Seven and a Half Lessons About The Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Why I read it:

If you’re here, you may have read books about memory science, metacognition, and how we learn things. Research and books on those areas have informed my teaching for the last five years, so I thought it was time to try one that looks at the brain beyond learning and teaching.

In summary:

Each ‘Lesson’ alluded to in the title is given its own chapter, during which Feldman Barrett explains the principle and provides lots of examples. The subject matter is technical, yet she writes for the novice, and I appreciated that! One of the key elements to learning new material is how the teacher turns abstract concepts into concrete examples, ideally a few. Lisa Feldman Barrett, unsurprisingly, has this down to a tee, providing many analogies and examples along the way, such as comparing the networks in our brain with local vs international airports.

Key takeaways:

Your brain is a predictor – our brain’s most important function is to manage allostasis – to predict energy needs before they arise so that you can make worthwhile movements and survive. A great example is how when you are thirsty and drink, you feel that your thirst has been quenched immediately, despite it taking around 20 minutes for that to physiologically occur; your brain predicts the hydration and gives you the feeling of satisfaction, while your body cracks on with the process itself. Sometimes your brain budgets for the short term, like allowing you to drink coffee so that you can stay up late to work on something ahead of a deadline, or alternatively long term when it helps you learn something new over the period of years.

Brain myths – Just like many ‘learning myths’ in Education, Feldman Barrett dispels some brain myths, here, such as: our brain does not light up with activity, and does not store memories like computer files.

Your brain is a network – 128 billion neurons are grouped into clusters – some clusters serve local, specific traffic, and others are densely connected to many other clusters. Imagine airports – local airports don’t fly everywhere – you have to fly to a bigger hub to make a connection somewhere else. This chapter is fascinating, as we learn about how messages move around and connect.

Trust, safety, and their impact on your brain – we’ve probably all read about the positive effects we feel when we work somewhere which trusts and values us. But those workplaces that offer free meals to feed us and help us to socialise with our colleagues, or provide space and time for collaboration beyond our desks or offices, actually have an effect on our ‘body budget’ – our brain and body feel good about our surroundings, we don’t need to budget so much to survive or feel at ease, and our energy can be put into effective collaboration and new ideas.

Brains create reality ‘social reality means that we impose new functions on physical things, such as agreeing collectively that a chunk of Earth is a ‘country’, or that a particular person (e.g. a president), is a leader. Studies show that wine tastes better when people believe it’s expensive, and coffee labelled as being ‘eco-friendly’ tastes better. Your brain’s predictions, steeped in social reality, change the way you perceive things.’ My takeaway is that it’s worth us being more conscious about how we assign meaning or reality to things – social constructs are all around us – if we can identify and understand them, it might help us think differently, or to reconstruct their meanings.

Favourite moment:

I loved this anecdote which leads into a clear explanation about how our brain shows us things based on our memories, and its predictions:

Feldman Barrett describes a soldier who was in the Rhodesian army in Southern Africa in the 1970s to defeat guerrilla fighters. He was deep in the forest one morning, conducting a practice exercise, when he saw movement ahead: a long line of guerrilla fighters with machine guns. He raised his rifle, flicked off the safety, and was about to shoot his AK47. Suddenly a hand grabbed his shoulder – ‘don’t shoot, it’s just a boy’ whispered one of his colleagues. You see, your brain doesn’t just show images like a perfect piece of CCTV – we piece things together, a lot of which is by prediction and memory. Your brain is receiving so much data, it has to make sense of it, often plumping for what seems the most reasonable – for example, if you have been somewhere before, you have a previous memory to use as a basis for this experience, and your brain can predict what it should see. Therefore, what you see is a mixture of what’s out there, and what your brain is expecting to see. The soldier saw what he expected to see, based on his environment and other experiences.

Favourite quote:

‘Your actions today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow, and those predictions automatically drive your future actions. Therefore, you have some freedom to hone your predictions in new directions, and have some responsibility for the results.’

Question and Reflect:

If we teach or lead, how much do we need to know about the brain? Is it important to be aware of how we behave or learn; and what about beyond that – the nuts and bolts of how the brain works?

Now that I understand more about the way we construct reality, or the way we piece things together and come up with an impression based on other experiences and memory – how can I learn from this? Well, one thing that strikes me immediately is being more empathetic towards others, and myself I suppose, about any perceptions, assumptions, mistakes that we make.

Read this if..

You are interested in learning about the brain!

You are a teacher or leader

Support bookshops and buy it here

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