Other Stories

Half of What I Say is False

The scene is a lecture room in a Medical Faculty of a University. The eminent Professor of Medicine is addressing the students at the end of the last lecture before their final exams.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “I congratulate you all on completing my course of lectures. I wish you all well in your future honorable profession. That leaves only two more thing to say.
“The first is this. Half of the things I have taught you as medical facts are, in fact, false!
“The second is that neither I nor anyone else today knows which half!”

Blog Reviews

Review: The Future of Educational Neuroscience. Report

The summary of this report by Kurt Fischer immediately seemed to make sense to me, yet it does attempt to cover an enormous swathe of territory.

“The primary goal of the emerging field of educational neuroscience and the
broader movement called Mind, Brain, and Education is to join biology with cognitive science, development, and education so as to create a sound grounding of education in research on learning and teaching.”

Biology, cognitive science, development … education – those are pretty big areas in themselves and so the name of the area has to be big. Hence, the name Mind, Brain, and Education has emerged.
I have worked as a teacher for about 20 years and was involved in full-time education for a long time before that, so I figure that I know a fair bit about education and the one thing that I can say with certainty is that it is complex and non-homogenous. While there is no doubt that mind and brain are a huge part of education, the social element is so pervasive that I wonder if the name is really suitable. We do not learn as solitary minds or brains, but rather as social beings who are highly influenced by the social context. I’m sure that the discipline of MBE will try to bring in the social element, but the first two words seem to place to emphasis strongly on the individual rather than on the social learning context.

“The field of medicine provides the closest analogy to education, combining
scientific research with practice to improve the long-term well-being of human beings.”

This is an interesting analogy and I would be interested to hear other people’s viewpoints on it. Medicine has traditionally focused on an illness-focused model. Perhaps the same could be said about education? I would like to think that we are focused more on positive growth.
The report calls for more serious research on education (in the classroom) and rightly points out that much of the well-funded research for education has been over-focused on testing.

“Most important, for educational neuroscience to reach its potential, infrastructure must be created to catalyze research on learning and teaching, creating scientific knowledge for education. Then research tools such as brain imaging, analysis of cognitive processing and mental models, and genetics assessment can be used to illuminate the “black box” and uncover underlying learning mechanisms and causal relations (Hinton & Fischer, 2008).”

This quote seems so chunked up and generalized as to be almost pointless. I understand that the report is general in nature, but does this sentence really actually say much?

“Readers find articles more convincing when they contain brain images as opposed to graphs or other illustrations (McCabe & Castel, 2008), and neuroscience information is particularly influential in readers who lack relevant background knowledge (Weisberg et al., 2008).”

So true! A few brain images immediately adds credibility to some quite ludicrous statements. I have admittedly used the same technique myself – flashing an image of a brain scan in order to demonstrate some point which may not truly hold up. There is a long way between pictures/interpretations of momentary brain activity and actual behaviour/learning. As we all know, photoshop can be deceiving, and brain scans are highly subject to interpretation, too ;)
The report authors also note the gap between neural images and behaviour when they say “Moving from knowledge of the brain such as images of brain activity directly to educational application is indeed difficult in many cases.”
I found the slightly chunked-down research goals of the report to be the most useful element.

1. Understanding the Development of Structured Representations
e.g. examining development of phonology in children
2. Understanding Complexity through Models
e.g. Cognitive linguists have analyzed how mental models function in human communication and
learning (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) [One of my favourite books actually)
3. Creation of Longitudinal Databases

The report promotes better teacher education, more interdisciplinary research, and “creating educational engineers.” The last item jumped out at me because I am an ex-engineer now working in education and the way of thinking in engineering and teaching is generally very different, even at the engineering university where I work. I’m not completely convinced that we can apply the same kind of precise mathematical thinking to education, but as a metaphor it may be useful.
The report suggest that “They will have expertise at translating or applying findings from cognitive science and neuroscience to learning in classrooms and other educational settings.”
It’s a nice idea and one that seems worth investigating.
A useful suggestion in this report is ” Asking Grant Holders to Use Shared Measures in their Studies”. There is such wastage and replication within all areas of research because of a lack of standardization. Of course, academic and research freedom is useful, but so too is standardization!


