Disruptive innovations in education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/disruptive-innovations-in-education.html.

Moursund, D. (8/16/2014). Being curious about curiosity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/being-curious-about-curiosity.html.

Moursund, D. (1/30/2011). Brain science and cognitive neuroscience for children and teachers. IAE Blog. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/brain-science-and-cognitive-neuroscience-for-children-and-teachers.html.

Sylwester, R. (August, 2014). The future of the mind. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 10/2/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-143.html.

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R. (3/22/2013). Common Core State Standards for K-12 education in America. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free copy in PDF format from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/248-common-core-state-standards-for-k-12-education-in-america.html. Download a free copy in Microsoft Word format from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/249-common-core-state-standards-for-k-12-education-in-america.html.

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