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Creating an Understanding

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Brain Education and Inquiry

Paper Two – Creating an Understanding


“All knowledge/understanding is a product of the brain, a construction by it, a story. Education is changing the brain, according to one or other particular story about how/why it should be changed, so knowing something about the brain must be relevant for education” (Paul Grobestein)

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are… If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we can change our lives’’ (Thomas King)

If we admit that the manner in which we experience the world is divided primarily into two loops – the first being between the cognitive unconscious[1] and the outside world and the second between the storyteller[2] and the cognitive unconscious, then we are admitting that a large part of us, of who we are and the manner in which we live our lives is based off the stories we create. We are saying that our mind is constantly writing stories/explanations/theories to better understand the world outside us and our body is merely acting on those stories, testing them, to see if we have the right idea.

What does this tell us about the way we learn? About the manner in which we collect and retain data? It tells us that our minds are constantly registering information – from the time we are consciously awake, we are taking in data about the world around us. And then we are processing this data. We create explanations for the way things seem to be. One part of our brain registers that the leaves are changing from green to shades of orange, yellow and red (cognitive unconscious). Another part of our brain tells us that this happens due to a change of seasons based on the rotation of the earth (the storyteller). And then when we read and learn about seasons and the way they work, our story is reaffirmed, and we are able to move on, creating more stories, building more understandings.

So what happens when a story we create does not match the way things are in the outside world? Well, we go back, and create a new story. Our brain makes its way through conflict on a daily basis, creating a story, testing it, and then potentially creating a new story until we find one that matches. This explanation, however logical, leaves us with one question – how does our brain decide which story to stick by? When we interact with the outside world, how do we decide which explanation works and which one doesn’t? Well, most of it we base on the reactions we receive from the world around us – if we got to open a door and it doesn’t open, we try to unlock it, if we shout loudly in the library we get reprimanded and realize that that is not appropriate – we change our behavior based on the manner in which the world around us expects us to behave.

But what happens when the cognitive unconscious gathers data that just doesn’t make sense to the storyteller? For example, if the storyteller has already learnt that a + b = c, and knows that the equation stands true in every situation, what does it do when you solve a + b and get x? It tells you that you’re wrong. Because a + b cannot give you x, because it has been taught, over a period of time that a + b will always, no matter what, give you c. And so, it makes you go back and check and check again, until you either arrive at c or stop trying.

Kevin Dunbar, through his studies[3] realized that this behavior of the brain is more closely connected to biology than we realize. He tells us that there is a tissue located in the center of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which is associated with the perception of errors and contradictions. Based on what you know, when you see something that seems to be ‘wrong’ or ‘different’ this is the part of your brain that is immediately triggered. What’s more, he tells us that apart from this, our brains also have a Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) which is located just behind the forehead – this plays the role of suppressing ‘unwanted representations’, getting rid of thoughts that don’t match our perceptions of the way things are supposed to be.

So, in other words, he tells us that the reason we’re so resistant to contradictory information, the reason we assume that every unexpected result we get is a mistake, is rooted in the manner in which the human brain works. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe.

What does this mean for our education systems? If our brains are programmed to reject anything that doesn’t fit our perceptions, how are people expected to create things that are original? How are they supposed to question existing theories and laws and discover new things? If our biology does not make room for it, how is any of this possible?

This is when the article gets more interesting. Dunbar tells us that the DLPFC is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults.

Why is this important? Because it tells us that children can identify things that are different from what they know, but that they have no desire to suppress those things – they have no desire to stub those things because they are still learning about the manner in which the world works. What does this mean? It means that a child who has previously known that dogs are smaller than people, would be more willing to accept a picture of a dog the size of a house than most adults would. It means that children, toddlers even, are more flexible learners than most middle school and high school children.

Alison Gopnik explores this idea further in her article ‘How Babies Think’[4]. She tells us that the inhibition of the prefrontal area allows babies to explore freely. They are instinctively more creative and less prone to being disheartened by mistakes because to them, a mistake just means that there’s a new way to look at something. There are no real mistakes. A blue person is just as acceptable as a white, brown or pink one. This gives us a new way to look at childhood – it tells us that babies and young children were designed to create, learn, explore and change through these processes.

Her ideas combined with Dunbar’s findings tell us something very clear – if we want to make room in our educational systems for creativity, if we want to make room in our societies for change, we need to change the manner in which we teach young children.

Take note of the fact that I am not necessarily saying that we need to change what we are teaching our children, I am saying we need to change the methods by which we are teaching them. So, children should still be taught that a + b = c, but from time to time they should be reminded that these truths that we teach them are but local truths. They are true for now, based on our current understanding of the world. So that, if one of these children, ten years from then, discovers that a + b is x and not c, he/she has the capacity to study their work further, look into it more and not immediately dismiss it for a mistake and throw it aside.

Basically, children should be allowed to make full use of their ACC (the part of their brain that recognizes something to be wrong or different) but they should do so in a manner that allows them to fully enjoy it. They should be allowed to bask in the difference that they see, in a picture of a blue person, in a giant dog, in whatever it is they create – without the constant pressure of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ looming over them.

If we manage to teach them in such a manner, if we manage to teach them the laws of science, literature, history and art all as local truths instead of as ever present, unchangeable permanent laws, then, we can limit the power of the DLFPC from a young age. Then, hopefully, when the ACC recognizes something as different, the DLFPC will be less likely to immediately shoot it down and/or suppress it. Then, hopefully, mistakes won’t be considered ridiculous and foolish, they will be seen as natural stepping stones, no matter what level of learning and genius one is at. If we begin teaching children in this manner, we might manage to create, students, who even at the PHD level, are excited about the mistakes they make and what they might learn from them.  

 Education is changing the brain, according to one or other particular story about how/why it should be changed, so knowing something about the brain must be relevant for education.

Now we know something about the brain, and it’s our decision, based on what we know, to create space for a story that could potentially change the educational experience as we know it.




1. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer


2. How Babies Think by Alison Gopnik



[1] The cognitive unconscious, as referred to in this paper describes the part of our brains beyond the neocortex, the place in our brains which is the root of things, where ideas and concepts are formed. This is not a part of our mind that tells us what is wrong/right. It does not make judgments. It merely interprets radiating pattern as motion, helping you take the next step.

[2] The storyteller, as referred to in this paper describes the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that collects the data from the cognitive unconscious and creates a story or an explanation for this data. It helps us explain our actions to ourselves. This is the part of the brain that forms judgments and opinions.


Paul Grobstein's picture

education in local truths, without "suppression"?

"If we begin teaching children in this manner, we might manage to create students who  ... are excited about the mistakes they make and what they might learn from them."

Sounds good to me.  What's in the way?  Is it possible that "suppression" is itself good for something, necessarily kicks in to some extent with age/time/experience?