Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind - Kathleen Taylor - ebook

Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind ebook

Kathleen Taylor

159,99 zł


Practical "brain-aware" facilitation tailored to the adult brain Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind explains how the brain works, and how to help adults learn, develop, and perform more effectively in various settings. Recent neurobiological discoveries have challenged long-held assumptions that logical, rational thought is the preeminent approach to knowing. Rather, feelings and emotions are essential for meaningful learning to occur in the embodied brain. Using stories, metaphors, and engaging illustrations to illuminate technical ideas, Taylor and Marienau synthesize relevant trends in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. Readers unfamiliar with current brain discoveries will enjoy an informative, easy-to-read book. Neuroscience fans will find additional material designed to supplement their knowledge. Many popular publications on brain and learning focus on school-aged learners or tend more toward anatomical description than practical application. This book provides facilitators of adult learning and development a much-needed resource of tested approaches plus the science behind their effectiveness. * Appreciate the fundamental role of experience in adult learning * Understand how metaphor and analogy spark curiosity and creativity * Alleviate adult anxieties that impede learning * Acquire tools and approaches that foster adult learning and development Compared with other books on brain and learning, this volume includes dozens of specific examples of how experienced practitioners facilitate meaningful learning. These "brain-aware" approaches can be adopted and adapted for use in diverse settings. Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind should be read by advisors/counselors, instructors, curriculum and instructional developers, professional development designers, corporate trainers and coaches, faculty mentors, and graduate students--in fact, anyone interested in how adult brains learn.

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Table of Contents

Title Page




What Colleagues Shared

Who, Where, and When?

Our Intentions

How the Narrative Is Organized

How the Book Is Organized

A Gentle Suggestion

Part I: Brain: Then and Now

Chapter 1: Brain Basics

Two States of Mind

The Brain Then

The Brain Now

And the Brain Still Changing

Chapter 2: The Learning, Changing Adult Brain

The Embodied Brain

Experience, Association, and Learning

Memory, Emotions, and Learning

Chapter 3: Metaphors, Embodiment, and Hemispheres

The Analogical Brain

Left and Right Hemispheric Differences, Updated

Embodied Brain, Redux

Part II: Practices That Enhance Adult Learning

Chapter 4: Setting the Stage for Learning

Creating and Maintaining the Environment

Specific Approaches to Embodied Learning

Support, Challenge, and Scaffolding

Chapter 5: Enter Stage Left

Chapter 6: Enter Stage Right

Chapter 7: Center Stage

Serious Games

Chapter 8: Spotlight on Meaning Making

Reflection: Making the Tacit Explicit


Part III: Reflecting on Practice

Chapter 9: Enhancing Brain-Aware Practice with Theory

Learning from Experience


Social Learning

Multiple Intelligences

Constructive-Development Theory and Transformative Learning

Chapter 10: Toward Complexity and Commitment

Two Ways of Knowing/Learning

Heart, Hemispheres, Heron, Heifetz






About the Authors and Contributors

Name Index

Subject Index

End User License Agreement











































































































































































































































































































































































Table of Contents

Begin Reading

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1: Brain Basics

Figure 1.1 Anxious Brain

Figure 1.2 Curious Brain

Figure 1.3 Foot on Gas and Foot on Brake

Figure 1.4 Typical Neuron

Figure 1.5 Triune Brain

Figure 1.6 Brain Function over Time

Chapter 2: The Learning, Changing Adult Brain

Figure 2.1 Broadway: The Road More Traveled

Figure 2.2 Two Pathways: Familiar or New?

Figure 2.3 Memory Formation

Figure 2.4 Types of Long-Term Memory

Figure 2.5 Types of Explicit Memory

Chapter 3: Metaphors, Embodiment, and Hemispheres

Figure 3.1 Infant's Wordless Experience

Figure 3.2 Experience/Analogy Cycle

Part II: Practices That Enhance Adult Learning

Figure II.1 Theatre of Knowing

Figure II.2 Lazy Brain

Chapter 4: Setting the Stage for Learning

Figure 4.1 Crowded Brain

Chapter 7: Center Stage

Figure 7.1 Business Card Activity

Figure 7.2 Stages of Inquiry/Facilitation (Ways of Knowing)

Figure 7.3 Metacognitive Cycle, adapted from Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010)

Chapter 9: Enhancing Brain-Aware Practice with Theory

Figure 9.1 Heron's Modes of Psyche

Figure 9.2 Kolb's Learning Cycle

Figure 9.3 The Nine Learning Styles and the Four Dialectics of the Learning Cycle

Figure 9.4 Zull's Anatomical Schematic of Kolb's Learning Cycle

Figure 9.5 Heron's Fourfold Circuit of Experiential Knowing

Figure 9.6 Boud's Reflective Learning Model

Figure 9.7 Multiple Intelligences Wheel

Figure 9.8 Kegan: Adult Mental Complexity

List of Tables

Chapter 4: Setting the Stage for Learning

Table 4.1 Support-Challenge Windowpane

Chapter 7: Center Stage

Table 7.1 Service-Learning Journal Rubric

Chapter 9: Enhancing Brain-Aware Practice with Theory

Table 9.1 Three Constructive-Developmental Models, Compared

Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind

A Conceptual and Practical Guide


Kathleen TaylorCatherine Marienau




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For Anna Marienau Roth and Ken Miller,for their love, insights, and forbearance.(Someday there will be cleared table-tops.)


