In recent months, there has been discussion in the blogosphere over the attributes and cognitive powers of the brain. This month, Clive Shepherd has completed a splendid series of posts on John Medina’s Brain Rules, documenting clearly his own interpretations of the book.
I have not yet read Brain Rules, but I’m grateful to Clive for his explicit summaries and interpretations. Whichever way you look on it, plainly, the brain is a wonderful organ.
My late comment on Clive’s post speculates that the aspects he analysed and reported from Medina’s book did not include an important feature of the brain, that being it’s power to believe. In this post I put forward some thoughts around the idea that the faculty of presumption, in the contexts of observation, perception and reason, is a feature of the brain that can shape the way we learn and also affect the way we think.
What is belief?
Beliefs are formed through our experiences from the moment of birth. Wikipedia describes ‘belief’ as, “the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.” It further explains that “mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought”.
Philosophies to do with belief are complex and varied. Some might even argue that belief is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. Many of the features that are associated with belief can also be attributed to, or have close counterparts in the strange and capricious emotion of trust.
The weight of authority can be a useful lever in forging belief but it can also be flawed. For as much as it may be argued that authority can be an influencing factor in learning, it is the action of the brain of the learner that permits an authoritative influence to be successful or otherwise.
History is strewn with examples of recalcitrant learners who earned the displeasure of their authoritative teachers. Yet authority has also fashioned and propagated belief, and learning through that belief, in the intelligent minds of many scholars. This has gone on for hundreds of years - some of it quite fallacious.
Misconception and erroneous belief
Teachers hope for learner minds that are pliable and mobile. In many disciplines, tutors select their students from young children, it being well known that suppleness of mind prevails in the young.
As a teacher, I’ve often been guilty of using a strategy that I call unteaching. Execution of this mode of persuasion entails dismantling possible misconception and seemingly erroneous belief in the mind of the learner.
A way to achieving this is brought about by revealing tactfully to the learner those aspects of their knowledge or beliefs that may be wanting or mistaken in some important detail. Once the major parts of the assumed learning obstacles are removed, the remnants are eradicated through the application of appropriate pedagogy.
Such action is nevertheless presumptive on the part of the teacher:
- that the original belief in the mind of the learner is flawed:
- that belief in the mind of the teacher is legitimate and authentic.
Whatever the interpretation, it’s the belief formed and held in the mind of the learner that has a powerful bearing on what is learnt and how that learning develops. This applies as much to a young child as to an experienced and mature employee in the workplace. The part that confidence plays in supporting belief is useful to learner and teacher.
Belief directs learning
If the learner’s belief is congruent to what's being taught, the teacher may have no problem. But if that belief is not aligned to what is taught a number of scenarios can arise:
– revelation by the learner in a new understanding
– active discussion about aspects of the learner's belief
(related to what's being learned)
– enlightenment of both learner and teacher through discussion
(sometimes the teacher learns more than the learner)
– no significant change in what the learner knows
– hardening of the learner's original belief.
Human perceptual psychology - believing is seeing
Clive reviews Medina’s Rule 10: Vision trumps all other senses.
He quotes, ”We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.
We actually experience our visual environment as a fully analysed opinion about what the brain thinks is out there.”
In short, our opinion of what exists is what we believe we see.
It relies on expectation, related to processes that occur in the higher levels of the brain. The perceptual experience initiated by what is observed is resolved by a complex series of processes in the peripheral and central nervous system.
The final interpretation is of a meaningful representation of observed events. Otherwise referred to as cognition, it involves memory and schema – a complex network of abstract mental structures that represent an understanding of what is perceived to exist.
Many so-called optical illusions draw on this aspect of perception. What is seen, interpreted and recognised through perception is believed.
The Ames Trapezoid, for instance is such an illusion in 3 dimensions. Another, in 2 dimensions, is the Fraser spiral shown below.
For as much as our perception tells us that we see a spiral, it takes a careful tracing of the loops with a finger to prove that the diagram is really a series of concentric circles – no spiral exists.
Even then, we may not be convinced, and perhaps try the finger tracing test several times before conceding that what we think we see is just an illusion. Test it for yourself.
- What do you think about belief as an aspect of the human brain?
- What part does it play in learning?
- Do you go through life testing your own beliefs?
- Or do you accept the authoritative viewpoint of others?
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