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Published on September 3, 2019

How Cognitive Learning Benefits Your Brain

How Cognitive Learning Benefits Your Brain

What is knowledge? Does it have structure? And how do we acquire it?

When seeking answers to questions like this, we must turn to the appropriate field of study. Here, we must turn to the branch of philosophy known as epistemology.

Epistemology is defined as the study of the nature and scope of knowledge and justified belief.[1] Epistemology deals with the production of knowledge.

But what exactly brings about the production of knowledge? And what can we do to trigger cognitive learning to improve our knowledge leading to changes in our brain?

The simple answer is that we must learn to think. But we can’t stop there. We must learn to think about our thinking. That’s when cognitive learning comes into place.

Cognition (thinking) is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

Metacognition (thinking about thinking) is awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.

Constructing Knowledge

In order to bring forth knowledge, we must learn to think. If we follow the advice of Derek and Laura Cabrera, we find that Information X Thinking = Knowledge.

So, how do we construct knowledge? Let’s examine an analogy for knowledge construction offered by Steve Stockdale in Here’s Something About General Semantics: A Primer for Making Sense of Your World.[2] Stockdale compares the “Building Block” Analogy vs. the “Spiral” Analogy in knowledge construction:

    Building Blocks Analogy

    Stockdale posits,

    “Typically, we grow up with a view of learning using the building blocks analogy.”

    Here, we do the following:

    • We see things segregated and compartmentalized.
    • We learn our alphabet as a block of stacked letters.
    • We learn our numbers as a block of numbers.
    • We learn to spell by visualizing blocks of letters.

    Spiral Analogy

    Stockdale argues,

    “However, if we apply what we ‘know’ about what goes on around us, we can choose to use a more appropriate analogy: we tend to learn in more of a spiral pattern than simple building blocks.”

    Stockdale describes the spiral nature of learning as follows:

    • Just as the spiral expands from the center, our learning is continual and never-ending.
    • As we learn about one thing, we enable ourselves to learn more about something else, from a different perspective.
    • What we learn relates to what we’ve already learned, and what we’ve yet to learn, just as the spiral connects, or relates, one region to another.
    • The spiral more appropriately implies the continually-changing and more complex nature of ourselves and the world around us.

    Moreover, to further answer this question, and to deepen our understanding of the topic, we will examine the philosophy known as General Semantics. From there, we will learn how to eliminate confusion and barriers to learning.

    You might not agree with the philosophical beliefs of some of the philosophers, for which I am not asking you to become a follower of, but I am asking you to keep an open mind regarding the ideas discussed here (the ideas, not the person)

    As you learn more about the philosophy, pay attention to how your level of understanding deepens and expands. Your level of understanding on any topic progresses from an intuitive understanding, to a systematic level, then to a scholarly level of understanding.

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    In The Logical Structure of Objectivism (“Beta” Version) by William Thomas and David Kelley, we are provided with the following example of Levels of Understanding:[3]

    1. Intuitive – non-reflexive acceptance of a principle, based on the subconscious integration of a mass of accumulated information and experience.
      Example: Physics – common-sense experiences of gravity.
    2. Systematic – ability to formulate principles explicitly and relate them logically to other principles and data.
      Example: Ability to state the law of gravity and its relation to other laws.
    3. Scholarly – issues pertaining to the formulation and validation of the principles.
      Example: Physicist’s knowledge of gravitational theory.

    As you read, I encourage you to think about your level of understanding as you learn more about a concept. You will find that as you learn more, you will increase both your breadth and depth on any concept.

    Learning the Whole Picture

    “A person does what he does because he sees the world as he sees it.” – Alfred Korzybiski

    When an event happens, what portions of reality do we select to attend to and what portions do we leave out? Is it possible that we might miss certain things by simply attempting to label and explain them?

    The answer is yes and General Semantics was developed to help us answer this question.

