What is the function of religion?

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What is the function of religion? We see religious beliefs and their ability to guide behaviour in all human societies, so they seem to represent an intrinsic aspect of our psychology. Of course, adherents of each religion can articulate reasons for their faith, relating to spiritual, moral, and cultural aspects. But if we take an external view, what accounts for the success of religion across human societies?

In Western cultures, it is easy to think of religions in terms of one of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which come from common Middle Eastern origins. In these faiths there is a unitary, all powerful, all knowing God who forms the moral basis for the religion. In each, adherents generally see God as sitting in judgment of them. Thus, the argument goes, such religions with a single, powerful deity are useful to societies because they provide a structure around which more complex structures can be built. Persuading people to build a city can be tough, but if you can persuade them all that doing this is God’s plan then your job might be easier.

The trouble is, this kind of idea is hard to test. You can’t really set up two cultures, give one a monothestic religion, and then see who has the best outcomes. Even looking between different religions is tricky, because many cultures are related to each other, so similarities between two of them may be due to the fact that they come from a similar starting place.

Evolutionary biology, it turns out, has a very similar problem. Two species that have similar features may have independently solved an evolutionary problem in the same way, or they may be distantly related to a common ancestor. The field of biology that has developed complex statistical methods to deal with this problem is called phylogenetics, and creates descriptions of the relationships between species as phylogenetic trees.

Professor Russell Gray, from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland (and concurrently Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History), has had great success applying phylogenetic models to linguistic and cultural variation in human societies. For example, by applying these models to variations among languages in Pacific societies, he and his collaborators have been able to show how people spread through the region over the centuries.

In a recent paper, Joseph Watts, a PhD student at Auckland, along with Russell and an international team of collaborators, has used these methods to study the relationship between religions and societies. They wanted to understand whether religions with central, powerful gods are more likely to lead to complex societies. As a comparison, they also looked at religions with more general beliefs about ancestral spirits, karma, etc. They examined the religious basis and political complexity of 96 Austronesian cultures (a related linguistic group from Madagascar to the Pacific). If monotheistic gods are useful for developing political complexity, we’d expect to see them occur with (and predict the appearance of) complex societies.

In fact, their analysis shows that such “moralizing high gods” do not seem to be crucial for establishing political complexity in Austronesian societies. Although there was a relationship between the two, it was no stronger than the relationship between the other, broadly supernatural religions (without central god figures) and cultural complexity. In other words, both types of religion seemed to have something to do with the way that cultures develop. Furthermore, their statistical modelling indicated that the moralizing high god religions only develop AFTER a society has started to become complex. Developing religions with central, all-powerful gods may be something that cultural leaders encourage after a society gets to a point of complexity, possibly due to the levers of power that it provides for maintaining control.

So religions with central gods are no more likely to lead to societies that are politically complex than other, more diffuse religious structures. Joseph’s work shows us how we can use rigourous scientific methods to examine a much broader range of questions than one might think. It also shows how important it is to test theories scientifically rather than rely on our intuitive, culturally-influenced understanding.

For more information on Joseph Watts’ research, click here:
http://www.josephwatts.org/contact-me

For more information on Russell Gray’s research, click here:
http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/people/rd-gray

You can find the research paper here:
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/282/1804/20142556.full.pdf?ijkey=guGvYu72mvMEJWl&keytype=ref

Taking a bite out of science: Experiments with Great White Sharks

A lot of the research that we do in psychology involves experiments with people. Usually we’ll put a bunch of people through a task that we’ve designed. Some of them may find it easy and some difficult, but usually we’re interested in understanding the way that they perform the task rather than simply how well they do. Hopefully, under all the messy data that they give us is a meaningful pattern in what they are doing.

I study visual perception, so experiments in my lab usually have undergraduates at the University of Auckland come along to a quiet room where they sit at a computer and press keys on the keyboard when they see certain things (faces, objects) on the screen. We can explain to the participants the task they have before them, and apart from occasionally getting a little bored our participants seem satisfied enough by the session. In general, my students and I don’t need to worry about our personal safety.

But what if you want to perform experiments with great white sharks? It’s scary enough just imagining being anywhere near these giant carnivores; and of course they are etched in our subconscious as a manifestation of terror:

My colleague Dr Alex Taylor is interested in understanding intelligence, and particularly how it has evolved. To do this, most of his work focuses on problem-solving in non-human animals. He and his colleagues at Auckland, particularly Prof Russell Gray, have worked extensively with New Caledonian crows and demonstrated how, like humans, chimpanzees, and orang-utans, they use tools that they craft in order to get food. A video from BBC last year featured Alex’s work with these crows and just how clever they are:

Recently, he has worked as part of a team of researchers to study complex behaviour in great white sharks. Much is known about these sharks’ athletic gifts, and their ability to smell tiny specks of blood in the water. But sharks also use vision to locate and approach prey. The research team was interested in the flexibility of this behaviour. That is, do the sharks simply identify a source of food and immediately head straight for it? Or do they use some shark-cunning and approach their upcoming snack in such a way as to maximize success (for the shark, rather than the lunch)?

The question Alex and the team wanted to answer was whether the direction with which great white sharks would approach their prey was affected by the direction of the sun. Potentially, coming out of the same direction as the sun would be a sensible strategy, since it might make it harder for the prey to see the shark, and might make the prey stand out more clearly against the dark background. However, the sun is continually shifting position in the sky and so the use of this cue would require some flexibility on the part of the shark.

So that’s a pretty interesting question – but how do you ask a shark to take part in your experiment? In this case, the team took a boat out to the cold waters off South Australia, which are known to have populations of great whites. They then attached tuna bait to a float, and essentially waited for the sharks to turn up. They didn’t have much trouble getting willing participants. In 30 days, there were almost 1000 shark visits to the bait; in the end, they classified 337 as being predatory and occurring on sunny days.

Although the approaches did occur from all directions, by far the most popular direction was when the sun was behind the shark (statistical tests were able to show that this occurred much more often than expected by chance). This was also shown by differences in approach in the morning (when the sun was in the east) and evening (when it was in the west).

Interestingly, there were big variations between different sharks. The researchers were able to identify a few sharks that came back again and again. Some of the sharks used the sun on many more approaches than others did. This shows us that different sharks seem to be using the strategy more or less.

If it was cloudy, sun direction had no effect. This is not very surprising, since it just shows that the sun doesn’t affect behaviour if the sharks can’t see it.

So great white sharks are sensitive to changing features of their environment, and are able to exploit them in order to get a meal. This work has important theoretical implications, since it helps us understand the commonalities of intelligence across species (including our own). But it also has practical importance for us, since the more we know about shark behaviour and the cues they use, the better we can design beach environments that keep them safely swimming in the deep and the us safely playing in the shallows.

For more information on Alex Taylor’s research, click here:
http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/people/alexander-taylor
http://alexhtaylor.com

You can find the research paper here:
http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1086/680010?uid=3738776&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21105519120811

For a short video from Flinders University describing this study, click here:
http://mtu.flinders.edu.au/events/White_Sharks_and_the_Sun.cfm

Is The Dress blue and black, or white and gold?

27 February 2015 will forever be known as the day of #TheDress. Specifically, this one:

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That’s a photo taken at a wedding, and Caitlin McNeill and her friends realised that they couldn’t agree on what colour it was. Which freaked them out. And then the rest of the internet.

So what’s going on? A million blogs are giving you answers. Here are mine.

First, we have to understand the incredible job that the brain has to do to figure out what the colours are of objects around us. Light varies in wavelengths, and we all know from rainbows that those wavelengths appear as different colours. A red car is red because its surface reflects lots of long wavelengths (that appear red) and absorbs all the other ones. Except, that’s not exactly true.

The trouble is that the amount of “redness” reflecting off the car will vary tremendously as the amount and type of light changes. So as the sun moves from dawn to midday to dusk (to incandescent bulb) the wavelengths reflected from objects would change drastically. So everything would change colour all the time.

But it doesn’t. Most of the time, things seem to have the same colour. This not because the light is constant; instead, it’s because your brain is really good at figuring out what the original colour was. So how does it do it?

The basic answer is that your brain is not just looking at how much redness is coming from the car; it is also looking at how much redness is coming from everything else in the scene. The “red” thing doesn’t have to have lots of red light coming from it; it just needs to have more red light than anything else in the display. So to change the colour an object appears to have, you don’t need to change anything about the object, you just need to change the context.

If that didn’t make any sense, look at this from Beau Lotto:

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You can find the interactive demonstration here. The middle squares of the top and front surfaces look different (brown and orange respectively). But in fact they are identical, as you can see in the demo when you mask everything else. They look different in the main image because of the very different surrounding colours.

So what does this have to do with the dress? Well, it is not at all surprising that the dress appears to have different colours under different circumstances, since colour is so based upon context and the context could change.

But what is more interesting is that two people can look at the same image and disagree. Normally our perceptual systems will agree. But not always. Here is a classic perceptual ambiguity:

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The Necker Cube (this one downloaded from Wikipedia) looks like a cube sitting on the ground. But wait… maybe it is floating in midair and we’re looking from underneath? In fact, there are two possible interpretations, and you can see both, but you can only see one at a time.

That seems to be occurring with The Dress. My guess is that different people are perceptually organizing the photograph in different ways, and once you see it one way it is hard to reorganize it and see the other colours. At this stage I don’t think we have a great explanation for why some people see one and other people see the other… but let me know what you think! I’ll update the post as smart people come up with answers!

UPDATE: My friend Derek Arnold pointed out on ABC radio that the ambiguity comes from whether your brain thinks the colour of the dress comes from the light or the dress itself. That is, if you see it as gold and white, you think the gold colour comes from the dress. But if you see it as blue and black, you think any gold in the picture is coming from the light (and therefore is not part of the dress).

Rebel Sport, get real

It’s late summer in New Zealand and we’re all excited about cricket, because we’re helping host the World Cup, and so far our team looks good. Cricket matches, even “short” ones, take many hours to play so there is lots of cricket on NZ TV at present. So, naturally, companies in New Zealand want to associate themselves with cricket as much as possible. Much of it is the standard product placement or grey-faced retailers pretending to love the game more than life itself. But then there are advertisements like this one, which is by the country’s biggest sports retailer and has been playing all summer.

Corey Anderson is one of the hardest hitters in the NZ batting lineup. The ad makes the claim that as a left-hander, he has an advantage because unlike his right-handed teammates who use both sides of their brain, “he only uses one side” when he’s seeing and hitting the ball, and that this gives him a speed advantage of 30 milliseconds.

The claim seems specific (“30 milliseconds”), and comes with visuals of brain slices that give it the unmistakeable air of “science,” and therefore appears highly authoritative. After all, we know that lefties are bit different to righties, and it has something do with how they use their brains, right? And you might also have heard claims about how the right side and left side of our brains work differently (spoiler alert: in all such claims, the right side is way more desirable).

However, not for the first (or last) time in advertising, there is precisely no basis in fact for the claims of this advertisement. First, it is just totally false that left-handers only use one side of their brain for seeing and hitting a cricket ball. All of us, righties and lefties, use both sides of our brains when we see the world. In fact, as you look straight ahead at the bowler steaming in towards you, things on the left side of the world get processed by the right side of your brain, and things on the right enter the left side of your brain (the swap from one side of the world to the other side of the brain is just a function of the optics of the eyeball). The cricket ball (which is the only thing that matters) would be processed by both hemispheres, since it is coming straight at you. As you hit the cricket ball, your right arm is controlled by your left cerebral hemisphere, and your left arm is controlled by the right side of your brain, so again righties and lefties will hit using the whole brain.

So the claims here are all spurious. It is not even as if left-handers use only half their brain for anything else. The most celebrated process that is generally “lateralized” in the brain (that is, more strongly organized in one side of the brain than the other) is language. Most right-handers have a stronger language centre in their left brain than their right brain. But left-handers actually show weaker lateralization; more left-handers than right-handers show strong language in both hemispheres of the brain.

