Why An Evolutionary Flaw Stops Your Students from Thinking

Thinking is a lot more difficult than you realize.

Here’s why:

Our biggest problem with thinking is that our thought processes match our evolution:

first survival, then social, and finally problem solving.

Your brain is organized to minimize threat and maximize reward.  Think of them as a toward (reward) and an away (threat) response.  And everything in our environment causes one of these responses.

ThinkingProblem

Here’s the Deal:

Simplistic as it sounds, this is truly the number one aspect of interactions with students that needs to be remembered.[i]

These rewards and threats guide much of behavior and unconscious thinking processes.

These threats could be real or imagined. Your brain doesn’t know the difference.  They are processed the same way and your brain’s reaction to them is the same.

Descendants_Haidt

It gets worse:

Our brain walks us towards rewards, but sprints us away from threats.  As Jonathan Haidt put it “We are the descendants of people who paid a lot of attention when there was a rustle in the bushes.”

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Our brains didn’t evolve for concentrated attention on a single issue, but for constant surveillance of our environment.

Unfortunately, the Away Response can reduce cognitive resources,  making you more defensive and mistakenly classify situations as threats.

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Here’s the Deal:

Our brains also burn a lot of energy for their size. The average adult brain contributes only about 2% to total body weight, but it demands about 20% of our resting metabolic rate (the total amount of energy our bodies expend).[ii] And that is on a lazy day when you’re sitting on the couch!

This is why we feel mentally exhausted after engaging in difficult thinking.  So our brain is literally designed to save us from thinking.

In fact, exerting mental exercise leads to changes in our emotional and behavioral states.[iii]  It’s called Ego Depletion.

Every time we have to make a difficult decision, our self control drops.  This is why most people do not cheat on their diets in the morning, but rather at night.

GoldilocksThinkingQuote

It Gets Better:

Nevertheless, we do find successful thinking pleasurable. We like solving problems, understanding new ideas, and creating things. Solving problems lead to feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment.  Our brain then receives a reward in the form of dopamine.

We seek out opportunities to think, but we are selective. We want challenges that appear to be “solvable” with our current ability.

Think about it as Goldilocks Thinking, we want to solve problems that are not “too easy”, which would lead to boredom, or “too difficult”, which would lead to frustration. The challenges have to make us think, but the challenge has to be “just right.”

According to Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, the optimal level is to be succeeding about 60-80% of the time.

“You don’t want to be succeeding 40 percent of the time. That’s flailing around. You don’t want to be succeeding 95 percent of the time. That’s too easy. You want to constantly be toggling, adjusting the environment so that you’re succeeding 60 to 80 percent of the time.”[iv]

This is the zone where students are not over their head, but at the same time they are not breezing through work.

Understanding how information is processed in our brain will help you understand why teaching is so difficult.

Neuroscience has come a long way in the past decade and we know so much more about how the brain functions than ever before.

This field of science uses a revolutionary new tool known as functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) to decipher how we think and learn. An fMRI machine measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow.

When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.[v] This technology allows scientists to interpret human behavior based on the corresponding brain region that correlates with that behavior.

But here’s the kicker:

Instead of one brain, we really have three.

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Our Three Brains

ThreeBrains

These developments can be referred to as the lizard brain, the cat brain, and the human brain.[vi] We don’t teach well because there is an evolutionary flaw in our brain that we must understand and learn to deal with if we are going to teach successfully.[vii]

The Lizard Brain

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The lizard brain was the first to develop and when we are in the womb, it still is the first to develop. This part of the brain is concerned mostly with avoiding harm and gives us our fear response. Our lizard brain is responsible for the initial filtering of all incoming messages. It is our fight or flight mechanism. It produces stress, basic emotions, and has primitive reasoning power.[viii]

Managing the lizard brain is the first task that we must accomplish if we are to learn because we only focus on avoiding harm when we are in a state of fear.

“The lizard brain is rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic and paranoid, it is filled with ancestral memories.”[ix]  This brain controls muscles, balance and autonomic functions, such as breathing and heartbeat.  This part of the brain is active, even in deep sleep.”[x]

The lizard brain makes the same mistakes over and over again because its main purpose is to determine whether info coming in is a threat to immediate survival. And if not a threat, whether it can be ignored without consequence.[xi]

The Cat Brain

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The next part of the brain that developed in our evolution is our mammal or “cat brain.” What sets mammals apart, neurologically, from lizards is the ability to seek rewards. Also known as the mid-brain, its main responsibility is to move us towards things that will enable our survival.

