My teacher is Prometheus. He’s 13.

Kevin Kelly, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, writes about home-schooling his eighth-grade son.  He balances a nothing-special tone (“one of more than a million students home-schooled” last year) with crisp examples like the boy’s decision to learn to make fire the old-fashioned way.

He was surprised by the enormous amount of bodily energy required [to use the bow method]… and how a minuscule, nearly invisible bit of fuel… can quickly amplify into a flame and then a fire.  Chemistry, physics, history and gym all in one lesson.  And, man, when you are 13 years old and Prometheus, it’s exhilarating!

(Probably took a little while longer than this demo I found on YouTube.)

Kelly and his wife had a goal: to provide an ideal learning environment.  Their son had gone to school for 7 years, and planned to attend an “intense” high school.  He was the one who asked if he could be home schooled.

What stands out for me is Kelly’s statement that technology was not a major factor in the success of this year.  Yes, lots of online materials and research.  But the computer was only one tool among many.

Kelly sees “technological literacy” as yet another proficiency children need to acquire.  It supplements but isn’t the same kind of critter as critical thinking, logic, or the scientific method:

Technological literacy is…proficiency with the larger system of our invented world.  It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured ralm.  We don’t need expertise with every invention; that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful.  Rather, we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general…

What kinds of literacy is he talking about? These stood out for me:

  • Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second.  Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
    • This aligns with a tongue-in-cheek watchword: never buy a low serial number.  More seriously, it’s allowed me to happily skip at least 1 out of 2 OS  upgrades.
  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner.  Get good at it.
    • “You will always be a beginner.”  It sounds like you’re being sentenced.  It’s more like having a gate opened: you’re not the only one here.
  • Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls.  If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for.  The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

That last point truly resonated with me.  Among other things, it recalled a somewhat dry but oddly compelling book I’ve been rereading: The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing, 1450-1800.

Atoms take time, but bits are instant.Kelly’s website announces the coming of his latest book, What Technology Wants.  Here’s part of what he says about the book as a book:

I suspect this will be the last paper-native book that I do. The amount of work required to process atoms into a sheaf of fibers and ink and then ship it to your house or the local bookstore is more than most of us are willing to pay anymore. And of course the extra time needed upfront to print and transport it is shocking. This book was finished, designed, proofed, and ready to be read four months ago. But atoms take time, while bits are instant.

What about Kelly’s son?  I think he’ll do fine in that demanding high school, based on this anecdote near the end of the NYTM piece:

On one particularly long day, with books piled up and papers spread out, my son was slumped in his chair.

“Is everything O.K.?” I asked.

“It’s hard,” he said.  “I not only have to be the student, I also have to be the teacher.”

“Yes!  So what have you learned about being a teacher?”

“You have to teach the student — that’s me — not only to learn stuff but to learn how to learn.”

“And have you?”

“I think I am doing better as the student than the teacher.  I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

Men and women, or, the gist of the details

John Medina’s brain rule 11 says, “Mail and female brains are different.” He’s examining gender differences, which can be genetic, neuroanatomic, or behavioral.

Genetically, all men are momma’s boys. Women inherit two sets of X chromosomes (one from mom, one from dad), and apparently individual cells choose, randomly, which inheritance to activate. But men receive the X chromosome only from their mothers. And many genes on the X chromosome create proteins involved in the manufacturing of the brain.

So what are some of the neuroanatomical differences?

  • Difference in the size and thickness of the cortex.
  • Differences in the limbic system, which influences emotions.
  • Differences in the amygdala, which controls and remembers emotions.
  • Differences in regulating serotonin, which regulates emotion and mood. (Men synthesize serotonin 50% faster than women.)

Do these differences mean anything? Medina says we don’t know. But we’re trying to find out.

The gist: some kind of official buildingYou have probably heard the term left brain vs. right brain. You may have heard that this underscores creative vs. analytical people. That’s a folk tale, the equivalent of saying the left side of a luxury liner is responsible for keeping the ship afloat, and the right side is responsible for making it over through the water.

A detail: the General Post Office in Dublin, IrelandBoth sides are involved in both processes. That doesn’t mean the hemispheres are equal, however. The right side of the brain tends to remember the gist of an experience, and the left brain tends to remember the details.

Behavioral differences

Males suffer more from mental retardation, and the X chromosome is often involved. (Remember, women have a backup set of X chromosomes; men don’t.)

Men are more severely afflicted by schizophrenia; women, by depression.

Most alcoholics and drug addicts are male; most anorexics are female.

Medina discusses the work Deborah Tannen has done in studying verbal behavior. His summary: “Women are better at it.”

How much is genetic and how much is socially influenced may be impossible to tell — but the differences are clear early in life in such areas as building relationships and negotiating status. Those patterns are reinforced and greatly influence our interpersonal verbal behavior as adults.

Some final thoughts from Medina on using this data in the real world:

Get the facts straight on emotions.

Emotions matter because they make the brain pay attention. Men and women process certain emotions differently. That means they pat attention in different ways.

Medina recounts an experiment dealing with how men and women reaction to emotional stress. The tendency is for men to activate the right side of the brain (the gist), and for women to activate the left (details).

Question gender arrangements.

Are single-sex classrooms better? We haven’t experimented enough to know. They may depend on age, on subject, and certainly on the techniques for fostering learning.

Notice gender in the workplace.

Here’s Medina, recounting a presentation at the Boeing Leadership Center:

I said, “Sometimes women are accused of being more emotional than men, from the home to the workplace. I think that women might not be any more emotional than anyone else.”

I explained that because women perceive their emotional landscape with more data points (that’s the detail) and see it in greater resolution, women may simply have more information to which they are capable of reacting. If men perceived the same number of data points, they might have the same number of reaction.

