The Brain and Learning 7

Some years ago I took a seminar with communication guru Edwin Tufte. He concluded his seminar on communication and design with a film of a magician’s performance. The short film was a clever and effective way to demonstrate some of the principles of how the brain “sees” and interprets “information.” More specifically, it demonstrated how understanding these principles of perception, and applying them for their purpose, magicians are able to fool the brain through intentional misdirection, deception, and obfuscation.

When we do not understand how the brain learns we run the risk of engaging in all three, effectively blocking a learner’s ability to learn. The insight for teachers, communicators, and educators is that we should do the opposite of what a magician does. Vagueness, lack of clarity, and confusion are the greatest obstacles to learning.

Check out the article titled “Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion” in Wired magazine 17.05. It offers some fun and fascinating insights on the brain and perception from Teller (from the Penn & Teller duo).

Here is an excerpt:

Our brains don’t see everything—the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. “Every time you perform a magic trick, you’re engaging in experimental psychology,” Teller says.

One important concept about teaching we’ll be focusing on (no pun intended) in my May term course on instruction is “attention” and its role in learning. Here’s a blurb on attention from the article:

Attention, it turns out, is like a spotlight. When it’s focused on something, we become oblivious to even obvious changes outside its narrow beam. What magicians do, essentially, is misdirect—pivot that spotlight toward the wrong place at the right time.

Here’s one terrific illusion by an art student: invisible car.

By the way, if Edward Tufte’s seminars ever come near your home town, go see him. It’ll be worth the time and money.

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About igalindo

Israel Galindo is Professor and Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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One Response to The Brain and Learning 7

  1. Stuart says:

    There was an article in the New York Times today about this very thing:

    “Ear Plugs to Lasers: The Science of Concentration”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/05/science/05tier.html

    (I made sure to turn the iPod off as I read it.)