Overall, I didn’t find this report to be useful. It seems to be written as a consensus report trying to bring together researchers in different areas under a common banner of MBE. Perhaps this is useful in sharing research findings and combining different findings. At this point in my reading in this area, it wasn’t really a useful article. Perhaps if it could be chunked into smaller bites, it might be better.

Blog Reviews

Review: Dynamic Cycles of Cognitive and Brain Development

Dynamic Cycles of Cognitive and Brain Development

This is an interesting chapter from the book, The Educated Brain, which was published in 2008. Recent research has shown that human development can be better understood as a dynamic process rather than a fixed set of development phases.

Neurocognitive development should be conceived not as a ladder of successive stages but as a
complex network of interactions and attractors, convergent and divergent paths,
nested cycles, stabilities and instabilities, progressions and regressions, clusters of
discontinuities and stable levels of performance.

The complexity and detail in this quote are a clear sign of the growing recognition that neurological development is a complex dance between genetics and environment, or in more traditional terminology between nature and nurture. A child’s brain does not develop in clear steps forward, but rather jumps backwards and forwards, developing simultaneously in different directions. This reminds me of Steven Pinker’s wonderful book, Words and Rules, in which he discusses the development (and apparent regression) of language by using the example of the past tense. Initially, a child learns all irregular verbs as words (lexis) and says them correctly. However, when the child learns how to form the regular past tense (e.g. adding -ed to the stem of the verb), he/she overgeneralizes this to all verbs including irregular verbs and hence makes mistakes. Eventually the child manages to create the right balance between words and rules. Pinker’s example illustrations several most of the concepts in the quote above including:
– a complex network
-interactions and attractors
– convergent and divergent paths (Rules of grammar can be considered as convergent and Words can be considered as divergent)
– stabilities and instabilities
– progressions and regressions
Interestingly, in the overview to this paper, while Fischer initially suggests that a dynamic model is superior to a level-based model, he then suggests a ten-level developmental scale. While this initially suggested a contradiction to me, I assume that both perspectives (dynamic/cyclical and linear) are necessary to describe cognitive development.
I like the observation that “public expectations about relating brain science to educational practice are running far ahead of the realities of scientific knowledge.” It seems to me that we are still a long way from being able to make clear statements for the classroom, but of course in the meantime this is a fascinating area and just thinking about it can give us great teaching ideas.
The information about the growth of the cortex was completely new to me.

A prime
example is the growth of the cortex, which grows six layers in a cyclical
process of neuron generation and migration, as described by Rakic (1971;
1988). A single growth process thus produces six distinct layers in which
cells for different layers end up with vastly different functions, even
though they are all created by the same process.

To think that something as complex as the cortex can be developed in this way through evolution and to be repeated for every child is a truly wondrous thing. And that we can contemplate the wonder with that same cortex is a higher level of wonder again!
The graphs showing increasing (and sometimes decreasing) pronoun use as age increases is fascinating and is a good illustration of the spurts in performance:

Infants, children,adolescents, and young adults all move through periods when their skills are leaping forward at a fast pace, especially under conditions that support optimal performance (upper line).

and also of the periods in between these spurts:

In more ordinary performance, where they are not pushing the limits of their capacity, they commonly show either linear growth or unsystematic change.
Figure 8.2 is very similar to a figure that Robert introduced in one of his conference presentations. I have added it below:
I am still struggling a little in understanding how these ‘levels’ in the figure are actually realized in practice. Fischer helpfully answers part of my question by noting that a child’s development does not actually follow this linear progress for all skills simultaneously. Rather, people develop in a web-like manner with many strands progressing at the same time, all of which could be travelling at different speeds. In addition, people can regress or perform at lower levels than expected if the context is not supportive.
Fischer gives a detailed explanation of the development from single abstractions to abstract mappings all the way up to principles. I must confess to getting a bit lost in some of these explanations ;)
It is very interesting that spurts in EEG energy seem to correspond to the ages for cognitive spurts.
The description of the development of the cortex is also useful, especially:
The prefrontal cortex leads
the way, since empirical evidence indicates that the large majority of
systematic changes with age in networks involve connections between the
prefrontal cortex and other regions.

Figure 8.10 is also interesting and I have reproduced it below.
It is useful to see that skill level naturally rises and drops cyclically and that it is not anything that we are doing wrong in the classroom ;)

The collapses do not indicate difficulties. Instead they are normal and
required, reflecting the need to build and rebuild a skill with variations so
that the person can eventually sustain it in the face of changes in context
and state.

