The

cti PODCAST

A Thousand Neuroscientific Imperatives for Teaching

PUBLISHED: Dec 28, 2021
CATEGORIES: Headagogy

In This Episode.

Headagogy 2, December 28, 2021

Steve delves into A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins, which holds immediate implications for the teaching of critical thinking as understood through the literal functions of neurons!  But contrary to the title, teaching critical thinking doesn’t become easier through thousands of things; it actually becomes easier, and more successful, through very few.

Episode Archive

A Thousand Neuroscientific Imperatives for Teaching

December 28, 2021

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Podcast Transcript

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Today’s podcast is ultimately about a thousand brains. A New Theory of intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, and I got to tell you, I think we’re going to get into one of the most fascinating explorations of a text that we’ve done here on the podcast and all of the two episodes of pedagogy we’ve had so far. Now, I’m absolutely serious. This is really interesting. Hawkins book details a theory about what’s happening when we think all the way down at the level of the functions of neurons themselves. And so it’s hard to think of a more essential or insightful place to locate a discussion of education and critical thinking. That’s not to say that other things don’t matter with respect to critical thinking like psychology and culture and so forth. Of course they do, but Hawkins text really gets to the root of neurological function, and I’m going to talk about how we translate that and what imperatives that brings not only for education broadly, but for the specific teaching of critical thinking, how to do it and why we absolutely have to do it. But before we get to what is an important, perhaps even groundbreaking text, I have to talk a little bit about me. And while I’m not often going to bring personal experiences into the podcast because who would give a shit? And I say that honestly and respectfully, I think this particular personal experience is relevant. I had what was, for me, an exceptionally cool and unique educational experience. I was invited to go into a Montessori school and present on critical thinking directly to 10, 11 and 12 year olds.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

These are all students who are involved in the Montessori model U.N. program, which, like other model U.N. programs, take students to the U.N., lets them function as delegates on behalf of a country advocating for the needs of that country, trying to solve problems and so forth. In fact, I recently had the privilege of presenting to educators who were involved in the international Montessori model U.N., teaching them about critical thinking and how to infuse more of that into the model U.N. program. And I have to thank Judith Cunningham, the director of the Montessori Marland and Program, for inviting me into that experience. But while I’m comfortable working with educators because that’s what I do, I’m certainly not comfortable working directly with 10, 11 and 12 year olds. And I have no problem sharing with you, though I’m guessing you figured it out already that I’m not exactly cut from the cloth of someone who should be working with that particular age group and more power to the people who are because, personally speaking, I just don’t know how you do it. So for me, heading in there, there were two palpable risks. The first risk was that I would simply fall on my face because I wouldn’t know how to present and talk to and interact with these 10, 11 and 12 year olds very effectively. It’s not that I’m some kind of Grinch.

His heart was two sizes too small.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It’s not that I am some kind of child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, right?

Child Catcher

Yes, I can smell them.

 

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It’s just that that’s not the educational environment that I’m used to or where I’m comfortable, and probably not what I’m cut out for. So risk one was that I would fall on my face and that wouldn’t have been so bad. I fallen on my face before I’ll fall on my face again, but I certainly still didn’t want that to happen, and I didn’t want that to happen. Most importantly, because I wanted there to be a positive educational experience for the students. That’s of course, what’s most important. But the second risk which was greater for me in many respects, was that I had to put my money where my mouth is. I advocate constantly for an evolutionarily based neurobiological model of critical thinking, and my argument is always that this model can be taught to students of any age. And the reason it can be taught to students of any age is that it simply builds upon how their brains already function, how they already think, how we are designed as a species to think, how we think every day as we go through our lives. And while I’ve interacted with many educators who’ve adopted my approaches who have found success with students in this age group, I’ve never personally developed students in this regard, and I’ve never personally seen immediate outcomes on the spot and feeling those risks. My initial instinct was to oversimplify the presentation to whittle this critical thinking construct down to something with a greater spoonful of sugar.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

I was thinking about how to Mr. Rogers this into something really simple and tidy. In fact, I was thinking about which colleague of mine I could rope into making an appearance as the Mr. McFeely of the presentation. And then I realized that if I asked a colleague of mine to come be Mr. McFeely. For a presentation to 10 to 12 year olds that that colleague would never speak with me again, so I quickly shelved that idea. And let me also say before you finish typing that email that you’re writing right now that lambaste me for my potentially negative characterization of Mr. Rogers, that I’m a huge Mr. Rogers fan, deeply respect what he did, which was forward thinking and progressive and important. So let me own the fact that how I just characterized him was probably really unfair. But that’s kind of the point, which is that in my brain trying to figure out how to approach students of this age, I was mis conceptualizing the approach. And so after all of my mental gymnastics about how to go in and do a presentation that the kids would find super engaging and cool for their age group, I decided instead that because I’m always advocating for the idea that even little kids can adopt this critical thinking model easily and naturally that I would just go in and teach them the same way that I teach high school students, college students, graduate students and even educators.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

