Sunday, 11 April 2010

Learning: Understanding the brain

Psychologists, biologists, and other similar evil geniuses have studied the human brain for years, and have formulated many models of brain behaviour and models of learning. There is an overwhelming quantify of research on the subject (some quite contradictory).

Understanding (at least at a basic level) how the brain works, and some of its characteristics will help us, as software developers, work out how to learn most effectively. Even a rough understanding of some basic principles will help us unlock the potential learning and processing capabilities of our grey matter.

The left brain/right brain split. We hear a lot about the “left-brain” and the “right-brain”. These terms have entered pop culture, and you are as likely to hear them discussed by artists and CEOs as by psychologists. It comes from research (pioneered in the 1970s by Roger W Sperry who coined the left/right brain terminology) discovering that our mental activity is split between the two hemispheres of the brain; either side controlling a different mode of thinking (Lateral specialization in the surgically separated hemispheres. R.W. Sperry. In Neurosciences Third Study Program. F. Schmitt and F. Worden (Eds.), Cambridge: MIT Press 3:5-19 (1974).).

The left hemisphere tends to govern analytic and logical activities (language, symbolic representation, rational deduction, the linear thought process) whilst the right hemisphere performs non-linear processes (characterised as non-rational, spatial, holistic, and identifying spatial relationships).

The common view is that people rely more, or tend towards using, one side of their brain rather than other. Artistic, creative types favour their right brain; academics and office-workers favour the left. Apart from reinforcing a social stereotype, this is not strictly accurate since the split of brain activity is not pure laterally biased. Several psychologists have since tried to come up with other terms, but popular culture has latched on to left- and right- and we're stuck with them.

Both parts of our brain and both modes of thought are essential. In order to think and learn effectively we must be able to bring both “sides” of our brain into use. Since programmers tend to lean towards the left-brain mode of operation, we must learn to introduce more right-brain thinking into our regimen; this requires us to find ways to “dial down” our left brain activity to give the other side a fighting chance.

I'll describe some ways to do this in later postings. There's a lot more that could be said on this subject; it is a huge topic, and well worth investigating more if you are interested.

Personality type affects learning style If you favour the right-brain mode of thinking you will learn best when presented with patterns and a holistic view of a subject, rather than a serial stream of information. You'll prefer to make associations and understand overarching themes. If you favour the left-brain you want a linear rational presentation of the topic. You'll prefer to assimilate facts than to have a grand story told you.

Clearly your brain wiring has a radical effect on the most effective style of learning for you.

There are many models of personality type, perhaps the most famous being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). MBTI classifies your personality along four axes. Your personality type will effect how you associate knowledge, and how you best learn. One MBTI axis is Introvert-Extrovert. Introverts would rather learn on their own – they need private mental space to work things through. Extroverts learn well in groups where they can discuss and feed off the ideas of others. Another interesting axis is Sensing-Intuition. The Sensing personality is the classic left-brainer who emphasises facts and details. They must complete one task before moving on. Intuitive people are right-brainers who use their imagination more. They can move on without completing a task or before they understand everything about a subject.

Understanding your particular personality type (there are many MBTI tests available on the web, for example) will reveal specific ways to make your learning routine maximally effective.

Understand how you learn best.

Memory fades. There was a time when psychologists believed that a memory, once made, was permanent. However this is not the case: a certain enzyme (PKMzeta) is required to keep synaptic connections valid. Lose the enzyme, you lose the memory! (See this for more info).

Our memory is also fallible in other, less chemical, ways. The brain isn't perfect. You'll notice that old memories can change and distort in your mind. (So it's probably not true that things aren't as good as they used to be.) Memories and opinions can easily warp as we recollect them, to fit our current preferences or preconceived notions. We can very easily implant our own false memories (unconsciously) or become subject to false suggestion from others.

In order to keep your memory active, it must be refreshed – constantly read and exercised. If you don't need and employ a skill then you will use it.

Use your knowledge. Or you'll lose it.

Memory grows. It was originally thought that mental capacity decreased over time; that humans start off with a fixed number of brain cells and over the course of a lifetime this number decreases (due to the ageing process, damage caused by trauma, or other abuse – like excessive alcohol intake).

This was determined by scientists studying animals in laboratory cages; they saw no sign of neurogenesis – the growth of brain cells. But this was simply because a brain devoid of stimulus need make no new connections. The test subjects' brains didn't expand because there was no need to; life in a cage stunts brain growth. That's a pretty damning inditement of modern cubicle working!

In the early 1990s psychologist Elizabeth Gould discovered that in suitable conditions (an environment with stimulation and opportunities to interact and learn) the brain is perfectly capable of growing neurons and making new connections (Neurogenesis in the Neocortex of Adult Primates. Elizabeth Gould, Alison J. Reeves, Michael S. A. Graziano, Charles G. Gross. In: Science 15 October 1999:Vol. 286. no. 5439, pp. 548 – 52.). Other subsequent studies have drawn links between exercise and increased brain growth.

So that's good news – you have a practically limitless ability to expand your mind. And the scientists have proved that you need stimulation do to so! Break out of your cubicle, and feel free to drink a beer!

Mental state effects learning. Factors such as stress and a lack of sleep will clearly contribute to an inability to concentrate, and so will degrade your ability to learn. Your mental attitude also dictates how well you will learn. Psychologist Carol Dweck's research (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol S Dweck. Ballantine Books. ISBN: 0345472322) shows that students who believed that they couldn't increase their knowledge were not able to do so. Those who believed they could increase their mental capability were easily able to.

Believe in your ability to learn.

People who enjoy learning naturally learn more. People who want to learn, learn more. Is this the power of mind over matter? Perhaps it is; and it's something we need to exploit. I've long argued that our attitude effects the quality of our work. This is the central theme of my book Code Craft (Code Craft: The Practice of Writing Excellent Code. Pete Goodliffe. No Starch Press. ISBN: 1593271190).

I will be speaking more on this topic at the ACCU conference next week.

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