Saturday, May 1, 2010

Efficiency gone wrong

Daily activity in our brains plays out like a tug-of-war over energy. MRI's have shown that brain activity occurs throughout the organ but only a fraction of the brain is active at any given time.

Like that annoying kid who flickers the lights on and off, on and off, on and off - our brain's regions fire on and off, on and off. Because energy is so precious, efficiency is the name of the game.

In his book Iconoclast: a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, Gregory Berns explains how the brain performs daily exercises in efficiency:

Humans depend on vision more than any other sense to navigate through the world. Mostly we take the visual process for granted. And rightly so, for if we had to think too much about what we see from moment to moment, scarce brain power would remain for doing anything else. Most of the time, the efficiency of our visual systems works to our advantage. Hitting a major league fastball for example, requires the precise coordination of eyes and body. A 90-mile-per-hour fastball reaches the plate in about 0.4 seconds, but the batter must decide whether to hit it when it gets about halfway. The limit of human reaction time is about 0.2 seconds, which means that the task of hitting a fastball pushes the vision and motor systems to their limits. There is not time for thought. The connection between eye and body must be seamless. This automacity lets us accomplish anythign that requires hand-eye coordination, but this automacity comes with a price. In the interests of crafting an efficient visual system, the brain must make guesses about what it is actually seeing. Most of the time this works, but these automatic processes also get in the way of seeing things differently. Automatic thinking destroys the creative process that forms the foundation of iconoclastic thinking.
While it is true that our brains need automacity in order to survive the day - we couldn't provide enough energy on a daily or even hourly basis if our brains were less efficient - we must understand that imagination and creativity are born out of the ability to break from this efficiency model.

Gregory Berns explains:

Before one can muster the strength to tear down conventional thinking, one must first imagine the possibility that conventional thinking is wrong.
A quit smoking seminar can provide all sorts of methods for quitting but if the audience can't imagine why they would want or need to quit in the first place, the seminar will be an exercise in futility.

A teacher's conference can provide sessions on how alternate forms of assessment place far less emphasis on grading, but if the teachers can't imagine why they would want or need to quit grading, the session won't encourage any sustainable change.

We will never see things for what they might be if we are riveted to seeing things only as they are now.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Joe. I'm envious that you're able to teach full time and still whiz through so many books! I'm unfortunately a very slow reader.

    I agree with your message - and in fact, getting people to understand that there's a problem with grades is the reason I started writing short stories from the perspective of a student teacher lately. I'm not a great writer, but I figure if I can get teachers to empathize with the protagonist as she faces the doubts we all have about grades in the backs (and for those who dare, the fronts) of our minds, then I might be able to keep them with me and model through narration why grades should be abolished and how to do it. Unfortunately, I don't actually have any experience abolishing grades in a traditional school, so maybe I'll have the student teacher burn out and start working at an alternative school! Or better yet, maybe I could get other educators to contribute different versions of the story based on their experience and it could be a choose-your-own-adventure story. :-)


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