Filters: The brain is very selective about what enters your head
CHILDREN go to school to learn something new without being told how new can change the way they see the world.
It's all in the head, let's say.
A teacher wishing to be known only as AJ wrote in to me last week after reading about the dangers of stereotyping. "We stereotype our students all the way, sometimes consciously but more often unconsciously," he said.
I receive many emails from teachers and they have taught me a great deal.
Sometimes I take it back on them and blame them for my inability to work out in my head how much change is due to me. I was terrified of my maths teacher is my excuse for being innumerate in my adult years.
There are two gatekeepers in our brain that look after all information flow. Everything that comes your way is information -- information that entices you and information that terrifies you. And the brain takes them to the appropriate channels.
In learning you'd want all that useful information to go into the prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain.
This is where the information is processed and the brain helps you to retain it as new learning.
The environment for new learning has to be calming, safe and free from internal doubts about the val ue of what is flowing your way.
In fact, not all information that come your way do go through and stay in your head as new learning. Most are rejected, avoided or dismissed as threats to your very survival.
The brain is very selective about what enters your head from the billions of bits of information that come your way every second of your waking life.
"Filters in your brain protect it from becoming overloaded," says neurologist turned teacher Judy Willis.
"These filters control the information flow so that only approximately 2,000 bits of information per second enter the brain."
So that explains why, after a whole afternoon of geography lesson, not a bit of it sticks in the head when you are asked to explain how the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun in December. All that information you were fed barely half an hour ago went not through your prefrontal cortex where the thinking process starts but to another, lower, part where all that is produced is a reaction.
Thinking and reacting are two different things. You filter information through the prefrontal cortex when the situation is conducive for learning. You brain is humming away merrily, let's say, and the background music is relaxing, the tutors are calm and friendly, and you are in control of what filters through.
Another filter in your brain deals with information instinctively. You are stressed or emotional and you have a bee in your bonnet about something and it has been buzzing in your head all the while. Your reactive brain kicks into play. The reactive brain ignores whatever information is fed to you, it makes you react to it adversely or it makes you avoid it altogether. If you have daydreamed in class when your teacher is trying to explain the wonders of quadratic equations, that's your reactive brain playing hookey.
Everything that we know is transmitted to our brain through our sensory nerves -- what you hear, what you feel, what you smell and so on. If you are in control, your mind starts to think and what you learn tends to stick. If you are overwhelmed, another mechanism starts to take control; you are no longer in charge. Judy Willis makes out this distinction in her approach to learning to show how you think about what comes your way and how you do not. She puts it very succinctly in an article on the brain in Educational Leadership, a journal for American educators : "It's the difference between reflecting on and reacting to your world."
As a former neuroscientist, Willis believes that students should know how their brain works in order to utilise it fully. This is similar to the information about stereotyping that we saw last week: if the student knows how stereotyping is holding them back and how it is the illusory wall that is standing in their way, then they will learn how to avoid the pitfalls.
Teachers must of course learn how to produce a conducive learning environment. They can teach the students to visualise, make the historical narratives come alive in their heads, learn the meaning of new words by visualising them at play in their minds. Some teachers make their students do breathing exercises before starting a new lesson.
But a more powerful tool that Willis gives to her students is the understanding of how the brain works, how neuroplasticity works in their favour and the knowledge that the more you learn, the more neurons grow and connect to other neurons and get more efficient at sending signals to one another.
Re-read a difficult part in a book and you strengthen your mental faculty; practise and you'll soon be near perfect. These sound like old tips from old books but now neuroscience tells us us that they are true.
Wan A. Hulaimi | firstname.lastname@example.org is based in the UK Wan A Hulaimi is author of the bestseller 'A Map of Trengganu' New Straits Times Columnist 21 April 2013