Consumer Research Reports, Science & Technology

We Must Tame the Instinct and Learn to Think

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Our brain is so complex that it has redundant systems, and sometimes competing processes coexist in it. An example may be reason and instinct, to which Plato compared with two horses that pull in opposite directions. The current idea, rather than the confrontation alluded to by the philosopher, is that we have two alternative systems based on different neural networks, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Instinct goes into action when we have to make quick decisions with incomplete information. The reason is especially useful when we have a lot of information and enough time to reflect on it.

In the brain, this is reflected in two different systems. The instinct (system 1) is evolutionarily old, fast, automatic and parallel, and allows us to make decisions intuitively and quickly in familiar situations. It is also known as the heuristic system or “the athlete.” The reason (method 2), however, operates more slowly, is sequential, based on rules and allows us to develop abstract logical reasoning and hypothetical thinking. It is also called the analytical system or “the chess player.”

When consciousness takes over

A key aspect of how thinking works is that the analytical system is able to inhibit the heuristic system and impose itself on it when necessary. Consciousness takes over and blocks instant responses.

By taking this question to the classroom, we observe this inhibition of instinct when our students can think things carefully and successfully, following logical reasoning instead of giving an immediate, automatic and often the wrong answer.

Neuroimaging techniques have revealed in adults that when people start up system 2 and inhibit system 1, more activity is seen in the prefrontal cortex, the most anterior part of the brain, just behind our forehead. The activation of this zone, which is usually measured by oxygen or glucose consumption, means that you are working more, processing more information. The prefrontal cortex allows us to take charge of our behavior, including attention, impulse control and thought regulation to achieve our goals.

Several studies have shown that, after a brief preparation session, students who are asked to solve a logical problem for which they had previously given an intuitive and wrong answer can launch the analytical system and provide the solution correct.

With these brain scanning techniques, what is observed in this case is a change in brain activation, which now moves from the posterior area of ​​the brain to the prefrontal cortex. 

The unlocked project is based on these premises and has focused on science and math education in the Primary Education stage. The objective is to implement a procedure in the classroom that encourages children to resort to system 2 when they have to solve math problems and science issues, and try not to respond so quickly but think, analyze, compare with stored data in their long-term memory and the reason the right answer

The sun revolves around the Earth!

Let’s give an example: the intuitive (and false!) Idea is that the sun revolves around the Earth. You have to look up. Before we thought that when the child learned that it was the Earth that revolved around the Sun, his previous theory was crushed by the new information, but the available evidence suggests that these false and incorrect theories are stored in our brain even with the new evidence. It takes inhibitory control to suppress them.

If we do so, our mind will continue thinking that when we return home at the end of the day to the west, the sun is hiding after his journey on a flat Earth.

In the classroom, it is widespread to observe those persistent errors that arise when children are asked about concepts that are contrary to intuition and that rely on misinterpreted information (such as the supposed movement of the sun throughout the day). The problem is that at school, we teach more and more complicated theories as the courses progress and we trust that this eliminates previous theories, but that is not the case.

Another example: we teach children natural numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …) and learn that 5 is greater than 1. Children practice these concepts until they are mastered and respond quickly and accurately, which number is more significant. But then, in a later course, we teach them the negative numbers, where -5 is less than -1.

Children often make the mistake of saying that -5 is higher than -1 because in their brain, the criterion persists 5 is greater than 1 and they respond as a shotgun. To answer well, they would have to inhibit the automatic response and reason what we have taught them about negative numbers. This reasoning must be conscious and controlled by the child until the new theory is assimilated and becomes part of the student’s prior knowledge reserve.

How to favor analytical thinking

In England, a computer program called Stop and Think has been launched to stop analytical thinking, but it has not had the expected success. The prediction that the results in mathematics and science would improve after computer training was not fulfilled after performing the statistical analysis.

However, if mathematics and science were measured separately, the program generated an improvement equivalent to two-month progress in science and a month in mathematics. However, only the first improvement was statistically significant.

We may have to expand the sample or improve the computer program, but what is clear is that we need to establish strategies and habits that make us stop and think. Until the practice is not established it would not be bad to have some trigger, a reminder of prudence so as not to rush into system 1, that of instinct.

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes lit his pipe for this, to launch his famous deductive thinking.

To read more:

  • Diamond A., Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959-964.
  • Mareschal, D. (2016) The neuroscience of conceptual learning in science and mathematics. Current Opinion in Behavioural Sciences, 10, 14-18. doi: 10.1016 / j.cobeha. 2016.06.001
  • Stavy, R., & Tirosh, D. (2000). How students (mis-) understand science and mathematics. New York: Teachers College Press.

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