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Category Archives: Book Reviews
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom by Darcia Narvaez, PhD
In her 2014 book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom, Darcia Narvaez aims to increase virtuous morality, empathy, and cooperativeness among adults. Anyone interested in understanding the evolutionary, biological, and social bases of morality or seeking to improve ethical behavior can learn a great deal from this book.
Narvaez argues that our sense of morality—or how we function as social beings sharing with one another life’s victories and challenges—is shaped by the integration of our physical, mental, and social experiences as well as our evolutionary history. Modern times have drawn us away from some of our intuitive wisdom about how to create communal societies and led to shrinkage of our moral and emotional capacities. This trend can be reversed, she argues. Both our culture and one’s interpretation of experiences can be altered to increase empathic concern and communal orientations, which will help create societies in which all life (humans and other natural creatures) flourish.
Narvaez begins by reporting about the decline in social interaction, health, and ethical decision making in the U.S. She believes that humans are dynamic, but early exposure to suboptimal learning environments affects our physiology, brain development, and epigenetics. Changes at these levels affect a person’s moral reasoning and ability to act consistently in a virtuous way. Citing Darwin, Narvaez argues that we evolved to be cooperative, connected, moral beings. Only recently have we abandoned the wisdom our small-band hunter gatherer (SBHG) forbearers knew about acting communally. In fact, when people (and even other animal species) are raised in supportive conditions, they tend to cooperate with one another. There are cultural differences in the emphasis placed on competition and cooperation, but cooperation is generally more adaptive.
In our early years, Narvaez asserts, we develop an “empathic core” that impacts both our understanding of ourselves as moral beings and our socio-emotional imaginative abilities. Only with responsive parenting do these systems develop properly such that we have emotional and cognitive understanding of social dynamics. When raised by inattentive parents or in a dangerous environment, our social capacities may underdevelop, and our stress response may become hyperactive. For example, we all have a “safety ethic” that helps us navigate relational stress, but among individuals who experienced early social trauma, the safety ethic may lead people to make decisions based on their own preservation rather than on maximizing group success.
Not only is the influence of early social experiences observable behaviorally, but also we see changes in people’s brains and physiology. Narvaez states that the right hemisphere, more than the left, is associated with emotional and moral processes like affective empathy, interpretation of social relations, emotional modulation, and stress regulation. The frontal lobe as a whole and especially the orbital frontal cortex, which is the primary projection of the emotional limbic system, are also critical. They aid with processing affect, making moral decisions, and imagining moral paths. When these systems are well-formed, they keep us regulated and integrate cognition with the feelings that guide our morality. When these structures are underdeveloped because of early stress or damaged because of injury people may display a lack of compassion, love, and respect as well as signs of sociopathy or other forms of maladaptive social coping.
Narvaez reviews the traditional moral wisdom in Ancient Greek, Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Native American traditions as well as “primal wisdom” from SBHG societies. Primal wisdom can teach us to view the self, and not just society, as communal, expansive and integrative. We are each equal partners with the rest of the world around us. A return to this view of oneness and reciprocity might help arrest some of the moral decline in the western world that framed Narvaez’s investigation of modern human morality. A more holistic moral orientation would help us also to raise wiser children.
Narvaez observes that across religions and cultures the most important virtues are humility, love and authenticity. However, even if an individual is not born into a society or culture that facilitates development of these qualities, that person can (and should) still change herself to have a fuller moral imagination that seeks to facilitate communal thriving and a reverence for nature.
Narváez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
“I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Walter Mischel, a Columbia University psychology professor renowned for his research about self-control, concludes his 2014 book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, with this modification to Descartes’ famous proposition. Mischel, the creator of the “marshmallow test”, argues that self-control and the ability to delay gratification are critical for long-term health and for social and professional success. These skills are detectable at an early age, responsive to training, and able to help us shape who we are. His admission of his personal self-control short-comings (e.g., at one point he smoked more than 3 packs of cigarettes a day while aware of the adverse health effects) and the strategies he used to exercise self-control illuminate his presentation of the field of self-control research.
