When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,
conceptual and contextual thinking;
the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
the ability to put knowledge into schemas.
In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.
In this video Jordan Peterson makes some trenchant observations about the purpose of university education.
I don’t agree that articulated speech is the most powerful human good. I think humility is the most powerful human good. But I do agree with the high premium Peterson places on articulation and the role it can play in helping to eliminate suffering. I was particularly struck by his comment, “Burden yourself with so much responsibility that you can barely stand, and then you’ll get stronger trying to lift it up.”
Here is a FREE interactive lesson from the Masters course I wrote, which is about to launch at Central Michigan University, Argosy University, Antioch University, Benedictine University and Valparaiso University. This course is for the professional development of teachers, who can gain graduate credits when they enroll to take it. This free interactive lesson offers an overview of the research that prompted me to write the course.
Update: since writing the post below, all spots in the first run of the course, taught by John Adams, are now full. Interested parties can register for the second run beginning December 4th and taught by Julie Gold.
Teachers wishing to qualify for pay increases by gaining graduate level credits now have the perfect opportunity. On September 25th, the Idaho-based education company, The Connecting Link, is launching their online course “Mindfulness in the 21st century Classroom” for the professional development of teachers. This Masters level course is being taught by educational psychologist John Adams and is being accredited through Argosy University, Antioch University, Benedictine University, Valparaiso University and Central Michigan University. It is designed to give educators at all levels an overview of recent research on mindfulness practices. Even better, the course provides step by step guidance on how to integrate mindfulness practices into the classroom.
If you’re interested, here are some links you may want to check out:
Appreciating that some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts. The best argument for teaching children to love Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Hopkins is simply that these authors wrote things that are beautiful. Just as the best reason for smelling a rose is that it has a lovely fragrance, so the best reason for learning Latin is that Virgil’s Aeneid is beautiful. Again, the template for this approach is creation itself.
Christian worldview education is in danger of being hijacked by pragmatists who think that non-utilitarian approaches somehow depart from the imperative to bring all things under Christ. This is ironic since the Bible itself reveals a better way….
The exclusively pragmatic approach does a particularly great disservice to the teaching of literature since it orients us to adopt a didactic and utilitarian approach to texts. We may start to think that the value of a text lies in the worldview lessons we are able to draw out of it and completely overlook the aesthetic considerations. Many, for instance, have the idea that the primary purpose of learning Shakespeare is to understand allusions and figures of speech, or that memorizing poems is mainly good as an exercise to develop memory skills, or that the value of learning Latin is to understand word origins, and so forth. The idea that learning Virgil in the original Latin has a value not tied to any practical benefit strikes them as odd.
When students are trained to think in strictly pragmatic ways, they will find it difficult to enjoy, say, a Shakespeare play if they can’t derive a specific worldview lesson from it. They may become so over-active in finding worldview lessons that they discern some Shakespeare never intended. How much better it would be to get them to enjoy Shakespeare plays simply for their masterly use of language and compelling plots and characters. How much better for students to come to love things that are noble and praiseworthy even when they do not have a specific use. As Flannery O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners, “The fact is, people don’t know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as so many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something.”
“In our era, young children are continually being pressured to engage in self-expression before they are shown how to think coherently, and they are pressured to engage in reasoning before they are given the facts with which to reason. The result is not intellectual freedom but enslavement, for someone that is never taught how to think is by default trained to be a bondservant to the latest fad or fashion.”
In the video below, Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr shares evidence from brain science about what happens when our devices (particularly the smartphones) infuse into our lives perpetual distractibility, multitasking and split attentiveness. He shows that what science is finding (and you can see footnotes to the actual peer-reviewed studies in Carr’s book The Shallows) is that there is a trade-off whereby certain cognitive functions become diminished.
That much isn’t surprising, but what I found really interesting is which cognitive functions are compromised.
This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.
One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.
When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.
Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.
But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”
Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)
“Our loves orient us to visions of human flourishing that pull us towards a certain telos far more effectively than someone trying to push us there. …the real competitor of classical education is not the public schools, as so often thought, but the panoply of what [James K.A. Smith] calls “secular liturgies,” which also aim to capture our imaginations on an instinctive level. For him, Christian education is important, not because the public schools are so bad, but because shopping malls, commercials, and clothing advertisements are so good, or appear so to the impoverished soul.
The idols of the materialistic world usually reach our hearts only because they have first captured our imaginations. Now, capturing the imagination is also what a liberal arts education should fundamentally be about. It’s not simply about learning things, but about being nourished, and coming to love what is good, true, and beautiful at a gut level.”