Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 4)

This is the fourth of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.


Robin Phillips: Can I just share a few more ingredients that go into a healthy brain?

Graham Taylor: Go ahead.

RP: Another element that should be absolutely front and center of any discussion of brain fitness is intellectual curiosity and imagination. These are really two separate skills but since they are closely related I find it useful to discuss them under the same rubric.

When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.

Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.

But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”

Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)

Curiosity is closely linked to imagination. How is it that national and international memory champions are able to memorize pages and pages of something as boring as binary digits? I mean, think about it, what could be more boring than an entire page of ones and zeros? Or why are some people able to memorize something as uninteresting as the thousands of digits of PI? For example, consider the case of Rajveer Meena who just last year managed to recite the 70,000 decimal places of Pi. This took place in a period of roughly 10 hours during which time Rajveer was blindfolded. The reason people can perform these types of mental acrobatics is because of the imagination. They convert something that would otherwise be boring—like a string of random numbers—into something memorable. For example, Rajveer associated an imaginary color, event or an object with mathematical sequences. This is the same concept behind the memory palace that we talked about earlier. The larger lesson here, namely that we remember things that are interesting to us, helps us to see the value of a curious disposition whereby the whole world becomes interesting.

But the value of imagination goes beyond its role as a means to helping us learn and retain content. There are just so many reasons why the imagination is central to having a healthy brain.


GT: What are some other reasons why the imagination is so important for brain fitness?

RP: Answering that question could be the topic of an entire interview in itself. I hope you realize that I can only scratch the surface, but off the top of my head here are some of the reasons why developing the imagination is so crucial for brain fitness:

  1. Being able to extend empathy to someone who is experiencing emotions we’ve never felt is also an act of imagination. As a culture we’re getting worse at this, perhaps because research has found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions and therefore being able to empathize. If we can’t read people’s expressions, it is hard to imagine what they feel.
  2. Being able to think in hypotheticals is ultimately an act of imagination.
  3. Being able to effectively debate or analyze controversial issues also involves the imagination since you have to think “If I held a different position on this issue, then would such-and-such logically follow?” Aristotle is often quoted as saying that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” That’s something we’re not particularly good at today. When I’m talking to someone and we find ourselves in disagreement, I sometimes say “If you held my position, would you think that such-and-such follows?” Most of the time I ask that the person can’t answer and they don’t seem to even understand the question—they don’t even know how to stretch their brain into considering the implications of a different point of view. That’s really scary when you think about it.
  4. The imagination is also heavily involved in moral reasoning, as James Flynn has shown in his fascinating Ted Talk about rising IQ scores.
  5. Being able to make inferences from logical abstractions is also an act of imagination. This is one area where as a species we’re actually getting better, and Flynn also touches on this in his Ted Talk.
  6. The ability to see the situations in our lives from a different perspective (what psychologists call “cognitive reframing”) is important for being able to cultivate gratitude, self-validation or spiritual renewal, but crucially this involves creativity and imagination. When we get stuck in one way of viewing our lives that we know is wrong and yet we can’t seem to escape from it, the imagination is our friend. For example, if I’m having a bad day and I start engaging in self-pity, maybe it’s time for me to imagine how things could be a lot worse. Or I could imagine someone from two hundred years ago watching my life and being impressed with all the blessings I have that I take for granted. Or I could imagine how I would feel about my priorities if I knew I was going to die in 6 months. By using the imagination in these and other ways, we are able to take a different perspective on the challenges in our life.

Okay, so the imagination is really important. Don’t underestimate the value of reading a fairy tale to your 5-year old, or encouraging students to memorize poems, or asking your 8-year old daughter to draw you a picture and then make up a story to go with it. As a boy I was homeschooled, and one of the things I will always treasure about the education my parents gave me is that they encouraged me to be creative and imagine. In terms of brain-fitness, one of the greatest gifts we can offer our students is to encourage them to imagine.

To cultivate learning without cultivating the imagination is to create automatons. That’s why the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, since it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. In other words, the imagination feeds all the things that make us truly free.