The Marshmallow test (formally known as “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm”) exists in many iterations, but the basic set-up begins by having a researcher ask a preschool child (age 3 or 4) to select a tasty treat. The researcher leads the child into a room with a one-way mirror in which there are no toys or colorful distractors; there is only a chair and desk with the tasty treat and a bell atop it. The researcher explains to the child that he can ring the bell at any time to bring the researcher back into the room so that the child can eat the treat, or if the child waits until the researcher returns, then he can have two of the tasty treats. The difficulty of the task arises from the tension between our “hot system,” which acts quickly and reflexively and our “cool system,” which acts slowly and reflectively.
Mischel and his colleagues found, across several cultural settings, individual differences in children’s likelihood of delaying. Decades later, brain imaging of those who delayed immediate gratification as a child compared to those who did not revealed greater activity for the delayers in the brain’s prefrontal cortex—an area associated with impulse control. Mischel is careful to frame these results by noting that categorizing people as high or low-delayers, as though self-control is a stable and universal quality, is inaccurate. First, self-control is context-specific. For example, politicians (e.g., Bill Clinton) famously exert extreme self-control to be disciplined decision makers in their professional lives, and yet show an enormous lack of self-control in their private lives. Second, Mischel emphasizes that self-control abilities are changeable. Both nature and nurture play a role in determining self-control ability.
Several specific strategies can promote self-control. Mischel and his colleagues found that children were more or less likely to eat the marshmallow depending on how and what they thought about during that time. For example, children encouraged to think about how delicious the marshmallow would taste waited a shorter time than students who were encouraged to think about the marshmallow abstractly or to imagine it as something else, like a cloud. By about 5 or 6, children realize that obscuring the reward from view may help them delay. One trick that helped Mischel quit smoking was to associate cigarettes with the prospect of developing cancer and a haunting encounter he had with a man about to undergo radiation treatment.
Mischel encourages the use of “if-then” plans—plans in which people recognizes that if they are confronted by a trigger of the behavior they are trying to control, they will engage in a specific, more constructive behavior instead. To help self-regulate when recalling emotionally charged events (like the end of a romantic relationship) Mischel says that if people recalls the situation from an objective, fly-on-the-wall perspective, rather than recalling themselves as an actor, they are likely to be more level-headed. Mischel reports on research that suggests that individuals who view their current selves as closely related to their future selves save more for retirement.
To promote self-control in children parents should try to minimize the stress their kids experience, teach them that choices have consequences, encourage autonomy rather than controlling decision-making processes, and (perhaps most critically) model the type of self-control they would like their kids to exert. Executive function—the cognitive skill that allows us to assert self-control over our thoughts, actions, and emotions—is critical for students’ success. Mischel argues that there is no ambiguity about the need to promote executive function skills in school. He offers KIPP charter schools, schools that emphasize character development and college-going, as a model for how schools can help students (including economically disadvantaged students) learn these skills. With practice and the techniques that Mischel describes, we can resist the marshmallow, so that we can work towards becoming a better version of ourselves.
Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow test: mastering self-control. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do suggests that the best way to instill a love of reading in kids is to start the child reading now, regardless of his age, and have fun doing it. In his 2015 book, Daniel T. Willingham, University of Virginia Professor of Psychology, offers digestible, practical tips, supported by psychological research about what parents of kids of all ages—newborn through teenagers—as well as K-12 teachers can do to encourage kids to read. Although Willingham mentions positive life outcomes associated with being a devoted reader, the book is premised on the belief that reading is an intrinsically valuable activity for learning about our world and appreciating the magnificence of it and its inhabitants.
Willingham argues that students should be internally motivated to read and eventually be able to decode text easily and understand a work’s meaning. He is troubled by the fact that enjoyment of reading decreases across childhood and that enjoyment is very low among high school students. Students who learn from their parents that “we are a family that reads,” who see themselves as a reader, and who enjoy reading are likely to read more.
The greatest difficulty in learning to decode text is mapping letters with their sounds (e.g., “o” can sound like “oh” or like “uh”). This is a challenging task in English given that the language is an amalgamation of other languages. Predictably then, students in first grade in almost all western continental European countries have twice the reading comprehension scores of first grade students in England. Another challenge—promoting comprehension while reading—can be addressed by increasing learners’ general knowledge as background information is key to comprehension and filling in a text’s implied information.