    Alfred Korzybiski developed the theory of time-binding, which later evolved into General Semantics as scientific orientation toward language behavior. Bruce and Susan Kodish define it as a,

    “General theory of evaluation. One that is concerned with understanding how we evaluate, with the non-verbal, inner life of each individual, with how each of us experiences and makes sense of our experiences, including how we use language and how language ‘uses’ us.”

    In Here’s Something About General Semantics: A Primer for Making Sense of Your World, Steve Stockdale defines it as,

    “General Semantics deals with the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences. Our language-behaviors represent one aspect of these responses.”

    General Semantics is a self-improvement program created by Korzybski in the 1920s that sought to understand and regulate human mental models and behaviors. It was officially launched as General Semantics in 1933 after Korzybski published Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

    To understand General Semantics at a deeper level, we need to possess an understanding of the map-territory analogy and the abstraction process.

    The Map is Not the Territory

    Mary P. Lahman provides the following premises for General Semantics in Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior:[4]

    1. The map is not the “territory,” so there is no not territory.
    2. A map covers not all the territory, so any map is only part of the territory.
    3. Maps refer to parts of the territory becoming reflexive to other parts at different levels of abstraction.

      To understand this map-territory analogy, let’s first examine how the words “map” and “territory” are being used.

      • Map = Language
      • Territory = Reality

      Korzybski proposed a map-territory analogy to encourage exploration of verbal maps (language or words), noting that they (maps) do not accurately describe what is happening in the territory (reality). Korzybski found that when the territory (reality) changes, we must update our maps (language).

      Stockdale argues that,

      “Just as a well-drawn map depicts, represents, illustrates, symbolizes, etc., an actual geographic area, so should our language properly reflect that which it refers to – that which is NOT language. However, we often confuse the words we use with those ‘things’ the words refer to. We confuse the word with the thing; we mistake the map as the territory.”

      Process of Abstraction

      Let’s try a quick thought experiment to demonstrate this point. In Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior, Mary P. Lahman asks us to do the following:

      • Close your eyes to help you experience a world without words.
      • What are you doing right now? As you hear these words let yourself become aware of how you are sitting or lying down or standing.
      • How can you allow yourself to feel the support of what holds you up?
      • Where do you feel unnecessary tensions? Do you feel tension in your jaw? In your face?
      • Where do you feel ease? How clearly do you feel yourself breathing?

      Lahman states that, “Many events are occurring inside and outside your skin right now.” She asks, “Can you allow yourself non-verbally to experience these activities?” She found, along with practitioners of General Semantics, that the answer is no. By attempting to label and explain things, we simply leave out information.

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      Alfred Korzybski found that we leave out information through the process of abstracting. He developed a model called the Structural Differential as a means to visualize this process. Let’s briefly examine this model.

      Abstracting or the process of abstraction is typically defined as the process of concept formation and the recognition of common features. In philosophy, you typically find abstraction and concretization, where we classify a concept by distinct categories and referents.

      For example, you could classify living organisms and then further breakdown the concept to rational thinking and non-rational thinking to differentiate a human from an animal. If you were to classify dogs, you could use referents to make an even more concrete distinction by listing different types of dogs, or different colors of dogs, etc.

        Korzybski took a slightly different approach to abstracting with his creation of General Semantics and the Structural Differential. According to experts at ThisIsNotThat.com, Korzybski originally developed this as a three-dimensional (free-standing) model, where you imagine a colander (or a strainer) in place of the ragged parabola in the actual model.

        They posit in Explaining the Structural Differential, that we move from an event (something happens), to object (I partially sense what happens), to description (I describe what I sense), to inference (I make meanings, inferences, beliefs, theories, etc.).[5]

        Turning Imagination into Reality

        “We don’t get meaning, we respond with meaning.” – Charles Sanders Peirce

        Let’s examine a practical example of the abstraction process and the Structural Differential. An idea took root in the back of my mind after watching a TED Talk – Turning children’s imagination into reality. Artist and designer Dominic Wilcox explained his mission: to inspire the world’s children to become the creative thinkers of our future by connecting their amazing ideas with skilled makers.

