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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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            Published on November 18, 2019

            How to Think Critically: 5 Powerful Techniques

            How to Think Critically: 5 Powerful Techniques

            Critical thinking is the art of filtering through information to reach an unbiased, logical decision that guides better thought and action. It can be learned through powerful techniques listed in this article.

            Before you read further, it is important for you to know that critical thinking is a state of mind, not a tool or strategy.

            If you are bogged down in the trivial day to day matters of your professional and personal life, learning skills to develop your ability to think critically can help you rise above these issues and focus your energies where they are needed – to solve problems and accomplish objectives.

            It stands to reason that the better the learning techniques, the better critical thinking and reasoning will be. My experience in helping people grow means I know exactly what is needed to teach critical thinking (hint: it’s not just pondering over the problem).

            There are 5 powerful techniques that form the base of critical thinking:

            1. Analytical thinking
            2. Communication
            3. Creativity
            4. Open-mindedness
            5. Problem-solving

            Once you learn the techniques listed and start employing them in your daily life, you’ll quickly start to notice a change in the way you approach problems and consequently, how you resolve them too.

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            1. Analytical Thinking

            Analytical thinking is the gathering and breaking down of information into small bites that help make sense of it.

            To use it for critical thinking:

            • Be very clear on why you need the information. This is to recognize your limitations and employ foresight to overcome them.
            • Gather information from as many sources as you can: peers and experts, podcasts, relevant literature and any other place you can think of.
            • Rephrase questions multiple times to get different perspectives on data available and possibly arrive at different solutions.
            • Break down the data into factual subsets and relate each to the issue at hand.
            • Think on paper to make new connections. Write, doodle, make mind-maps or use spreadsheets. Data presented visually can help you make new connections make sense of emerging patterns.
            • Tidy up the workplace. Once data has been gathered, your workspace and your brain will both be cluttered with excess information. Neaten the physical space and clear your mind with meditation. The change in focus will help you view the information in a new light, potentially helping you reach newer, better conclusions.

            Want more information and tips on adopting this powerful technique? What Are Analytical Skills and How to Strengthen Them For Success has all the information you need.

            2. Communication

            Communication is a key technique for critical thinking as it gives you access to the thoughts of people around you.

            Data can be communicated through audio and visual means and in many cases, through careful observation of body language:

            • Ask for different points of view and seek justification for the same thing. When you invest in the matter, you will be able to explore all options to reach the best solution.
            • Listening without interrupting and only asking questions or voicing concerns once the speaker is done helps you make better connections.
            • Be 100% focused on a verbal or written discussion, you can better hear/read the opinions of the people involved.
            • Paraphrase the speaker/writer’s point of view and ask for affirmation. This enables you to pay full attention and use the input to think critically.
            • In a meeting, subtle communication cues are given by the body language of fellow attendees. An imperceptible frown, a small nod, pencil tapping etc. will all give you clues to what they are really thinking, just in case their actions are not in sync with their words!
            • Active observation, where you are watching and listening intently helps you know what to make of the information that is being passed around. It gives you clues to the general opinion about the topic under discussion and opens up new possibilities.

            The information you gather through such communication will be invaluable in thinking critically to arrive at a decision that is holistic and unbiased.

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            3. Creativity

            Critical thinking is an art, and like any art form, its lifeblood is creativity. To really learn critical thinking, you need to include elements of creativity in the process!

            • Brainstorm with your team in an all-new location or work-shadow an industry expert to step out of your comfort zone. You could be surprised by the ideas that flow at a picnic or a game of billiards!
            • Gather data and tabulate it in the form of colorful, eye-catching charts, graphs and mind maps. The simple exercise makes your mind bring data together in different ways and presents them so multiple unique conclusions can be reached, giving you the flexibility to choose the best one.
            • Play brain games such as Sudoku or chess to appreciate how different factors can be manipulated to reach a preferred outcome. These games help make connections between previously disconnected nerves, giving your brain the power to find multiple pathways to answering problems.
            • In a similar vein, you can forge new neural connections by learning a new skill, a new language or even a new recipe!

            I break down creativity in my other article What is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It. If you want to be good at critical thinking, you need to adopt creativity!

            4. Open-Mindedness

            It’s easy to say you’re open minded but is your mind really open?

            To get an idea,

            • Be brutally honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and how these will impact the matter at hand.
            • Hear an opinion that conflicts with your own without forming a response before the opinion is fully voiced.
            • Acknowledge that there may be more than one approach to solving a problem and that they may all be right in some way.
            • Consider your true feelings when you will implement any required changes.
            • Disregard your long-held beliefs and assumptions and let go of habits.
            • Imagine the decision-making factors placed on weighing scales. Are they balanced?

            Open-mindedness is a powerful technique for critical thinking. New possibilities can be uncovered, helping you resolve personal and professional matters in a manner that doesn’t frustrate you or alienate the other party.

            5. Problem-Solving

            Critical thinking is heavily dependent on problem-solving. An effective critical thinker will be a problem solver with the foresight to anticipate roadblocks and negative outcomes, and the experience and presence of mind to resolve them quickly and move on.

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            One of the most effective problem-solving methodologies is the 5 Whys Analysis. Invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors in the 1950s, it has been used successfully by the automobile giant to get to the root cause of problems.

            The idea behind this is simple: start with the end problem and keep asking why until you get to the root cause of it.

            The general idea is that asking why 5 times from the effect is enough to get to the cause, hence the name. However, the methodology does not limit the questions to 5, and why can be asked as many times as need to peel away the layers until a satisfactory answer is reached.

            To use the 5 Whys Analysis, start off by listing the problem and writing why in front of it. The next point in the list should be answer to the first why with another why in front of it. Continue answering the question asked above followed by a why until you’ve asked the question 5 times and answered it six times. 99% of the time, the last answer will be the root cause of the problem stated in the first point.

            For example, consider the a commonly given scenario where a vehicle does not start.

            1. Vehicle will not start. Why?
            2. Battery is dead. Why?
            3. The alternator is not functioning. Why?
            4. The alternator belt has broken. Why?
            5. It was old and worn out. Why?
            6. The car is not maintained according to manufacturer’s recommendation.

            By this example, it is clearly demonstrated that 5 whys were asked to reach the root cause of the problem.

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            The 5 techniques discussed here are important for effective critical thinking. When employed regularly they will become a habit and will definitely improve your critical thinking skills so you can get better at predicting and resolving issues that concern you and your environment.

            Over the years, the 5 Whys Analysis has been adopted by millions to reach the root cause of their personal and professional problems. Industry giant Six Sigma has also incorporated the 5x Why Analysis in the Analyze phase of their DMAIC methodology.[1]

            Final Thoughts

            Is critical thinking a new-fangled notion? Not at all. Its history can be traced back to Socrates who questioned commonly held beliefs. This practice was carried forward by leading scholars and thinkers from different times such as Aristotle and Plato, Colet and Moore, Descartes, Galileo and Newton.[2]

            Today’s world is dependent on critical thinking to resolve all sorts of issues. It is now indispensable for issues ranging from personal relationships to professional jobs and those involving the global community.

            The 5 techniques discussed here are important for effective critical thinking. When employed regularly, they will become a habit and will definitely improve your critical thinking skills so you can get better at predicting and resolving issues that concern you and your environment.

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            Featured photo credit: Mariya Pampova via unsplash.com

            Reference

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