The Neuroscience of Critical Thinking Sandra Johnson, Ph.D., MSW, CASAC
What Motivated You toReturn to School? • Increase of knowledge? • Increase of Self-Confidence? • Move upward at your place of employment? • Will you receive more money with more schooling? • Want to Impress Upon Your Children the Importance of Education?
Are You Ready? • Do you have a support system? • Do you procrastinate? • Do you have access to an on-line/physical library? • Do you know how to research (use databases, etc?) • Do you have a quiet place to study? • Do you have enough time to study/attend school? • Do you use stress reduction techniques?
Kolb’s Learning Cycle • Gathering Information • Reflective Observation • Abstract Thinking • Active Testing
Kolb’s Learning Cycle andCritical Thinking • We can become critical thinkers through Kolb’s Learning • The brain changes physically as it learns • As we take in or gather information (concrete experience), we search and connect neuronally with similar information in our brain (reflection) • Through this connection we integrate our old and new knowledge and form new ideas (abstraction) • We can then act upon new ideas or newly formed belief systems (active testing) • During this process neurons grow new branches (dendrites) as the old and new information are integrated
Gathering Information • As we have previously stated, gathering information triggers feelings in our body • These feelings are interpreted as emotions • Actually, our body has an affective experience (feeling) with every cognitive experience • Therefore, when we learn, we have an intellectual experience, and in our body, we have an emotional reaction to each experience • Sometimes we may not actually, in our conscious mind, be aware of the feeling, but it is still there in our subconscious mind
Gathering Information (cont.) • For example, adults entering the classroom bring with them thoughts concerning their ability to learn that they have acquired during their learning experiences • If these adults believe, based on previous negative learning experiences (such as shaming experiences from a teacher), that they are poor learners, it is because their brains remember the trauma of these negative learning experiences • These negative learning experiences can be the “colored glass” that influences not only our emotions concerning new learning challenges, but how we view our abilities as adult learners
Gathering Information (cont.) • In order to explain the trauma of negative learning experiences, we need to understand that “the entire brain is an organ of emotion, and…emotion, reason, and memory are all linked together” (Zull, 2002, p. 65) • The fear center of the brain (the primitive brain), on a subconscious level, monitors our learning • If certain learning situations have been negative in the past, the primitive brain makes meaning of the experience and lets our body know we are in danger • For example, the brain links a new math class with the old negative experiences of a previous math class, and anticipates danger
Gathering Information (cont.) • The amygdale anticipates danger by sensing the environment to see if there is anything familiar in the environment that reminds it of previous negative experiences • When danger is anticipated by the amygdale, the amygdale produces chemicals that will make the body tense and the mind feel anxious • When we become aware of the bodily feeling, we then interpret it as a negative emotion
Gathering Information (cont.) • Therefore, even though the learning situation may be safe, the primitive brain has sounded the alarm as the situation being dangerous to our emotional well being by creating: • body tenseness • an inability to concentrate • inability to remember • anxiety • and perhaps confusion
Gathering Information (cont.) • However, if we have good learning experiences: • we feel in control of our learning • the primitive brain is not triggered • and the body produces dopamine, a good-feeling chemical • Learning becomes enjoyable. (Zull, 2002)
Gathering Information (cont.) • What experiences have influenced your ideas of yourself as a learner? • Have there been people in your life you have told you that you are smart? • Do you feel you gained self-confidence in learning because of these positive experiences? • Have you had any teachers who made negative comments about your learning ability in a certain subject area (such as math or your ability to write well)? • If so, how has this impacted your academic life?
Buying into the Learning Experience • “All parts of the learning cycle are influenced by emotions.” (Zull, 202, p. 223) • Therefore, emotions can affect learning at any stage of the learning cycle • In fact, Zull (2002), states that deep learning probably depends more on “signals from emotional centers than it does on new sensory input.” (p 223) • This is quite a statement! In other words, • if you believe your learning is important to you, you will engage in the learning in a deep way, and the neuronal structures will change in the brain indicating you have accepted the new knowledge.
Buying into the Learning Experience (cont.) • By acceptance, I mean, buying into the knowledge • Zull states that when we “buy into” presented information (i.e., when the information is important to us), the nucleus bassalis fires and delivers acetylcholine to the auditory cortex • The function of acetylcholine is to “trigger chemical changes that increase the responsiveness of existing synapses and alter the expression of genes so that the neurons produce stronger, more numerous synapses” (Zull, 2002, p. 225)
Buying into the Learning Experience (cont.) • Therefore, when neurons receive the “importance” signal (meaning you have bought into the learning experience/information), the brain changes, and deep learning can happen • We now experience learning that goes beyond memorization and short term memory • The information has meaning/importance and, through the learning cycle, the information can move into long-term memory.