        Here’s the TED Talk video:

        Children are the most creative people in the world. They possess the unique ability to think to the furthest reaches of their imagination. Whereas adults have a barrier to creativity, children do not.

        I followed Dominic’s advice and asked,

        “What if I take my daughter’s wild imagination seriously?”

        This question brought about something truly creative and imaginative.

        One day, while I was working in my basement, my four-year-old daughter, Ella Schwandt, created a story on my whiteboard. With Dominic’s idea firmly planted in the back of my mind, I asked my daughter to explain her story to me.

        A couple weeks went by. My daughter was outside playing with chalk on our driveway. I asked her to recall the story she drew on my whiteboard. I then drew six boxes in the form of a storyboard and had her go through the story again, yet this time we simplified it.

        This ultimately led to a self-published children’s book authored by my daughter – Ella Katherine Schwandt. I identified myself as the translator and my wife, Tomi Schwandt, as the editor. We were able to bring my daughter’s vivid imagination into reality. And this is the book published on July 15, 2019: Charlotte Emmy & The Rainbow Dimension: A book by a four-year-old girl!

        What was fascinating to witness was watching my daughter go through the process of abstraction, where she was able to describe her ideas from something extremely abstract to something more concrete. Essentially, she was able to place her wild imagination into this world. And she’s four!

        Recall the discussion of the Structural Differential. The closer to the top (event level – shape of a parabola) the more abstract, where the closer to the bottom, ideas and concepts become more concrete.

        For example, my daughter held abstract ideas in her head about rainbows and different characters. By drawing the images, she took those ideas (not all) and abstracted them. She then described the images and applied meaning to them.

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          Lahman found that,

          “Language shapes the questions that we ask, which then affects what we observe, and, consequently, how we report findings.”

          Thus, my daughter’s map, or her view of reality, is not true reality. It’s a mental model (a continuously evolving mental model) overlaid over the territory (reality). Whereas, as a child, my mental model would have overlaid the same territory, but my map would have been completely different.

          Let’s take a loot at how my daughter moved through the process of abstraction to create her story:

            1. Event (Reality): My daughter starts to form ideas based on her map (language) of the territory (reality).
            2. Object (Senses): She starts connecting dots (or strings); however, it is impossible to connect everything, so certain things were left out. She was able to use her senses to start capturing some of the ideas.
            3. Description (Verbal Awareness): She verbally describes her story for the first time. This is the difficult part. Imagine you are asked to close your eyes and describe what is going through your mind at that moment. It is difficult and things will get left out. However, this is where my daughter described her abstract characters and creations, such as Charlotte Emmy, a ham-et (vehicle for riding rainbows) and Hanny P’Tanny (location within the Rainbow Dimension).
            4. Infer (Generate Meaning): She started to generate meaning for each creation after describing them. For example, the character, Charlotte Emmy, is on a journey to find her fifth birthday present (my daughter loves her birthday!) Along the journey, she finds a fat and soft house where you are both inside and outside at the same time. She then explains that her birthday present is inside a box, which is also inside a cloud. Inside the box is her thoughts, emotions, and feelings. She even described her thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

            Using Science as a Method

            “Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.” – Wendell Johnson

            One of the more controversial figures in recent times, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics and Scientology, was familiar with Korzybiski’s work. In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright discussed how Hubbard used Korzybski’s work as he saw the need for creating a special vocabulary. Wright remarked,

            “Hubbard saw the need for creating a special vocabulary, which would allow him to define old thoughts in new ways (the soul becomes a thetan, for instance).”

            Another example of this is Hubbard’s creation of a clear, which is defined in Scientology as the name or a state achieved through auditing and describes a being who no longer has his or her own reactive mind. Or as Andrew O’Hehir remarked when comparing the smart drug movie Limitless to a clear, “It’s like Scientology in a pharmaceutical form.”

            Just to be clear (pun intended), I am not a Scientologist, nor am I asking you to become a believer in Scientology. However, I am asking you to keep an open mind as the following ideas for eliminating confusion and barriers to learning are extremely valuable.

