Reflections of a Science Major: Some Cognitive Science to Get Through Reading Week

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I’ve come to see myself as an impractical, romantic sort of person. Things often have to be presented in the proper head-in-the-clouds type of light to pique my interest. As an example, I motivated myself during orgo lab with the thought that I was practicing the necessary skills for synthesizing methamphetamine, thereby allowing me to add, ‘I would have the skills to cook meth if I theoretically wanted to do so,’ to my two truths and a lie repertoire. (Thank you Breaking Bad.)

While creating my course schedule, my adviser suggested I consider taking Plant Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology because I’m interested in biotech; at the time, I questioned whether I liked plants enough to take a double credit seminar that uses them as a model. But while reading Wizard of the Upper Amazon—an account about a man who is abducted by Amazonian natives in the late nineteenth century—I found myself thinking that I should learn more plant biology to better understand the tribe’s use of rainforest plants in specialized diets and drug ceremonies. Hopefully that gives you an idea of how my mind works.

I recently went through a procrastinatory spree of link-clicking—hyperlinks will be the death of me—and ended up spending an afternoon reading education articles about how students learn. As everyone begins the biannual pre-finals hibernation, here’s some cognitive science knowledge for the impractical romantics who might be helped by knowing how and why all of those example problems are so helpful.

Let’s start with a puzzle from a classic experiment:

You must rid a patient of an inoperable tumor to save her life. You know that certain rays of sufficiently high intensity can be used to destroy tumor cells, but they destroy healthy tissue as well. At lower intensity, the rays are harmless to healthy cells, but they also don’t kill the tumor cells. How do you save the patient’s life without damaging her healthy tissue?

The solution is to use many low intensity rays coming from different directions and intersecting on the tumor. Only 10% of subjects solved this problem correctly. Some subjects were first given an analogous story about a general who needs to move his army to a fortress with many roads leading to it; the roads have land-mines placed such that only small parties may pass at a time, so the general splits his troops into small groups and they converge on the fortress via many different roads. Subjects who were told to memorize the general story solved the riddle 30% of the time, while those who were given an explicit hint to apply the general story solved it 75% of the time. Even though you’ve always suspected as much, here’s the scientific evidence; for difficult problems, prior knowledge isn’t enough if you can’t apply it: analogies are your friends.

Now try this experiment for yourself. (Seriously, click on it; it takes 30 seconds). Chances are, you performed best on the beer question. We wouldn’t need analogies in the first place if we learned everything as a ready-to-apply abstract concept, but concrete, familiar examples are much easier to grasp than abstract ideas—as with carding underage drinkers vs. letters or shapes. That’s why linear algebra is so difficult.

When we first learn a fact or example, it starts out as inflexible knowledge, unable to survive outside of its context. As we learn more overlapping information, the backdrop of context begins to blur together, and we can better grasp at the abstract notion or ‘big idea’ obscured behind the foliage of the concrete. Eventually the knowledge becomes flexible, like splintery wood worn smoother with exposure and use, and working with the information for even longer leads to the altered neuronal pathways that underlie expertise.

I’ve often been told to, ‘practice, practice, practice!’ but it’s nice to know some of the cognitive reasons for why this works. The more examples and practice you have, the more flexible your knowledge becomes, and the better you understand the big ideas. For me, being told to practice without further explanation can feel like busy work, so knowing what my brain is supposed to be doing helps to stay focused. Liz Vallen prefaces each Cell Bio test with, “Write a little and think a lot!” Factual knowledge is a necessary building block, but thinking critically about a topic is the ultimate goal; without keeping this in mind, one might end up only memorizing, like the 30% of people in the riddle experiment.

So my fellow Swatties, analogize liberally, apply knowledge flexibly, grasp for the abstract principles, and good luck with your finals!

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