Once upon a time, like Goldilocks, we went searching for a book about the brain and adult learning that was just right—neither too abstract nor too technical. Such a book would describe in language accessible to nonneuroscientists (like us) how the adult brain works and also how to use this understanding to construct more brain-aware approaches that help adults learn and perform more effectively in diverse settings.

Having worked for many years with adult learners in various contexts, we had been avidly following the growing literature on the brain and learning. But most implications for practice seemed to focus on school-aged learners, and much of the technical, scholarly literature overwhelmed us with anatomical detail. In addition, we weren't satisfied with the how-to lists that regularly popped up in print and online of the latest so-called brain-based teaching strategies. To devise approaches that would better serve adult learners, we needed to boost our repertoires in more robust ways. We wanted more than new tools in our tool kits: we wanted to know with greater clarity why a certain model, technique, or facilitation approach was more aligned with how the brain learns yet not get lost in brain geography and architecture.

As we researched we discovered that many long-standing theories and models of adult learning—some of our favorites, in fact—could be viewed from the perspective of emerging brain science, though the connections were rarely explicit. Sharing our early findings in faculty development sessions, as consultants to organizations focused on teaching or training adults, and with colleagues around the globe confirmed for us that the information and ideas we had cobbled together about brain, practice, and theory were meaningful and useful to others. We finally realized that the book we wanted to read was one we would have to write.

This is not the book we first envisioned.

That book would have been built largely on our years of practice embellished with our explanations of neuroscience for nonscientists. It would have been a meaningful contribution, but would have posed little or no threat to our familiar ways of doing things. Looking back at how things appeared to us then, neuroscience seemed mostly to affirm much of what we already knew as best practices.

Our further researches opened us to additional perspectives such as cognitive science, psychology, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of mind. As we tried to visualize or diagram what we were learning about the brain's learning process, so that we could more easily explain it when we wrote about it, we found ourselves going around in circles.

After many frustrating attempts at categorization and association—defining and redefining the elements, processes, interconnections, promoters, and inhibitors—our eureka moment occurred when we realized that we had conflated what was going on inside and outside the brain. Learning involves two separate but interwoven areas of activity; the external environment, typically constructed and directed by someone else, and the internal environment, constructed and directed by the brain.

Sketching out this multifaceted relationship illuminated for us an unexpected disconnect between how the brain engages in learning and how we engage in facilitation. It also prompted us to think about new approaches, so as to better align with how the brain learns when no one is telling it what to do and how to do it. We invite you to preview the visual analogy and storyboard we call the Theatre of Knowing (further explanation follows later in the book).

For now it is enough to consider the four major areas; contrary to expectation, the story flows from right to left. First there's a neuron next to indicators of the five senses; then the silhouette of a head within which rests a body labeled to represent what brains do silently and inwardly; in the middle of the page is both a gauzy curtain that separates the images on the right from those on the left and, above it, a bridge connecting them, from which emanates a spotlight; on the left, indicators of things brains do visibly and verbally.

This visual metaphor and storyboard may prompt your own reflection. We will describe in detail the significance of our epiphany and the application to practice in the introduction to part 2. First, however, part 1 provides the background information needed to make sense of those descriptions As our understanding of the learning process grew, so did our appreciation of how adult learning could promote adult development. Brain-aware facilitation seemed likely to contribute to the very kind of learning that enables adults to make more informed choices and act in more deliberate and impactful ways. Learning about how the adult brain learns underscores the role that we and other practitioners can play in fostering these developmental outcomes both for individuals and toward the greater social good. (See “Citations.”).


Although our earlier book, Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers (K. Taylor, Marienau, & Fiddler, 2000), did not touch on the brain, we now find that much of what we said there accords with brain-aware practice; we just didn't know it yet. For more recent development-related or brain-related material, see K. Taylor (2006), K. Taylor and Marienau (2008), K. Taylor and Lamoreaux (2008), and Lamoreaux and Taylor (2011).

What Colleagues Shared

Early in our process of planning this book, we invited dozens of experienced practitioners on five continents to share with us their persistent questions with regard to working with adults. Their wide-ranging responses included observations about their own felt limitations as well as what they perceived as challenges many adult learners face. Here is our synthesis of their questions, concerns, and desires:

How do we effectively encourage learners to explore and engage with new perspectives and unfamiliar ideas?

How can we help adults more readily value and build on their experience for learning?

How do we help learners become more invested in their own learning?

How can we help adults discover and work effectively with connections between theory and practice, concepts and application?

How do we best approach socially sensitive issues—for example, diversity and inclusion—that may challenge long-standing assumptions and beliefs?

How do we deal with our own assumptions about learning and our value judgments as adult educators?

How might we become aware of and reconcile incongruities between our rhetoric and our practice?

We believe the dozens of examples of brain-aware practice that form the heart of this book offer creative ways to approach these issues.

Who, Where, and When?