The section on p145-146 is illuminating in warning about the potential dangers of brain science claims for education. The researchers used their data to claim that no learning could occur during particular development phases and so no new concepts should be introduced at these times. This kind of prescriptive approach can clearly be dangerous, especially in our current state of knowledge, and without a clear understanding of individual education contexts.
Overall, I found this paper useful in understanding the development of the human brain over time. 


Other Stories

The Carpet

Leslie Cameron-Bandler was working with a woman who had a compulsive behavior—she was a clean-freak. She was a person who even dusted light bulbs! The rest of her family could function pretty well with everything the mother did except for her attempts to care for the carpet. She spent a lot of her time trying to get people not to walk on it, because they left footprints—not mud and dirt, just dents in the pile of the rug.
When this woman looked down at the carpet and saw a footprint in it, her response was an intense negative kinesthetic gut reaction. She would rush off to get the vacuum cleaner and vacuum the carpet immediately. She was a professional housewife. She actually vacuumed the carpet three to seven times a day. She spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get people to come in the back door, and nagging at them if they didn’t, or getting them to take their shoes off and walk lightly.
There were three children, all of whom were there rooting for Leslie. The family seemed to get along fine if they were not at home. If they went out to dinner, they had no problems. If they went on vacation, there were no problems. But at home everybody referred to the mother as being a nag, because she nagged them about this, and nagged them about that. Her nagging centered mainly around the carpet.
What Leslie did with this woman is this: she said “I want you to close your eyes and see your carpet, and see that there is not a single footprint on it anywhere. It’s clean and fluffy—not a mark anywhere.”
This woman closed her eyes, and she was in seventh heaven, just smiling away. Then Leslie said “And realize fully that that means you are totally alone, and that the people you care for and love are nowhere around.” The woman’s expression shifted radically, and she felt terrible!
Then Leslie said “Now, put a few footprints there and look at those footprints and know that the people you care most about in the world are nearby.” And then, of course, she felt good again.

Other Stories


By good fortune, I was able to raft down the Motu River in New Zealand twice during the last year. The magnificent four-day journey traverses one of the last wilderness areas in the North Island.
The first expedition was led by “Buzz”, an American guide with a great deal of rafting experience and many stories to tell of mighty rivers such as the Colorado. With a leader like Buzz, there was no reason to fear any of the great rapids on the Motu.
The first half day, in the gentle upper reaches, was spent developing teamwork and co-ordination. Strokes had to be mastered, and the discipline of following commands without question was essential. In the boiling fury of a rapid, there would be no room for any mistake. When Buzz bellowed above the roar of the water, an instant reaction was essential.
We mastered the Motu. In every rapid we fought against the river and we overcame it. The screamed commands of Buzz were matched only by the fury of our paddles, as we took the raft exactly where Buzz wanted it to go.
At the end of the journey, there was a great feeling of triumph. We had won. We proved that we were superior. We knew that we could do it. We felt powerful and good. The mystery and majesty of the Motu had been overcome.
The second time I went down the Motu. the experience I had gained should have been invaluable, but the guide on this journey was a very softly spoken Kiwi. It seemed that it would not even be possible to hear his voice above the noise of the rapids.
As we approached the first rapid, he never even raised his voice. He did not attempt to take command of us or the river. Gently and quietly he felt the mood of the river and watched every little whirlpool. There was no drama and no shouting. There was no contest to be won. He loved the river.
We sped through each rapid with grace and beauty and, after a day, the river had become our friend, not our enemy. The quiet Kiwi was not our leader, but only the person whose sensitivity was more developed than our own. Laughter replaced the tension of achievement.
Soon the quiet Kiwi was able to lean back and let all of us take turns as leader. A quiet nod was enough to draw attention to the things our lack of experience prevented us from seeing. If we made a mistake, then we laughed and it was the next person’s turn.
We began to penetrate the mystery of the Motu. Now, like the quiet Kiwi, we listened to the river and we looked carefully for all those things we had not even noticed the first time.
At the end of the journey, we had overcome nothing except ourselves. We did not want to leave behind our friend, the river. There was no contest, and so nothing had been won. Rather we had become one with the river.
It remains difficult to believe that the external circumstances of the two journeys were similar. The difference was in an attitude and a frame of mind. At the end of the journey, it seemed that there could be no other way. Given the opportunity to choose a leader, everyone would have chosen someone like Buzz. At the end of the second journey, we had glimpsed a very different vision and we felt humble – and intensely happy.