I was going to use the same initial process and example that I always use. And how did it go? Well, in terms of how well I did in terms of how successfully I presented to the students? I think it was OK in retrospect. There are a lot of things I will do differently if I ever do it again. And I certainly know that an educator fluent with that age group who also became fluent with this critical thinking process would do it far better than I did it. But in terms of how the students did in terms of how well they were able to get their heads around and employ and actually analyze the same critical thinking model through the same presentation that I teach to much older people, they did great. They got it. They got it better than some college students. They got it better than some educators. And one of the reasons for that is that they didn’t come into the presentation with a lot of preconceived notions about what critical thinking is. And it’s not to say that all of those preconceived notions are necessarily wrong, but they certainly didn’t have any competing ideas about critical thinking in their minds. And while of course, we work through some simpler language, and while they used some simpler language to contend with the subject matter at hand, they also came up with insights and engaged in cognitive acts that were just absolutely impressive.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So if there was any question that students of this age group could do it, they could do it, and they started to do it and do it well in just an hour. Of course, they would need more practice after that to become fluent in it, but they truly started to employ this functionally in just about an hour’s time. And I make that point not just to compliment the students because it surely wasn’t my skills that really made anything happen there. But because no matter which group of educators with whom I work, including those at what are considered some of the more elite educational institutions in the world, I always hear objections or at least concerns that students are not ready to do this kind of critical thinking that certain other prerequisites need to be in place first or that for whatever reason, in terms of their cognitive development or knowledge of the subject matter or what have you, that the students are not yet ready to think critically. And what this experience reveals, therefore, is that that’s simply not true. All humans are capable of thinking critically. We can show them how they naturally think, and we can teach them how to develop those skills and employ those skills in the academic context and beyond it. I guess at this point, I should mention that if you want a glimpse of my approach to critical thinking instruction, please just come to the critical thinking initiative, dawg.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Go to the podcast page. And if you’re an educator with an Edu educational email address, you can sign up for free full preview of the online program for high school, college graduate, maybe even middle school students. It’s a program you can assign to them as part of your class, but even if you don’t want to do that, then my hope is that in viewing the program, it will offer you an understanding of how you can approach critical thinking in a way that builds on everyone’s natural, critical thinking abilities. And then you can figure out how to infuse more critical thinking into your own teaching practice. There are no strings attached. Just come to the critical thinking initiative, dawg. Go to the podcast page. And if you’re an educator with an Edu educational email address, you can sign up for free full preview and you can see what it’s all about. Before I get to the meat of today’s podcast, let me just note that in February, I’ll be keynoting the Louisiana STEM Association. Conference, so for those of you listening who are part of the Louisiana STEM Association, I sincerely hope you’ll be able to make it, and I hope that if you’re there, you’ll take an opportunity to come up and say, Hi. All right. So let’s get to the true topic of today’s podcast, which is again, about a thousand brains. A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Hawkins bills himself as an amateur neuroscientist, but he founded and runs New Menta, which is a neuroscience research institute and independent one funded through a lot of Silicon Valley money and employees. A healthy number of neuroscientists who are able to do research in conjunction with some major universities. They’re doing a lot of fascinating research on how the mind actually works, what thinking is, how the mind thinks and so on and so forth. And before I regale you with what is absolutely fascinating about what this book is putting forward, a couple of caveats need to be stated. First, while some of what Hawkins proposes is, if not settled science, then at least highly evidenced science based on observational research, MRI scans and so forth. Some of it, and he certainly admits this in his text, is extrapolation. There’s not only nothing wrong with extrapolating from data and research, it’s downright important that we extrapolate from data and research because data itself seldom tells an entire tale unless we’re also able to interpret it and relate it to other things. But I will nevertheless try to afford you some sense of where and when Hawkins departs from what might be the more hard science into what is more extrapolation. And the second caveat in that same spirit is that I too will be extrapolating in. Some of my extrapolations will be off of Hawkins extrapolations, which again, I think is exactly what we want to do.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