It's often said that adult learning happens anywhere and at any time. This book is therefore designed for adult learning facilitators in any setting; in this book, we're calling them ALFAS for short. We intend this work to be equally useful to experienced ALFAS and those just entering the field who want information that is both evidence and theory based—for example:

In college settings

. Whether credit or noncredit courses, in brick-and-mortar classrooms or online, this may include academic advisors, learning assessors, counselors, faculty mentors, instructors, instructional designers, professional community advisors, academic administrators, and professional development specialists.

Learning professionals in other organizational settings

. This includes facilitators, coaches, corporate trainers, designers, managers, designers of learning management systems, and chief learning officers, as well as consultants working with individuals and groups.

ALFAS who are consultants to colleges and other organizations

. Those who counsel about particular aspects of adult learning, such as student success services, prior learning assessment, and competency-based approaches, will find it useful.

Graduate students

. This book will be a rich resource for graduate students, both facilitators and learners.

Any adult learner

. We believe adult learners in general will find this book valuable.

We invite you to join our exploration of this exciting terrain.

Our Intentions

As practitioner-scholars, we interpret and interweave what scientists and theoreticians in various relevant disciplines and fields have been saying for some time—but rarely, it seems, to one another. Having in this way discovered similar themes that also relate to our own primary field of adult development and learning, we now seek to translate those wide-ranging but overlapping perspectives into language that can better inform the practice of ALFAS.

How the Narrative Is Organized

We first provide background information about the brain that will help you make sense of the approaches to practice that follow. To maintain accessibility and flow, we avoid peppering the page with citations and unneeded scientific jargon. We instead include additional explanations, suggestions for further reading, and more technical material in boxes. These are particularly informative for graduate students and practitioners who want to dig a bit deeper. They are not essential if your primary purpose is to expand your repertoire toward more brain-aware approaches.

How the Book Is Organized

This book is presented in three parts. The science in part 1 is grounded in brain research; however, we frequently use stories and metaphors to illuminate technical ideas. In similar fashion, we often describe the brain and its functions in analogical rather than anatomical terms, sometimes speaking as though it has a mind of its own. Chapter 1 introduces the notion of two states of mind and how they affect adult learners. We then briefly examine how the human brain developed over eons, why it works as it now does, and how it continues to change. In chapter 2 we describe the significance of experience and the body (embodiment) to how the adult brain learns. Chapter 3 emphasizes the essential role of analogy and metaphor in the brain's process of association and categorization and examines current findings on how hemispheric differences affect learning.

Part 2 focuses explicitly on practices that encourage and strengthen adult learning in a variety of settings. It reintroduces the visual metaphor and storyboard for how learning occurs: the Theatre of Knowing. Then, drawing on contributions of experienced practitioners, chapter 4 sets the stage with approaches designed to overcome adults' initial anxieties and spark their curiosity; chapters 5, 6, and 7 progress toward greater integration of embodied and analogical approaches; and chapter 8 spotlights approaches that emphasize reflection and feedback. (We use approaches to mean activities, exercises, and strategies.)

In part 3, we tie together theory, practice, and our overall intentions. Chapter 9 explores selected theories and models of learning through the lenses of brain research and analogies highlighted in the previous chapters. Rather than begin our book with theory, which is typical, we first illuminate practice in part 2 because (brain-aware alert!) theories are more meaningful when the brain can connect them to concrete experiences. Chapter 10 returns to our overarching theme: how learning with the brain in mind can cultivate in adults a greater capacity to deal meaningfully and effectively with the complexities of modern life and commit to action for the greater good. The epilogue describes our personal journey of integrating brain-aware facilitation into our own practices.

To spark rather than direct your reflections, every chapter ends with a Pause for Reflection. At the end of each informational chapter (parts 1 and 3), we revisit Key Ideas.

A Gentle Suggestion

It may be tempting to skip part 1 entirely and thus get quickly to the “useful stuff” in part 2. Please try to resist. You will be more masterful in both adopting new approaches and enhancing those you already employ if you have a broader understanding of why they are effective. You will also be more likely to successfully generalize many of these approaches to other applications or situations beyond the specific setting described. But please do scan the approaches to practice to see what piques your interest. Here's another brain alert: Having particular issues or questions in mind as you read the introductory chapters is likely to enhance your learning and deepen your understanding. We hope to be companions and guides for you as you continue that journey.

By the way, when we say we or us, referring to Catherine and Kathleen, it could be either or both of us. At other times we may mean ALFAS or people in general. We trust the latter distinctions will be clear from the context.

Part I

Brain: Then and Now

WE BEGIN with a brief overview of the brain. Rather than focus on anatomical detail, we use stories and analogies to explore how it came to be what it is today.

Chapter 1 first describes the brain's activity metaphorically, in terms of two states of mind that can affect how learning happens. We then explore what sociobiologists have inferred about the development of brain structures and function over time, culminating in what now resides in our twenty-first-century skulls. Finally, we briefly touch on an admittedly touchy subject: our currently aging brains.

Building on this backdrop, chapter 2 explores in more detail what we know about what the brain does as it learns—specifically, what supports and enhances adult learning. We more closely examine the embodied brain's fundamental learning process—analogical categorization and association—and the role that emotions play.