            Confusion and Stable Datum

            “Confusion is the basic cause of stupidity.” – L. Ron Hubbard

            In Tools for the Workplace, based on the works of Hubbard, confusion is defined as any set of factors or circumstances which do not seem to have any immediate solution. It is more broadly defined as random motion.

            Furthermore, a datum can be defined as a piece of knowledge or something know (plural is data). Hubbard provides the following example,

            “If you were to stand in heavy traffic, you would be likely to feel confused by all the motion whizzing around you. If you were to stand in a heavy storm, with leaves and papers flying by, you would be likely to be confused.”

            Hubbard posited that we can understand confusion, but we must first understand its anatomy. He remarked,

            “a confusion is only a confusion so long as all particles are in motion. A confusion is only a confusion so long as no factor is clearly defined or understood.”

            Let’s examine one more example of the stable datum (it is not linked to Hubbard, nor Scientology). Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling write about this idea using an air traffic controller as an example in The 4 Disciplines of Execution,

            “Right now more than a hundred airplanes might be approaching, taking off, or taxiing around, and all of them are very important, especially if you happen to be on one of them. But for the Air Traffic Controller, only one airplane is important right now – the one that’s landing at this moment. The Controller is aware of all the other planes on the radar. She is keeping track of them, but right now all her talent and expertise is solely focused on one flight. If she doesn’t get that flight on the ground safely and with total excellence, then nothing else she might achieve is really going to matter much.” 

            How to Apply the Idea of a Stable Datum

            Jim Westergren answers this in Theory on How to Become a Genius.[6] Westergren posits,

            “For a person to become more smart he has to recognize which data are of value for him. What is valuable for him also depends on what his purpose is. He has to develop a skill to see which data are important for him in the ocean of data that he is operating in.”

            Westergren provides an example, similar to the abstraction process mentioned earlier, where we can view data in four specific fields.

            • Field 1 – Vital Data. Data in the field of true philosophy. Covers such things as understanding of life and how it operates, reason for existence, Metaphysics, etc. In short – the greatest truths.
            • Field 2 – Valuable Data. Data concerning how to do things and which helps you in your life. Data which help you understand things and how it works.
            • Field 3 – Useless Data. Data that does not help you and has no value. Most data from TV, newspapers, school education and talking between people unfortunately falls under this field.
            • Field 4 – Destructive Data. False data, data which makes you unhappy, data intended to bring about destruction. Unfortunately more than you believe.

            Overcoming Barriers to Learning

            “Trying to live in a high-speed world with low-speed people is not very safe.” – L. Ron Hubbard

            Based on the works of Hubbard, in The Technology of Study, we are provided with three barriers to learning. Here are my interpretation of the three, along with an example and practical application.

            1. Absence of Mass: Theory + Application = Practical Knowledge

            Example:

            Flying an airplane. If you were to study an airplane, you could read about it in textbooks. You could read how to operate it, learn about its controls, and read about how to fly an airplane. But you would have to actually fly an airplane to learn how to fly an airplane.

            Practical Application:

            Hubbard stated, “There is a rule which goes if you cannot demonstrate something in two dimensions, you have it wrong.” Outside of putting hands on the actual thing, sketch a two-dimensional representation of it and all its parts.

            2. Too Steep a Gradient: Process Knowledge

            Example:

            Learning to read. You can’t learn to read without first knowing the alphabet, then the formation of words, then the formation of sentences followed by paragraphs, etc. We must understand the process of a task prior to successfully completing a task.

            Practical Application:

            Do a process map of the task you are confused on. Then pinpoint where you became confused in the process. From there go back and relearn the previous steps.

            3. Misunderstood Word: Sense-Making (Meaning-Making)

            Example:

            We have all had the experience of reading a book only to finish the book without knowing what we have actually read. The confusion was our inability to grasp something after we came across a confusing word.