Willingham provides reading preparation tips for caregivers of infants through preschool age children. Baby talk or “motherese” helps very young infants distinguish sounds as do rhyming and word-play games. As early as nine months babies can recognize some words. Building their vocabulary through constant talking is important. Adults can help children realize that letters have meaning and are ubiquitous by pointing them out in signs and logos. Willingham offers tips for making reading a fun and beneficial part of a family’s regular daily routine, as well as tips for creating an environment in which young children want to read for leisure. More important than the age (within reason) that a child begins reading is indulging the child’s abundant natural curiosity to help them acquire general knowledge.
In kindergarten through second grade students learn the mechanics of reading. After reviewing the debate about teaching reading through phonics or whole-world instruction, Willingham concludes that in both theory and practice teaching phonics is the marginally better way to teach reading to the majority of students. Most U.S. elementary school teachers use a “balanced literacy” approach that draws on both instructional practices. Willingham argues that less time should be spent on non-essential language arts activities for students in K-2 and more time should be spent teaching other subjects (e.g., social studies, science) that increase students’ general knowledge. Adults should model enthusiasm for reading and help the child feels like a skilled reader. Willingham emphasizes the value of parents and children reading together daily for short bursts of time. Parents should ask their children questions, such as “what did you do today?”, so that kids practice telling a coherent story.
Fluent readers in third grade through high school should be able to read with prosody such that they understand how the text might sound if spoken. They should be able to make inferences from texts and reason about an issue based on content they read. Parents of these older children ought to continue encouraging reading and making it part of family-time.
Technology plays a large role in education at older ages. Because of online content people are actually consuming more words today than ever before, but students are not good at discerning credible sources. Some argue that with all of human knowledge so easily “googleable” students do not need to learn as much content. Willingham generally disagrees; background knowledge is key to comprehension.
Although this book is written for the typical reader, Willingham alludes to a mechanism for teaching dyslexic, reading-disabled, or garden-variety poor readers when he says that supporting students who find reading challenging means acknowledging the difficulty that they experience, praising the effort that they exert, and exposing them to enjoyable reading materials. He cautions that many reward schemes (e.g., praising performance) may undermine the intrinsic pleasure of reading.
With an abundance of suggestions, Willingham charts a path for cultivating learners who first and foremost find reading pleasurable and secondarily are stronger students because of it.
Willingham, D. T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. John Wiley & Sons.
What is worth knowing? What should students learn in school? Or, as the insolent student in the back of the room might ask midway through a lecture, “why do I need to know this?” These are difficult questions to answer and made all the more challenging because educators must prepare students for an unknown tomorrow. In his newest book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and founding member of Project Zero, David Perkins, offers a framework for responding to these questions. Perkins does not tell his readers what is worth knowing—the answers are dynamic and person-specific. However, he provides scaffolds to help school boards, textbook authors, principals, teachers, parents and students make decisions about what is worth learning. Curricula, he argues, should be “lifeworthy,” “lifeready,” and embedded with interdisciplinary thinking and 21st century skills.
Lifeworthy learning, a phrase coined by Perkins, teaches students ideas and skills that are likely to matter in the lives they are expected to lead. Lifeworthy learning is not sufficient if students think only about that information and not with that information. To think with knowledge students need “lifeready learning”—knowledge they use to solve problems, weigh options, make decisions, and better understand their world. Perkins contends that given that students’ level of school engagement decreases as they progress through the educational system, increasing the lifereadiness of curricula is critical.
He argues that the educational research community aggressively tries to address race- and income- based achievement gaps, but an equally if not more harmful gap in education is the relevance gap. Closing the relevance gap between what students are taught and what they will need to know in the future can be achieved when educators consider whether content is lifeworthy and lifeready. Teaching students with the goal of promoting “big understanding” leads to deep insights into how the world works, how to take action, how to be ethical, and how to apply knowledge in varied circumstances.
Perkins argues that educators need to think more about what to include in curricula. One problem he identifies is the “crowded garage effect”—new content is continually added but rarely removed from the curriculum. Currently, curricula attempt to touch on a broad range of topics, but coverage is shallow. Smart sampling or choosing to cover only exemplary, resonant and accessible ideas or cases within a discipline can help stem this problem. Rather than seeking to develop experts, the goal of pre-university education, according to Perkins, should be developing “expert amateurism,” so that students understand basic concepts within a discipline and can apply them appropriately and in a range of circumstances.
Perkins emphasizes the need to inspire wonder in learners, which can occur in part by asking penetrating questions. When we press students to think about what the real issues behind a problem are or how things would be different if not for an assumption we make we can ignite their passion.
