you're reading...
Business, Health, Science

How we learn

How We Learn 

Highlights from David Brooks opus ‘the Social Animal’

1. Decision Making

How does the brain make decisions? e.g. about what to learn and how to learn it. According to research summarized by Brooks, the brain is an ecosystem constantly measuring the social landscape. We subconsciously form goals, ambitions, dreams and desires every minute. More significantly we understand one another (or misunderstand one another) by simulating their feelings. This(mis)understanding is the driver for our learning habits. Since we allow our emotions to guide our decisions, learning is best gained when there is an emotional component (e.g. desire) to our learning.

One way to understand how the brain learns is to study children, as they are learning constantly. What type of environment do children need in order to learn? We know that they:

  • Require warmth and discipline
  • Need adults to act as living examples
  • Develop in a coherent manner (Their learning is not ad hoc)
  • Have been actively taught how to behave like adults
  • Desire consistency the most

We can apply the same principles to learning as adults, viz.

provide warmth but set clear boundaries; identify living examples of the desired behavior (mentoring); create a coherent learning template (lifelong learning); understand the power of mimicry (coaching) ; value the consistent application of learning (feedback). The prevailing culture also has a large impact on learning. This can be seen in adolescents and young adults. In particular, young adults try on different identities in their 20s and their 30s.  Self-confidence at an early age is a marker for their success in later life. However, mentoring can take moderate people in their teens and make them impressive in their 30s. Thus culture can be seen to shape personalities to be as deep (or as shallow) as the prevailing culture allows. (The impact of culture on learning is considered in more detail below.

2. Learning vs. Training

Research shows that the quickest learning is face-to-face. However other sources of learning (reading, practicing, repetition, exploration), also play a significant impact in learning if performed correctly.  For instance, reading is best done in a variety of settings (as different ambient backgrounds help the mind to learn more information.) For coaching to be effective, it must praise effort, not achievement. In order to encourage a learning mindset, coaching should emphasize deliberate practice – not rote automaticity. This is achieved through repetition of those tasks that we fail at. In addition, the learner must be encouraged to use their core knowledge as a base from which to venture out of their comfort zone and return. (Lifelong learners learn to repeat this process endlessly. )

Training educates the conscious mind: e.g. courses, degrees, certificate programs,etc. (e.g MBAs, Programming/IT Skills.) However the Liberal arts educates the subconscious mind via study of Fine Arts, History, Music. Learning to be innovative, creative and inspirational requires both conscious and unconscious outputs, hence both level-1 and level-2 minds need to be prepared equally.  For an example of a level-1 brain activity that has a huge impact on learning, consider self-control. It is known that students with better self-control can work longer hours/study for longer and live their lives as an “an ordered existence.” In addition:

  • Self-control is twice as important as IQ in predicting performance
  • Self-control can be inculcated in organized homes

3. Character & Behavior Change

Self-control is an essential component of character. Learning how to inculcate the character to learn requires a change in behavioral attitudes. One way to change behaviors is to impersonate the desired behavior. (If your body impersonates an attitude, your mind begins to adopt it.) One behavior change that leads to improved learning is the ability to focus for long periods of time. Another is to be acutely aware of the dangers of not learning; thus most highly learned and accomplished people are driven by a deep sense of existential danger. Another useful behavior for learning is mindsight – the ability to practice self- monitoring.

As William James once wrote: “the whole drama of voluntary life hinges on…which rival motor ideas receive effort”

4. Expertise & Creativity

Expertise comes from connections that create networked chunks of information. Most people do not realize that “they know more than they know”. Expertise is the ability to identify new networks of knowledge worth pursuing. Creativity by contrast consists of blending two or more discordant knowledge networks, and thus arises from exposure to culture. Since lack of money restricts access to culture, self-destructive cultures tend to be ones that lack money. As a consequence, different cultures (“cognitive neighborhoods”) have their own rules of conduct.

What separates wealthy cultures from poor ones with respect to learning? In the former:

  • Educated children are raised in an atmosphere of “concerted cultivation”
  • There is little difference between adult culture and child culture; the Expectation is that children will strive to achieve adult cultural norms
  • Understanding abstract cultural rules is the sine qua non for success

5. Learning and Emergent Systems

Emergent systems are those that don’t rely on a central controller. (Marriage is an example of an emergent system between two individuals.) Education is an emergent system between parents, teachers and the local culture. As a consequence, parents and community can have a larger effect on children’s performance than do their teachers. Poverty is also an emergent system from communities which lack concerted cultivation, and has a large effect on education.

6. Culture & Poverty

One ofthe consequences of children raised in poor families is that they have heard 32 million fewer words than those raised in upper middle-class families. Students from the lowest 25% in economic standing have an 8.6% chance of  getting a college degree, whereas students from the top 25% have a 75% chance. In addition, 50% of lifetime earnings inequality is usually determined by age 18, while most highly successful people have met someone who achieved great success at an early age. Thus there is a strong dependency between culture, education and poverty. What is the relationship between community and the character to learn?