Other Stories


I have been teaching for a long time, almost 20 years now, and I like to believe that I have learned a few things myself, and even that I’m a better teacher than I used to be.
When I started teaching, I used to get angry at students pretty often when they were talking too much, or sleeping, or not paying attention or any of the other ‘misbehaviours’ that students do in the classroom.
At some point along the line, I gave up being angry because I began to see that if it had any effect, it was usually a temporary one. I found that it was much more effective to actually engage the student in some way, to redirect their ‘misbehaviour’ into a behaviour that better fitted my goals for the classroom.
Of course, there are times when that anger is still present, and sometimes it might even be justified, but it doesn’t come out in shouting, but instead simmers below the surface and sadly comes out in more subtle ways such as me not being fully present for the students or creating busy work for them.
And sometimes it comes out strongly in other ways. A few months ago, a student kept falling asleep in class, time after time, even after I gently woke him and tried to engage him in various ways.
Finally, in frustration, I rapped my knuckles on his desk near his head in order to wake him up yet one more time. Unfortunately, although the rapping knuckles wasn’t loud enough to wake him up, it was hard enough to really really hurt my knuckles, to the point that weeks later, they are still sore, and I figure that I must have fractured something. Of course, the student didn’t realize any of this and only woke when the student next to him tapped him on the shoulder.
After this incident, I tried extra hard with this student – to engage him, to call him by name, to get him interested in the class.
And it worked – he actually began to smile, to take part in the class activities and to become engaged.
Now, if only I had tried that before I fractured my knuckles.

Other Stories

Noisy on the Train

Once upon a time a man was returning from work via public transport. At some point a father entered the train with 3 kids. The father sat across the man. The kids were noisy, badly behaved and the father seemed not to care sitting there kinda absent. The man was getting more and more nervous and annoyed with the inappropriate children’s behavior, the fathers indifference and decided to approached the father. The father acknowledged the man and said to him that he and the kids just left the hospital, and he is struggling to find the right words to tell the children that their mother has passed away.

Blog Other

MBTI and The Brain

Recently, I’ve been looking for neuroscience links for the concepts used in NLP. This is not necessarily going to make NLP more effective, but it does help us to explain NLP more coherently in terms of what is or what may be happening in the brain. So many of the concepts of NLP are still rooted in the ideas that Bandler and Grinder came up with in the 1970s and 1980s and it would be nice to be able to frame them in more rational and scientific terms.
In some cases, of course, the concepts claimed by NLP practitioners are not supported by science. For example, there was a recent research study into the use of eye movements to detect lying, based on the rather simplistic notion that an upper left eye movement (visual recall) corresponds to the truth and an upper right eye movement (visual construct) corresponds to a lie. This was a claim made on some NLP websites and it is one that deserved to be debunked. I have my own doubts about other areas of NLP which are still considered gospel such as the notion of Preferred Representational System (PRS). While some people definitely do have a PRS, for many people I believe that it varies with context, and for some people it does seem to vary fairly randomly. If solid research can help us to identify those areas which need to be debunked, that is a very good thing indeed because it helps us to move forward towards a more rational form of NLP. In NLP, we are always primarily interested in knowing what works, but ultimately it is a whole lot nicer and easier to teach to others when there is evidence supporting both the results and the underlying theory.
So back to the topic of this post which is meta programs, or more specifically the first four metaprograms as taught in many NLP practitioner courses which correspond to the Myers Briggs Type Indicators.
These are:
Extrovert – Introvert
iNtuitor – Perceiver
Thinker – Feeler
Judger – Perceiver
If you’re not familiar with them, do a search on Google and you’ll find lots of descriptions of how to elicit them and ‘apply’ them.
Searching for Neuroscience Correlates for MBTI
This page briefly discusses some conjectures about how MBTI (the first four meta programs of NLP) may have correlates in neurobiology. The discussion on this page and elsewhere on the net seem to imply the strongest support for a neural basis to the Extravert-Intravert distinction.