In fact, if there is one thing upon which virtually all neuroscientists can agree, it’s that they don’t have a settled understanding of how the brain works, especially when it comes to generating thought. Some other aspects of the brain are becoming a little clearer in terms of regions that are responsible for different actions and so on and so forth. But even that’s a murky area, and I think most neuroscientists would tell us that a complete understanding of the brain and how it creates thought and consciousness is not, if not many, many years away, potentially impossible. And in a sense, isn’t that really just fucking beautiful? Isn’t it wondrous that our brains are such complicated, majestic organs that no matter how much power they lend us to think about them, we still don’t have enough power to understand them. In fact, in referencing the neocortex, which is the heart that’s responsible for all of our higher order thinking, he writes, If you could remove the neocortex from your head and iron it flat, it would be about the size of a large dinner napkin and twice as thick, about two point five mm. Think about that. Everything that is you. Everything you conceptualize as yourself, everything you can remember, every idea you’ve ever had, every conversation you’ve ever had, all the words you know, all the skills you possess, all the acumen that’s rooted in you basically comes down to a two point five mm thick dinner napkin.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

In fact, Hawkins continues on to say that under one square millimeter of neocortex, which is about two point five cubic millimeters, there are roughly one hundred thousand neurons. Five hundred million connections between neurons, called synapses and several kilometers of axons and dendrites. Axons and dendrites are sort of the communication vehicles of the mind. Dendrites bring information into the mind from other neurons and axons communicated out. So there the information highways. So now I’m going to Synopsys what Hawkins is suggesting about how intelligence occurs, and I’m going to hope to do my best in this relatively short podcast to do it justice. I fully appreciate the truth that any kind of synopsis is also a distortion. The only true way, to paraphrase somebody with perfect accuracy, is to rewrite every single word that they said. It doesn’t make it an unfair effort. Synopses are needed, but for the sake of this podcast, I’m surely simplifying some ideas and analogies using some ideas in ways that do not do justice to the full entirety of that idea. So first step here is to understand what the old model of the brain was, for which Hawkins proposes a different idea. The old model, which is thought of as a hierarchical model of how the brain works, is pretty simple, and the hierarchical model functions like a governmental structure. With thousands and thousands. It would really be millions. Xr billions, but let’s say thousands and thousands of different ministers at the risk of stretching the analogy for the sake of simplification, the stimulus comes into the brain first, some minister there is determining whether or not this is an auditory stimulus or visual stimulus or a kinesthetic stimulus and so on and so forth.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It’s determined that there is a visual stimulus, so the visual minister gives it the first stamp on their certificate and sends the stimulus down the road into where visual images are processed. The next minister might be someone who works for the general size of the visual stimulus and determines that it’s somewhere around two by one and a half by four metres in size. It’s just getting a rough size of the object, so we know that this object is not a mountain and we know this object is not an ant, and it then stamps that and moves it forward to the next minister who might look at colours and then the next minister might look at shapes and so on and so on and so forth until eventually it gets down the road to the minister who is in charge of cars and this minister stamps. That is, in fact, is a car. And finally, there’s some theoretical neuron in the brain who is the grey Tesla Model S? Twenty twenty one minister and the grey Tesla Model S twenty twenty one minister gets the final authority to stamp the document and say,

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

I hereby decree that this is in fact a grey Tesla 2021 Model S. I have spoken.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So this hierarchical model is virtually authoritarian, where one neuron not literally, but one neuron in the brain understands grey Tesla. Twenty twenty one Model S, but that authoritarian hierarchical model is the old one. And there’s sort of a luxurious social metaphor to what Hawkins proposes because the new model that his research seems to support about the brain is that it’s not an autocracy, it’s a democracy. The new model is a democratic model, not a twenty twenty four Texas with its voting restrictions kind of democracy, but an actual democratic model. Now let me give you a glimpse of the research on which that conclusion is based, what the new mentor researchers observed. And they’re not the first to make this discovery, but they’ve advanced a lot of it and confirmed some parts, which is that the neocortex is actually made up of something called cortical columns. And you might think of each of these cortical columns like a little piece of spaghetti, and the spaghetti runs vertically from the top of the neocortex napkin to the bottom of the neocortex napkin, again about two point five millimeters high, and there are about one hundred and fifty thousand of these two point five mm tall strands of spaghetti all packed next to each other that comprise the neocortex. It’s within each of these cortical columns that again, we can find approximately one hundred thousand neurons with millions of synapses connecting them together. These cortical columns are not visible under a microscope.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Researchers cannot physically observe these strands of spaghetti. What they can see, however, is that when the brain is thinking, they can see in neuro imagery that the brain shows activity in a way that is consistent with this idea of the cortical columns. Now here’s what’s really exciting about neurons. One of the things that Hawkins and his researchers observed is that whenever the brain encounters a stimulus and again, it’s always encountering different stimuli. But to simplify this, when the brain encounters a stimulus, about two percent of the brain’s neurons start to charge up with what they call an action potential. So let me give you an example. A student walks into your office and you know that this student just failed a test in your class. So the student walks in and different neurons in your brain start to charge up with action potential. And one of the sets of neurons is charging up to deal with an argumentative student. The hostile student who’s going to come in and argue that their grade was unjust. That’s one action potential charging up in your mind. Another set of neurons are charging up for the student who sad and is going to start crying in your office over their terrible grade. And a third set of neurons is charging up with respect to the student who’s coming in to ask for help and saying, Well, I failed this test. How can I do better? So in other words, and this is absolutely amazing, your brain is always making predictions.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

