Quickie Post — Remembering Things

SulaimanUAVSulaiman and the UAV — Not pretty, but this thing with a motor hauls ass — 55 mph.  Photo credit Brenna Meyer, another student.  We went flying two days ago.

There’s a short piece that came across my news feed that adds a nice chunk of evidence to the Neurobiology of Education and Critical Thinking post.  Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, looking at memorization and retention, said this from this piece by Drake Baer:

“Exposure to information doesn’t ensure learning,” says Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin. As he tells the Irish Times, it’s all about forcing yourself to recall what you’ve read or heard — “retrieval has a greater effect,” he says.

That means asking yourself questions about whatever it is you’re studying, whether it’s materials for a big meeting or presentation or notes for an exam. Flashcards, those standbys of overachievers everywhere, are effective for much the same reason: They force you to recall and thereby engage mentally with information. Rereading doesn’t put the same cognitive demands on your brain, so you don’t learn as much.

Your brain remembers things better when it’s been taught that what you’re looking at is important to your survival, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, once explained to me. How do you convince your brain that something is critical to your very existence? You expend mental energy on it.

The process of reflection, which basically forces one to create an autobiographical, holistic narrative, moves the knowledge from the left side of the neocortex, to the right side, and through the hippocampus, as we’ve covered before.  Of course.  It’s the way the brain works.  Here’s the figure again to save you click, though if you haven’t read Neurobiology of Education and Critical ThinkingI highly recommend it.

Modified Siegel BrainAnd as far as that Survival v-Meme comment, there’s also no question that getting down to the Survival level can create a state of maximum neuroplasticity.  Think of it as your brain going full Yoda on you:

The reason I bold-faced the “can” above is for reasons.  Too much Survival v-Meme, too fast, otherwise known as trauma, can physically cause brain damage, which then has to be unpacked through a much larger process.  This paper here is from 2001, but there is a fair amount of research in the trauma literature that shows the result.  What’s even more fascinating (I just found this paper today) is the result of this paper in particular — that trauma can cause reduction in the size of the corpus callosum, the pathway between the left and right hemisphere of the brain, which then lines up with the disassociation trauma brings, which is then really a way of saying ‘explicit knowledge is piling up on the left side of the brain’ and doesn’t have time to make it to the right.

And then THIS lends strength to the argument that childhood trauma can be the trigger that leads to personality disorders and deficits of empathy in adults.  This was supposed to be a quickie post, but here’s Baron-Cohen’s RSA presentation.  It IS interesting that when one develops a reasonably accurate, functional model of the brain, lots of interesting things start dropping out as insights.

So — the short takeaway is there are two roads to learning things quickly — the high road and the low road.  The high road involves reflection and creation of your own autobiographical, holistic narratives, with a definite meditative flair.  The second involves trauma and survival, which then has to lead at some level to the same end.  Both ends of the Spiral.  Funny how that works.  And, when you add mirroring behavior (the least likely to stick, as the original piece said,) is exactly what Confucius predicted:

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

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