I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Dr. Graham Taylor of the Taylor Study Method. The topic of our interview was brain fitness but our conversation ended being all over the map. We talked about educational reform, having focus amidst distractions, the importance of thinking outside the box, Common Core, emotional intelligence, ancient and modern memory techniques, the psychological insight of Homer, and much much more. Here are some observations I made during the interview.
“As concentrated attention spans and focus become replaced by broad attention ranges and multitasking, what is lost is the type of slow, methodical, systematic and linear cognition that favors the formation of schemas in the long-term memory. In order for the brain to build up schemas effectively, a person has to reflect deeply about her life and what she has learned, and this reflection needs to occur in a slow and undistracted manner. When this is not the case, or when we form schemas badly, what happens is that the brain easily falls prey to oversimplifications. We see this all the time in our public political discourse, where issues are deliberated upon in isolated compartments that are often dominated by ideology, resulting in gross oversimplifications.”
“…just as oral cultures have tended to esteem those who could quote the most wise sayings, and just as a litigious culture like 5th century BC Athens tended to esteem those who excelled in the rhetorical arts, and just as a reading-based cultures have esteemed those who could reason in the type of linear and sequential way that is favored by the book, so the digital age has seems to be orienting us towards esteeming those whose brains work like a good computer: those who can perform many operations at once (what we call multitasking), those who can calculate quickly and recall lots of information. But none of these things are necessarily indicative of a healthy brain and it is a mistake to judge us by the standard of our machines. The irony is that many people are arguing that the computer has actually diminished the need for humans to remember as much information and to calculate. In a world where everyone has access to the same information, the leaders will be those whose minds are able to do the things that computers cannot, like putting ideas together and making connections between things, or like thinking outside the box, asking questions that no one else has asked, or engaging in slow and thoughtful meditative thinking.”
“In the ancient world, educators understood that a good memory was an art that could be developed with practice. But fast-forward to today. Our schools spend a lot of time teaching children information, but we spend very little time teaching children how to learn. Many professional educators have never even heard of the various techniques for effective learning and memory. If anything, educators in the modern world ought to be championing these methods even more than our ancestors because we now have access to cutting-edge brain research that supports the effectiveness of these methodologies. To expect children to learn by throwing content at them without first giving them the tools for effective learning is like throwing someone in the water and asking them to swim without any training. Now if you do that long enough, eventually the person may learn to swim or at least stay afloat, but it will never be as effective as if they had been trained in the proper techniques.”
“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….
To get links to the entire interview, visit TSM’s post ‘Full Links to Graham Taylor’s Conversation with Robin Phillips on Brain Fitness‘.