Chapter 3 looks more closely at how analogy and metaphor shape experience and conceptual understanding. We also examine current understandings of the differences between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere and how they affect learning.

Chapter 1Brain Basics

The biological mind is, first and foremost, an organ for controlling the biological body… Minds are


disembodied logical reasoning devices.


THE BRAIN'S prime directive has always been to keep the organism alive and functioning optimally, whatever the situation. It does so by monitoring everything going on in and around the body. In fact, your brain can do a lot of things sophisticated medical diagnostic systems can do—and some they cannot. For example, in addition to continuously analyzing all body systems and states, your brain also responds instantly when those readings are out of whack, working to put things back in balance, called homeostasis.

Now, imagine what might have happened way back at the beginning when the brain had to face a saber-toothed tiger. In such situations, it is designed to go into survival mode: adrenaline rushes through the body, extra blood flows to muscles, and respiration rate increases. Though our current brain has ways to keep our more primitive emotions at bay, fear-based systems still affect much of our conscious and unconscious behavior. More than anything else, the brain wants out of there! The parts of the brain that can focus on problem solving and rational reflection are on hold. For many adults, taking a test is just about the modern equivalent of the tiger.

This is also true, though less intensely, in any new learning situation. Fortunately, adults have two competing states of mind: whereas one says, “I'm anxious,” the other says, “I'm curious.” Negotiating this ongoing tension is a major factor for adult learning facilitators in any setting (ALFAS) seeking to facilitate meaningful, lasting learning—but in our experience, it is one that is not sufficiently addressed in many learning environments.

Two States of Mind

It makes perfect sense that the brain's most basic imperative is self-preservation because if it can't manage that, nothing else much matters. We are constantly on the alert for potential threats. In fact, the brain suffers from negativity bias; that is, it is many times more likely to focus on and remember negative interpretations of experience.

Negativity bias affects thinking, feeling, and acting. Daniel Kahneman (2011) also describes this in terms of negativity dominance, in which “negativity and escape dominate positivity and approach” (p. 300). We see and respond to visual threats (a scary picture) or verbal threats (words like war) more quickly than we do to positive stimuli (happy faces, pleasant words). Furthermore, when presented with positive and negative stimuli (such as words or photographs on a screen), we unconsciously—and almost imperceptibly—lean our bodies toward the positive and away from the negative. And in interactions with others, we may dwell more intensely on what we perceive as negative input than on positive.

Anxious Brain

Here is a metaphorical description of our threat-anticipating, defensive, certainty-seeking, anxious, ready-to-fight-or-flee, no-time-to-think-about-learning brain figure 1.1. Its response to the basic question, “What do I have to do to save myself?” is:

Figure 1.1 Anxious Brain

I have to


what's happening.

I have to

focus narrowly

on the immediate potential danger.

I have to be



I have to be


(uncertainty or ambiguity can mean annihilation!).

I have to

avoid threat


I have to be

always prepared to react

, just in case.

Curious Brain

Fortunately, a few hundred million years ago, our brains began refining and elaborating the systems designed to respond to threats. We now also have a very well-developed novelty-seeking, pattern-constructing, cause-seeking, meaning-making, analogy-directed brain figure 1.2. Its major focus is still and always self-preservation, but it comes at it in a completely different way:

Figure 1.2 Curious Brain

I have to



I have to

categorize and associate

by comparison (analogy) what's happening now with what happened before.

I have to

construct and elaborate


I have to


cause and effect.

I have to

reward myself

for figuring things out with “feel-good” hormone release.

I have to

focus more widely

, on possibilities beyond the immediate.

To be most effective, our practice as ALFAS has to account for both of these states of mind. But unless we first attend sufficiently well to threat mediation, adults may literally not have enough presence of mind to learn. They may dutifully try to memorize and follow procedures, but until the brain can pull itself together, it is likely to have difficulty with more substantive learning.

Mezirow on Learning

“Learning is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one's experience in order to guide future action” (Mezirow, 1996, p. 162). This is especially relevant in the context of adult learning and the brain because it (1) frames learning as a process rather than merely an outcome; (2) places meaning making, which is the essence of adult learning, at the core of the process; (3) includes the role of prior experience and interpretation of that experience; (4) refers to the brain's construction and reconstruction of knowledge, key to literally changing one's mind; and (5) alludes to the relationship between reflection and action, which is the essence of praxis. (For more on Mezirow, see chapter 9.)

Learning and State of Mind

We must be attuned to situations likely to trigger the always-on-alert anxious brain to go into threat overdrive. People in a state of heightened anxiety, such as during tests or performance appraisals, are on brain overload. They may not see or hear correctly, “which causes them to misinterpret and give the wrong answer… Their brains are so busy dealing with the [intensity that the brain can't] perceive accurately. Our brains are not infinite. They run out of space, out of gas, as it were,” as worry and anxiety leave less room for perceiving (Ratey, 2002, pp. 61–62).

Most ALFAS intuitively realize this—but not all of us and perhaps not consciously. Moreover, we may not recognize that some of our favorite strategies for enhancing learning, such as detailed feedback and group activities, need to be carefully reviewed with the anxious brain in mind. (More on this in chapter 8.)