Niednagel associates Extraversion with the front of the brain (anterior to the central sulcus) and Introversion with the back of the brain (posterior to the central sulcus). Most of the areas in the brain that initiate action and speech are located in the front of the brain, while the back of the brain gathers and processes data.

The same writer, Nidenagel, seems to place judging (J) in the left side of the brain and perceiving in the right side of the brain.
This all seems a little vague to me and I haven’t managed to turn up any actual PET scans or similar scans that might indicate these areas in the brain.
In NLP terms, the MBTI are referred to as meta programs and ‘program’ can be understood as a high-level strategy that runs behind and controls many of our other strategies. While it was originally suggested that meta programs were fixed, many NLP trainers (e.g. Michael Hall) now give techniques for trying on and adopting a different metaprogram. All of the MBTI distinctions are probably best viewed as skills.
Like many of the concepts in NLP, MBTI seems to be a relatively outdated classification system and one that has been largely replaced in psychology by a system of five distinctions.
You can see the “Big Five personality traits” model on Wikipedia.

The factors of the Big Five and their constituent traits can be summarized as:

  • Openness to experience – (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the openness factor, which is sometimes called “intellect” rather than openness to experience.
  • Conscientiousness – (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior; organized, and dependable.
  • Extraversion – (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness.
  • Agreeableness – (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.
  • Neuroticism – (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control, and is sometimes referred by its low pole – “emotional stability”.

An older version of this model has been around since 1961 but it has only become widely used since the 1990s. The supporters of the Big Five model suggest that these characteristics “contain and subsume most known personality traits and are assumed to represent the basic structure behind all personality traits.” The model uses a test called the OCEAN test whose letters are made up of the five characteristics.
Some (e.g. report a correlation between the MBTI and the Big Five.
O = N/S Strong Correlation (70%)
E = E/I
Strong Correlation (75%)
C = J/P
Moderate Correlation (45%)
A = F/T Moderate Correlation (40%)
N = (Not present).
Or rewriting this to match the standard MBTI order, we get:
Extrovert/Introvert ~ Extraversion
iNtuitor/Sensor ~ Openness
Thinker/Feeler ~ Agreeableness
Judger/Perceiver ~ Conscientiousness
There is a much larger volume of research connecting neuroscience and the Big 5 (compared to MBTI).
One research study is available at:
The researchers studied the biological basis of the Big Five personality traits to “generate hypotheses about the association of each trait with the volume of different brain regions.” They carried out structural magnetic resonance imaging of 116 healthy adults. I have reformatted part of the abstract below for readibility:

Openness was not included in this study.
Conscientiousness covaried with volume in lateral prefrontal cortex, a region involved in planning and the voluntary control of behavior.
Extraversion covaried with volume of medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region involved in processing reward information.
Agreeableness covaried with volume in regions that process information about the intentions and mental states of other individuals.
Neuroticism covaried with volume of brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative affect.

The researchers claim that “these findings support our biologically based, explanatory model of the Big Five and demonstrate the potential of personality neuroscience (i.e., the systematic study of individual differences in personality using neuroscience methods) as a discipline.”
I have also pasted a copy of their image below.

If you are interested in reading more and actually making any sense of this image, please check out the original article which is available in full at:
This is a fun journey into understanding what is going on in the brain and how we can help people most effectively with NLP. Whether these two goals are actually connected or not doesn’t necessarily take away from the fun 😉

Other Stories

Buddha and the Gift

One day the Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him. “You have no right teaching others,” he shouted. “You are as stupid as everyone else. You are nothing but a fake!”
The Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”
The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”
The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

Other Stories

Buddha and the Heckler

Buddha was giving a talk one day underneath a tree in front of a group of people. Many of the people were already believers, several were interested in hearing what he said with an open mind, but there was one man there who had already made up his mind that he was right and that Buddha was wrong.
All during the Buddha’s talk, the man interrupted and heckled rudely. The Buddha simply responded to each interruption calmly and quietly and despite himself, the man began to become impressed by the Buddha’s words and attitude.
After the talk, he went up to Buddha and congratulated him on a good talk. Then he asked,
“Why didn’t you respond to my heckling – usually people get very upset or start arguing back at me.”
Buddha smiled at him and asked the man a question in return.
“When a person offers you a gift and you refuse that gift, who does that gift now belong to?”
“It belongs to the other person.”
“That’s right,” said Buddha. “And so I left your gift with you to enjoy as you see fit.”