If You Want a Bigger Brain
If You Want a Bigger Brain
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  • 승인 2011.09.06 12:45
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Do you know the atomic number of gold? Maybe an answer pops up in your mind but you are not sure. You memorized it long ago but because of stress, lack of sleep, or the alcohol from last night, your memory is not working properly. You know that the right answer is definitely at some place in your brain, but you are having a hard time locating it. Your connection to that information in your brain is neither fast nor reliable.

Fortunately, you have a much faster and more reliable connection to another place where the information is stored. Yes, it is the internet. Instead of continuing a fruitless search in your brain, you can tell your hands to reach for the keyboard and type the question on a search engine and then the answer is right there on the screen ? 79. Your consciousness got connected to this information through various bio-physio-chemical processes, which are not that different from the way your brain retrieves information stored in it.

From examples like this, several philosophers and cognitive scientists have advanced the view that cognitive processes like remembering, perceiving, and calculating literally extend from the brain into the environmental tools that humans exploit. According to this view, internet is, when well-connected into a human brain as described above, part of the brain, and so your search for the atomic number of gold on internet is actually retrieving memory or remembering. Likewise, pencil and paper become part of yours when they are used to calculate products of large numbers. Understood this way, your brain is already bigger than that of an elephant or a whale. It is world-wide!

You may find this view crazy, but it certainly has the merit of emphasizing the importance of environmental resources in human cognition. So let us entertain this hypothesis and see what interesting ideas and insights it can generate on college education. One immediate consequence is that we do not need rote learning any more. If internet is part of our brain then the vast amount of data available in it are already in us, and so it is just a waste of time and energy to make another copy of the data between our ears.

Instead we should focus on fostering abilities of critical analysis, creativity, and effective communication, without which the vast amount of data on the internet could be more harmful than useful. We should be able to tell which information is reliable and which is not, to separate objective data from biased opinions, and to make up new ideas and executable plans. Unfortunately for non-English speakers, most of the information on the internet is coded in English and, more importantly, embedded in the culture of English speakers. Thus, becoming an effective communicator in English is one sure way to make your brain bigger, if not smarter.

Extending your brain is not limited to non-biological entities. Humans do not have tendrils to form tsaheylu like the Na’vi of Avatar, but our brains have evolved to be fully capable of forming close mental bonds through various means, consciously or unconsciously. According to Dr. Daniel Wegner, a prominent Harvard psychologist, a group of people who know each other well create a joint memory system, which he calls a transactive memory system, based on a mutual understanding of who is best at remembering or performing what. Thus couples who have dated long enough substantially outperform those who have not in various memory tests, and families in close relationship, often unintentionally, create a vast memory and task system in which different members take up different expert roles and rely on each other. That is, if your longterm boyfriend has expert knowledge on arts or computers, his knowledge and memory are yours, especially when you know his strengths and weaknesses and communicate with him well. And this joint memory and task system is, Wegner explains, what makes divorce so painful: “They once were able to discuss their experiences to reach a shared understanding … . They once could count on access to a wide range of storage in their partner, and this, too, is gone … . The loss of transactive memory feels like losing a part of one’s own mind.”

A transactive memory system can be a lot bigger. When you participate in a research team and work closely with other members, the brains of your advisors, colleagues, and students become part of yours. Or those brains merge together to form a group mind, a memory and task system that is more complex and more effective than that of any individual member. A group mind becomes really powerful and efficient when every member knows every other member well and, even if there is some hierarchy within the group, all the members feel absolutely free to express their ideas and opinions to other members. Various studies show that most important recent innovations in science and technology were brought by well-formed group minds and so it is utterly important to teach students how to co-work and communicate with various other people with different knowledge, status, and personalities, and to cultivate a democratic culture in which ideas are freely criticized and exchanged.

Finally, a brief mention of short-term mental bonds. Many teachers experience that when they teach many different sections of the same class, some sections do really well while others do poorly, even though the same things are taught and the students are almost identical. It seems as if somehow all the smart and hardworking students enrolled in one particular section whereas the rest are filled with slackers. Psychologists have discovered that the crucial difference between good sections and bad ones is the group attitude. Students in good sections have a much more inquisitive learning attitude than those in bad ones.

What is surprising is that the attitudes of the students are not inherent. It is not that students in good sections always have a good learning attitude in other classes. Rather a positive learning attitude is contagious. When a student asks a good question exhibiting a serious learning attitude, other students in the same classroom become more curious and more eager to learn while paying more attention to what the teacher and others say. The converse is also true: A really bad attitude of just one student can ruin the whole class. Thus in a good class, students somehow bond together to form one big learning mind. They want to know what others know and want to show what they know. They exchange ideas freely and efficiently as neurons in a single brain do. So, when you go to class next time, be ready to have a bigger brain. Let the inchoate ideas in your brain flow freely into other brains and see how they develop into brilliant mature ones!









Chunghyoung Lee
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, POSTECH