The actual neurons in your brain upon the potential of a stimulus start to charge up in anticipation of what might happen of what you might need to do. They are predicting events to come. So many of them charge up and get ready. And then the student says, Could you please help me do better? And in that moment, the neurons that charged up in preparation of the student who wanted help all fire and discharge along their synapses to other neurons that are also part of that. Enterprise and the firing between those neurons strengthens the synaptic connections between them, so in other words, the more we do something, the more it’s repeated, the more it’s practiced, the stronger the synaptic connections between those neurons becomes. So all the synaptic connections you have in your mind for the student who wants to do better next time, all get strengthened the other neurons that started to charge up in preparation of firing see that it is no longer the right circumstance for them, and they all effectively power down. This is happening thousands and thousands of times a second. And so to review, we’ve got cortical columns. Each of them have 150000 neurons with millions of synapses. Every neuron in your brain has action potential for certain things and not for other things. And when a stimulus is coming, about two percent of your neurons charge up in prediction of what might happen.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And then a small percentage of those neurons actually fire off when it’s the right circumstance and their bonds then strengthen. It moves from being a one lane road to a two lane road to a three lane road to a superhighway. So learning and expertise is a matter of strengthening neural pathways out of repeated firing to the same kind of stimulus when synapses are not asked to fire often, if at all. What might have been a two lane highway moves to a one lane highway than to a dirt road, and then it’s reclaimed by the forest. Then that overgrown space is used to create new synaptic connections to contend with stimuli that the brain encounters more often. The predictive part of this is somewhat new neuroscientific understanding, but the strengthening of synapses is not, and the implications for teaching are very clear right there. Anything we put into our students brains, if it’s not reinforced and practiced and used, gets reclaimed. The neocortex is in a constant process of rewriting old neural pathways to use them for what is more contemporaneously important. And it does not care at all that you think that students need to know these 12 facts about whatever it is. It just doesn’t care. It only cares about reinforcing bonds about what is useful to the individual’s survival. That’s it. So no matter how much we tell students, this particular piece of information is very important.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

If it doesn’t have use and function, the synapses will degrade and will be reclaimed by the neocortex for things that it deems immediate and important. But let me return to the democratic nature of this process, because that’s what’s so important here, because what Hawkins discovered is that no one neuron in the brain actually ever understands on its own any one thing. And the analogy that I will borrow from him is that we have been to 10 different town squares, and we therefore understand the characteristics of these 10 town squares. And from that, we also understand some characteristics of town squares in general. I’ll get back to that. But unlike in the hierarchical model, there’s no one neuron that recognizes Town Square number one. Rather, each neuron that would be involved in the town square discussion at all. Maybe about two percent of the neurons would have action potential for that. But any neuron who would be involved in this discussion at all only knows one little piece of information. In fact, there’s a redundancy so that multiple neurons actually hold the same limited piece of information. So there are some neurons who recognize whether or not there’s a coffee shop in the town square and there are other neurons that recognize whether or not there’s a church. Some neurons recognize whether or not there is a fountain. Some neurons recognize the kind of trees.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Are there oak trees or their palm trees? Or are there pine trees? Another group of neurons recognizes whether or not there are cars. Then we’re dropped into any one of the 10 town squares, and all of the town square neurons charge up with action potential and the neurons that see the coffee shop fire because there’s a coffee shop. If they didn’t see a coffee shop, they would power down the neurons that see that there’s a fountain power up and fire because there’s a fountain and the neurons that recognize the town square based on open green space with no fountain or green space where there’s a statue all powered down. The neurons that are in charge of trees are all powered up, but only the palm tree neurons fire. And what’s happening is a democratic process where different neurons in the brain based on what they see get to vote or not vote. So we know that there’s a palm tree and there’s a fountain and there’s a coffee shop and so on and so forth across all the elements of the town square. And we know, therefore, that out of the 10 potential town squares in which we could be, we’re in number six because that’s the only one with the palm trees, the fountain and the coffee shop. And this establishes what Hawkins calls a reference frame. And this reference frame is how we recognize existing things and more importantly, how we recognize new things because we’re.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

