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Dr. Igor Rižnar: FROM BRAIN SCIENCE TO NEUROECONOMICS, NEUROMARKETING, AND TO TEACHING WITH THE BRAIN IN MIND

natisni E-pošta

This article aims at describing the importance of brain science for the understanding of what is going on when, say, one is thinking, learning, and memorizing, etc. The brain, as we all know, is exclusively responsible not only for rather simple motor behaviours (like drinking or walking), but also for highly complex actions, such as speaking, creating music or writing a novel, for which a much greater computational capability is needed.

 The driving force behind this endeavour is to present what I consider of utmost importance for both teachers, students and the general public living in the 21st century. I will, of course, not go into any detail, as the lack of space does not allow for that. Thus, I will not write about Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who formulated the neuron doctrine, which is the basis for all modern thinking about the nervous system, neither will I write about the time when the U.S. president George H.W. Bush declared the 1990s the "Decade of the Brain", the period during which a massive infusion of research dollars was triggered and, consequently, caused the explosion in the number of studies in the neurosciences. On the other hand, I will try to convince you that teachers ought to do a better job of keeping up with science, and - above all - separating sound scientific research from quackery and pseudoscience. Some teachers need to be disabused of the notions that children have different "learning styles" or that "male brains are hardwired to be better at spatial tasks than female brains".

 

Among the discoveries that should have an impact on pedagogy are the following:

  

  • - movement enhances learning and memory (now think about a typical classroom setting in which students sit 90 % of the time). Physical exercise may be the best thing you can do for your brain: students who are fit also tend to perform well in school and on tests; exercise turbocharge the brain by raising levels of neuronal growth factors, which foster the formation of new connections between brain cells)
  • - emotions have a great impact on learning (how many of your students are keenly enthusiastic about what is going on during your classes?)
  • - the brain can grow new neurons (contrary t a widely-spread misbelief, neurons do regenerate) and rewire itself (the so-called neuroplasticity: the good news for adults)
  • - short-term memory is not temporary (there is a difference between immediate memory and working memory. In other words, students are likely to forget things that they consider irrelevant or not meaningful enough to remember)
  • - sleep is important for memory (the brain is incredibly active during sleep)
  • - in tasks like reading, several networks of brain cells are connected (neuroimaging has shown that practice makes perfect, because the connectivity between brain areas is strengthened with practice)
  • - stress hinders the ability to store and access information (students who live under stress, anxiety perform poorly in activities that require creativity and higher-level problem solving)
  • - Stimulation helps (learn something new and hard, try something you always wanted to do, take up the piano, etc.)
  • - Meditation also helps (it may boost your immune system, help you fight anxiety, pain, stress, depression, high blood pressure, etc.)
  • - Contemporary brain learns through Internet interaction (so at least on some occasions forget books, classrooms, and teachers).

 

Brain research has been conducted by scientists from many fields: psychology, psychiatry, neurology, biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, information science, engineering, electronics, statistical analysis, and even linguistics, marketing , and economics. Previously isolated fields have been brought together: artificial intelligence, learning theory, linguistics, decision science, problem solving, logic, memory, etc. If we are who we are because of what we learn and what we remember, than trying to understand the complicated machinery of human brains is a worthy endeavor also for teachers on all levels of education.

Sophisticated technologies (from simple X-ray, to electroencephalograph (EEC) to computed axial tomography (CAT), to positron emission tomograph (PET), to MRI and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), to DTI (diffusion tensor imaging)) help scientists to look inside a living, working, thinking, and feeling human brain, both normal and dysfunctional. Despite a number of flaws, fMRI technology has a tremendous impact on brain research.

Let us move, for a moment, to economics, which has for a long time been obsessed with reason. Over the past twenty years or so, evidence from psychology has persuaded many economists that reason does not always have its way, that the agents of economic theory are far from being only rational, selfish, and that their tastes do not change. It soon became evident that many economic behaviours are not fully explained by such models, such as heuristics and framing. Neuroeconomics represents an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain human decision making by combining research methods from neuroscience, experimental and behavioral economics, and cognitive and social psychology. In other words, neuroeconomics uses neuroscientific methods in trying to understand the interplay between economic behaviour and neural mechanisms. Perhaps it all started with the behavioural economists' central idea that rational choice could not account satisfactorily for a considerable number of economic behaviours. Later, by linking economic decision making to brain function the emerging field of neuroeconomics has highlighted the overlap in the neural systems that mediate choice and other behaviours, including emotion.

