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Brain Plasticity: Q & A

We are compelled to be "life long learners" — what does that mean exactly?
Biologically speaking, humans are born to learn. Our brains evolved to have an extraordinary capacity for restructuring themselves, which is what "learning actually does. Most animals don't have much capacity (or need) for learning — their brains are "hard-wired" which is to say they function instinctively. Take a cow, for example. A fully mature cow's brain is only 10% larger than a newborn calf's. Of course, calves have to be able to get up and walk very soon after birth. Their survival depends on it. But other than getting along with other members of the herd, cows don't have to learn much that hasn't already been genetically programmed into them.

On the other hand, chimpanzees (with whom we share 98% of our DNA) have a great capacity for learning. A newborn chimp's brain doubles in size by the time it reaches maturity. There is no definitive explanation as to why brains evolve to have different restructuring capacities (i.e. learning abilities). However, environment and physiology must have significant roles in the matter. A chimp's environment and social order is far more complex than that of a cow's. Although the nursery rhyme tells us a cow jumped over the moon at least once, no one has ever reported observing a bovine swinging from a tree. That is to say chimps have a body structure that allows them to move in ways that are unimaginable for cows and other four-legged animals. This allows them to make greater use of their environment. In turn, the environment has greater opportunity to influence the structure of their brains.

As impressive as the 100% growth of a chimp's brain is, the human brain far outpaces it. An adult's brain is 300% to 500% larger than an infant's. Of course, unlike cows or even chimps, human babies are entirely helpless at birth. They have a lot to learn right from the start. Environmental and societal factors are tremendously influential throughout their entire lives.

The issue isn't to become "life long learners", that's our genetic heritage. The issue is what we do with our capacity for restructuring our brains — how effectively we learn and what we do with our learning.

Why do we have to work at being more effective learners — haven't human beings always had to learn fundamentally new ways of thinking and creating?
Our brains are naturally very efficient learners, which is to say that brain cells (specifically neurons) quickly and easily form new connections with each other. By the way, neurons are the only cells in the entire body that can communicate directly with one another. And they can also easily and quickly disconnect. This accounts for temporary or short-term memories. They can last a few seconds, for instance long enough to remember a phone number you just looked up to call. Or they may last a day or two, such as remembering what you had for supper the day before yesterday.

Long-term memories are formed through the same process as the short-term except that they are made more permanent through an intense emotional experience or repetition. Mention September 11, 2001 and Americans can tell you exactly what they were doing when they first heard that the Twin Towers had been destroyed. We remember our wedding days, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one for the same reason — the experience connected billions of cells throughout our brains. A song, an aroma, a picture, a flavor can trigger a flood of memories when we least expect it.

There are other types of long-term memories as well:
• Semantic memory - facts and figures like historic dates, multiplication tables, names of things, etc.
• Episodic memory - personal experiences like a first kiss or a last good-bye
• Procedural memory - "how-to" kind of knowledge as in "how to dance the rumba", "how to fry an egg", or "how to program a computer"

There are also unconscious memories, things that we didn't know we learned. These sometimes show up as phobias or unexplainable fears. They can also be preferences or prejudices — behaviors we explain away as "just the way we are." We call them personality or character but they were laid down as memories.

It's this efficiency at creating memories that can at times interfere with effective learning. I think the difference between efficiency and effectiveness was best described by Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive . He defined efficiency as "getting things done right" and effectiveness as "getting the right things done".

Machines are built for efficiency. Computers are probably the most efficient machines ever invented. They can calculate and compare more in microseconds than the most brilliant person can in a lifetime. But computers, even super computers, don't know what they are doing or why. They are designed to follow routines called programs. If something unexpected happens in the program (for instance, a data entry mistake), the computer stops. It freezes and has to be reset. Sometimes a person, called a systems analyst, has to come in and read through reams of programming code to find out what went wrong. The computer can't explain anything. It can only do what the programmer tells it to do. It can only follow the routine.

