Tag Archives: brain development

How Our Brains Reinforce Our Biases

By Department of Radiology, Uppsala University Hospital. Uploaded by Mikael Häggström. [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Brain researchers talk about two systems of thought in our brains – one that reacts quickly and intuitively and the other that is more complicated and methodical. The busier we are, the more we rely on the first one to make our decisions for us. Unfortunately, even though that system makes fairly good choices sometimes, the more we rely on it, the stronger it gets. Also unfortunately, because that system takes a lot less energy and time, we default to it more readily.  And over time, this decision-making system is self-reinforcing; meaning that it learns and uses past experiences to inform split-second decisions in the moment.

Not engaging the second system to reflect and use our inquisitive powers to make decisions can significantly affect our world view and the way we absorb information and ultimately reinforce the biases we have.  Because our brains and our culture haven’t evolved to take the time to challenge assumptions and really dive in to complex questions, it takes practice to overcome our knee-jerk reactions. But even more than that, the reason we can make those instant judgments is because of associations we’ve learned to make.

Our brains largely remember things based on how they relate to other things. That’s why we have to work so hard to memorize random dates and names, but if we put them to music or create some system around them that makes more sense, we can more easily lodge them in our memory banks. But sometimes those associations are simply manufactured, and this can be terribly harmful from time to time.

If you grew up in a family that taught you to associate people with a certain skin color with danger, when you’re in a hurry or otherwise engaged, you’ll fall back on those biases and  make choices based on them. Even if you “know better” or have friends of color, you’re more likely to make snap judgments based on associations you have. It takes real effort to examine the narratives that drive our behavior and interrupt those associations that are not valid.

If your knee-jerk reactions are rooted in fear or discomfort, the way our brains work, those thoughts have more weight than other thoughts, which means it takes more effort over time to dismantle them. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance and, in fact, we are often considered “efficient” when we don’t take a long time to make decisions. As I said, often, those choices are perfectly fine and even beneficial, but when they involve relationships with other people about whom we may have biases, it is important to slow down and really pull apart where we might be making thought errors. The more we can do this with adolescents, the more comfortable they get with it and the more likely they are to be able to challenge their thinking errors over time – with respect to themselves and others.

One important exercise teachers can do with students to illustrate this phenomenon is to set up some common, everyday decision points and have students share what their first reaction would be and what it’s based on. Write those down and see if there are patterns. Are some of the choices based in fear or risk-avoidance? Where can students challenge those assumptions? Given an ample bit of time to access their reflective brain, would they make a different choice? It’s true that often our instincts guide us in beneficial ways, but there are times when it’s more in our best interest to stop and question whether those choices are rooted in things that aren’t accurate.

Next time: how our unconscious biases affect the way we see ourselves.

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.

Things You May Not Know About Your Brain

Our brains are magnificent, complex machines and we won’t likely ever know as much about what they do and how they do it as there is to know. But thanks to researchers who are continually uncovering new data, we can come up with new ways to impact our brain’s functioning and our mood without resorting to medication or medical interventions. Here are several things you might find interesting*:

  • Exercise (classified as 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week) has been shown to be just as effective in reversing depressive symptoms as the popular prescription medication Zoloft.  (This links to one study, but there have been several that show the same). In addition, the effects of regular exercise are shown to last longer than the effects of prescription antidepressants.
  • Exercise also increases your brain’s ability to function by triggering new brain cell growth. Basically, regular exercise can make you smarter.
  • When we are physically active, our brains produce dopamine and serotonin, two feel-good chemicals.
  • Sunlight affects our mood by triggering special receptors in the back of our eye that stimulate the brain to produce both Vitamin D and serotonin. So, finding time to get physical exercise outside when it’s sunny is giving yourself a double dose of natural antidepressants.
  • Sugar increases inflammation in the brain which has the effect of disrupting normal brain circuits and making it hard for your brain to produce the nerve cells necessary to create new memories. So if you’re working hard on a project for work or cramming for a test at school and you’re fueling your energy with pastries or ice cream, you are making things harder for yourself without even knowing it.

Remember, information is power, and the more you understand about how your brain and body work, the better choices you can make about keeping yourself healthy, happy, and smart.

*None of this is meant to substitute for medical advice from a physical or mental health professional. If you are struggling with severe depressive symptoms or learning challenges, please consult a healthcare professional.