Perkins suggests changes to: 1) the way disciplines are approached, 2) the way thinking is taught, and 3) the emphasis placed on relationship skill development. Given the types of challenges students will need to address in the future and the types of skills future employers will need in their employees, today’s curricula should build bridges between disciplines, reframe existing disciplinary content in terms of real-world challenges, and include additional disciplines (e.g., social science disciplines) in the curriculum. Teaching students about different ways of knowing, the ways of reasoning within a discipline, and metacognitive skills are often neglected because of the pressure to cover content. Perkins suggests that students should be taught a discipline’s content and ways of thinking in unison. He says that to be productive citizens of the 21st century, students need to develop empathic abilities and ethical understanding. He offers a comprehensive list of personal and interpersonal skills and knowledge that are worth knowing.
Perkins tells of an instance in which Gandhi lost a sandal on the train tracks. Unable to retrieve it because the train was in motion, he tossed his remaining sandal next to the lost one. One sandal did him no good, but an abandoned pair might have great value for someone else. Perkins argues that Gandhi demonstrated “big understanding” in this moment of insight. He took action to advance an ethical outcome. Cultivating this kind of wisdom is a tall order for schools amidst a packed curriculum. Yet teaching only facts is too low a bar. Inspired by this example, Perkins concludes by suggesting a compromise: “maybe a reasonable aspiration for education, even pre-university education, is not so much wisdom but knowledge on the way to wisdom.”
Perkins, D. (2014). Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. John Wiley & Sons.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao
Amidst the adoption of controversial Common Core state standards and as students across the U.S. prepare to take end-of-year exams, it is important to reflect about the implications of a centralized and test-based educational system. Chinese-educated University of Oregon Professor Yong Zhao’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, is a polemic against authoritarian educational systems. He argues that China’s leading performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made western countries, including the United States, admire and strive to emulate China’s educational system so as to avoid China developing a superior workforce. However, Zhao argues that China’s two thousand year old tradition of authoritarian educational system produces good test-takers but extirpates the critical qualities, such as creativity, that actually produce thought leaders and make a society and its workforce thrive. The greatest threat the U.S. faces from China is not that the Chinese educational system is better, but rather that the allure of its flawed educational system might lead the U.S. to diminish its investment in developing entrepreneurial, divergent thinkers thereby compromising what has made the U.S. educational system so successful.
Zhao explains that in 2009 and 2012 students in Shanghai were the top performs in the world in all three PISA exam subjects (math, reading, and science). China’s educational system garnered praise. President Obama described the realization that China was outeducating the U.S. as a “Sputnik moment.” Zhao argues that this hype is misplaced in part because the PISA exam is a flawed measure. Data collection and analysis techniques are widely criticized. Some claim the test is culturally biased. A PISA score is merely an indicator of content mastery in three academic subjects; it does not measure social-emotional aspects of development that are critical for educating young people who will be successful adults. One test cannot possibly serve as a proxy for summarizing the strength of an entire educational system. Zhao argues that PISA scores indicate the extent to which students have been “homogenized” to think a certain way and cannot assess their creative capabilities.
According to Zhao, Chinese students perform well on these exams because of a tradition dating back to at least 605 AD when the Keju testing system was invented to “meritocratically” select people for highly sought government posts. The Keju test, which was administered until 1905, did make citizens highly value education, but it rewarded obedience and respect for authority, while diverting some of China’s brightest minds away from being innovators. Zhao says today’s college entrance exam, gaokao, drives similar intense competition and denies students the opportunity to develop themselves holistically. He describes a secondary school, Mao Zhong, in which students and parents work relentlessly for a year and spend thousands of dollars, to improve college exam scores.
Even if PISA scores were a perfect indicator of an educational system’s quality, the myopic focus on test scores has deleterious effects. Zhao argues that students from rural areas and students with disabilities are disadvantaged and overlooked. The testing culture has fostered an insidious, rampant, billion-dollar cheating culture. In 2013, when a cheating scheme for the college exam was stopped, rioters in the Hubei province chanted, “there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” At several levels of the educational structure a system of rewards and punishments exists to promote publishing academic papers. This has propelled China to become the second largest producer of scientific journal articles; however, some of these are based on false results and those that do not falsify results are not as highly regarded (as measured by citations) as research from other countries. There has been a 32-fold increase in patents, but many are essentially useless. The recent Atlanta test cheating scandal is an early indicator of the corrupting influence that an obsession with test scores can have here as in China.
The Ministry of Education made some attempts to dilute the emphasis on testing and rank, but these changes did not materialize. There is a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts; no individual student or parent is willing to cease doing everything possible to increase his test score and prospect of admission to a selective school when he knows that other students will still be doing the same, regardless of governmental messages to the contrary. Thus, not only does an authoritarian educational system suppress creative thinking, but a society that has become authoritarian in its educational practices is difficult to change. This should serve as a warning to us here. To create and support an educational system that produces globally-minded, innovative, citizens for tomorrow, it is critical to encourage the pursuit of intellectual passions and to scaffold social emotional development.
Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. John Wiley & Sons.
Because the 2014 writing guide Steven Pinker authored is truly essential for improving writing, all writers would certainly benefit from reading it. “Purists”, as Pinker calls the sticklers for grammatical rules, might identify four or five errors in the previous sentence. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Pinker, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, argues that the “texting generation” has not ruined English as some fear; rather poor writing has always abounded. Pinker’s aim is to help good writers become better. He draws on psychological and linguistic research to explain in an entertaining voice the underlying principles behind why his practical tips will improve writing.
Pinker reminds us that good writers are avid readers who have honed their writing craft over time. Good writing requires critical analysis of language usage and decision-making in the face of ambiguous and evolving rules. Pinker characterizes writing as an unnatural way to communicate because it deprives us of many of the tools we use in speech. Style is critical for building understanding and trust between writer and reader because it helps preserve the elements of oral communication that can get lost on the page.
Pinker says the most damning obstacle to good writing is the curse of knowledge. Cognitive science research suggests that people are minimally competent in knowing what another person knows or thinks. They are not good at imagining what it would be like for another person not to know something that they know already. The curse of knowledge leads to the overreliance on jargon, abbreviations, and onerous chunks of information. It leads to the underutilization of explanations, examples, concrete descriptions of visual images, and digestible packets of information. The best way to avoid these problems and to write with the needs of the reader in mind is to revise. Asking someone with less knowledge about the topic to edit a work is critical. Pinker says that authors often organize their ideas in an arbitrary order rather than in the order that will facilitate the reader’s understanding and retention. Creating an outline and being clear in one’s own mind about the purpose of the writing can help minimize this tendency. A writer should also repeatedly edit her written work.
Pinker argues that writing in a classic style can help people avoid the pitfalls that make writing stuffy. Good writers assume that they and their readers are equally intelligent, but unequally familiar with the topic at hand. Clarity and simplicity are the hallmark of good writing. Good writers are not anxious, apologetic, or trite. For example, they make claims in the first person and avoid the use of clichés.
Syntax is important because it converts a nest of jumbled ideas into a coherent string of words. Psychological research shows that people more easily comprehend meaning when a topic is introduced before the comments about the topic are made and when related ideas are next to one another; this is also syntactically desirable. Extra words, varied terms for the same concept, and the use of multiple negative words encumber readers with a greater cognitive load and more demands on working memory; brief sentences are preferable.
Pinker concludes with two lists. One is a catalog of grammatical rules and word-meanings that purists might embrace. He argues that the items on the list are not necessarily violations of grammatical conventions. For example, there is a place for “ain’t” in English; beginning a sentence with a conjunction is usually just fine; dangling modifiers with clear subjects are permissible; ending a sentence with a preposition often leads to better comprehension. Those who are sticklers for language will find this list interesting and challenging; those who are tired of having their grammar corrected may find this list vindicating; all English-language users can benefit from being exposed to the controversies on this list. He concludes with a list of common grammatical or word-meaning mistakes made by writers that are true errors to be avoided. Pinker uses humor and pithy comics, has a flexible attitude about writing rules, and explains the underlying cognitive motivation for these rules. This makes his writing style guide an approachable, useful, entertaining, and clear tool to helping any competent writer become great.
Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, New York: Penguin.