Think of it this way: In terms of learning, when the brain is scared, it has a foot on the brake; when it is curious, it has a foot on the accelerator (figure 1.3). With a foot on the brake and none on the gas, such as at a stoplight, the car idles. Many adults, including those with impressive experience and credentials, start off a new learning situation that way. Even if they have willingly chosen to participate (sometimes they are there for other reasons), stress inevitably is associated with a new setting, new facilitator, and perhaps new approaches to new ideas. As Julie Willans and Karen Seary (2011) found in their study of adults returning to formal learning environments, they may feel bombarded from all directions. As they settle in and become more familiar with what will be required of them—and, one hopes, some thoughtful intervention by the facilitator—foot-on-brake can start to relax. By itself, though, that slight letup still doesn't get anywhere. The car needs some foot-on-gas as well. A skilled facilitator provides this by focused attention on motivation and engagement. But unless similar attention has also been paid to the potential for threat, there may now be a foot on each pedal. The car may be revving yet still not moving.

Figure 1.3 Foot on Gas and Foot on Brake

Once that foot-on-brake lets up, though, zoom! In other words, these two states of mind are not simply the inverse of one another. Increasing curiosity doesn't ensure less anxiety; lowering threat doesn't guarantee curiosity. This is why many of the approaches described in part 2 feature effective responses to both imperatives.

We now briefly examine biology. The brain is a relentless, whirling, ongoing, multifaceted process. Its fundamental activity relies ultimately on electrochemical signals at the cellular level. Most people are familiar with the basic structure of a typical brain cell, often drawn in a way that appears treelike (see figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4 Typical Neuron

The cell body of the neuron, which contains the nucleus, is analogous to the crown of the tree, with bushy dendritic branches. The trunk is the axon, and the roots are the axon terminals. Dendrites receive stimulation from other neurons, which causes an electrical impulse to travel down through the cell body and along the length of the axon. When the impulse reaches one of the axon's terminal buttons, it triggers the release of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that cross a tiny space (synapse or synaptic cleft) to the dendrites of another neuron. That stimulates specialized receptors on the dendrites of the next neuron, thus passing along the message. This process continues from neuron to neuron, usually requiring only milliseconds from one to the next.

The words we commonly use to name what the brain does—think, identify, feel, understand, imagine, decide, know, plan, distinguish, believe, remember—are descriptions of what we experience when vast networks of neurons are activated in ever-changing patterns of connection. Neuroscientists currently studying microscopic activity along these neural pathways are attempting to unpack the anatomy of particular brain functions. As ALFAS interested primarily in the activity called learning, which involves millions of neurons engaged in various combinations of tasks, we find it more meaningful to tell the story of brain history and function from a more macrolevel.

The Brain Then

Brains eventually emerged from the basic stimulus-response mechanisms that all animals share. Even one-celled organisms swim toward nutrients and away from danger. As life-forms crawled out of the ocean and evolved into various creatures, these responses evolved along with early brain structures. The modern brain took hundreds of millions of years to evolve. Much of what we understand about human brain development has been inferred from changes in the prehistorical skeletal evidence and comparative studies of the brains of other species. In our case, the gradual increase in the size of the most frontal portion of the brain—which we identify as its more “civilized” part—led to less sloped foreheads. (The increasing proportion of the brain's white matter also contributed to pushing hominid foreheads toward the vertical.)

We can also think about changes in our brain as similar to an archaeological dig, where more recent structures were built on top of earlier ones. But in contrast to the built-over remains of civilizations that had died out or been destroyed, the older structures of the brain had to keep operating. Evolution can't suspend current activity while it goes back to the drawing board; neurobiological economy requires building on whatever is working at the time. Over eons, as modifications emerged that were better suited to the environment, the updated versions had the edge in the ongoing evolutionary process. The brain's additional and increasingly complex capacities enabled still further development within progressively more varied surroundings.

A well-known model that attempted to account for the historical development of major brain structures refers to the triune, or three-part, brain. Though it was later critiqued as being oversimplified, Paul MacLean's model (1990), first developed in the 1960s, became widely known because it seemed to account for human nature, such as our tendency for both primitive and civilized ways of thinking and acting. More recent analyses of brain architecture focus on other spatial relationships in the brain. We will later look more closely at the right and left hemispheres.

Using the triune model in figure 1.5 as our framework, we're going to borrow a time machine to observe how early hominid brains probably functioned about 2 million years ago. Here is Mr. Oog (Homo erectus—not the earliest hominid, but a long way from Homo sapiens, who appeared only 200,000 years ago), walking through the primeval savanna. Wait! He hears noises up ahead but can't determine the source. His brain is on high alert. Is this situation, I can eat that? or is it That can eat me? Either way, his life may hang in the balance. If there is food ahead (or a potential mate), continued existence is enhanced; if not, it could be the end of him.

Figure 1.5 Triune Brain

It is unknown whether Mr. Oog's group was capable of what we now call reflection, but two pointers suggest the capacity for language. The first is the brain structure of early hominids. Endocasts—molds made of the inside of ancient skulls—seem to reveal brain areas we know to be associated with language. The second is archaeological evidence that their toolmaking was a communal process, hence one that required fairly explicit communication.