GT: Let’s return for a moment to what you said about intellectual curiosity, I’m curious whether you think this is a skill or an innate disposition? And the same question could be asked about imagination.

RP: Good question. I haven’t researched curiosity as much as some of the other elements we’ve been talking about, so I’m not sure I can confidently answer that question. There certainly isn’t a 10-step process for becoming more curious about the world, as curiosity tends to arise as a result of doing other things right, such as developing the imagination or recognizing that there is so much more to life than living for the next paycheck.

As far as the imaginative capacity is concerned, it’s clear that it can be developed through reading good quality fiction, which in turn helps with the skill of emotional intelligence, at least according to some which recent studies. When the imaginative capacity is developed, this also helps with curiosity. So as parents and educators we can create the conditions in which intellectual curiosity has an opportunity to flourish both through developing the imagination and fostering the sense of wonder. We do that through reading good stories to our children, developing an atmosphere of inquiry, having stimulating meal-time conversations, encouraging activities that have no immediate utility value but which broaden a child’s horizons above the immediate demand of pragmatic necessity, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry.

Also we can limit activities and habits that tend to stifle a child’s curiosity and imagination. Anthony Esolen has a book called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child in which he lists some of the factors in modern life that tend to be antithetical to the life of the imagination. Since he wrote the book in 2010 the assault on the imagination has become institutionalized throughout our school systems, especially under President Obama’s educational reforms.


GT: You’re talking about Common Core, right?

RP: Indeed I am. Under the demands of this recent curriculum overhaul, the liberal arts have been subtlety instrumentalized as their value has been reduced to simply a matter of pragmatic utility. That’s why Terrence Moore’s book against Common Core is called The Story-Killers. When Moore was researching Common Core he found that the new curriculum demands were systematically killing off the type of literature that feeds the imagination. In place of good literature Common Core recommends texts that aim to do a better job in preparing students for career readiness in the 21st-century global economy, like Obama’s Executive Orders or FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

When reading—and with it the life of the mind and imagination—is turned into an instrument in this way, a tool for career readiness in the 21st-century global economy, then it is hard to convince students that knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake. It also becomes difficult to cultivate the type of intellectual curiosity that arises through perceiving that the world inherently interesting, filled with wonder, and worth being curious about. One of the ideologues behind Common Core even made the shocking statement (which I analyzed Salvo Magazine in 2014) that students are stuck with having to read texts simply because we haven’t yet discovered a more efficient delivery system. But maybe good literature does more than merely deliver information or give students practice in deciphering complex texts; maybe it nourishes our souls in ways that can’t be quantified in purely pragmatic terms. If so, then it’s definitely a mistake to view education through the lens of the factory mindset embodied in Common Core.

You know, this is really really important because both intellectual curiosity and the life of the imagination serve as a hedge against the pernicious tendency to prize knowledge only for its utility value rather than for its own sake. Now of course, all true knowledge, like all good friendships, is useful, and anything worth knowing ultimately has a practical dimension; however, we want to avoid is treating knowledge as merely a means to other ends, just as we want to avoid treating our friends as means to ends. Thus, we should all be concerned at the way the neo-behaviorism of Common Core is killing the imagination and with it the sense of intellectual curiosity that is a precondition to effective learning in the first place.


GT: Throughout this interview, and in your other writings, you draw a lot from contemporary research. Has it only been recently that we knew about brain fitness as you’re describing it?

RP: Good question. Recent scientific discoveries about the brain simply help us to rediscover what wise people throughout the ages have always known. You just have to read Homer to see that.

We talked about thinking errors. The character of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad clearly demonstrates what transpires when people engage in thinking errors. Achilles is a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, filtering out the positive, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, labeling, personalization, unreal ideal and many other thinking errors. Later on, during the classical era of Greece, the writings of many of the philosophers and orators placed a strong emphasis placed on the type of tranquility of soul that comes as the correlate to the habits of sound thinking. Similar themes emerge from the writings of philosophers in the Confucian tradition, as well as many of the mystics throughout the ancient Christian tradition. It’s all there in the past, they just didn’t use the same modern psychological terminology that we use today.