“I will become what I think” (p. 14). Texas A&M professor W.R. Klemm explains in a comprehensible and personable voice how neuroscientific evidence supports the axiom above. Drawing on his experience as a neuroscientist and his training in veterinary medicine, Klemm argues in his 2014 book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, that through our own thoughts we shape what we become. He argues that consciously and unconsciously we construct our sense of self and we do indeed have freewill. This book will be of interest not only to neuroscientists engaged in the debate about free will but also anyone interested in the science of self-improvement, personal responsibility, and the development of a sense of self.
Klemm describes what neuroscience at-large knows about how the brain works and the implications of this for consciousness. He discusses the importance for brain functioning of, for example, the topographical map, synaptic connections and different types of brain cells. Critically, he describes the brain’s circuit impulse patterns (CIPs), which can be thought of as a set of instructions about how every neuron in a given brain circuit should fire. CIPs in the neocortex play a critical role in determining conscious thoughts and binding information together. Klemm asserts that the conscious mind not only arises from, but also is equivalent to, CIP functioning.
Consciousness is a mental state in which the brain is aware of what it knows and feels and is able to fill the gaps of the sensory information it perceives. Wakefulness and working memory are necessary for consciousness. Consciousness is the basis for our formation of sense of self. He explains that there is a two-way interaction between the conscious and unconscious mind. Consciousness and sense of self develop in the last couple of months of a pregnancy and continue developing, certainly into young adulthood, and in some ways throughout life, according to Klemm. He presents evidence that some animals have a rudimentary sense of self and consciousness.
Many scientists argue that consciousness does not have a purpose and that free will is an illusion. Klemm details the arguments these scientist use to support that position, but ultimately he disagrees. He believes that consciousness enhances sensations, feelings, thoughts, and social interactions and may have evolved because it helped us outcompete other species. He uses the analogy of an avatar—our CIPs construct a being that acts on behalf of the brain and body. We come to understand that avatar as our sense of ourselves as a subject, as our conscious “I”. Klemm details the brain structures and wave signals associated with consciousness. He discusses the religious, cultural, and political corollaries of consciousness (e.g. investment in language and the arts) and the implications of a belief in freewill (e.g. the appropriateness of a criminal justice system).
Klemm hesitantly wades into the world of “spooky science.” For example, he suggests that quantum mechanics in general and wave functions in particular may one day help us understand consciousness more fully. He also states that our mental life or “life force” is more than the sum of our brain chemistry. For example, science has yet to explain why many people who come back from the precipice of death describe an out-of-body experience in which they see themselves hovering over their body or feel a warm, loving embrace.
Above all, Klemm urges us to remember that we can teach our brains to unlearn maladaptive habits, learn more efficient ways of thinking and embody a better attitude and emotional state. We can change our CIPs by altering what we sense, think and do. We have free will to change our lives and ourselves.
Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of how the Brain and Mind Relate. Prometheus Books.
In his 2014 book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When Where and Why It Happens, science reporter Benedict Carey suggests that much of what we are taught about how to study efficiently and how to promote learning are mistaken. Drawing on cognitive psychology and learning sciences research, as well as his own educational experiences, Carey argues that old adages about keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, studying in a quiet, dedicated study space without distractions, and continuously practicing a skill until it is perfected are not the best ways to promote memory and learning. In fact, distractions, interruptions, sleeping, daydreaming and leaving work (temporarily) unfinished all have been demonstrated to increase learning. Carey’s integration of historic psychological studies, the newest learning research, and practical application of that research will make this book appealing to anyone interested in developing strategies for making their learning process more efficient.
Carey begins by describing the anatomical and cellular structure of the brain as it relates to memory. Drawing on well-known research about a man named Henry Molaison (HM) Carey shows the importance of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the brain, for memory consolidation. Memories are stored in throughout the neocortex, on the thin outer part of the brain. Research into HM as well as other work in the field, supports the idea that we have episodic-, semantic-, and motor-memories. Over a century of research about memory and forgetting suggests that using our memory changes it. Although forgetting increases as time passes and as a function of the memory’s storage strength and retrieval strength, forgetting is not necessarily bad; it is actually an effective way of filtering information.
Carey transitions to discussing the ways in which we can harness our memory to retain information. More important than the number of hours spent studying is the way study time is distributed. Cramming can help a student get over an immediate hurdle, but the student is unlikely to remember that information in the more distant future. Conversely, spacing study time over a longer period and requiring one’s mind to recall information over multiple study sessions promotes long-term retention.
