Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brain Rule #12: Exploration

So we finally reach the end of the book, Brain Rules.  Here's where we've been:

Rule 1: Exercise
Rule 2: Survival
Rule 3: Wiring
Rule 4: Attention
Rule 5: Short-Term Memory
Rule 6: Long-Term Memory
Rule 7: Sleep
Rule 8: Stress
Rule 9: Sensory Integration
Rule 10: Vision
Rule 11: Gender
Rule 12: Exploration

Rule #12: "We are powerful and natural explorers."

Medina ends the book with these words: "The greatest Brain Rule of all is something I cannot prove or characterize, but I believe it with all my heart... it is the importance of curiosity" (279).  Medina's mother fed every passing interest he had growing up, from dinosaurs to space to mythology, even atheism. At the other end of life, his 100 year old grandfather demonstrated a fascination with new knowledge.  The point is that Medina believes we are built to be life-long learners and we are only taught to go to sleep intellectually by society.

Until just after the year 2000, it was commonly thought that the brain did not generate any new cells after birth. But it is now recognized that the learning sections of the brain continue to generate new cells throughout life and that these cells are as malleable as a babies brain cells. Medina believes that our brains developed the ability to learn and improvise from "chaotic, reactive, information-gathering experiences" early on as a species (271).  "One of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas."

A good deal of this chapter addresses child development and indeed Medina's own engagement with his own children. Forty years ago, it was generally believed that we start out more or less as a "blank slate" on which our experiences write.  Today, we realize that a lot of the human brain comes pre-wired with various drives and processes.

A baby less than an hour old can stick out its tongue in imitation of someone else sticking out his or hers. We have "pre-loaded information gathering strategies" (267). For example, we have a kind of cell called "mirror neurons" that imitate in our minds the things we see. Our right, pre-frontal cortex predicts and evaluates when we are wrong about something.  Then something called the "anterior cingulate cortex" signals that we need to change our behavior.

We are wired to test hypotheses.  We get bit by a snake or a bee, we don't get near it next time. We make observations with our senses. We form hypotheses about what is going on. We experiment. We draw conclusions.

Our brains develop in predictable ways. At 18 months, we learn that objects continue to exist even after we do not see them, such as when you hide a cup under a cloth. The "terrible twos" are when we can really distinguish our own wills from those of others.  We begin to experiment with doing the opposite of what our parents want us to do to see what happens.

Medina ends the chapter and the book with ideas about how educational institutions might be structured to capture the exploratory dimension of the human mind.  He thinks medical schools might very well be an excellent model. They have 1) consistent exposure to the real world. For example, you often learn on site at a hospital.

Secondly, they give constant exposure to people in the real world, using faculty who work in the field as well as teach. Finally, they give exposure to individuals engaged in practical research, research laboratories. He gives another example of how you might set up a college of education that studies the brain, but he thinks this model might be used with other areas of education too, such as a business school.

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