For most of human history, for most people, work has been largely a matter of following routines. They learned how to plant a seed, sew a button, or shoe a horse through the process of procedural memory — by doing it over and over and over again. Even today much of what we do is accomplished through procedural memory, whether it's brushing our teeth, driving a car, or checking our e-mail.

But as machines have become more efficient, human labor has become more complex. Humans are being required to do things that machines can't — specifically, they're being required to think. Even factory work has changed. One robot can replace many workers, but the workers who keep their jobs have to think like supervisors. They have to make decisions and solve problems that are anything but routine.

Machines can be invented to do things right, but only humans can determine what the right things are. We do this by:
• Identifying goals
• Defining the relevant facts or details
• Setting priorities
• Planning a course of action
• Evaluating the results

Modern industrial society requires that we all become effective learners. Thanks to the Internet, we have access to more data (i.e. facts and figures) than ever before. However, it doesn't become useful information until we decide how to process or organize it. Unfortunately, the different ways information can be organized is not explicitly addressed by formal education. For most people, schooling has been and continues to be just a matter of learning to follow routines.

What are some of the key differences between adult learners and children in school — to what extent does school prepare us to think?
The biggest difference between the adult learner and the schoolchild is the brain itself. While much of our brains are "hard-wired" from birth and responsible for the survival and maintenance of our bodies, a significant portion of the brain is plastic. In other words, it can "re-wire" or restructure itself in response to internal or external influences. This is a recent discovery, but keep in mind that it's only been about 30 years since medical technology enabled the first living brain to be observed in action. Since then, neuro-cognitive science has been challenging myths about how people think and learn.

In the early part of the 20 th century, behaviorists theorized that people were born with their brains fully intact, with a fixed intelligence that never changed by more than a few IQ points throughout one's life. We now know, thanks to brain scanning technologies like PET and fMRI, that our brains can and do change throughout our lives. At certain times, though, they change more rapidly than others.

It takes at least 2 years for a baby's brain to mature enough to enable speech. Once it occurs, young children develop an extraordinary capacity for memory, often to the frustration or embarrassment of their parents. This capacity for memory, particularly procedural and semantic, is key to laying the foundation of modern education — in other words, the 3 Rs, "reading, writing, and arithmetic." In the early grades, establishing routines is of primary importance.

In the teen-age years the frontal lobes begin to mature. This will continue until we're well into our twenties and compose 40% of our brains. Frontal lobes enable a different kind of memory than we've discussed so far — working memory. The working memory is a kind of cauldron where current sensory stimuli is mixed with short-term and long-term memories. It enables us to recognize, recall, prioritize, inhibit, evaluate, and decide — all the skills we need to be effective, responsible adults.

Schools that provide a wide variety of activities and actively encourage student participation do a great deal to produce healthy, highly motivated, and productive adults. Schools that channel students into specific activities that they are particularly good at and isolate them from failure in their weaker subjects do a great disservice to their students and to society. These kids don't have the opportunity to rebound from failure. As adults they are reluctant to take risks and have difficulty "thinking outside the box."

The good news is that even if you were unlucky enough to be specialized at an early age, your brain's plasticity can make amends. You're never too old to learn, provided you follow the 3 basic rules of effective learning:
• Intention — identify your objective
• Attention — distinguish what is relevant to achieving your objective
• Rehearsal — practice achieving your objective conscientiously and frequently

How do you train yourself to become better at critical thinking and problem solving – and how do you know when you've achieved that – what are the signs?
Critical thinking is a term that gets tossed about a lot but is rarely defined. Over 10 years ago the American Philosophical Association (APA) issued a Delphi Research Report entitled Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. In their report, the APA identified the critical thinking skills and sub-skills as follows:

• Interpretation: categorization, decoding significance, clarifying meaning
• Analysis: examining ideas, identifying arguments, analyzing arguments
• Evaluation: assessing claims, assessing arguments
• Inference: querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, drawing conclusions
• Explanation: stating results, justifying procedures, presenting arguments
• Self-regulation: self-examination, self-correction

The APA listed the following decision making and problem solving behaviors as evidence of good critical thinking:
• Clarity in stating the question or concern
• Orderliness in working with complexity
• Diligence in seeking relevant information
• Reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria
• Care in focusing attention on the concern at hand
• Persistence though difficulties that are encountered
• Precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstance

Studies show that the achievement of high academic goals and/or successful careers does not prove good critical thinking, decision making, or problem solving skills. What is most significant is the individual's learning disposition.