He then dropped into a new town square town square number 11. All of the neurons would charge up to learn about this new town square. They’re looking for coffee shops and fountains and trees and so on and so forth. They’re looking at the general shape and the structure that recognizes a town square or square green space with buildings around it. Maybe roads, maybe not, maybe cars, maybe not in the center of a town. And maybe this is the first town square that has a post office. But through the function of all the other town squares, we have enough knowledgeable neurons about town squares in our neocortex to create a reference frame to understand that this 11th place is also a town square and to itemize some of the characteristics of this particular town square. And so nowhere in the neocortex is the neuron minister for Town Square number six, who is a different minister than the minister of Town Square number five. Rather, as I said, it’s a democratic process across what might be hundreds of thousands of neurons that are all voting until what feels like a stable image of the town square emerges. And what’s exciting about this and important for this discussion is that these democratic reference frames are also why we have any sense of stability about what we’re seeing and interacting with in the world physically, much less also how we’re contending with a relative stable understanding of certain ideas.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And that works like this. The AI Sicard about three times a second, which means that as you look out on the world, even if you think your vision is fixed on just one place, your eyes are actually slightly moving three times a second. And there’s a great metaphor for that in the sense that your mind is always in motion about ideas as well, but we will return to that. But as your eyes, Sicard, we nevertheless recognize the image that’s in front of us as stable. We don’t feel as though it’s shifting around unless we deliberately look at a different aspect of that image. And the reason is, as our eyes Sicard from position A to B to C, there are enough common voting neurons between A and B and C that they’re all still voting, that they’re seeing the same place. So at the outskirts of our vision, perhaps there was the fountain in a and as we moved to be, perhaps some of that found disappears. So we lose some of the fountain a neurons. And as we move to B, we start to see a little bit more of a palm tree. So some of the palm tree neurons start to vote. And then as we move to see we lose some more of the neurons. But there are enough common neurons between A, B and C who are still voting about where we are, that the mind still recognizes the image as the same, even though literally the image has actually shifted.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So let me review the point. So far, the neocortex acts democratically through different groups of voting neurons, any of whom only hold a very small piece of any given puzzle. Lots of neurons will charge up, but only certain neurons fire relative to what’s appropriate for the given scenario. This democratic group of voting neurons creates a reference frame through which we can understand something as stable. And even though certain parts of that image shift around, we could recognize stability in it because a majority of the neurons are still voting that it’s the same thing. And so let me extend that last point, because it’s particularly important if we look at a car and we’re able to look at the inside of the car, the outside of the car, from the top of the car, underneath the car and so on and so forth as we move around the car and look at it from all of these different angles. There’s a larger enough democratic group of neurons voting that this is still a car. In fact, they’re voting that this is still the same car, whether we’re inside the car or outside the car or looking at it from one side or the other. There are enough common neurons there to maintain the reference frame that this is that car, of course, as we see different aspects of that car and look at it from different angles and from inside and out.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

We’re bringing some neurons into the conversation and we’re leaving some neurons out of the conversation. Some new neurons are charging up and firing and some other neurons are powering down, but the reference frame remains stable. It’s still this car, and that brings me to the final point about this neuroscience that I absolutely need to relate before getting into my discussion about how this implicates critical thinking instruction. And that’s that it is not possible to see one object in two ways at the same time. There is always a democratic process going on in the neocortex, and one series of votes is always going to win. It might change millisecond by millisecond, but one reference frame is always going to exist. And the example that Hawkins uses for this, which is very simple and makes it very clear, is the famous picture that has two silhouettes of faces. Facing one another between them in the white space is the outline of a vase. I’m sure you’ve all seen this. So if we look at the picture one way we can see the two faces looking at each other. If we look at the picture another way we can see the vase, but we cannot see both at the same time. We can vacillate between them very quickly, but we cannot see both at once because we lack the capacity at any one given moment to have two reference frames active.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