            Practical Application:

            Every time you read something (a book, magazine, blog, etc.) and you come across a word you don’t know or fully understand, take the time to look up the definition and application of the word. If you find yourself reading and you have no idea what you are reading, start over and pinpoint where the confusion began. Lookup that word, apply it in a different context, then go back to your reading.

            The Bottom Line

            Attaining cognitive learning benefits is like storing information on a computer’s hard drive (your brain). Then, improving the brain’s ability to provide quick access to the information stored on it. The hard drive stores the information, but to connect and speed up your processing power, you need to insert thinking. Thus, Information X Thinking = Knowledge.

            By understanding how you think and learn, you can improve your level of understanding on any concept. This includes an understanding of the abstraction process, the elimination of confusion and eliminating barriers to learning.

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            Just as you should not use a map from 1940 to navigate across a country – you should not use a dated mental map to improve your learning capacity. You must possess a more accurate map of the territory to navigate successfully.

            Featured photo credit: J. Kelly Brito via unsplash.com

            Reference

            More by this author

            Dr. Jamie Schwandt

            Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt & Red Team Critical Thinker

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            Last Updated on March 25, 2020

            How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person

            How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person

            There are several perspectives on the term systems thinking. The discipline goes beyond a collection of tools and techniques. A lot of individuals are fascinated by tools like brainstorming tools, structural thinking tools, dynamic thinking tools, as well as computer-based tools. They believe the system thinking tools can make them smarter and productive. However, it goes beyond that as systems thinking is more strategic and sensitive to the environment we find ourselves.

            So what is systems thinking and why is it good for you?

            What Is Systems Thinking?

            Systems thinking is a diagnostic tool that can help you to assess problems before taking action. It helps you to ask questions before arriving at conclusions. It prevents you from making an assumption, which is the lowest level of knowledge.

            A systems thinker is curious, compassionate, and courageous. The systems thinking approach incorporates the act of seeing the big picture instead of seeing in parts. It recognizes that we are connected, and there are diverse ways to solve a problem.

            Characteristics of Systems Thinking

            Systems thinking can help you in analyzing the connections between subsystems and understanding their potentials to make smarter decisions.

            In a soccer team, the elements are the coach, players, the field, and a ball. The interrelationships are strategies, communications among players, and game rules. The goal is to win, have fun and exercise. We all belong to several systems and subsystems.

            Some characteristics of systems thinking include:

            • Issue is important
            • The issue is familiar with well-known patterns
            • Attempts have been made to resolve the issue.

            Given these characteristics, systems thinking goes beyond an operational tool; it is a strategic approach and a philosophy.

            How to Use Systems Thinking

            Here’re 3 ways you can use systems thinking:

            1. Understand How the System Works and Use Feedback Points

            The first task is to know what system is all about and identify the leverage points or feedbacks that influence its functioning. This is what will help in adjusting the system.

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            If you want the system to be productive, enhance the feedback points. If you want it to be less productive, exhaust the same points.

            A good example is that of a bathtub. The leverage points are the faucet and the drain. If you forget to close the drain, having turned on the water, the water will never stop flowing, and the tub will never overflow.

            If you want more water, close the drain while you turn the water. If otherwise, turn the faucet off and open the drain. You can apply this to your personal development.

            Once you discover the feedback points in your life, find your leverage or feedback points, then enhance those points. If you want to be fit, get a trainer, find a mentor, or eat healthy foods.

            2. Discover the Patterns, Structure, and Events

            Trends and patterns could be compared to clues for a crossword puzzle. As you aspire to enhance the system, trends and patterns offer you hints and cause to shift your paradigm. Usually, they can direct you to unusual and unexpected aspects, to ideas, people, or places you have never thought about.

            Smart people watch out for trends and patterns so they can be conversant with changes.

            You can view the world from 3 different perspectives:

            i. The Event Perspective

            If you consider the world from an event perspective, the best you can do is to be smarter is ‘react’. You tend to be smarter by reacting quickly, becoming more lighter on your feet, and flexible as you advance through life.