Brain Stem

Just as it is now, the brain's primary task was to keep the organism alive and functioning optimally, whatever the circumstances. The part of Mr. Oog's brain that controlled his reflexive fight-or-flight response, the brain stem, still has the same job it did then: to continuously monitor and react to internal and external environments. The brain stem is located at the hindmost part of the brain and looks like a tail as it extends down to become the spinal cord. It regulates the functions of internal organs, blood vessels, and activities such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, over which we usually have little conscious control.

The earliest version of the brain stem (about 500 million years ago) was essentially the entire brain of primordial fish, followed by amphibians and, eventually, reptiles. It is sometimes, and rather inaccurately, referred to as the “lizard brain.” Just as the brains of lizards continued to evolve, the brain stem has also evolved. Nevertheless, it is still focused on what sociobiologists call the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating.

The brain works unnoticed most of the time, quietly and effectively controlling homeostasis, but it also springs into heart-thumping action if danger threatens or appears to. ALFAS need to be aware that when the reflexive brain is sharply stimulated—perhaps when an adult is suddenly put on the spot (especially if everyone else is watching)—the capacity of the rest of the brain to reflect, reason, or learn is severely curtailed.

Limbic System

Mr. Oog pauses. As he remembers that the place he is approaching is a good source of food, his threat level decreases. Rather than responding only reflexively, he can intentionally seek pleasure and avoid pain. The limbic system, the second major brain component, gives him the basic capacity for memory, learning, and emotion (see “Limbic System Structures”).

Mr. Oog and his mate are members of a small community of hunter-gatherers. The men make tools and hunt together; the women care for children and gather nuts and berries. Whereas the earlier brain was focused primarily on individual survival, the limbic system helps enable the emotional and feeling responses needed to cooperate and form communities as part of an evolutionarily stable strategy. It also appears to act as a mediator or brake on the harsh survival-focused behaviors of the more primitive structure that would otherwise dominate.

Limbic System Structures

Sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain, the limbic system is not a single organized system; it is a group of structures related by their location and functions. For our purposes, the most important structures are those critical to memory and emotion, the hippocampus and amygdala. They exist bilaterally (in both hemispheres) in the inner side of the temporal lobes (between and just a little behind the temples). Their names, hippocampus (seahorse) and amygdala (almond), are derived from the Greek words for the objects they are thought to resemble. A major criticism of the triune brain model is its identification of the limbic system as the emotional brain. We now know both that the limbic system has functions other than emotions and that emotions involve much more than just the limbic system.

With the limbic system as moderator, Joshua Greene (2013) says, we are less likely to engage in violent behavior toward those we consider part of our group. It also contributes to altruistic behavior in mammals, such as self-sacrifice for the good of the collective or a mother's fight to the death when her young are in danger. If our brains had not developed the capacities to bond with and nurture our young, we would not have survived as a species. In fact, Matthew Lieberman (2013) claims, establishing and maintaining connection with others is the “central problem of mammalian evolution” (p. 99). As we will later describe, these bonds depend in part on the brain's ability to interpret what someone else is thinking or feeling. Whether we know it or not, we all need to read others' minds; fortunately, most of us do so relatively easily. Indeed, social connections are so essential to our survival that their loss can cause physical pain; at the same time, intense connection can cause enormous pleasure.


Social Complexity

The growing complexity of social groups may have been a major factor in the dramatic increase of the frontal part of the brain (Dunbar, 1998). Individuals had to develop behaviors of mutual assistance and cooperation, which required understanding potential trade-offs between short-term costs and long-term gains. Although the limbic system is the source of direct emotional response, the complex calculus of ongoing social give-and-take occurs in the newer prefrontal cortex, which therefore expanded over time. Social evolutionary models further suggest that three group-focused capacities probably coevolved: social intelligence (understanding and using one's connection to others), environmental intelligence (figuring out how things work), and language (sharing and exchanging with others what one knows, thinks, and feels) (Deacon, 1997). As each developed incrementally toward greater complexity, that put pressure on the other two to develop in tandem. The physical locations of parts of the brain facilitated such interactions. Roughly speaking, the reactivity of the brain stem, at the bottom, is mediated by the limbic system, located above it and below the cortex, where thinking is processed.

Arriving at the hunting ground, Mr. Oog lifts his axe and signals to his fellow hunters. The third, and latest-to-develop and most complex part of the primate brain, the cerebral cortex (or new cortex: neocortex), makes possible more complex responses to the changing environment. (See “Social Complexity.”) For example, the discovery of fire and learning to clothe themselves in animal skins will ultimately allow Mr. Oog's descendants to expand his tribe northward, out of Africa.

Seen from the top, the cerebral cortex is what we tend to visualize as brain. A lump of matter appears to have been messily pushed together into a walnut-shaped pile of soft bulges and valleys with a ridge running down the center between the left and right hemispheres. From this view, we cannot see that the cortex, composed of cell bodies, or gray matter, is only about one-eighth inch thick; it covers the white matter beneath it, like a rind.

White matter is composed of axons insulated with a fatty white substance, myelin, which improves the transmission of signals to and from various centers of brain activity. The higher ratio of white matter to gray matter (along with the wrinkling and folding of the cortical surface, allowing more cortical neurons to fit inside the hominid skull) has greatly increased the brain's capacity to make new synapses, thus the potential for creativity and complexity. As we will see in chapter 2, this is a factor in memory and all that implies for learning, planning, and assessing.

