Friday, May 27, 2011

Imagine That!

Human brains are different from most other animals. Are you are now smarter for reading that last sentence? When comparing other animals, reptiles or amphibians brain structure, the differences are staggering. Not necessarily because of what exists but rather, what does not exist. Frogs have mainly just a brain stem. Their brains function on a survival only basis. A dog or cat brain is slightly larger allowing for functions of emotion.

It is no secret that a human brain and monkey brain are similar. When viewed from the hindbrain, both have almost identical form. Functions of survival, emotion and social interactions are characteristics of both species.

Human brains however, through evolution, became even more sophisticated.

One of the coolest and underrated ways our brains are more evolved deals with our imagination. As humans we can see things that are not there (picture a glass of water on a table in your house.... while you are reading this! I bet you can do it). If you are older and have lived in the same place for a while, I bet you can still see landscapes that have since disappeared to development.

What does this have anything to do with an educational blog? Plenty. First, in my experiences, I have found that all learning is sensory based. (I am disappointed that it has taken me thirty-one years before I learned this, but I was never mentally the first one to the party either!) However, in my pursuit to understand how students learn and how athletes think, I have found that when learning occurs through one of the senses, its sticks and develops meaning.

In the summer of 2005, I worked as an intern at IMG academies in Florida. The IMG academies house some of the best young athletes in their sport. The Nick Bolliteri tennis school is there along with the David Leadbetter Jr. Golf academy. The U.S. U-20 soccer team trains there as well.
While there I was exposed to seeing how the best athletes not only train physically, but also cognitively. Part of the players day always consisted of mental conditioning. This might consist of how to think positively, staying in the moment, and developing mental stamina.

One aspect that was hammered home hard with these players was imagery -especially with the golfers. When I got to sit down with one of the sport psychologists to discuss competitive psychology, I was blown away with his findings on imagery. He was telling me of a study he was conducting in conjunction with USC on imagery. He showed me print outs of experiments of when he would hook electrodes up to people to measure brain and muscle function. The people who were hooked up, were asked to imagine themselves running while they were in a sitting position. What the print outs showed was that many of his athletes leg muscles showed small amounts of twitching. The brain was firing the necessary muscles to do what it imagined!

As I continued my summer of work, I noticed how many teachers were instructing their students to see their shots (tennis, golf, basketball) until the ball stopped rolling, went in the hoop, or bounced on the other side of the net. They were teaching their students to "see". Their feedback was determined by what they saw and not what the coach said. These coaches were teaching them not only techniques on how to picture themselves succeeding, but also allowing the players to gain feedback from their senses. By teaching one how to use their senses, they were able to improve the training of a highly skilled athlete.

Lots of kinesthetic methods are used, but is there is more than just touch? Is there a way we can teach kids how to use all of their senses to learn?