Take management training, Medina says. Often it involves various complex simulations. Have unisex teams and mixed-gender teams. Then give one team of each type some training related to these real gender differences and their implications.

So you’ve got uni-untrained, mixed-untrained, uni-trained, mixed-trained. Real-world outcomes (and maybe a master’s thesis).

Which side of your brain is firing right now?

Photo of the General Post Office in Dublin by informatique / William Murphy.
Detail of the GPO’s name in Irish by jaqian.

Sleep: the rest of your brain

Brain rule 7 from John Medina is “sleep well, think well.”

“Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast…

Will Shakespeare probably knew something about not getting enough sleep, and his language here is apt. Sleave is not a misspelling, but a synonym for skein. Macbeth imagines sleep as repairing the day’s mental tangles and twists.

A tale of two processes

Medina notes that the brain doesn’t rest in the way our muscles do. In fact, there’s a kind of ongoing struggle between two mental armies: one under the banner of the circadian arousal system (“process C”) and the other, the homeostatic sleep drive (“process S”).

Studies of people isolated from clocks and cues like sunlight confirm that humans tend to follow a roughly 24-hour pattern, with the process C (the wake state) lasting about twice as long as process S (sleeping). The amount of sleep an individual needs varies greatly from one person to the next — and with gender, and with age. So Medina suggests inverting the question and asking, “How much sleep don’t you need?”

Welcome, early chronotypes!Inadequate sleep can greatly decrease mental functioning. In one study, “when sleep was restricted to six hours or less per night for just five nights… cognitive performance matched that of a person suffering from 48 hours of continual sleep deprivation.”

Larks and owls

Many people have an optimal time of day, even with adequate sleep. 10% of the population consists of larks, or if you prefer, “early chronotypes.” They’re up before the alarm, often drink less coffee, and are ready for bed by about 9 p.m.

Late chronotypes (“owls”) make up about 20% of the population, which make explain why many of us are so puzzled by larks. Many owls say they’re most alert around 6 p.m., and if given the choice wouldn’t sleep till about 3 a.m.

A tall late chronotype with a triple shot, please.There’s a side effect to the recurring combat between process C and process S. About midway through our day, no matter when we start it, both processes seem to run down — as if the two opposing armies are exhausted.

This midafternoon drag isn’t related to big lunches (though a high-carb lunch can make the sleepiness more intense). One thought is that a midday nap was an evolutionary adaptation — enabling our early ancestors to restore their alertness and abilities for the second half of the day.

What to do? Take a nap.

Medina cites a NASA study showing that a 26-minute nap improved a pilot’s perforamnce by 34%, and refers to other studies with similar effects. If you prefer anecdotes, many people known as indefatigable workers — Lyndon Johnson, Winston Churchill — regularly took naps. (Churchill is also patron saint of the owls.)

As with naps, so with nighttime sleep. Medina reports an intriguing experiment involving students and math problems. The students learned a method for solving the problems, but were not told about a shortcut that could solve them faster.

If twelve hours passed between the initial training and a second set of problems, about 20% of the group would have discovered the shortcut… but if that twelve hours included eight hours of sleep, the discovery rate rose to 60%. “No matter how many times the experiment is run, the sleep group consistently outperforms the non-sleep group about 3 to 1.”

Some ideas that Medina muses about (while admitting they need further research):

  • Matching chronotypes among workers. In other words, don’t make an owl the partner of a lark.
  • Promote naps. Those of us who don’t work in an office have a better opportunity to embrace this idea, but even in an organizational setting, you can mimimize the effect of the nap zone by avoiding meetings, presentations, or critical work during the lull. A NASA scientist asked, “What other management strategy will improve people’s performance 34% in just 26 minutes?”
  • Sleep on it. Allow a night’s sleep between your initial encounter with the details of some problem and your attempt to resolve it.

Lark Motel photo by Thomas Hawk;
owl coffee photo by Neil101 / Neil Wilkinson.

Brains: how we got this way

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

In John Medina’s Brain Rules, rule #2 says, “The human brain evolved, too.” This chapter focuses on how our brains developed. One factor in that development was that our ancestors gave up on consistency. They didn’t have much choice; the changing environment slowly, steadily pushed them out of the trees and onto the grasslands.

Instead of learning how to survive in just one or two ecological niches we took on the entire globe. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes didn’t survive long enough to pass on their genes. The net effect of this evolution was that we didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learn to grow our fangs not in the mouth it in the head.

As Medina points out, learning to walk upright — something you can’t do in the trees — freed up our hands and was also energy-efficient, freeing energy to build and fuel our minds.

As we evolved, our brains became larger. The triune model sees three brains:

  • The brain stem, or lizard brain, controlling basic functions like breathing, heart rate, sleeping.
  • The mammalian brain, dealing with functions like “fighting, feeding, fueling, and… reproductive behavior.”
  • The cerebral cortex or the human brain, managing most of what we think of as higher reasoning.

How did we manage this evolutionarily? We developed childhood.

Much of our brainpower develops after birth, which means our survival depends on adults who can protect children. we had to learn how to cooperate. We can form impressions about the internal states of other people, something known as the theory of mind.

Suppose you are not the biggest person on the block, but you have thousands of years to become one. What do you do? If you are an animal, the most straightforward approach is becoming physically bigger… but there is another way to double your biomass. It’s not by creating a body but by creating an ally. If you can establish cooperative agreements with some of your neighbors, you can double your power even if you do not personally told your strength.

Another major trait we developed is the ability to reason symbolically. Here, too, we need time. Under the age of three, children don’t reason symbolically very well. Past that age, they can grasp and wield powerful human tools like language; they can reason; and they can deliberately set out to learn.

Brain photo by jj_judes / Jude.