7. Community & Character

Community has tremendous power to shape character. Since  behavior change precedeschanges in attitude & feelings, including attitudes towards learning, people with character tend to perceivemore skillfully than others.  (Here the process of perception is considered the system of seeing and evaluating simultaneously.) Character is in turn a function of willpower, which is itself dependent on triggering. People with willpower trigger processes that enable them to perceive their world in productive and far-seeing ways. Willpower and reason are like muscles; they must be exercised continually or they gradually lose their efficacy.

8. Differences in Cultures

Westerners tend to focus narrowly on individuals taking actions; Asians tend to focus on context and relationships between the various actors. Different  cultures categorize objects differently. Consider the items (cow, chicken, grass). Western cultures categorize (cow, chicken) together while Asian cultures categorize (chicken, grass) together. Cultural variations educate the emotions, including stories, symbols, art and celebrations. Cultures thus effectively compete in finding ways to getting things done. However there are clear attributes of progress-prone cultures. They tend to be more competitive, more optimistic, value tidiness and punctuality, and place an incredible emphasis on education. More specifically, they do not see family as a fortress in a hostile world; instead they see it as a gateway to a wider society. They also tend to Internalize guilt and maintain personal responsibility for their actions.

9. Community Intelligence and Learning

How do communities extend the intelligence of individuals into a community or “hive” mind? Humans create mental scaffolds that guide future thought. As they share these scaffolds with others, they tend to create “designer environments” that enable human reason to outstrip computational power. Humans extend and dissipate knowledge by building social networks embodying learnt experience. We also structure our physical and social worlds so as to present complex coherent behaviors and contribute them to our community.

10. Combining individual and community intelligence

Individuals and communities can integrate their intelligence by combining disparate “idea-spaces”: mental terrains of knowledge that can be shared through notes, figures, presentations or stories. Merging mental idea-spaces from disparate cultures enables the opportunity to generate novel ideas that can be rapidly dissipated and absorbed. Novel learning occurs at the junction of two or more mental spaces. One way to constantly be in learning mode is to find people from different departments, specializations and skill-sets. One can also leverage “micro” culture to enhance intelligence.

11. Neuroscience of Human interaction and Learning

Humans have developed a very precise “status sonar”: Our subconscious minds are constantly mapping others and our environment and we use this mapping to determine our status relative to others, and determine whether we are willing to learn anything from them. These cumulative signals of positive and negative feedback also help us determine our intellectual “place” in our current environment. Successful people constantly learn and do not mind making mistakes: they are  are mildly delusional “status inflators.” (They maximize their pluses, producing self-confidence; and they minimize their minuses, reducing self-doubt.)

Our subconscious mind constantly creates mental models that predict our interaction with others: When the model agrees with reality, we feel rewarded. However, when the model disagrees with reality, we feel anxious (or threatened). Our neurological modeling is driven by a desire for limerence, that is, by a strong desire for the reciprocation of the relationship we have with another. Whether we chose to learn from or mentor another depends on whether we can impose our mental models on them or have them impose theirs on us, We spend large parts of our lives trying to impose our mental models on others (and vice versa), and we compete to connect in order to win prestige, respect and attention. Thus we seek to surpass one another in earning approval by exhibiting our mental models and seeking to have them gain acceptance from our peers.

12. Mental Modeling and Experience

Under the age of 35, we spend most of our time creating mental models that fit the world. However, over the age of 35, we spend most of the time fixing the world to our mental models. Our subconscious (level 1) perception influences how and what we learn. It is subjective (our memories are weaved from discrete fragments); sensitive to context (our current context influences our mental activities; and it finds patterns and reinforces stereotypes. However it is poor at logic and math.  The Level 1 mind learns via a combination of senses, including monitoring the body’s position via proprioreceptors. As a consequence, level 1 learning is capable of complex processes after repetitive learning (e.g. driving). It is also responsible for our peak performance e.g. sports, as well as our perception (putting discrete information into context.) It also has the ability to construct implicit beliefs (e.g. heuristics for success in sports). Most important of all, it is better at making selections when there are many complex overlapping factors that are each ambiguously defined (e.g. shopping for furniture!)

By contrast, the level 2 (conscious) mind works via critical thinking, including observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. Critical thinking gives due consideration to learn from:

  • Evidence through observation
  • Context
  • Relevant criteria for making a judgment
  • Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
  • Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness.




One thought on “How we learn

  1. Quite a lot in there! As with all of Mr. Brooks’ writing it certainly lights a fire under one’s backside. Some I agree with and some I don’t, e.g. the assertion that “Research shows that the quickest learning is face-to-face.” :>( But that’s him, not you :>) Thanks for posting this–you have now motivated me go get off my backside, stop commenting in blog posts and head down to Chapters to pick up that book!

    Posted by mauriceabarry | November 3, 2012, 12:36 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: