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Brain Imaging Detects A Hidden Link In The Human Mind

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A new study in Science Advances says that the traditional tests and grades that teachers have used for a long time may not be as good at measuring learning as scans of the brain.

The study, which was conducted by a group of researchers from seven universities under the direction of Georgetown neuroscientists, may not only change how educators design curricula but also shed light on a previously unknown aspect of human thinking.

“For a long time,” says Adam Green, the study’s senior author, “psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like mental images of objects, is actually hiding underneath thinking that seems verbal.” 

“If this is true,” the author adds, “then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should boost their verbal reasoning ability.” 

For this study, researchers looked at Virginia’s public high schools’ “spatially-enriched” science course that stresses spatial thinking abilities, such as map-making and city planning. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans revealed changes in students’ brains as they progressed through the course material. These changes were compared to the conventional methods by which learning is measured (e.g., changes in test scores).

The brain modifications were much more accurate predictors of learning, particularly a type of learning known as “far transfer” that is so profound that it aids students in completing activities that they weren’t even explicitly taught how to complete. For educators, far transfer is a kind of holy grail that is notoriously challenging to measure with conventional exams.

Mind-maps

Mental Model Theory, or MMT, says that when humans understand spoken or written language, the mind “spatializes” this information, using systems in the brain that first evolved to help our primate ancestors move quickly through complex environments. The team’s findings support MMT.

When the researchers tested how well the students could reason about words in sentences instead of things on maps, they found that the students who had taken the course that focused on spatial thinking did much better. Also, students’ verbal reasoning got better as they got better at thinking about space.

These results, according to main author and Ph.D. psychology student Robert Cortes, show that mental modeling could be a key base for broad transfer in real-world education, taking abilities from the classroom and applying them more generally. 

This study provides important new insights into the nature of the mind in addition to advancing our understanding of how education affects our brains.

According to Cortes, verbal thinking is one of the most potent instruments that human development has evolved.  Bringing neuroscience and education together to better understand how the human brain learns to reason is really intriguing.

“Hopefully we can leverage these findings to improve human reasoning more broadly.”

They showed that increases in verbal reasoning may be best predicted by changes in students’ brains’ regions for spatial processing, notably in the posterior parietal cortex, showing new evidence for MMT in the brain.

Curriculum Development for the Cranium

Although the dispute over mental models has a long history, whether neuroscience can enhance teaching and learning in the classroom is currently one of the most debated topics in education. Even though combining neuroscience and education sounds good in theory, it has been hard to do in practice. One of the main challenges is the cost and time involved in applying neuroscience techniques, such MRI scans, to large-scale educational policy and practice.

Green, who is also a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, argues that even if it were possible to scan every child’s brain, it would still be a horrible idea.

Critics have long questioned whether the information provided by neuroscience can actually teach teachers anything that they couldn’t already learn from conducting standard paper and pencil or computer-based assessments.

The latest study team findings suggest a fresh strategy for overcoming these difficulties in neuroscience and education integration. The study concentrated on the curriculum the students learned rather than on the brains of different students. The findings demonstrate that brain imaging may identify the alterations that occur as a result of learning a particular curriculum in actual classroom settings and that these alterations can be utilized to compare other curricula.

According to Green, curriculum creation can and does take place at scales that neuroscience can actually handle. 

“So, if we can leverage neuroimaging tools to help identify the ways of teaching that impart the most transferable learning, then those curricula can be widely adopted by teachers and school systems. The curricula can scale up, but the neuroimaging doesn’t have to.” 

Compared to similarly matched students who took other advanced science curricula, children in the spatially enhanced curriculum displayed more significant brain changes. These adjustments seem to point to a deep learning of spatial skills that the brain can use in a variety of ways and which may not be fully captured by conventional examinations of particular skills. The study’s conclusion that brain changes can predict learning more accurately than conventional tests, in particular, offers compelling evidence that the inside look provided by neuroscience can provide educators with knowledge about far-transfer learning that they have long sought but that conventional learning assessments frequently miss.

“This study is a great example of our department’s mission of bridging ‘Neurons to Neighborhoods’ through science,” according to Cortes. “We hope to use this data to convince policymakers to increase access to this kind of spatially-enriched education.”

Image Credit: Getty

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