I’m a real sceptic of supposed dichotomies in brain processing. I think they are often so simplistic as to be misleading and incorrect, and ultimately lead to such profound misunderstandings, supposedly ground in science, as to be actively damaging g (c.f gender differences – aka neurosexism – left/right brain processing, etc). However, I may well be a convert over big picture-fine grained brain processing, which is rooted in the understanding of cortical minicolumns.
The cortex in the brain is arranged into minicolumns, made up of between 80 and 100 neurons sitting in a vertical column (Mountcastle, 1997). The neurons within a column work together to excite or inhibit electrical signals. The fascinating aspect of these minicolumns is that they are regularly spaced throughout the cortex which turns out to have a fairly profound impact on processing skill. Although minicolumns are regularly spaced throughout an individuals cortex (by which I mean, the minicolumns are spaced at the same interval)* this distance varies between individuals. The spacing distance directly correlates with the length of connections that are made between columns: Those with relatively wide spacing between their minicolumns have longer axonal connections down which an electrical signal travels to be passed on; those with relatively narrow spacing have shorter axonal connections (Casanova, & Williams 2010).
This sounds a mundane, even trivial point: if minicolumns are packed tighter together then of course the distance the axons need to span is shorter to connect to the same number of minicolumns as compared to a looser packing of columns. However, the reality is that this is no trivial relationship and the larger impacts of the spacing of minicolumns and the length of axonal connections permeate through to the very way that we experience the world we inhabit.
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The short answer to ‘Why is failure important?’ is to paraphrase the twee quotes and sayings that tell us ‘only by failing can we succeed’. Although clichéd – and slightly nauseating – there is truth in these motivational quips.
“Failing”, or rather, answering questions incorrectly in an educational setting, results in more brain activation (Falkenstein, Hoormann, Christ & Hohnsbein, 2000; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran & Lee, 2011), longer lasting memory and better performance on subsequent tests (Kornell, Hays & Bjork, 2009). This is not so surprising when you look at what goes on in our brains when we learn and lay down new memories. What is unfortunate is how little failure is now permitted within schools, homes and society in general. Whether this lack of permission contributes to fixed mindsets, whether a fixed mindset leads to the vilification of failure, or whether there is another cause is not important. Seeing the link between mindset and approach to failure is important, because in this we see the means for fostering growth mindset in all.
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I’ve fallen in love: intensely, deeply in love with Carol Dweck. And I won’t hear a bad word against her. It’s probably not healthy, it’s definitely a bit weird, but it’s how I feel and I won’t apologise: My intellectual love for her runs deep and flows fast.
Dweck pioneered a distinction between what she calls a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Originally conceived as a descriptor for attitudes towards intelligence, this distinction has traction for most cognitive attributes and provides insight and explanation for observable behaviour. A fixed (entity) mindset is characterised by a belief that there is a constant level of some cognitive attribute or trait for every person which cannot be surpassed no matter how much it is worked at. A growth (incremental) mindset is contrasted with this and is characterised as a belief that a given attribute or trait is malleable and can be affected and changed by an individual. So, for instance, someone holding a fixed mindset of intelligence will believe that everyone is born with a certain level of intelligence and no matter how studious and motivated they are, once they reach their intelligence ceiling, they cannot surpass it. This outlook is typified by sentences such as “he’s the clever one” or “I’m no good at x” – the subtext here is “he was born clever” and “I can never be any good at x”. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset might say “I have to work hard to get good results in x”.
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From Imagination 6 months ago to Curiosity now.
After a hefty absence, I want to explore the role of curiosity in our cognitive lives. Defining curiosity is hard enough, let alone understanding it and its scope. But, there are some very interesting findings in neuroscience, in psychology and in educational research regarding the role of curiosity in our brains and minds.
The philosophy student in me lives on and first of all it is important to examine what I mean by curiosity. A quick definition search:
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I’ve recently become interested in the role of imagination in cognition. A couple of separate strands of interest from the last few years have finally come together to form a coherent mass (certainly not a whole at this stage) placing imagination as a very integral cog in higher order thinking, commonly known as executive function.
Executive function is the cognitive control of various thinking processes, such as reasoning, planning, task flexibility and execution and working memory. Broadly speaking, executive function is concerned with organising and regulating thoughts, and thus behaviour, when our automatic processes are not sufficient. Automatic processing occurs all the time and is a way for our brains to carry out ordinary, every day tasks without using up too much brain power – literally and figuratively. Automatic processes allow us to get on with thinking about other more important issues – Kim Kardashians bottom, what’s for tea, the role of imagination, etc. – and allow the brain to use valuable ‘food’ (energy in the form of oxygenated blood) elsewhere. Anything that you can do ‘without thinking’ will fit in to these automatic processes, as well as tasks which require minimal conscious effort – walking, driving, buying a pint of milk – if Tesco’s hasn’t played around too much with the store layout – scrolling through facebook… Continue reading “Importance of Imagination”