We can only ever have one reference frame active, so we can have a reference frame for the vase, or we can have a reference frame for the silhouettes of the faces. We could have a reference frame for the whole picture that doesn’t look like faces or a vase, but of black and white. But we cannot have a reference frame for both the faces and the vase active at exactly the same time, because if we did that, we would never see anything as stable. We would never be able to have anything but a blurry image of the world. The car would never look like a car, but a big, blurry mess because as our eyes would Sicard, we would have multiple reference frames active at the same time, and it would be a blurry mess. So to review again, we have one hundred and fifty thousand cortical columns, each filled with one hundred and fifty thousand neurons, each with millions of synaptic connections to other neurons. These neurons charge up in prediction of firing, and they vote democratically by firing when they see something that they recognize. No neuron holds a total understanding or picture of any one given thing. Every neuron only holds small fragments of understanding of anything. But through this democratic process, we create a reference frame and we cannot democratically operate two reference frames at the same time.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And one last thing that’s very important, and I promise I’m going to get to talking about how this implicates critical thinking tremendously. The top of the cortical column, which would effectively be the top side of the dinner napkin, is concerned with the attributes of something. The bottom of the cortical column is concerned with the location of something, and Hawkins makes it very clear that we could not have one without the other. We have to have the characteristics of something, and then we have to have a sense of where it is located relative to other things. In order to understand the characteristics of the car, we also have to understand its distance from us, its distance from the tree, the fact that it is also not the pavement upon which it is standing. And in the same way, we can have an idea that is the characteristics of democracy, but that exists in a location in a place relative to other ideas. It exists relative to ideas of autocracy or tyranny or oligarchy or kleptocracy. So how does all of this not only implicate, but I think create imperatives for the explicit teaching of critical thinking? And by that, I mean, giving students a model for what it is to think that applies across disciplines. It doesn’t mean that disciplinary knowledge is not important, as we think within that discipline. It only means that we need to give students explicit instruction in a thinking model that operates across disciplines and into their lives and into their work and into their relationships and everything that it is that they do.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

