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Reflecting on the Brain and Cognition

This post is on the general subject of cognition, not any specific activity in Social Studies and is just for educational purposes.

While flawed, this is still an excellent summative article from The New York Times on the brain and learning:

Adult Learning | Neuroscience How to Train the Aging Brain

….Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them. “The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world. “There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

There are some problems with the article, starting with the assumption that the negative differences of middle aged brains are a product primarily of age rather than habitual use. While there are developmental differences in cognition, if you stop doing something at any age which you are mentally proficient – say calculus equations, creating rhymes, playing chess – you will grow less efficient at that activity over time. Use it or lose it. People in their 40’s to 60’s are typically leading lifestyles that are very different from full time students.

There is also enormous value in mastering a second field ( which initially is all “new information”). A person’s accumulated expertise, formal education and life experience can be thought of as a “cognitive map“. Ideally, you want to both continuously enlarge the size of your cognitive map (“lifelong learning”) and improve the efficiency and versatility of your ability to access the information (recall), discover patterns or elusive aspects (insight, horizontal thinking, analogies) and use the knowledge constructively and purposefully ( synthesis, creative thinking, problem solving).By nature though, humans are mentally lazy. We are predisposed toward “Automaticity” and would find it hard to get through the day attemppting to reason through every action in a sequential series of steps, so our brains are inclined to take the path of least resistance . Recall is a lot easier a cognitive function than is generating new insights, orientation of new data into the big picture or engaging in complex problem solving, which is why the mental stimulus of novelty and conflicting viewpoints are so important. We need to be prodded.

It is no coincidence that tolerating exposure to differing viewpoints (political, methodological, religious – whatever) and assessing them objectively and critically is something that most adults have great difficulty doing. The defensive emotional surge that many people feel when facing antipodal views not only protects the ego, but by intefering with the ability of the frontal lobes to engage in critical, abstract, reasoning, the brain prevents the “waste” of time/energy of having to do the hard work of (perhaps) fundamentally re-thinking the premises that order our worldview.

Not only are many zealous partisans unwilling to listen to opposing views and process their arguments rationally and fairly, they are often cognitively unable to do so! Unfortunately, that “bitter medicine” of evaluating critical feedback is exactly what our brains need in order to stay mentally sharp and adaptive.The true believers who organize echo chambers and police the community for adherence to the “party line” are drugging their brains with ideology and corrupting their OODA Loop.

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