According to the APA, a good critical thinker is someone who habitually exhibits the following learning dispositions:
• Inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues
• Concern to become and remain generally well-informed
• Alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking
• Trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry
• Self-confidence in one's own ability to reason
• Open-mindedness regarding divergent world views
• Flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
• Understanding the opinions of other people
• Fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning
• Honesty in facing one's own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, egocentric, or sociocentric tendencies
• Prudence in suspending, making, or altering judgments
• Willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted

Looking through the above list, most intelligent people feel confident that they already possess those skills. They even put them into practice, some of the time. The problem comes when we feel rushed, stressed, or just confused. Then we're apt to resort to what David Perkins of Harvard University called "default thinking." He said, "Default happens when no special action is taken", in other words, when we haven't consciously determined what result we want or what is relative to achieving it.

Perkins divided default thinking into 4 categories. Each produces a predictable negative behavior. For instance:
• Hasty thinkers fail to consider alternative actions
• Narrow thinkers can't perceive alternative relationships
• Sprawling thinkers won't anticipate the result of their actions
• Fuzzy thinkers don't evaluate the effectiveness of their actions

Higher education can actually enhance our tendency toward specific types of default thinking. Lawyers, physicists, and mathematicians are more likely to be hasty and narrow thinkers. Biologists and psychologists tend to be sprawling thinkers. Economists lean toward fuzzy thinking. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. It's really a question of how broad an education one has and how diverse one's interests. But in general, as we become more specialized in our professions, our perceptions narrow. We try to organize all information and solve all problems in the way we've been trained. To combat this tendency, we need to be aware that information can be organized in several different ways. The result we want will determine what information is relevant and how we organize it.

I use visual puzzles with my clients to demonstrate and practice the various ways information can be organized. These include:
• Analogies
• Progressions
• Part-whole relationships
• Categories

I also use puzzles that require:
• Identifying and correcting mistakes
• Playing with words
• Connecting dots
• Decoding numeric systems

Once they've been through a Designs for Strong Minds™ (DSM) training program, my clients report they suddenly catch themselves dealing with problems more objectively. They notice that they're able to assess the response they're receiving "on-the-fly" and adjust their behavior according to achieve the results they want. Sometimes they'll even change their plans when the original objective no longer appears feasible. I don't know how to explain this except to say that they've learned to make better use of their working memories.

What internal and external factors are necessary in order that a person expand their learning capacity? What are the best kinds of environments and motivational states that facilitate "lifelong learning?"
By definition we cannot learn something we already know. When we say we "know something", we mean our brains are already structured to deal with the situation. Therefore, to expand our learning capacity we have to set ourselves up for failure. We have to risk the discomfort of not knowing what to do next. We have to develop a tolerance for ambiguity. Otherwise we fall back into default thinking. Then not only do we fail to learn, we don't even recognize that the opportunity to learn has presented itself to us.

Of course, not every experience has to be a lesson. By the end of the day, we'd be mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted if we couldn't make use of established routines. The key is taking a moment to think about the result we want and what we're willing to accept. Effectiveness and efficiency can, and should, work hand-in-hand. Then by the end of the day, we can go to bed with a sense of satisfaction that we've done our best with the opportunities that were presented. We'll wake up with an enthusiasm for the new challenges that await us.

We're life-long learners whether we want to be or not. Our brains evolved that way. To make the best use of this capacity, we have to lead our lives with conscious intent.