It helps us feel satisfied. When we eat, drink, and breathe we are rewarding our cat brain. The cat brain resides in the limbic system and is concerned with emotions and instincts that include: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual behavior. It helps us make sense social situations and helps put information in context. Survival depends on avoidance of pain and repetition of pleasure.[xii] The cat brain moves us toward pleasure and away from threat.

Human Superpowers

1         Once we avoid harm, and are satisfied with our basic needs, we now have time to allow our human brain to thrive. This is the part of the brain that makes us human. It allows for reasoning skills, coordination within groups, and to work as teams.[xiii] It is what allowed the human race to survive evolutionarily. It is known as the neocortex.

“The cortex is divided into left and right hemispheres, the famous left and right brain.  The left half of the cortex controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain the left side of the body.   Also, the right brain is more spatial, abstract, musical and artistic, while the left brain more linear, rational, and verbal.”[xiv]

The emphasis on whether people are more left-brained or right-brained has been overblown in recent years, but understand that these two hemispheres have relatively different abilities.

THEORY OF MIND

One of the most significant factors that sets humans apart from other mammals is our ability to posit what others are thinking and for us to be able to reason about why humans perform certain actions. This is known as the Theory of Mind. It is our human superpower!

A theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others. The theory of mind is truly incredible because “such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others.”[xv] We can understand others without them telling us because we have this superpower.

Evolutionary Thought Processes

Our biggest problem with thinking is that our thought processes match our evolution:

first survival,

then social,

and finally problem solving.[xvi]

Our lizard brain is pretty selfish. As our brain evolved, few situations were safe. We had to constantly be alert to our immediate survival and therefore we learned to be extremely cautious.

This process unconsciously continues every time we encounter something new.[xvii] The problem is that we teach from our neocortex, but the students’ lizard brains are receiving it. That is a big disconnect and a serious problem. The good news is that by realizing that this process occurs, we can design strategies to overwrite and hack their lizard, cat, and human brains.

PS: This Project Based Learning Tool Kit Will Help You Override Evolution

[i] Gordon, E. (2000). Integrative Neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain. Singapore: Harwood Academic Publishers.

[ii] Jabr, F. (2012, July 12). Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/

[iii] Chaput, J., Drapeau, V., Poirier, P., Teasdale, N., & Tremblay, A. (2008). Glycemic Instability And Spontaneous Energy Intake: Association With Knowledge-Based Work. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(7), 797-804.

[iv] http://time.com/59658/8-things-the-most-successful-people-do-that-make-them-great/

[v] Huettel, S. A.; Song, A. W.; McCarthy, G. (2009), Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (2 ed.), Massachusetts: Sinauer, ISBN 978-0-87893-286-3

[vi] Hanson, P. (2011, July 29). Hug the Monkey. Retrieved December 23, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rick-hanson-phd/hug-the-monkey_b_1142429.html

[vii] Klaff, O. (2011). The Method. In Pitch anything: An innovative method for presenting, persuading and winning the deal (p. 7). New York: McGraw-Hill.

[viii]Klaff, O. (2011). The Method. In Pitch anything: An innovative method for presenting, persuading and winning the deal (p. 8). New York: McGraw-Hill.

[ix] Kazlev, M. (1999, May 19). The Triune Brain. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.kheper.net/topics/intelligence/MacLean.htm

[x] Kazlev, M. (1999, May 19). The Triune Brain. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.kheper.net/topics/intelligence/MacLean.htm

[xi] Klaff, O. (2011). The Method. In Pitch anything: An innovative method for presenting, persuading and winning the deal (p. 10). New York: McGraw-Hill

[xii] Kazlev, M. (1999, May 19). The Triune Brain. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.kheper.net/topics/intelligence/MacLean.htm

[xiii] Medina, J.B. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle. Pear Press, 2008.

[xiv] Kazlev, M. (1999, May 19). The Triune Brain. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.kheper.net/topics/intelligence/MacLean.htm

[xv] Premack, D. G.; Woodruff, G. (1978). “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1 (4): 515–526

[xvi] Klaff, O. (2011). The Method. In Pitch anything: An innovative method for presenting, persuading and winning the deal (p. 10). New York: McGraw-Hill

[xvii] Klaff, O. (2011). The Method. In Pitch anything: An innovative method for presenting, persuading and winning the deal (p. 9). New York: McGraw-Hill

10 thoughts on “Why An Evolutionary Flaw Stops Your Students from Thinking

  1. Nice article. Thanks for sharing. In my opinion, many students cannot relate to the information they receive from teachers. I see you are also a big fan of project-based or inquiry-based learning. I use this method for the last 5 years. It’s fun for students, easy for teachers; and the most important – you get real results!

    Like

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