I’m going to take the town square analogy and overlay it on academia, and my argument is going to be that we largely teach students as if the brain operates in a hierarchical model as opposed to in this more democratic model with reference frames. And the problem is that we do not give them a reference frame that creates stability between a literature class and a business class. Let me explain what I mean. If we overlay the analogy of the town square onto academia, it looks something like this. We have a student who’s in literature classes and literature classes. The student is in fact building up democratic reference frames. But the reference frames are around things like symbolism, character development, protagonists and antagonists, and all of the other literary terminology that is genuinely important to the study of literature. But from a critical thinking perspective, they are far from the most important things. So the student recognizes its town square of literature town through literary terms. It sees Postmodernism Hall, which of course looks different to everybody. It sees the denouement staircases. It sees the protagonist antagonist structures on opposite sides of the town hall, and it can recognize multiple literature town halls based on these relatively common features. Of course, not all the town halls are identical. Some might have a library of books, whereas others might have an amphitheater for the performance of a play or the oratory reading of poetry, but nevertheless its conception of town squares is built upon these literary terms.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And then this neocortex moves across campus and it gets to its business class and when it sits down in business class. All of those literary neurons charge up and get ready to fire off to see if we’re talking about character development or if we’re going to be talking about feminist interpretations or we’re going to be talking about Victorian literature and then the business teacher starts talking about assets and liabilities and the students neocortex says, Where the fuck am I? Because it’s reference frame for understanding where it is was built on literary terminology instead of the cognitively consistent ideas of critical thinking that span across the two disciplines and all of the disciplines, it literally lacks a reference frame for the business class because no neurons understand assets and liabilities yet. And yes, of course, eventually that neocortex will forge new synaptic connections in order to understand assets and liabilities. Of course it will. But what the neocortex lacks are enough neurons who can understand literature class and then when they get to business class, still be able to charge up and vote such that there is a reference frame between the two that remain stable in effect. To continue the analogy of the town squares, the neocortex moves into a new town square.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And in this town square there are no playhouses and there are no libraries. But there are banks and there is the tower of assets, and there is the pit of liabilities, and the neocortex lacks enough neurons empowered to understand that it’s actually still in a town square. It’s just in business Villa’s town square. But from its perception, it really has no idea where it is. It might not even be able to recognize this town square as a town square. We missed the opportunity the critical opportunity to give students a reference frame of stability that they could consistently practice across disciplines so as to literally build stronger synaptic connections between neurons in their minds for the sake of critical thinking. What would that look like? I’ll not go into the entire model with which I typically work, but let’s take one aspect of it Can we not help students to understand through explicit instruction than nature of analysis, which I talked about a great deal in the previous podcast? Can we not say to them, Look, here we are in literature class? Let’s put aside for a moment the specific term literary analysis and just talk about what it is to analyze more broadly. To analyze is to break things down into their parts so as to better understand the whole, to understand the relationship between claims and evidence and so forth. When we are analyzing literature, we might analyze by breaking things down into specific characters and their actions, the consequences of their actions, the symbolism around their actions.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But those are all aspects of analysis, and we might look at a criticism of a piece of literature and look at what claims are being made by that author of that piece of literary criticism. What evidence that author puts forward in support of their claims that in a very brief sense, is what it is to analyze. And then we take that student and we put them into business class. And rather than thinking about things like how to apply literary criticism and denouement to business, the neurons in the brain for analysis can charge up and fire because they can say we analysed in literature, but the act of analysis in its conceptual form is something that we can equally apply over here. I still recognize this to be a town square. I still know my way around, actually, because even though some of the streets have different names and even there are some buildings that look a little different, I still see the analysis factory and I see the other structures related to critical thinking still present in this town. So it’s a new town square, but I can include it in my understanding of town squares more broadly. Without that, consider the strain we’re putting on the neocortex that when it gets to business class, it has to understand it as something different.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It has to build neural pathways to start making sense of it. Consider the stress and the strain that puts upon our students minds. Consider the lack of compassion in that. And remember what I said before that comes back to us with such an imperative right now. Synapses that do not find, use and are not reinforced atrophy and are rewritten, whereas synapses that find repeated and consistent use are strengthened. Consider the opportunity cost. The opportunity costs are grave. What we sacrifice is the capacity to explicitly help students strengthen the synaptic pathways for critical thinking, no matter in which class they sit in the college, whether they go to business class or literature class, we can be showing them explicitly and clearly how to reinforce the same synaptic connections for critical. Thinking so instead of the neocortex arriving in business class and scrambling to only build new neural pathways that understand assets and liabilities, it could arrive in business class and see that it could take its three lane highway for analysis and use this class to turn it into a four way highway for analysis and use the next classroom, the history classroom, to turn it into a five lane superhighway for analysis. And then it could also use its next conversation with its parents and the decision it has to make about whether or not to get a used car as other ways to add lanes to the same superhighway.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So I cannot emphasize this enough. We’re not only forcing the neocortex into confusion and to building certain new neural pathways, some of which will be needed regardless. But students are suffering at the opportunity cost of not being able to strengthen the same critical thinking synaptic highways in their brains. I don’t want to assert that this is figuratively true. I’m asserting from a neural perspective that this is literally true without teaching enough neurons how to build a reference frame for how the same thinking skills can apply in literature class and in business class. We are literally doing students the neuroscientific disservice of forcing them to construct new neural pathways that not only might literally have nothing to do with prior neural pathways, but that might never get the kind of reinforcement they really need to persist. The student takes one business class, learns a bunch of business terms and then goes on to take more literature classes and never takes a business class again. And the student will have built a few neural pathways to remember those business terms. And then those neural pathways will soon turn to dirt roads and be overridden by new neural pathways that the neocortex perceives as relevant. Now, I’m not making an argument against the study of different subject matter against general education. No, I think that’s very important and more power to the idea that we need to expose students to different perspectives on the world through different academic lenses, and that we never know what students will get turned on to until they’re exposed to it.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And also that multiple perspectives on the world and not seeing the world through a narrow tunnel is a healthy way to go through life and makes life richer. So I’m all for the study of multiple things. I make no argument against that. I support that. But if we just treat those classes independently with no common reference frames to run between them and connect them, then we are losing an opportunity. We’re losing the opportunity to strengthen the neural pathways for critical thinking that could apply across all of those different classes so that even if the student went into the business class and forgot everything they learned about business a year later, they still could have strengthened their critical thinking pathways through that same experience with no deficit. We lose nothing to explicitly give students critical thinking reference frames that can operate across disciplines. The meta skill is critical thinking, but students are not taught and do not recognize and do not reinforce the meta skill. Which is why research study after research study shows that students cannot demonstrate aptitudes in critical thinking because unfortunately, the existing model treats the neocortex more like the old hierarchical model. It treats it as if there is a minister for understanding literature, if not a minister for understanding only Shakespeare and a different minister for understanding. Emily Dickinson.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But it treats it as if there is a minister for understanding literature and there has to be an entirely different minister for understanding business. That’s not literally happening because those ministers don’t exist, but academia is treating it that way. And in fact, what we’re taking to be thinking in literature class is effective discussion of character development and what we’re taking to be critical thinking in business class as effective discussion of supply and demand. What we should be taking as effective discussion and literature class is strong analytic skills and all the other critical thinking acts that come with it. Of course, I’m just not listing them here. And what we should be taking as strong discussion in business class is strong analytic skills. If you can do that across classes, you’re always strengthening the same neural pathways. You’re always creating that stable reference frame that can function and find its way around any town square because it knows how town squares operate, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a found or statue in the middle. But we’ve done in education and with the very prevalent argument that critical thinking is disciplinary. What we’ve told students is that you cannot really understand one town square by looking at another. The town square of literature town is entirely different thing than. A town square of business town. Sure, there are some commonalities that students will understand as they move from class to class. They might understand that in both classes, a paper requires a thesis.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