Learners should interleave practicing different but closely related skills or types of knowledge. Interleaving slows initial learning, but it bolsters pattern recognition, selection of appropriate strategies, and switching among those strategies. Studying in multiple types of environments, including environments with diversions, can promote retention, but test performance is enhanced when the test and study contexts are similar. Self-testing is important because people easily fall prey to the illusion of knowing; they believe they are more fluent with a topic than they are. Quizzing can help people gauge more accurately what they really know, and actively bringing to mind what they know reinforces that piece of information.
Carey describes how we come to understand information and solve problems. Intentionally taking breaks when working on something we are motivated to master—whether that break is to check Facebook, exercise, converse with a friend, or sleep—allows ones mind to passively or subconsciously work through a problem and may lead to a moment of insight. Carey suggests starting large creative projects early so that they feel doable and so that there is more time to let ideas percolate. People may have a fixed view of the elements involved in a problem. Stepping away from the problem, allowing for a period of idea incubation, and reimaging the problem can help people work through an impasse.
A proper sleep diet is a passive way in which our subconscious helps us learn. Carey says we should not view sleeping as lost learning time; rather we sleep to learn. He describes the contributions of each of the four stages of sleep plus REM. He proposes strategies for how to alter sleep patterns in order to achieve different learning goals.
Carey says that our species’ competitive niche is our ability to think and learn. Long, hard hours of studying alone and a fear of academic failure are not the keys to success in school or in learning. Valuing curiosity, a motivation to learn, and the restlessness of our “inner slacker,” whose desires are contrary to traditional wisdom about studying practices, leads to robust learning outcomes.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens. Random House LLC.
Dr. Thomas E. Brown, clinical psychologist, Yale University professor of psychiatry, and associate director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, offers a clinician’s perspective on the manifestations and treatment of ADHD in his 2014 book, Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. He focuses particularly on the often overlooked social and emotional components of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
Brown begins with an explanation of ADHD in terms of its behavioral manifestations. He explains that ADHD is defined as a chronic impairment in executive function and self-management. It interferes with a person’s daily life. Brown shows that people with ADHD can be intensely focused on highly enjoyable activities, while neglecting to initiate focus on material and on deadlines that they know are important. They often have diminished working memory and thus struggle to maintain multiple ideas in their mind at once. People with ADHD are less able to resist immediate rewards in favor of long-term payoffs. They may avoid their commitments or cope with the stress they experience as a result of their disorder by engaging in such activities as heavy marijuana use or extended video game play. They may struggle with anxiety, irritability, boredom, shame about their attentional issues, or have trouble ratcheting down their emotions in charged situations.
Brown also explains the neurochemical and neuroanatomical differences that characterize the brains of people with ADHD. Brain imaging has demonstrated that people with ADHD have more trouble shifting between their default mode and their more active attention network. Areas of the brain associated with executive function mature three to five years later than is typical. People with ADHD have a different pattern of release and reception of two critical neurochemicals.
In eleven chapters, each named for one of his patients, Brown vividly recounts stories about bright and talented teenagers and adults who are severely affected by ADHD—people who are “smart but stuck.” His patients often score in the top ten percent or higher on IQ tests and yet, because of their ADHD, have endured serious setbacks, including delayed college graduation, lost tuition, strained social and familial relations, and divorce. He describes his initial patient consultation, the course of treatment, and the circuitous route to improvement. Brown pays special attention to life circumstances and co-morbidities that must be considered in treatment, as patients often come to him shortly after a major life change (e.g., transitioning to college, illness of a family member, death of a loved one) and have other issues present (e.g., obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety). Seamlessly interspersed among the stories are epidemiological statistics and clinical explanations about how an aspect of a patient’s story manifests in the ADHD population at-large. He ends each story with a summary of factors that helped the patient get “unstuck.”
Brown concludes with recommendations for understanding the emotional component of ADHD in order to help people with the disorder. People with ADHD or who suspect they might have it benefit from having a proper clinical evaluation of their strengths and weakness and a detailed explanation of what the disorder is and is not. Loved ones of people with ADHD must understand that people with ADHD are not simply lacking in willpower and that it is possible for someone with ADHD to be highly intelligent. Counseling (e.g., psychotherapy), medication, (e.g., Methylphenidate), and school or workplace accommodations (e.g., extended time for test taking) may help a person manage ADHD. Most critically, a person with ADHD and those who support him or her need hope that is realistic. They need neither a naïve belief that if they try hard enough they can accomplish anything, nor a fatalistic belief that they are doomed to fail. Rather, they need to understand that there are ways to help people with ADHD cope with inevitable obstacles such that they can improve their situation and be content and productive.