 

Below, an interested reader may have a look at some findings pointed out by behavioural economists:

  • - Laziness is built deep into our nature: if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, we will gravitate to the least demanding course of actions.
  • - Unnoticed stimuli in our environment have a substantial influence on our thought and actions - our lack of direct knowledge of what is going on in our minds prevents us from knowing that under slightly different circumstances our judgments and decisions might have been completely different.
  • - Beware of relying on intuitive judgments for important decisions! And be aware of the fact that there are many pseudo-experts who have no idea that they do not know what they are doing.
  • - We are inconsistent in making summary judgments of complex information; on the other hand, the power of simple statistics is likely to outdo world-renowned experts.
  • - Once you understand something it seems as if it was always obvious.
  • - And, similarly, once people have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in their thinking, it is extremely difficult to notice its flaws.
  • - Little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort.
  • - Behaviour is most likely to improve after punishment and most likely to deteriorate after reward.

 

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing. It, too, includes the use of brain imaging, scanning, or other brain activity measurement technology to measure a subject's response to specific products, packaging, advertising, or other marketing elements. It also includes the use of neuroscience research in marketing, using fMRI or other techniques. The slightly oversimplified concept of neuromarketing devides our brain in three parts: the new brain, which processes rational data, the middle brain, which processes emotions and gut feelings and the old brain, which processes the input from the new and middle brain and triggers the decision. The amygdala - located in the old brain - has a greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdala, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking. Thus, human beings make decisions in an emotional manner and then justify them rationally. What are the key lessons derived from neuromarketing:

 

  • - the more senses you trigger and associate with your products/services, the more you will appeal to your customers and influence their buying decisions,
  • - add more joy and pleasure to the buying process,
  • - leave a strong first impression, if you want that your messages are accepted,
  • - deliver your messages visually,
  • - tell your customers stories in order to influence them without appearing pushy,
  • - use rhetoric questions and wordplay to concey important information without putting your audience to sleep,
  • - emphasize sales prices,
  • - utilize package pricing over pricing of individual goods/services,
  • - avoid large investments in favour of small-size investments,
  • - use tangible benefits: customers must see, feel, hear, taste, smell benefits,
  • - adapt your marketing communication to different cultures,
  • - make people believe you have their best interests at heart, and you can persuade them to do almost anything,
  • - humour is the key, especially if it catches your listeners off guard, leaving them laughing and open to suggestions.

 

Despite decades of reform in education systems around the globe, it seems that we have made only moderate gains in classrooms on all levels of education.

And despite the rapidly changing society, our education systems have changed little over the last fifty years and despite a seismic shift towards a knowledge-based, information-driven era, the practices and policies of our schools have not changed considerably. Neuroscience can help us understand how students think and how they acquire knowledge. Recent studies show that current standards should be criticized on several fronts: the curricula lay out too many discrete pieces of knowledge, with little or no hierarchy or meaningful sequencing, skills are separated from content and methods are too often being overemphasized. Students learn best when they regularly revisit topics in a problem- and project-based manner with as much social interaction as possible, because argumentation and discourse help students to refine one another's ideas and to articulate their own. Sound educational policies are needed that will foster what is required in the new global economy: creativity, innovation, originality, flexibility of ideas, critical thinking and problem solving. It seems that everything should be changed: curriculum (what we teach), instruction (how we teach it), environment (where we teach it), assessment (how we measure what we teach), and teacher training/development. Teachers should, for example, implant assessment into the learning process, and the new curricula can succeed only if students are motivated to learn.

 

Teachers should be bold. They should tackle difficult problems, especially those that appear messy and unstructured. They should not fear trying new things, such as moving from one field to another or working on the boundaries of disciplines. On the other hand, teachers should be afraid of teaching the way they have been taught. This, of course, is he trickiest thing they may face in their endeavor to explore new territories and learn new science along the way.

 

PS

I have deliberately omitted citing the authors, yet I admit I am wholly indebted to the following excellent scientists: Marvin Minsky, Eric R. Kandel, Joseph LeDoux, Antonio Damasio, V.S.Ramachandran, Drazen Prelec and many others.

 

PSS

Everything you have read here should be taken with a grain of salt, because half of what we know today will be considered wrong tomorrow; we just do not know which half.