Clearly, Corey Anderson does have tremendous athletic gifts. And those gifts are not just in the speed he can bowl or the strength with which he hits the ball; he no doubt has much faster reflexes than the rest of us. I had the dubious honour of making my high school’s first cricket XI as neither a bowler nor a batsman; I wasn’t even a particularly good fielder (an early lesson that enthusiasm can carry you a surprisingly long way), but that was where I got to make my (relatively minor) contribution. I always dreamed of being allowed in the slips, where you stand behind the batsman and try to catch the ball as it ricochets off the bat, because everyone seemed cooler there. But on the rare occasion the captain put me there my stay would be brief; a ball would come rifling off the bat and be a long way past me before I had any idea what had happened. So Corey Anderson does have an “unfair advantage” over me, but it is not the fact that he’s a left-hander. It’s just, simply, that he has talent.

Text for life

One of the challenges of the modern age is dealing with how things have changed. In industry after industry, ways of working that have succeeded for generations are suddenly undergoing seismic shifts. We all get used to the convenience of our gadgets, but then this changes how we do things, and suddenly everything we were used to no longer works in ways that we expect.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ways we communicate. Once upon a time the Post Office was a license to print money; now it’s only going to deliver mail every other day. Teens used to spend hours talking on the phone; now they think it’s odd to make a phone call. We’re able to broadcast our lives to our family, friends, and beyond. Clearly, what feels comfortable and natural in the ways that we communicate is changing.

So what happens if your aim is to communicate with people in their most vulnerable moments? Psychologists are concerned with the provision of mental health services, and making sure that people in need get effective assistance. The classic “psychiatrist’s couch” image is now largely defunct, but face-to-face communication is still encouraged. For many years, though, it has been recognized that it is not always possible for the provider of assistance and the person in need to get together. After all, the moments that we need help are not neatly organized within normal working hours and while we are close to a professional that we have come to trust. More likely, it is 2am and we’re alone. At that moment, if we decide that we need help, for the last 50 years we’ve probably picked up the phone and called a helpline. But how does that work for a new generation that uses their phones for everything except making calls?

The answer, increasingly, is to provide services using modes of communication that target groups feel comfortable with. For teens, one of those is text messaging. On the face of it, text messaging seems a poor model to build mental health services around, since communication is put through a narrow channel that requires thumb-typing, and limits the ability of the client to develop rapport with the counsellor. However, in a recent paper, my colleagues Dr Kerry Gibson and Dr Claire Cartwright explore the experiences of teens using a New Zealand text messaging counselling service. This service, run by Youthline, has been running for 10 years and receives 10,000-20,000 texts per month. Kerry and Claire found that young clients liked many of the aspects of the service that their parents might find limiting. For example, typing on a phone means that the users could engage in conversation with the counsellors without raising suspicions of those around them. In addition, while the anonymity of text messaging reduces the strength of connection between counsellor and client, it equally allows the teen user to engage in mental health services without committing themselves to disclosing more than they feel comfortable with. Finally, the normality of texting made the users feel more comfortable with the service, to the point that some remarked it felt similar to when they communicated with friends.

Modes of communication will continue to evolve, and so will methods of facilitating positive mental health. And just as social media use varies between kids, parents, and grandparents, no single mode of mental health services will prevail. The main thing is to provide services in the best way to as many people as possible in the moment that they are most needed. Kerry reports that this research allowed Youthline to better understand the ways in which this service was reaching and helping the young people that used it. Such work will be vital in the future as mental health services continue to diversity and embrace all the methods of communication that we use with each other.

NOTE: If you feel the need to communicate with a counsellor, in New Zealand free text 234 to contact Youthline; or using more traditional technology call 0800 376 633. Similar services exist in many other countries.

For more information on Dr Kerry Gibson’s research, click here:
https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/kl-gibson

For more information on Dr Claire Cartwright’s research, click here:
https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/c-cartwright

Words and numbers: specific impairments in reading and maths

Although we sometimes make snap judgments about people as being “smart” or “dumb”, we generally accept that people are good at some things but not at others. We all know someone who has “book smarts” but no “street smarts” (especially those of us who work in universities!). Equally, there may be some things we learn more easily, and other things that are more difficult. I was always pretty good with reading and maths at primary school, but my handwriting was terrible and artistic skills non-existent.