The cortex as a whole accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the weight of the adult brain and endows aspects of ourselves that we consider uniquely human, such as language (spoken and written), rational analysis, imagination, and self-understanding. These capacities give rise to art and science; they also enable us to review the past in ways that change over time and to imagine a future rich with possibilities. Although most of our attention as ALFAS is directed toward the cognitive functions that the cortex facilitates (especially the prefrontal cortex, the part closest to the forehead), we are likely to be more effective when we take into account the influences of other aspects of brain function, as well.

The Brain Now

Despite all the amazing changes that the last several hundred million years of evolution have wrought, our brains have never forgotten where they came from. When pressed, they are likely to revert to their more primitive responses. The unconscious in-the-moment default mode of the earliest hominid brains was simply reflexive. They acted! That historical imperative is still very much with us.

Right and Fast

To survive in that long-ago environment, brains had to be right and fast. “What's up ahead?” requires immediate action. Brains that over (lots of) time began to compare this moment to some other moment had an edge in the Darwinian sweepstakes: staying alive longer allowed them to pass that capacity on to their progeny. Thus, the speed and accuracy with which one could identify and connect new experiences with earlier experiences profoundly affected the course of human development.

This may also account for our modern brain's negative bias. For most people, anxiety about possible bad outcomes strongly outweighs the positive potential of a good outcome. As they say, the tiger has to be right once, but you have to be right all the time. Our brains are geared to flash warning signs, and the brain is several times faster at arriving at a negative appraisal than a positive one. Then, when something bad does happen, negative bias is confirmed; unfortunately, when a negative prediction does not come true, the brain is likely to assume it was just lucky that time.

An offshoot of the desire to be right is the need to know. Not knowing creates anxiety. Unfortunately, the desire to avoid that discomfort can encourage us to take risky choices rather than remain undecided. When these are well-calculated risks based on sufficient experience and thoughtful assessments of potential losses and gains, there may be positive outcomes. But less informed adults may also rush to arrive at far less considered decisions. Moreover, when we feel, “Whew! that's taken care of,” the brain rewards itself with a rush of feel-good hormones such as dopamine. (That is why some folks play bridge, do Sudoko, and solve crossword puzzles.)

To be in a state of not knowing is to venture out in the wilds without self-protection. Anything could be out there, just waiting to pounce. Most of us therefore avoid ambiguity and what researchers call “ill-structured” or “messy” problems (Schön, 1983)—terminology that seems to suggest the problem is poorly framed. In reality, for our species to survive, our modern brains have to figure out how to address just such increasingly complex and multifaceted problems.

Because an open-ended problem sparks anxiety and stress, our brains do their best to construct stories that appear to account for the evident facts. In seeking to resolve the ambiguity, the brain will also fill in missing details, such as finding relationships and patterns where there aren't any. The brain effectively counters its discomfort by projecting certainty—or at least cause-and-effect explanations—onto the environment. People especially prone to such behavior are likely to be superstitious, believe in conspiracies, and be gullible about the supernatural. Shermer (2011) also draws connections between 9/11—the anxiety and uncertainty that it created—and the bumper crop of conspiracy theories it engendered. Furthermore, once people have decided that there is a causal relationship between two phenomena, they will subsequently consciously or unconsciously seek out confirming data, thus demonstrating certainty bias.

What's more, if two things happen in rapid succession, we are likely to assume, even if only momentarily, that the earlier one caused the later one—thus being right, fast, now! The following is an instance of the brain creating an immediate story around an unexpected feeling of threat that one of us experienced. A friend was on a ladder organizing a high shelf containing dozens of greeting-card-sized boxes, when he accidentally knocked a small stack off the shelf. I was standing below him, and in the first startled moment they rained down on me (I did not see them start to fall), my brain told me that he had unaccountably started slapping my head and shoulders. “Stop it!” I cried and backed away, shaking the ladder in a reflexive attempt at self-protection. (Fortunately, he didn't fall.)

That instantaneous associative response is the brain doing its job of self-protection: “The brain evolved to detect patterns of immediate significance in do-or-die, fight-or-flight situations” (Geary, 2012, p. 36). It would much rather react defensively in a situation that turns out to be safe than not react in one that turns out to be dangerous. In addition, the brain does not, without prompting, think in terms of correlation. The associative process does not consider, “Hmm, these two things may have occurred more or less together, but does that mean one caused the other, or can there be some as yet unknown third element, that causes both?” Nor is it geared to consider whether it is reasonable to ascribe every perceived effect to a particular cause. It wants to know!

We are capable of thinking in terms of correlation only when we become aware of the connections our brain is making. But most of these associations never reach consciousness. If someone we have just met reminds our brain of an experience that involved strong emotions, we almost instantly connect those emotions with the new acquaintance without knowing we are doing so. Of course, whatever similarities the brain thinks it found can be based on only superficial criteria.

