How the Brain Flows

The brain can handle many situations simultaneously; historical facts are fitted into mathematical patterning when the brain is comfortably challenged in a non-threatening situation. Psychologists and cognitive scientists call this a state of flow – a state you reach when you become so engaged in what you are doing that all tasks seem within your capability (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). This state enables us to react to our environment while also thinking about many abstract matters. The brain handles this complexity through several layers of self-organisation and vast interconnecting networks. Once established, traces of these networks appear to survive almost indefinitely and are frequently used as solutions to new problems and as the basis for new ideas. That is how, unconsciously, 7-year-old Tom built up his understanding of historical chronology.

Neurologists can now see some forms of memory in operation. Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they watch specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen. To the researchers’ surprise, memory exists in many locations in the brain, not just one place. Some people liken memory to a hologram where the whole exists in all the parts. Memory traces seem to follow neural networks that the individuals – at the time of original thought – found most to their advantage, even if only for a short time. Nothing is ever irretrievably lost, though we still do not know how we can access memory more effectively at some life stages than at others. If part of the network is later activated, the brain may well question why it is not being asked to complete the original set of connections.

Going with the Grain of the Brain

All brain activity occurs spontaneously, automatically, in response to challenge. The brain does not have to be taught to learn. To thrive, the brain needs plenty of stimulation, and it needs suitable feedback systems. Effective learning depends on emotional energy. We are driven (the ancestral urges of long ago) as much by emotion as by logic. Children – and adults – who learn about things that matter to them are far more resilient and determined when they face problems than are people who seek external rewards. When in trouble, people with intrinsic motivation search for novel solutions, whereas extrinsically motivated people look for external causes to blame for their failure. The brain is essentially a survival system, and emotional well-being may be more essential for survival than intellectual well-being.

Too much stimulation, however, at any stage in life, turns a challenge into a threat. The brain deals with threat easily. It just turns off – as MRI dramatically shows. Give a person an interesting mental task, and many parts of the brain are seen to light up. Persistently insult that person, and the brain goes into a form of mental defence. The lights literally go out. Down-shifting – a phenomenon long recognised by psychologists – is a strictly physiological defence mechanism. Research suggests that working effectively at a challenging task requires significant amounts of reflection – a critical part of brain functioning (Diamond 1995).

No two brains are exactly alike; thus, no enriched environment will completely satisfy any two people for an extended period. Challenge and interactivity are essential. Passive observation is not enough. “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do it and I understand,” says the ancient Chinese proverb.

“Ability is not innate. It exists like a shadow of ourselves when we are willing to stand in front of a bright light.” Ernest Hall

Learning What Matters

With our new understanding of the brain, we are in an excellent position to make it possible for people to become better learners. The implications of this new knowledge for society and for the economy are massive.

Ernest Hall, a successful English entrepreneur, understands the transforming power of learning. He was born in a northern industrial town near Manchester. His parents knew long periods of unemployment in the textile trade. One afternoon, when he was 8 years old, his teacher played a recording of “Apollo’s Lyre.” Ernest was spellbound; here was a form of beauty that was to transform his life. His family managed to obtain an old piano. By age 12, Ernest played so well that his parents urged him to leave school and earn his living by playing the piano in pubs. “No,” said Ernest, “I love music too much to trivialise it. I will make enough money to play the piano properly.”

That is exactly what he did. For years he worked in the textile industry, with great success – and continued practising the piano. By his early fifties, he had bought the closed-down Dean Clough Mills and created an amazing complex that today provides employment for more than 3,000 people in an array of high-tech and other businesses, including a mill – and that reserves a quarter of its space for art galleries, working studios, concert halls, and exhibition spaces. This complex vividly demonstrates that living, learning, and working – beauty and economic productivity – are all deeply interconnected.