Aiding thinking: How to make the brain think better

Saturday, 4 January 2014 - 11:07am IST Updated: Saturday, 4 January 2014 - 11:09am IST | Agency: DNA
Dr Mayank Vahia explores how we can train the brain to understand concepts and thus improve our methods of education.

In the last article, we discussed the difficulties in thinking and the design of the brain. The question that naturally comes to the fore is: how do we use our knowledge of the working of the brain to educate ourselves better?

This question is, of course, at the core of our civilisation. Education serves to make the coming generations more skilled. Moreover, our value systems, way of life, prejudices and common sense are all passed on to the next generation through education, both formal and informal.

The brain has unprecedented power in processing visual information, possessed optimised memory storage, and recalls extremely well while coordinating information and reaching specific, necessary conclusions on limited data – like concluding that a tiger is a threat to your life before it can eat you. The brain uses information from the five senses, of which sight is the most prominent; visual information often overrides the information from the other senses.

The brain sets us up for living and ensures that we fulfil the three main tasks of life – to eat, to not be eaten and to reproduce. The entire activity of the brain is meant to optimise these three – all other skills are acquired.

Yet, even to achieve these three tasks the brain needs a whole host of skills. A human brain with its unusual brain-to-body ratio is slightly smaller at birth and expands significantly in early life. The trillions of nerves that make up the brain are initially loosely connected; the connections become sturdier with frequent use. That is how the brain builds up on memory and experience.

While a lot of these connections happen early, the brain makes, breaks, and remakes them throughout a person’s lifetime. For instance, a study of the brains of taxi drivers in London showed that the part of the brain that keeps track of locations and maps was far more developed than in other human beings. But this flexibility is limited, and beyond the age of 40 years there is a significant deterioration in the brain’s capacity to gather and integrate more information into itself – difficult, but certainly not impossible.

So clearly, the brain learns and automates tasks as they become routine. And since no two people have identical brains and identical experiences, clearly we are a mix of nature and nurture.

Training this brain through education, therefore, is a tough call. The current method largely involves two approaches – dump a lot of information in the hope that the brain will work out the patterns, and teach socially acceptable behaviour through a mix of what is elegantly called saam, daam, danda, bheda (explain, bribe, punish or through cunning) in Sanskrit.

Since dumping information is not easy, and it is difficult to predict what the brain will make sense of, the standard philosophy of education is to let basic motor control and communication skills be developed at home for the first three years after a child’s birth. The child’s next ten years or so are spent in gaining basic knowledge of human learning and formalised experience. The hope is that, by then, s/he will have begun to show a preference for a specific subject of interest for future education, or at least gain the basic skills needed for employment in a specific field. Informal education happens at home, through interactions with family and friends, and various cultural experiences.

One would think this is a perfectly sensible way of doing it, and therefore, most civilisations have adopted it. But it is not without problems. One of these is that, at the crucial stage when a young person is trying to make choices for the future, he or she is also maturing sexually, and the many hormonal changes happening in the body do not exactly help education.

In most cultures, there are coming to age ceremonies when young people turn 16 years old, where they are declared mature humans. Indeed, even common law calls it adulthood, and democratic governments with universal franchise have marked 18 years as the age a citizen is considered mature enough to be allowed to make his/her own lifestyle decisions.

The problem with this otherwise very sensible approach is that education is neither linear nor uniform, and the manner in which the brain absorbs information and converts it into knowledge is extremely complicated. It involves not just transfer and storage of information, but also the need to develop secondary capacities in the brain and connect them to the correct information base. Since information is stored more as experience (generally, what brain stores is the deducted knowledge from any experience), this is unpredictable.

For example, a child as young as six months old will begin to show appreciation of beauty and symmetry, and start to put its own liked or favourable experiences into a set of events it would like to see repeated. The six-month-old also learns the power of communication, and how it can be used to manipulate people and the environment around it, such as demanding food when hungry, and getting cleaned when uncomfortable.

But this experimentation goes far beyond simply getting food on time. By the age of three or four years, a child begins to create a comprehensive world view. It can extrapolate unseen events, in the sense that if a ball disappears behind an obstruction at some place, the child know where it will come out from behind the obstruction.