These days we are all pretty aware of something called “dyslexia,” which is defined essentially as a reading impairment in the absence of other problems. If someone has profound intellectual difficulties, it may not be surprising that they don’t read very well, but the reading problem is just one part of a much wider issue. On the other hand, if you have normal IQ and good general intellectual skills, but have trouble learning new word and reading texts, then we can call it a specific reading deficit, or dyslexia. There seem to be a variety of causes of dyslexia, and one of the challenges of studying it (and coming up with treatments) is that two different children with dyslexia may have very different causes for their conditions. However, it is a major problem, particularly for our schools, with 5-10% of children experiencing such reading difficulties.

While dyslexia is widely understood as a problem (even if we’re not sure of the solution), there is much less awareness of the same type of specific problem with mathematics. This seems pretty odd, because many people I talk to (including members of my family!) tell me that they were “no good at maths,” despite leading very successful lives in all other respects. People like this may have a specific mathematical impairment. In fact, researchers in psychology and education have identified exactly this condition, which is known as “dyscalculia,” and occurs with similar frequency to dyslexia. Kids that just don’t seem to get maths may not be dumb, and they may be trying hard; it might just be that they struggle to master mathematical concepts. Understanding if kids have dyscalculia is really important because it changes the way teachers try to present material in the classroom, and allows for personalized instruction.

My colleague in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, Associate Professor Karen Waldie, in collaboration with Dr Anna Wilson of the University of Canterbury, has recently published a really interesting study where they look to see whether dyslexia and dyscalculia are related, and whether they persist into adulthood. Across scientific studies it seems like a lot of people with one deficit also have the other; this could be due to chance but it may also be that a common problem allows both dyslexia and dyscalculia to develop. Anna and Karen (along with a wider research team) recruited adults who said they had a learning disorder, and used tests to split them into some with just dyslexia, some with just dyscalculia, and some with both. After giving the participants a battery of different psychological tests, they found that the two deficits seem to be distinct, so that people with both dyslexia and dyscalculia have two distinct deficits, rather than just one that generalizes to both reading and maths. In addition, they found strong evidence that dyscalculia persists strongly into adulthood.

As with other issues of cognitive development, it seems likely that catching these learning deficits early will help reduce their severity, and allow kids to develop more typical expertise with reading and maths.

For more information on Associate Professor Karen Waldie’s research, click here:
http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/people/k-waldie

For more information on Dr Anna Wilson’s research, click here:
http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/spark/researcher.aspx?researcherid=4128937

Why do people do crazy things (like running ultramarathons)?

Everyone looks at the things they’ve done and wonders “why did I do that?” One of the great things about studying Psychology is that there is a lot of research that is relevant to understanding our motivations. So it turns out even the craziest things that we do can often be explained in relatively straightforward ways.

We all do things that other people think are crazy. You might jump out of planes, or eat hot chillies, or listen to heavy metal. The thing I do that people generally think is crazy is that I run ultramarathons. A marathon is 42.2 km (26.1 miles); an ultramarathon is any race longer than that. But it is not just further; many “ultras” take place on mountain trails and can be done in extreme weather. So for “fun” you might do a race in freezing snow, or you might run 100 miles in Northern California during a heat wave that takes temperatures to about 40°C (105°F). You’d have to be crazy to do that, right?

Surprisingly, I’m not alone. Interest in ultras has jumped exponentially in recent years, and many races have hundreds or even thousands of starters (and even then, often have many more people who would like to enter).

There are a few ways to think about this from a Psychological perspective. If we ask the question of why I choose to do something that I know will cause me pain, we’re asking about my motivation. Psychologists have sophisticated theories to account for what motivates us to do things. One of the most successful is Ryan and Deci’s “Self-Determination Theory”. It argues that activities we do may be intrinsically motivating (they give us pleasure) or extrinsically motivating (we do them for some other purpose). In general, activities that are intrinsically motivating are ones that we are more likely to maintain motivation for. But what could be pleasurable about running all day and all night so that you start hallucinating and developing the worst blisters that medical personnel have ever seen?

