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Great Minds Do Not Think Alike

eledford's picture

            For several weeks now, our class discussions have focused on the problems with education – what has not been working and what has, our own past experiences, and how we could possibly remedy the current education deficit, so to speak. Recently, the lens with which we have been viewing education has shifted in order to include how the brain works in hopes that we can better approach education with a more thorough understanding of how inputs are processed, information manipulated, and outputs produced. This, after all, may be a link to truly approaching education in a different way. One crucial process that has surfaced in my research and in class discussion is how conflict (in many forms)  and diversity of intelligence is a necessary tool for learning and creativity; thus, studying the old adage “learn from your mistakes” via cognitive neuroscience sheds a new light – perhaps a more scientific light – on this approach.

In the article, Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, Jonah Lehrer illustrates that we tend to be objective creatures, looking for evidence that confirms what we already believe (1). He brings us to the research of Kevin Dunbar who investigated researchers in science labs and how they studied things. What he found was that if the results to their experiments did not pan out as predicted, then the researchers deemed the outcomes as failures and rarely considered the stray findings again. But not looking closer at those failures may just be the problem with science. By examining the data that differs with our own expectation, we are able to make new proposals from these different perspectives. When the evidence supports what we thought, we take it for granted and forget to question our own suppositions; for why question what you already know to be true? Think about it. Say you do two math problems; one of your answers is correct, the other is not. Chances are you will not readdress the correct one, but the wrong answer will force you to explore the problem more fully and more thorough if you truly want to obtain an understanding of the topic, as long as you examine how you got to the answer you derived. If we are aware that our brains are biased to our own inclinations, we may be able to catch ourselves in our assumptions, hence using this understanding of our own brains to our advantage.

In our recent discussions in class, we have established the idea of loop systems. One of these loops involves linking the cognitive unconscious part of the brain and the outside world; another, the inside loop, is between the cognitive unconscious and the story-teller part of the brain. The story-teller, our conscious, is what we can call our reasoning. The conflict that occurs between the cognitive unconscious and the story-teller happens all the time; for instance, in one class discussion we were presented with several optical illusions and asked to interpret them. At first glance, we immediately fell for the illusion, until our reasoning got the best of us; we knew we were being tricked, probably from a past experience with such a test. This is a simple case of how the story-teller and the cognitive unconscious interact, using conflict from past experiences as a learning tool to shape and guide our reasoning when put in another situation. The brain constructs via collecting input and seeing if it matches the expectation. One learns as a result of conflict, unconsciously using the difference between observation and expectation. The second loop, the reflective process, links the cognitive unconscious and the conscious. The story-teller collects information from the unconscious and uses it to construct a coherent single story of the individual; in essence, the story is returned and compared to understandings in the cognitive unconscious. This is the reason why hands-on activities (also trial and error activities) are so successful and essential in the classroom. When these loop systems are applied to the scientists that Dunbar researched, we can see that they seemed to have been lacking that reflective loop; they were not using the “wrongness” to their advantage. It was not until Dunbar explained that the most productive team of researchers were those with the most diverse of backgrounds and specialties capable of presenting their perspectives; “the most important element wasn’t the presentation – it was the debate that followed” which triggered breakthroughs and forced the scientists to reconsider their data (1). This is where another piece of the loop puzzle comes in. There is a third loop based on the interpersonal interactions we encounter and take part in each day. The differences we have as individuals become opportunities to see new perspectives; this is made possible by how we shape and are shaped by society and culture.

Throughout Dunbar’s own experiments on college students he was able to narrow his interests in conflict of the cognitive down to two regions of the brain, the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Through his experimental data, he found that the ACC is activated when we perceive errors and contradictions, often referred to as the “Oh, Shit!” circuit; the DLFPC is the part of the brain that actually edits and cuts out information we receive when we think it is incorrect, functioning as a sort of “Delete” key (1). Interestingly enough, Lehrer notes that it is one of the last areas to develop in young adults, which makes me think maybe children do not begin to delete things as readily as adults do; maybe they have more conflict, more activity in the ACC thaan adults, which would make for an interesting study. We can take from his study that the ACC is a crucial part to understanding the conflict arising in our brain, like the unexpected results we receive during an experiment; and the DLFPC is what allows us to rid our cognitive of the failed experiments. Being aware that we even have a delete key function in the brain may help us learn from our mistakes in a more productive manner. What will also make us aware (perhaps even to a greater extent) of the DLPFC is engaging in discussion with those having different ACC responses – or rather different perspectives of outcomes and results, or topics in general. This may be the most powerful tool we have which proposes that maybe great minds in fact do NOT think alike, but conflict.

Now that we have established an idea of how the brain works, as well as the value of the loop systems and how they can be applied, we must also consider how they can be fostered within an educational environment. The other week, a classmate introduced us to a piece concerning educators and experience. Paulo Friere, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, asks “why not establish an "intimate" connection between knowledge considered basic to any school curriculum and knowledge that is the fruit of the lived experience of these students as individuals?” (2). We are all researchers, observers, participators in a variety of things that allow us to know a little more about such topics than others. Experiential learning is thus something to be highly valued and should be emphasized in and out the class room. We feel and see through our life experiences, and the differences we have can lead to powerful discussions. Creating interpersonal conflicts (in this I mean productive disagreement) by debating our perspectives is fruitful, and is probably why Professor Grobstein chose to register students with diverse backgrounds for his Biology 205 class, to allow richness in many different areas to foster debates and enable us to question our own points of view. (It has indeed been interesting!) Yet, why does this work? Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert, says it is because intelligence itself is diverse; it can be visual, abstract, dynamic, interactive, and distinct (3).

Children in our society (really, all of us) are scared to make mistakes or say the wrong answer; classrooms (and labs, etc) should have more hands-on activities, group discussions enabling new ideas and perspectives to come about. This causes the unconscious to be imprinted instead of things “going in one ear and out the other.” The loop systems illustrate that we need to be constantly challenging our unconscious and questioning our ACC (figuratively). When we do (or others do of us), residues are imprinted, especially in interactive applied education.  Diversity of minds and their interactions causes conflict that can be reflected upon and learned from – this is basically loop three; yet human communities depend on a diversity of talent and we all have very different abilities so why not help uncover what they are; and why not try to change the view that we all need to have the same perspective? We need to reconstitute the richness of our human capacity, “for our minds have been mined” (3). With individual creativity and collective diversity comes innovation. Innovation challenges the sort of knowledge we take for granted. Making mistakes is fine, but learning from mistakes is better; as Confucius says, “to be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it.” Challenge your ACC!


Works Cited

  1. Lehrer, Jonah. "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up." WIRED. 21 Dec. 2009 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2010. <>.
  2. Freire, Paulo. "There Is No Teaching Without Learning." Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Group, 1970, 1993. 34-39. Print.
  3. Bring On the Learning Revolution. Perf. Sir Ken Robinson. TED. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, May 2010. Web. 23 Sept. 2010. <>.




Paul Grobstein's picture

Great minds and education

Sounds a bit like we it is not inevitable that "great minds will conflict;" instead we need to encourage them to do so?  Maybe that's the point of education?