Seeing the neurons among the trees

Among the topics discussed in class on Tuesday (Feb 23) was the analogy between a neuron and a tree. Some even got to witness my lack of artistic ability (I can’t draw; I can hardly print any longer). But in addition to getting our head back in the game of biopsychology, I wanted that particular exercise to get people thinking about how they’re learning — in other words, thinking about thinking.

This always matters for students. So-called meta-cognitive awareness is critical to your success as a learner who’s on the way to developing expertise. That’s because expertise is one of the products of a deep understanding of a body of content.

In other words, experts know a lot about something, and that store of facts helps them perceive connections and then make truly novel (and useful) connections. Apparently, there’s no short-cut. See articles in Blackboard’s Useful Links department for details. The good news, though, for experts-in-training, is that the tedium of learning (and face it, parts of the process aren’t a lot of fun) will pay off, more and more, the more you learn. Which takes me back to the whole neuron-is-a-tree thing.

Overall, about 60% of students made a correct response the first time out with the question. If you did, then great! Any thoughts as to why? If you didn’t, great! Yes, great. Knowing what you don’t know is very useful. But back to the same follow-up question: any thoughts as to why…not?

This meta-cognitive question will loom ever larger as the semester continues. That’s because (as you may have noticed!) we’re moving into a deeper study of the “what” of psychology — the dominant theories of several sub-domains. We’re doing this by building on your knowledge of the “how,” or the research methods we explored in depth during the first month. If you’re at all fuzzy on that material, then it’s time to clarify, confirm, fill in the gaps. In other words, catch-up time is now.

The problem of misclassification

Another prominent topic on Tuesday was our discussion of an important wrinkle in many research projects: cases that ended up in the wrong category. This was in the context of our discussion of Chapter 9 (Grow your own computer). Recall that I wanted us to ponder what would happen to the data if, for example, there were one or more brains that had belonged to people with intellectually rich lives, but relatively little formal schooling? Or, how about those (irritating) dullards who had all the credentials, but not much really to show for it.

In both groups (particularly the latter), we may also contend with people who score low on “need for cognition.” Curious where you stand? Try it out, here, or here.

So we really just have to accept the reality that, in a study that relies on operationalization of a grouping variable, chances are good that there’s going to be a gap: attained education is a rough proxy for the level of intellectual stimulation. But as we concluded, this fact, when coupled with a statistically significant result in the predicted direction, makes that result even more impressive. That’s because these misclassified cases will tend to make the overall group averages closer to each others. The groups end up looking more alike than they actually are.

Separated at birth, friends for life?

I got an interesting question at the end of class: are twins, separated at birth and then reared apart, more likely to become very close friends upon being reunited? I didn’t know, and I still can’t claim to be an expert. But a few interesting angles on the question can be found here, here, and in this Washington Post Magazine article, which I recommend.

Next up

We’ll finish talking about twins (though I could spend all semester on it!) and then move into our discussion of learning. Note how, with Chapters 11 and 12, we’re seeing research that is deeply driven by theories. The basic findings about classical and operant conditioning are powerful and durable because they make rather strong predictions and have yielded many interesting and useful results. I’d invite each of you to think about the ways these principles have played out in your own lives — both as people who can use these techniques on yourself (by modifying your own environments), and how they’ve been used on you (by parents, teachers, and all the rest).

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