Thinking is Hard!—February, 2020

We have an amazingly complex brain, capable of everything from monitoring breathing to creating poetry. Here are nine scientific insights that we need to keep in mind as we try to help every child meet his or her potential.

  1. The brain is a social organ. Teach in a social/emotional setting, as this decreases conflict and increases learning—Our brains require stimulation and connection to survive and thrive. A brain without connection to other brains and without sufficient challenge will shrink and eventually die. Parents and teachers must create positive social experiences.
  2. We have two brains (hemispheres). Tell children good stories (i.e., stories with conflicts, resolutions and thoughts laced with emotions)—Generally speaking, the left hemisphere has taken the lead on language processing, linear thinking, and social functioning. The right hemisphere specializes in visual-spatial processing, strong emotions, and private experience. In reality, most thinking involves contributions from both pieces. Adults need to encourage hyper-rational children to be aware of and explore their feelings. We should also help anxious children develop the intellectual capabilities of their left hemispheres to regulate their emotions.
  3. Early learning is powerful. Encourage young people to write about their experiences in diaries and journal, as it lets them become the masters of their experience and reduces anxiety and stress—During our first few years of life, much of our most important emotional and interpersonal learning occurs. Early experiences shape our brains in ways that have a lifelong impact on three of our most vital areas of learning: connecting with others, coping with stress, and feeling that we have value. When children misbehave, we should engage with them to explore their motivations and thought processes. This will help them gain the ability to check themselves and try again.
  4. Conscious awareness and unconscious processing occur at different speeds, often simultaneously. Teach children to question their assumptions and the possible influences of past experiences and unconscious biases on their feelings and beliefs—Think of how many things you do without having to think about them: breathing, walking, balancing, even constructing the syntax of a sentence, is handled automatically. The brain is able to process incoming information, analyze it based on a lifetime of experience, and present it to us immediately. This creates the illusion that we are making decisions based on our conscious thought processes, when we are actually simply applying a pattern based on previous experience.
  5. The mind, brain, and body are interwoven. Sleep boosts cognitive performance; sleep deprivation impairs flexible thinking and decision-making—Exercise stimulates the creation of new neurons and pumps more oxygen through the brain, as well as capillary growth; it also increases frontal-lobe plasticity. Proper nutrition and adequate sleep are essential to learning. The brain is only a fraction of our body’s weight, yet it consumes approximately 20 percent of our energy.
  6. The brain has a short attention span and needs repetition in varied circumstances for deeper learning to occur. Repeat written or spoken information and pair it with visual information to improve recall—Our brains are designed to remain vigilant in our constantly changing environment; we therefore learn better in brief intervals. Variation in materials, breaks, and even intermittent naps facilitate learning. When trying to teach others, we need to reestablish attention every 5 to 10 minutes and continue to shift the focus of attention to new topics. Repetition also supports learning while the absence of repetition and exposure results in its decline.
  7. Fear and stress impair learning. Approach children with warmth and caring; this helps create a state of mind that decreases fear and increases learning—Fear makes us less intelligent because it shuts down exploration, makes our thinking more rigid, and discourages us from trying anything new. Stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth. Prolonged stress impairs our ability to learn and maintain physical health.
  8. We analyze others but not ourselves. Ask children to examine the lives of historical figures and characters from books and movies to help them gain a perspective on their own strengths, motivations, and flaws—Within milliseconds, our brains automatically generate a theory of what is happening in other peoples’ minds—we judge what they know, what their motivations may be, and what they might do next. As a result, we are quick to think we know others and slow to be aware of our own motives and faults. Guiding young people to examine what and how what they think and feel about others may help them open a window of self-awareness, empathy, and insight.
  9. Learning is enhanced by emphasizing the big picture. Allow children to discover the details for themselves—Our brains are masters of trying to fit new learning into “the big picture.” We excel at finding patterns and shortcuts to learning. We should start with major concepts and return to them during a discussion; this enhances understanding and memory. Children will then be able to create their own categories and strategies of organizing the new information, making it easier to remember.

This information is based on “The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom,” by Louis Cozolino. Other useful books about thinking and motivation include “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, and “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” by Daniel H. Pink.

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