They probably understand that in both classes, they need to raise their hand if they want to speak. But remember that when it comes to critical thinking that the brain cannot see things two ways. At the same time, it can either have the reference frame for the silhouettes of the faces, or it can have the reference frame for the vase. And that gives us two choices. We can either develop students neocortex to understand that there’s a reference frame for literature class and then have to switch to a different reference frame for business class. Or we can develop their neocortex to understand that there is one dominant reference frame for both classes, and the dominant reference frame is critical thinking. Why is it at all a controversial proposition for anyone to simply argue that we not only give students but actually build in their brains reference frames that can recognize the same intellectual skills, the same critical thinking skills as they move from one class to the next? And therefore, and more importantly, constantly over the course of every educational experience, strengthen those critical thinking skills so that the students are not just comforted, but rather actually empowered by at least some stable reference frames from one discipline to the next discipline to their work life, to their home life, to their significant other. To anything else, we could have enough neurons power up with action, potential for analysis and all the other components of critical thinking that can fire and create a stable reference frame between literature class and business class.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It is the same as the eyes Sicard. While we look at a single image that enough common neurons are still voting to make that seem stable. The same could happen as we move students from one class to another, from one discipline to another, from inside of academia to outside of academia. Let me remind you about the structure of the cortical columns, which at the top of their cortical columns, which would be the top side of the dinner napkin. Recognize attributes, whereas the bottom of the cortical column recognizes place, and Hawkins makes it very clear that motion occurs and place occurs even with abstract thoughts, not just with physical location. So physically, we can not only understand the town square by its attributes, but also understand the town square by a sense of space. Not just that we see something that has the attributes of a found, but that we typically see the fountain in the middle of the town square. Even when thinking about abstract ideas, the bottom part of the cortical columns that contend with a sense of place still become active. And they’re active because metaphorically in our minds, but literally in our neocortex, there is still a sense of relationship. Ideas are still recognized not just for their individual attributes, but in relationship to other ideas.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

The idea of democracy has its own individual characteristics, but its synaptic connections probably extend to create a relativistic understanding in relationship to other forms of government, such as a republic, or if we want to be a little more contemporaneous oligarchy or kleptocracy. But what this means, and sort of to bring this around full circle if we take a literary neocortex and we plop it into business villes town square, it literally doesn’t know where it is. But if we built that neocortex on critical thinking, then its sense of place would be more secure. And so all I’m advocating here is that we create for students a reference frame that creates stability as they move from one class to the next class, from one discipline to the next discipline to their lives to their careers. At its foundation, I think that’s an awfully humble proposition. But what this is empowering us to do is understand that this is something that literally happens within the neocortex. It literally comes down to neurons and synaptic connections, and we need enough common neurons to vote such that we can maintain a stable reference frame. And given that we cannot see one object in two ways, given that we cannot operate two reference frames at the same time, a reference frame that’s stable between the two disciplines, but where they can still zoom in on the tail light or the rearview mirror and nevertheless still understand that they’re seeing a car.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And finally, this reference frame is imperative because neurons not only fire for sense of attributes, but they fire for a sense of place. And we need to ensure that students neocortex as they move from discipline to discipline into their careers or their lives, don’t feel as though they are out of place, and they will be able to use the distinct attributes of this new place to nevertheless add lanes to their critical thinking superhighways. And I possess no language nor aptitudes for concluding the. Podcast Better than something that Hawkins writes in his book, he masterfully talks about how we are to conceptualize ourselves as a species. And I think that what I’m about to read sums up the argument I’ve been making in a way that certainly wouldn’t have made sense before I made the argument. But I think now masterfully and certainly far better than I could have done myself. Hawkins writes, We have become an intelligent species. We are the first species on Earth to know the size and age of the universe. We are the first species on Earth to know how the Earth evolved and how we came to be. We are the first species to develop tools that allow us to explore the universe and learn its secrets from this point of view. Humans are defined by our intelligence and our knowledge, not by our genes. The choice we face as we think about the future is should we continue to be driven by our biological past or choose instead to embrace our newly emerged intelligence?

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