The brain's tendency is to construct a plausible story. Daniel Kahneman (2011), a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, observed, “We are prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence of what we see” (p. 114)—or think we see. Daily changes in the financial indexes, for example, are sometimes occasioned by current events or new economic data, but more often they are random fluctuation. But even when nothing noteworthy has happened, the evening news is likely to present a rationale, however tenuous: Markets moved lower[higher] on news of ________ in Somewhereville. Nor are experts immune from believing their own stories (see “Experts Pick Stocks”).

Left to its own devices, the brain will be the decider. Many people have experienced a version of the following scenario. An electrician had been working on the wiring in our ninety-year-old house. The job was more challenging and time consuming than expected because we did not want to break into the original six-inch-thick lathe-and-plaster walls. He had to thread new wires down from the attic inside the existing walls, then move to the crawl space under the floor to complete the connections. At the end of the day, I walked back into the home office and switched on the overhead light. A computer screen suddenly went black! Oh no! I thought. He miswired something! That made perfect sense, given that he had worked by touch more than by sight—except, as soon as I touched the keyboard, the screen came back on. It had merely gone into sleep mode at the same moment I flipped the light switch.

Experts Pick Stocks

In the 1990s, the Wall Street Journal conducted a study in which stock picks carefully selected by experienced professionals were compared over time to those “selected” by throwing a dart at a list of stocks (http://www.investorhome.com/darts.htm). On a week-by-week basis, sometimes the experts were ahead, and sometimes a lucky dart throw proved more profitable. However, the results over many months revealed no significant difference between the stock pattern–picking experts and random dart throws. (Coincidentally, the experiment was discontinued shortly there after.)

The brain is also very effective at constructing explanations that self-protectively leaves us blameless about whatever undesirable result may have occurred. “Mistakes were made” is a lot more tolerable than “I blew it”:

Even a small amount of ambiguity triggers increased activity in the…deep brain structures that play a major role in our response to threats… The brain doesn't merely prefer certainty over ambiguity—it craves it. Our need to be right is actually a need to “feel” right… When we feel right about the decision or a belief—whether big or small—our brains are happy. (DiSalvo, 2011, pp. 31–32)

This contributes to the certainty bias described earlier.

Need to Know

A corollary to right and fast is the need to know. Most adults are used to being in the know. Even—perhaps, especially—those with impressive professional credentials may be anxious about revealing or acknowledging what they do not know. However enthusiastic adults may be about the idea of new learning, being in a learning situation—whether in a classroom or boardroom—is cause for anxiety. A man who fits this profile revealed, “I went from an environment—my work—where I knew all there was to know, to an environment of feeling like I didn't know anything. This was challenging and scary!”

On the positive side, the curious brain's drive to know—to figure things out, to come to closure—encourages us to continue learning. However, the period during which an adult moves from not knowing to coming to know and, finally, to understanding is uncomfortable at best. As one woman described it, “I was so worried about earning the points that I lost the focus of finding what was most relevant for my topic.”

The Feeling of Not Knowing

Robert Burton (2008) offers an interesting activity that will help you experience your brain's need to know. Read the following paragraph slowly and carefully; maybe even read it twice, paying attention to your feelings as you read. (Don't skip this paragraph. Once you understand the key, it will be impossible to go back to not knowing.)

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance. (Burton, 2008, p. 5)

As you read the quote, you almost certainly experienced the feeling of slight disorientation, perhaps even the frustration that comes when something just doesn't make sense. Maybe you even frowned a little. Clearly, there are no technical words or difficult concepts to contend with, so your brain may say, with some annoyance, I ought to be able to figure this out!

Now notice the shift in your experience at the introduction of the idea of a kite. As you reread the paragraph with that in mind, you may find yourself smiling or even chuckling out loud. As Burton describes it, “In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infused with a feeling of knowing” (p. 5). You may also relax as the tension you felt on first reading dissipates with the explanation of the kite: your brain once again feels secure and in charge, its preferred state.

Highly creative people may be an exception to the brain feeling anxious in the face of the unknown. According to Gregory Berns (2008), rather than run from not knowing, those he calls iconoclasts respond with increased curiosity and greater energy to explore further. Their brains appear to delight in novelty and avoid default patterns. Because they seem to perceive things differently, they are likely to make the creative leaps of imagination that can lead to significant discoveries others failed to consider.

Knowing “Facts”

Adults are also dismayed to discover that even their certainties may be up for grabs. New learning can challenge long-held beliefs. Occasionally new facts can simply be swapped for old facts. But even something as seemingly uncontroversial as how fast water freezes may be connected to one's sense of “who I am” and “how thing are.” Such beliefs are not easily challenged, as the narrator of the following incident discovered:

We stopped for coffee in a roadside café near the Donner Pass in midwinter. The conversation turned to freezing water. People assured us that they had lived here a long time and knew, for certain, that hot water freezes faster than cold. Our protests were rejected. Because it was snowing heavily and we had time on our hands, we suggested a test: taking a cup of boiling water and a cup of refrigerated water outside to see what would happen. When the cold water froze first, the locals' reaction was to stubbornly—and testily—insist that it had been a trick.

It turns out that in rare circumstances, hot water does freeze more quickly. When we first heard this, our immediate reaction (including that of an engineer husband), based on a lifetime of assumptions was, It can't be!