Did you know that Disney movie makers and our brain have something in common? No joke! Okay, I’m sure there are a lot of jokes tied into that revelation, but I’m being serious here. Both Disney movie makers and our brains process things in story-board-like glimpses. That is why stories are so entertaining to us. Our brains are designed to grab new data out of stories. That is why when someone throws facts at you, it is hard to remember them, but when they tell you a story, it is easier to remember. Let’s think for a moment of the Master Teacher. Christ taught in parables; He taught in stories. Whenever people in Sunday School discuss why Christ taught stories, the answer is usually “so that anyone can understand them.” They are talking about how there are layers of a story for every understanding. There are those who are only able to take it at face value, there are those who understand symbolism, and there are those that take that story and get out of it a personal meaning just for them. Like the parable of the lost coin. To some, it is just about a woman who lost a coin and wants to find it. To others, it is a story about how our Heavenly Father feels about lost children. And to some, it is the story about a time when they felt lost and didn’t think that they were worth more than a few cents, and they suddenly had a paradigm shift because someone found them and was so excited for their return. Or maybe a person finds personification in the role of the friend. Or as the one looking for a coin. There are multiple connections to be made with each parable. While that is a very good reason for Christ to teach in parables, I don’t believe it’s the whole reason. Christ, as the creator of this world and the co-creator of man, as well as the Son of the Omnipotent would have more understanding of how the brain worked than just because there are multiple levels to a story. He would have known that his disciples would need to remember the lessons he taught long after he was gone. He had a short ministry. Most of our history of Him was written after he was crucified. His stories needed to be remembered in order to make it down the funnel of time to be available to us now, in the last dispensation.
As I’ve said earlier, I’m studying the brain in one of my classes and I find this stuff fascinating. It almost makes me want to study Neuroscience when I’m done. Almost. Okay, not really. But I do think it’s pretty cool and helpful stuff. Have you ever heard that humans learn best by repetition? Ever wondered why? Well, I’m no neuroscientist (duh), so my understanding is probably flawed, but here’s how it makes sense to me. First, some background: The brain is full of nerve cells. The official name of a nerve cell is a neuron. Neurons don’t look like blood cells. They look more like the part of the tree where all the branches stick out. The branches are called axons or dendrites depending on whether they send or receive information. On the end of axons (the branches that send information) are terminal buttons. These terminal buttons let off chemical substances that act as signals to other neurons, called neurotransmitters. I had heard of neurotransmitters, but had no idea what they were. (in college-prep-speak, neurotransmitters : nerves as words : humans. If we’re following the same analogy, then terminal buttons would be mouths. They “speak” the information). The space between neurons where neurotransmitters are passed is called synapses. Neurons don’t really touch, (just think, it’s socially unacceptable to touch someone when you whisper in their ear). My definition of synapses was all wrong before I studied this stuff. Along the outside of the axon is a myelin sheath. Myelin sheaths are pretty cool. Not all axons have them. Myelin sheaths help “information” travel faster and clearer. It’s the brain’s way of saving cookies to a hard drive so that the internet page loads faster and better. The more the axon is used, the more myelin is created, the faster that information can be re-processed.
So… the more we access certain nerves of our brain, the more efficient that information becomes. Therefore, we have lessons repeated and repeated and repeated in order for our brains to be able to access that data faster and faster. I think this would also explain why some information is only available to our memory until the day after the test (we – our brains – don’t think the information is important enough to build a super-highway). It also explains why, when we are trying to reprogram our brain for GOOD habits, it can’t be done overnight. And why it is so hard to break a bad habit (sometimes I feel like the myelin sheaths are pretty thick around those). Oooh, let’s look closer at that. I’ve got some more definitions for you! (I know, you’re thrilled). Our body makes new and thins out old synaptic connections all the time. It plows new pathways from one neuron to the next. When our brains make new connections, that’s called synaptogenesis (makes sense. Synapto for synaptic. Genesis for creation). When our brains kill off old pathways, it’s called synaptic pruning. The thing is, it’s not as easy as just cutting off the pathway. The neuron still knows it’s there. First, we must re-direct traffic. We must convince our thought-cars to take a detour. With myelin speeding things up, it takes a while for our brain to even realize we’re trying to create a detour. Eventually, enough of those thought-cars have gotten the message to use alternate routes that our brain traffic in that area starts slowing down. From what I can tell, myelin sheaths don’t really disappear (except for in certain diseases), the whole road just gets “cut off.” And it doesn’t get cut off until it is mostly unused. How quickly that happens has a lot to do with age. Children grow tons of axons. Then their brains watch which ones get used and thin them out. There is lots of changing going on in a childhood brain. Most of the thinning-out seems to happen as a teenager, from what I can tell. It is still possible to thin out unused axons as an adult, but it is harder to do. Our habits are stuck harder. Why? because they’ve been used more (more myelination). Therefore, it’s much easier to break a habit as a kid or a teen than as an adult. I’m sure you already knew this, but now you know the science behind it.
So… the more you do a task poorly, the more difficult it is to do the task correctly. For example, I hold my pencil “wrong.” I put wrong in quotation marks because obviously I am stubborn enough to think that I hold it right or I wouldn’t hold it that way. But because I hold it incorrectly, I have a permanent flat spot on my ring finger. The nail grows funny and everything. I was informed of my incorrect pencil-holding in third grade and seriously remember thinking “so what!?! I don’t care. I’m NOT going to change the way I write now. You guys (meaning all teachers. I was a little snarky) taught me how to hold a pencil, so perhaps you guys should have taught me correctly (see, snarky)!” So, I’ve continued all of these years to hold my pencil incorrectly. If I were to go back and change how I hold my pencil now, it would take AGES to re-learn how to write. At third grade, sure, it would have taken some work, and my handwriting would suffer a little bit, but what third-grader has ideal handwriting anyway? It would have required much less work at 8 than at 28. It also would have had less dire consequences. An 8-year-old that writes like a 7-year-old is less dramatic than a 28-year-old that writes like a seven-year-old. The moral of the story is pretty easy: stop a habit in its infancy. Pretty sure I didn’t have to give you all that information for you to figure that out. So why do we benefit from knowing how the brai
My schedule has completely deviated from it’s outline today. I just have to deviate. It would be a shame to stick to the planned itinerary when this information is so fascinating and crucial and important. I don’t want to forget what I’m learning and I don’t want to miss a chance to tell you about it. The best opportunities are often seized and not plotted. Especially when it comes to learning and teaching. So instead of doing the baby quilt on my floor, the half-finished mending projects, and reading the rest of my homework without taking a break to jot down what I’m learning, I’m doing some major note-taking and blogging today I’ve also just spent about 3 hours staring at the same page on Flickr to try to add a picture to this new thread. I gave up.
No picture. Sorry. Flickr’s back! Yea for less frustration!
Can I say this again: This stuff is FASCINATING!
FIrst off, let me just say I highly recommend Once Upon a Brain: How Neuroscience Can Be Your Colleague in the Classroom by Thomas Morley for any teachers, homeschoolers, PSR workers, or anyone involved in a relationship with any other human that wants to improve upon understanding . I’m finding it incredibly valuable. I think it links so many pieces I have gleaned from other sources, like Charlotte Mason teaching methods, Thomas Jefferson Education methods, Love and Logic, and even LDS principals of accountability and how we do the “weird” thinks we do. I’m only in chapter 4 and I’m pretty impressed. I’d like to share about a million things from its pages.