Intrinsic motivation generally comes when we get feelings of competence (“hey, I can do that successfully!”), autonomy (“I did that because I wanted to”), and relatedness (“I connect with other people when I do this”). My ultra story is pretty typical – I thought running such long distances was absurd but slowly did events that were longer and longer and gained immense personal satisfaction from achieving goals that a year or two before I thought were impossible (competence). No-one tells me when to train so anything I achieve feels like it really belongs to me (autonomy). And running, while associated with loners, is actually a tremendously social activity, especially when it takes all day to do and there are several hundred other people doing the same thing (relatedness). So actually, ultrarunning is almost guaranteed to be motivating to people who start doing it and find that it is something they can successfully achieve.

Another way of looking at the Psychology of ultrarunning is whether it brings benefits beyond simple motivation. The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health are well known, and so many people run because being fit allows them to enjoy a better life. However ultrarunning, because of the time and distances involved, tests a key psychological process: inhibition. Our lives are spent surrounded by stimuli like cake, TV, sofas, and iPads that are tempting alternatives to the boring things we are currently doing. The trouble is, those boring things might be earning money to support our family or studying to get ahead in life. So for our future benefit we need to be able to inhibit tempting short-term stimuli in order to maximize long-term gains. Studies of education show that one of the best predictors of children’s long-term educational performance is their ability to resist taking candy from a bowl. Ultrarunning requires the development of inhibition, because after running for six hours straight the temptation to stop and sit down becomes almost overwhelming, and successfully pushing against those thoughts in order to complete the race is very taxing. Inhibition helps with emotional modulation as well; people who are good at inhibition tend to be less angry, because they inhibit negative emotional states. As such, there are very few angry ultrarunners!

Many other “crazy” activities can be just as easily explained by Self-Determination Theory, and also lead to the development of other, constructive abilities. So what looks crazy to the rest of us may not be so crazy after all.

POSTSCRIPT: The connection between running and mental health is so strong that I’m pleased to participate in an upcoming fundraising activity for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Mal Law is an adventurer who has set himself the ridiculous task of running 50 marathons in 50 days in which each day sees him climb a major hill or mountain. I’m only doing one day, which coincides with the Tarawera Ultramarathon in the beautiful Bay of Plenty area of New Zealand, on 7 January 2015. Mal’s aiming to raise $400,000 (and already has almost $300,000) which is fantastic, but also will highlight how physical activity helps our mental health.

To learn more, or sponsor the event, check out these links:
http://www.fundraiseonline.co.nz/MalcolmLaw/
http://www.fundraiseonline.co.nz/WillHayward/

For more information on Self-Determination Theory and its relevance for exercise, see: http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
http://www.pseve.org/journal/UPLOAD/Ryan6b.pdf

Wandering minds in the classroom

It is the end of January, which in New Zealand means that schools are about to open for a new academic year. Kids around the country have been enjoying the ridiculously good weather over the summer holiday, but now are being fitted out for uniforms and taken to the stationary supplies store in preparation for another year of education. Some are looking forward to it, some are not. But it is also an opportunity for us all to think about whether our schools give our kids the skills that they will need for the future.

This is, of course, a vast topic and one that will not be solved in a blog post. Even just restricting ourselves to the psychology of education and learning means that we cover multiple academic fields. So I’ll ask a couple of related questions: What is the purpose of school education? What does Psychology say about how to successfully address those aims?

There are lots of aims for education that are important, such as developing a child’s self-knowledge and their ability to engage constructively in society. But at its core education is about learning things, and developing skills. When kids come out of school we want them to know stuff, and we want them to come up with good solutions to problems that they face. So how well do our schools do that?

The first thing to say is that New Zealand schools are one of our country’s most valuable and successful assets. Kids in NZ do very well at international assessments of reading, maths, and science; in the latest data from the OECD we rank higher than the UK or USA, and about the same as Australia. But more than that you just need to go down to your local primary school and compare it to similar schools in other countries to be impressed at the commitment of our school communities and successive governments in demanding high standards of public education.

Having said that, moods and trends shift in all aspects of human endeavour, and education is no different. The current trend is for measurement of school performance. In NZ this is called “National Standards” and is similar to “No Child Left Behind” in the US. The logic is that if schools are successful they should improve children’s skills in measureable ways. Students are assessed at regular intervals, and resources prioritized on those schools that can demonstrate their success at the measurements.

