George Lakoff: Neural Binding Can Nurture Big Ideas

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“Every idea that you have is physical — because you think with your brain,” said keynote speaker, George Lakoff, during the closing session of Big Ideas Fest. In outlining what that meant to the educational community, the well-known cognitive linguist and UC Berkeley professor explained that neurons in the brain travel on circuits, which in turn form our thoughts. Those circuits, a physical part of our bodies, are fixed in early childhood.

“That’s why early education is so crucial,” Lakoff emphasized. “If you don’t have a neural circuit for understanding an idea, you won’t understand it at all.” 

The neural circuits we develop, according to Lakoff, involve thinking in terms of metaphors, as in the way we understand the stock market as rising and falling. To help students internalize new concepts, teachers must tap into students’ existing neural circuits and metaphors. That’s why teaching-to-the-test—deploying a conduit style of information delivery where students are expected to receive and absorb—is ineffective.

What’s the bridge, then, between existing knowledge and big (new) ideas? Lakoff stressed the importance the arts – literature, music, poetry, crafts – in nurturing students’ creative thinking. Arts education fosters the individual’s ability to combine metaphors. (In the brain, what takes place is neural binding.) The greater the visual and other sensory metaphors one experiences, the more powerful the stimulus on the imagination. And imagination leads to big ideas.

As I listened to the nine Action Collab cohorts as they shared their own big ideas at the close of the Fest, I saw neural binding in action. My favorite idea was a data mining system that built upon the big data movement. The idea was to utilize existing social media technology (e.g., Facebook) to capture adult learners’ life experiences and translate them into employable skills. The project idea, titled “Myne,” drew on the metaphor for mining (digging, discovering), as well as on prevalent education metaphors of learner-centricity and personalization (Myne). By offering a solution to adult learners who want to improve their employment opportunities, and doing it through technology they are already using, the idea to me, is creative, and yes—big.

December 07, 2012