We talked about thinking outside the box. One of the reasons the character of Odysseus is considered so clever and wise throughout Homer’s Odyssey is because of the type of out-of-the-box thinking he used throughout his adventures. The most famous example of this is when he devised a cunning plan for escaping from the Cyclopes.

We talked about emotional intelligence. One of the most moving scenes in the entire Iliad occurs in Book 24 when Priam reminds Achilles of his father in an attempt to encourage him to see things from his perspective. Essentially Priam invites Achilles to empathize. For a brief moment these enemies are able to understand each other and exercise some degree of emotional intelligence.

We also talked about focus. In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the dominant themes is whether Odysseus will remain focused on the goal of his homeward journey or succumb to distractions. One of the most profound passages in the entire Odyssey is when they’re sailing past the land of the Sirens. They were bird-like women who sang songs of such enchanting beauty that sailors passing by their island would be lured by their music and then go ashore to starve and perish under their hypnotic spell. Odysseus desperately longed to hear the Sirens’ song, yet he also had enough inward-directed emotional intelligence or self-knowledge to realize that he would not be capable of resisting their magnetic pull. So while the rest of the crew blocked their ears with beezewax, Odysseus gave instructions to have himself tied to he mast with his ears open. He knew that, left to himself, he would fall under their spell. As it was he found their music so captivating that he gave orders for his men to row ashore, but they obeyed the previous orders and kept their leader tied up until they were away from the Sirens’ island. Now that’s focus! Odysseus was so focused on his homeward journey that he instructed his men to use force against him. We should go to similar lengths to preserve our focus amidst distractions that have an almost magnetic pull on our attention. However, as with Odysseus, this degree of focus also requiress a high level of emotional intelligence and self-knowledge. We have to know our limitations and take measures to overcome them. We have to know the things that distract us from our goals and find ways to exert mastery over the temptations in our lives.

Of course, I’m not claiming that Homer had any of these concepts explicitly in mind, or that he composed his works to show these things. That would be silly. But what we can say is that long before these brain fitness skills were systematized, people were aware that if you use the brain a certain way there will be positive or negative results, that there will be either health or disease in the broadest sense of the term. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology are just catching up to what many people throughout the ancient world understood, and sometimes understood a lot better than we do. All I’m doing is systematizing and defining something that’s always been there.


GT: Thank you for putting this into a larger literary context for us. And thank you for everything else you’ve shared, Robin. We’re approaching the end of our time together this morning, so is there anything else you’d like to share in closing?

RP: Well I would like to just say that I’ve also enjoyed our conversation very much and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk to TSM about brain fitness. I should also say in closing that this discussion of brain fitness is not meant to be exhaustive. If I had more time we could have talked about other mental skills such as gratitude and learned optimism, both of which are associated with increased cognitive functioning.

In closing I’d just like to say that it’s easily for us to fall into a one-sided view of what a good brain is and how it functions, as if the criteria for a good brain only involves the types of skills that can be measured on a Wechsler intelligence test. The cash-value of focusing on the wider set of brain-fitness skills that I’ve been highlighting is that, once we become aware of them, we can begin to take steps to foster some of these under-valued mental assets. However, even when people become aware of these components that go into a fit brain, there is often the problem that they don’t think of these components as being skills. Betraying what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck called a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset”, we tend to think that things like focus, emotional intelligence, thinking outside the box, forming schemas, avoiding thinking errors, having intellectual curiosity, and so forth, are things a person either has or doesn’t have. But my point is that we should begin appreciating that these traits are not gifts but skills that can be developed through deliberate practice and training. The more discoveries are made about neuroplasticity, the more clear this becomes. Sure, everyone is born with certain innate gifts and inclinations, just like certain people are born physically stronger than others. Anyone who has multiple children knows this. But just as physical strength and health can be developed through exercise and training, so can a healthy brain. None of us needs to stay stuck where we are or to be a victim of our circumstances—if we are willing to put in the time and patient effort, each one of us can move towards better cognitive health. In the process, each of us can play our little part in making the world a better place.


GT: Thank you so much Robin.

RP: It’s a pleasure. God bless.


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