Although Brown illustrates that the manifestation and treatment of ADHD is unique to each individual, he provides simultaneously such a rich representation of the disorder that anyone who is managing ADHD or who has a loved one or colleague with ADHD will find bits of these stories that are uncannily resonant with his or her own experience.
Brown, T. E. (2014). Smart But Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. John Wiley & Sons.
Daniel Levitin argues that people’s junk drawer, the place they store miscellanea, is a fitting analogy for how people should live their lives. With the objects in a junk drawer, as with the activities and people in one’s life, individuals should ask: Is this still important to me? Am I clear about what I need? Is there enough diversity? The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overloads draws on the neuropsychological and evolutionary basis of memory and attention to explain how to practice good “neural hygiene,” harness a brains’ potential, reduce stress, and be a successful person. Levitin, a McGill University professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music, has written an engaging and insightful book for anyone interested in cognitive adaptations to deal with today’s bombardment of information.
Now more than ever before, with an overabundance of information and distractions, attention is a precious, limited resource. Levitin argues that the most successful people have systems and assistance that help them attend to and prioritize the information that matters. Although individuals tend to want more information than is actually helpful, they can put structures in place to stay organized and focused. The best tool for staying organized and reducing the burden on our brain, opines Levitin, is externalizing information—writing down key facts about acquaintances, using notecards to track “to do’s”, and setting calendar reminders for upcoming deadlines. Levitin suggests categorizing emails you receive based on the difficulty of responding and the urgency of a response, filing memos in a way that will facilitate retrieval, keeping duplicates of items that are easy to lose, and backing up important documents to the cloud or an external system.
Successful people keep a regular sleep schedule, sleep enough, and are early-risers. Levitin warns that people who think they can multi-task deceive themselves. In actuality they are merely rapidly switching among tasks, which is metabolically costly and stress inducing. Properly encoding experiences into memory is facilitated by being mindful, fully present in the experience, and treating any activity, even the most mundane, as though it were new.
Levitin suggests that there are several reasons that the aforementioned cognitive aids are necessary. While people automatically attend to changes and concepts or objects important to them, there is a “cognitive blind spot.” This makes individuals neglect much of the information that passes before them. Memories are imprecise and readily manipulated. The brain’s default mode is to daydream or creatively mind-wander. Its natural state is antagonistic with the externally focused central executive mode. People are either in one mode or the other and the insula, a deep brain structure, is responsible for switching between the default mode and central executive.
Levitin discusses ways to organize business, personal, and social worlds to manage information overload and support decision-making. Businesses are now more specialized and systemized than previously. Regardless of the hierarchical structure of a company, employees are happiest when they are allowed to think creatively and operate freely within a broad set of boundaries. Levitin argues that an understanding of statistics and probability is important for making reasoned decisions about healthcare. Getting accurate statistics can be challenging. Even when people acquire them they may ignore base rates, accept false correlations, or focus on a frightening story while ignoring the anomalous nature of that story.
Levitin suggests that organizing one’s social world can enrich it. We have a biological need to be in relationships with others. The hormone oxytocin functions to help us seek out social relations. People with stabile, sustained relationships are healthier.
Any bit of information can be acquired so quickly and easily now that simply providing students with information is not a worthwhile goal for education. Levitin concludes with several recommendations about the skills that current students will need and ought to be taught. Students should be educated about how to search for information, evaluate its authenticity and reliability, and check for biases. They should be scaffolded in determining what they know, what they do not know, and what they need to know. A key factor for determining the strength of and satisfaction with ones social relations is one’s agreeableness. Especially given that today’s children will be working with more diverse groups of people than generations before them, it is important that children learn to be cooperative, friendly, and tolerant of others. They should be encouraged to experiment, explore, and develop flexible thinking skills. Balancing creativity and non-linear thinking with conscientiousness and linear thinking leads to productivity for students, scholars, and business people alike.
Levitin, J. D. (2014). The organized mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York: Penguin Group.