            So how do you view the world from an event perspective? You ask a question like, ‘What happened?’.

            There is the possibility of becoming more aware and seeing more at this level. An excellent technique to achieve this is by telling a story to a group. If you can see beyond each event, see beyond patterns and trends, you will be empowered to anticipate, predict, and plan.

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            ii. Pattern Perspective

            To view the world from a pattern perspective, you need to ask, ‘What has been happening?’

            It is most times difficult to see the actual size of an iceberg (underlying structures that are the causes of events). The waterline dissects what’s visible from what’s not visible.

            A systems thinker does not assume from what’s visible only; he or she seeks to know what has been happening.

            Take a look at this video to understand more about the Iceberg Theory:

             

            iii. The Structure Perspective

            To view the world from a structure perspective, you need to ask, ‘what is causing issues?’ The answers will be the factors and forces responsible.

            If you find yourself in a traffic jam, you don’t blame the next driver as a smart person; you could ask, ‘what’s been causing the traffic jam?

            The usual answers could be a decaying road surface, careless driver, or high speed, but that would be the same things identified as trends. What makes the structure perspective different from others.

            The structure is what propels your energy. It is what affects happenings. A systems thinkers make deductions based on internal structures to arrive at a conclusion

            3. People Problems vs System Problems

            Several issues ranging from security breaches, product flaws, poverty, to transportation inefficiencies are systemic.

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            Even when you misbehave, there is usually an internal system to blame.

            If you are not productive in your business, it may not be caused by you. There may be a system that you need to enhance.

            Do you remember our feedback points? As soon as you assess the system, you can focus on people. Is a new hire causing lag in the packaging process? Is poor communication affecting the team’s performance? Reallocating job roles may be a perfect leverage point.

            In the traffic jam example, there could be a system-based solution such as installing traffic lights and subsequently enforcing traffic laws in the area to penalize reckless drivers.

            How to Foster Learning with Systems Thinking

            Systems thinking helps you to appreciate the interrelationships of people, organizations, policies, decisions, ideas, and relationships.

            Peter M Senge propounded five disciplines that foster learning in your DNA- whether you are leading an organization, starting a venture, or working as a freelancer.[1]

            1. Gain Mastery

            You can take online courses, attend conferences, read blog articles and books, listen to podcasts, converse with leaders within and beyond your industry, watch documentaries, learn from your team, and stretch yourself by improving your skills.

            2. Discover Your Assumptions and Biases

            There was this parable of four blind men who made different assumptions about an elephant. Their assumptions and biases hinder them from understanding how the animal looks like.

            Biases can rob you of innovation and prevent you from experiencing personal growth. To become aware of your biases, you have to take an internal trip and engage breakthrough thinking.

            3. Establish Your Vision

            Systems grind to a halt when the goal or mission is not defined. You will not have the motivation to complete the online course if you don’t know why you subscribe in the first place.

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            Is it for career advancement? To up your game or to gain general knowledge? Vision inspires you.

            4. Learn in Groups

            There is power in shared learning. There is a solidification of understanding when you learn in a group. You can have the lessons etched in your long term memory.

            For instance, you can join learning groups where information is shared weekly.

            5. Think in Systems

            Systems thinking is about lifelong learning and improvement. It has also been linked to the Iceberg principle, which affirms that visible events are insignificant compared to what’s visible. There’s more ice below the waterline than what you can see with your physical eyes.

            Anytime you are battling with a challenge, think in systems. Understand the details of the issue. Discover your leverage points. Assess, adapt, and keep improving your models.

            After all. If you meet a lion in the wild, you need to understand what you are facing.

            Final Thoughts

            You can foster systems thinking by modeling your own environment. Participate in training, watch TED Talks, and create time to connect with others.

            Also, practice critical thinking instead of making assumptions before you make a decision. The more you think systems, the more you will become smarter and productive in every aspect of your life.

            More to Help You Think Smarter

            Featured photo credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via unsplash.com

            Reference

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