The logic of how nature works is already being built into the child’s brain. Here, and soon afterwards, the brain will do complex hand-eye coordination to catch a ball. If we ask a computer to do the same thing, it will require enormous resources and computing power to work out the three dimensional trajectory of the ball by solving complex differential equations. It will then have to instruct the body and the hand to be at the appropriate positions to catch the ball. Yet, a three-year-old can do it with considerable ease.

But this adherence to convention can, at times, hinder formal learning, especially if the teaching is done badly. For example, in our experience time moves at a steady pace and we clearly know what is past, present and future. Yet, most laws of physics are time-reversible and the concept of time in science is very complex. So one needs to accept this concept in a simplified format, move further and then build on it, after each piece of learning has been internalised and the terminologies associated with it are understood, to the extent that the word and its meaning are completely understood.

If this internalisation has been done in a manner that is not in conflict with early life experiences, the absorption is simple and the subject is considered easy. Miss this important point, and if the information is considered counter intuitive, the conflict will prevent internalisation of the information and its conversion into knowledge, and the subject will always be considered difficult.

Formal teaching and the language of formal teaching, especially in science, often miss this point and focus on teaching the literal – with all the complexities of counter-intuitive mathematical formalism. In reality, therefore, one needs to make sure an intuitive idea is matched smoothly with other lifetime experiences to be internalised. This is why literature and law, or even commerce, are considered much easier to internalise than science, even though science is so much more logical and devoid of exceptions due to human frailties.

Yet, science thrives on mathematics and mathematical foundation gives power to science. Once you write down the equations that govern the behaviour of nature, it is universal and easy to understand, at least for a good scientist. At the end of the day, therefore, we need to find a way to harmonise this need to train a brain designed for different purposes to use its internal capacities for this new demand.

Many things can help in this. Appreciating the totality of human knowledge and putting science in context with itself and with other branches of learning is one way. At least in the early period, emphasizing visualisation in as many details as possible is another way, since the brain prioritises visual information more than any other sense.

At the same time, we do need to strengthen the mathematical basis of the student. But a lot of early mathematics is not difficult to visualise and synthesising it into science should not be as uninteresting as it is made out to be. In fact J Robert Oppenheimer was driven to say, “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”

So, can this be done and has it been done? It can certainly been done, and there are books like Physics for Poets by Robert March (you can watch a video on it here) or Flying Circus of Physics which you can read online, and whose cheap edition for South Asia is brought out by Wiley India.

What these books, and others like them, do is connect physics to reality without needing to go through the rigour of mathematics. After all, to get a broad understanding of most of physics, you do not need to appreciate the underlying mathematics. Such compulsion is true only if you want to understand some subtle but important aspects of science, like the Higgs Boson, which belongs to a realm of physics where asking for a visualisation will be met with blank faces and where something is considered understood if the equation that describes it is experimentally confirmed.

However, this stage comes very late and many physicists don’t need to put such blind faith in mathematics; they can work up a reasonable visual feel for their subject – from the vastness of the universe to the point-like nature of quarks. Learning physics and other sciences would, therefore, be far more easy if we could give some visual feel, make sure it is not counter intuitive to early experiences, and the underlying complexity when ideal situations do not match real life situations (that spoil the ideal experiment in reality) are appropriately clarified. Is this too much to ask? It probably is, and each science nerd needs to figure this out for himself or herself.

Yet, I am often asked about how to learn science – that is easier than being asked how to teach science. So let me list out my favourites of what we must do:

  • - Think science: To internalise science, it is important to realise that scientific principle are working everywhere and at all times.
  • - Understand the importance of algebraic formulation
  • - Solve problems: Solving problems (not the ones where you plug in values to an equation) gives you deeper insights into the way the laws of physics work.
  • - Historical perspective: Science normally appears as a very dull collection of facts while, in fact, it is a very dynamic field with lots of false starts and errors. All this is very instructive and gives us new ways of thinking.
  • - Understand the scientific language
  • - Read different books: No author can explain everything to everyone.
  • - Concentrate: Any study is a full time activity.
  • - Don’t work too hard: Give the brain time to think things over, meditate and relax.
  • - Be original
  • - Be open to criticism of your work
  • - Ask questions

I hope this list helps you as much as it helped me.

Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.

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