Buying into the Learning Experience (cont.) • It is important to note that our primitive brain appraises all information for threat and meaning • Therefore, if the information is not threatening and we can find meaning in the academic topic, the information can move into the higher regions of the brain for the next phase of the learning cycle: reflection • However, even if we meet this criteria, we, as adult learners, may find learning difficult because of feeling • anxious over our learning (not enough time, anxious over grades) • overwhelmed with so many responsibilities (family, school) • a lack of confidence, etc
Buying into the Learning Experience (cont.) • Pro-longed stress/anxiety impairs memory • Under prolonged stress/anxiety, the adrenal gland releases a chemical into the blood called cortisol • Cortisol seems to have a devastating effect on cells in the hippocampus • Extreme stress can damage our memory centers • Therefore, adult learners need to learn how to relax in order for the brain to move into the higher levels of learning and be able to move through the rest of the learning cycle: • reflection • abstraction, and • actively testing new ideas
Ways to Relax to ImproveLearning and Memory • What Works for You? • autogenic relaxation (systematic relaxing of our muscle groups) • listening to soothing music • exercising before studying • other…
Reflection • Learning is much more than memorizing • If we want to encounter deep, meaningful learning that impacts our life, we need to be able to reflect upon our experiences and connect new knowledge with similar experiences (belief systems) • Reflection then is literally searching for connections between old belief systems and new information in order to recreate old belief system • In fact, every time we receive new information that we can connect to a belief system, we can recreate that system through the reflective experience • Reflective thinking or reflective observing (observing our thought structures), takes time • According to Zull (2002), it is the biochemistry of the brain that is “behind this need for time” (p. 225)
Reflection (cont.) • Neurotransmitters initiate a complex path of chemical reactions within the neurons • And since there are a number of separate steps in these pathways, each of which takes up some time, these times add up • They can be 100 times slower than the electrical signals • These chemical cascades end up affecting the nature and number of synapses • Those changes can increase synapse number and activity, so the power for changing the brain is great (Zull, 2002, p. 225-226)
Reflection (cont.) • We need to have time to self-reflect without disturbances • We need to take time to find out what our thoughts are concerning a topic, bring our new knowledge into our current thinking, and be able to cope with being confused for a while as we integrate these knowledge bases • This suspension of judgment is the key to our brain making connections and achieving integration • Reflective observation requires a procedure whereby, time and suspension of judgment is required in order for the brain’s neuronal connections to integrate and form an opinion or new belief system • According to Zull (2002), critical reflective thinking and abstract thinking (forming new belief systems) forms the basis of our thinking process
Reflection (cont.) • However, bringing new knowledge to our current belief systems can be psychologically challenging • Each one of us has had various experiences stemming from our culture, environment, friends, family and relationships • We may grow up in the same household as another but, on a daily basis, we have faced different experiences that have shaped our belief system • Therefore, as we reflect upon what we believe about a topic (what our belief system is), and bring new knowledge to that belief system, we may, for the first time realize that the opinion or opinions we hold may not be what we really believe • They may be our families’ or our culture’s beliefs, but not our own • We may need to challenge these old beliefs and create new belief systems.
Reflection (cont.) • Being reflective means we remember our old belief systems without judgment, and reflect upon new information • It is like holding the old belief systems in one hand and the new information in our another hand, while examining the pros and cons of the issues of the topic • This process of being able to tolerate ambiguity means we are willing, for a little while, not to have preconceived ideas, and tolerate the creative tension of not knowing • Through the process of reflection, we reflect on our thinking, and develop a new self, or new belief system • Adult learning is based on this premise: we keep recreating ourselves as we keep investigating new knowledge • The process of creating new belief systems is called abstract thinking • Abstract thinking is creative thinking as we problem-solve and discover new avenues of thought.
Abstract Thinking • As connections are being made by reflective thinking, we start the process of creating new ideas and solving problems • “We change from being receivers of knowledge to creators of knowledge” (Zull, 2002, p. 18) • This process takes place in the front integrative cortex (the executive brain) • Creating new ideas has two steps: • short-term storage of information and • manipulation or rearrangement of that information to form new relationships • This manipulation of information in working memory is what creates new knowledge for the learner • As he organizes things in new arrangements and attaches them to the networks that represent his prior knowledge, each learner creates his own understandings • This conscious rearranging and manipulation of items…comes closest to what we call thinking. (Zull, 2002, p. 185)
Taking Action • The last phase of the learning cycle involves taking action • “Active testing can take many forms…Any action that is inspired by your ideas qualifies as active testing” (Zull, 2002, p. 206) • Taking action can be talking to someone about your ideas or writing about your ideas • You may develop a piece of art around your thinking, or, if you are a scientist, scientifically test your ideas • Why is acting upon our ideas important? • Taking action biologically completes the cycle • The brain gets ideas so the body can act • At the same time, the action of the body provides sensory feedback to the brain • It is through action that the biological wholeness of learning becomes apparent” (Zull, 2002, p.104).
Taking Action • According to Elder & Paul (1994), critical thinking can be best understood as the ability of thinkers to take charge of their own thinking • According to Orman-Mitchell (1992), attributes of critical thinkers may include: • Independence of mind, in the sense of intellectual autonomy, self-understanding, self-confidence, and courage • Open-mindedness, in the sense of alert curiosity, attentiveness, and the spontaneous outreaching for alternative perspectives, intellectual flexibility, and the willingness to suspend judgment • Wholeheartedness -- that is, enthusiasm and perseverance in pursuit of an intellectual goal • Respect for others, in terms of sensitivity, empathy, fair-mindedness, readiness to listen, and willingness to consider other points of view
Critical Reflective Thinkers • Through the path of becoming critical reflective thinkers, we are able to look at all aspects of topics and make decisions of about what we really believe • We become seekers of the truth, with an ability to withhold judgment, and tolerate creative tension, while we seek for the best possible solution/answers to problems/outcomes • Most importantly, as we seek answers, we create and recreate our belief systems as we take in new knowledge • This ability keeps us socially current as we keep pace with our informational age • We become “wise” learners, willing to seek to understand another’s viewpoints • The outcome is global citizenship as we can negotiate a complex world and contribute our understandings to this complexity.
References • Elder, L, & Paul, R. Critical thinking: Why we must transform our teaching. Journal of Developmental Education, 18(1), 34-35. • Kegan, R. (1982). The Evolving self: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. • Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1984. • Oxman-Mitchell, W. (1992). Critical thinking as critical spirit. Viewpoints, 4(7), 1-16. Upper Montclair, NJ: Institute for Critical Thinking, Montclair State College. • Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling Virginia: Stylus.