This approach to education has many advocates, but also many critics. I will not attempt a comprehensive evaluation, but it is useful to consider the nature of the educational experience that will and will not be adequately captured by measurement. Testing student performance encourages schools to teach materials for the test, particularly when their future resourcing is at stake. This may be a useful way to capture student learning of facts; if the school is successful at teaching known facts about clearly understood topics, students will do better on these tests.

However, testing is unlikely to assess students’ abilities to deal with novel and ill-defined problems. Here we need creative solutions where students can think broadly about different ways of assessing and solving a problem. Learning environments focused on testing are unlikely to drive such creative development.

My colleague Professor Mike Corballis has recently written a book pertinent to this very topic. “The Wandering Mind: What your brain does when you’re not looking” reviews broad areas of psychology and neuroscience that focus on how our minds seem only somewhat under our volitional control. You can try to pay attention to something, like this blog post or your boss talking in a meeting, and you may succeed for a while, but it is likely that your mind will eventually wander off and you’ll find yourself thinking about something totally different. In fact, our mind’s natural state seems to be one of wandering – when you remember one situation from the past it inevitably brings up other associations, all of which lead to yet more instances from your personal history. Work from Associate Professor Donna Rose Addis’s laboratory at Auckland also shows that this kind of personal autobiographical memory is linked inextricably to our ability to imagine events in the future. In other words, self-initiated memory drives our creative process. In turn, Mike notes evidence in his book that the more time your mind spends wandering, the more creative you may be, and this makes intuitive sense given that creative solutions will be ones that may not be initially obvious and for which a mind that ambles around may come across an unexpected solution.

Classroom education, and particularly education for examination, is in many ways the antithesis of mind wandering. It attempts to transmit a carefully articulated curriculum into the mind of the student. Any mind wandering will take the learner away from the prescribed material. The costs of this can be seen in Asian educational environments, which are exceptionally strong in some areas but weak in others. After 14 years teaching in Hong Kong I can verify that students who have been tested continuously from preschool become very good at learning facts, mathematical formulae, and mechanical procedures. But like many Asian locales, Hong Kong has recently sought to redesign its curriculum because it recognizes that its students struggle to produce creative solutions to problems, particularly when some important information may be lacking. In essence, students that succeed in these traditional learning environments do so by training their minds to stop wandering.

Psychological experiments also speak to the importance of creative learning. When we encounter new things, is it better for someone to show us how they work, or for us to explore them ourselves? Elizabeth Bonawitz at the University of California, Berkeley, plus colleagues at Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, had pre-schoolers learn about a toy that they had never seen before. The toy had a number of features (a “squeaker,” a mirror, a light, and a button that played music). If an adult showed the children the squeaker the children were likely to spend a large amount of time using that feature alone. However, if they explored the toy themselves, they made broader use of all the features. The authors argue that “a teacher’s failure to provide evidence for additional functions provides evidence for their absence… Thus, pedagogy provides efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information.”

There is without doubt a necessary place in our classrooms for testing and directed teaching about bodies of well-understood knowledge. But we should also be clear about the other aspects of learning that we would like to encourage. Hopefully, we can build learning environments for our kids that allow them all to develop a broad range of skills and attributes to benefit everyone.

For more information on the work of Professor Mike Corballis, click the following link:
http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/people/m-corballis

For more information on the work of Associate Professor Donna Rose Addis, click the following link:
http://www.memorylab.org

Welcome to the Blog

I’m the Head of Psychology at the University of Auckland and want the chance to share the many ways in which Psychology helps us understand ourselves and those around us. I’ll be commenting on issues of Psychology that are relevant to things happening in the world, and will also highlight some of the best research coming out of the School of Psychology here at Auckland. Feel free to contact me if you would like any additional information about any of the studies that I talk about.

I’ll also add a disclaimer here — I have a PhD in Psychology but I am not trained as a Clinical Psychologist, and therefore am not registered with the New Zealand Psychologists Board. This means that I am not a Psychologist as defined under legislation in New Zealand. If you require the assistance of a professional Psychologist I recommend you contact your GP in the first instance.