Bonus clip from Training to Be Yourself with Dr. Chantel Prat.
In this bonus segment, Dr. Chantel Prat describes in detail some of the research she conducts at the University of Washington including how to determine if you are a “carrot” learner or a ”stick” learner. You can test yourself at home using the on-line versions of her experiments (see the links on the right).
She emphasizes that understanding how our brains are different – and the “tradeoffs” that result from those differences – can be crucial to our mental health.
Phil Stieg: You talk a little bit about the lopsidedness of the brain. I want you to explain what that is. And do you truly believe that somebody’s more right-sided or left-sided brain dominant?
Chantel Prat: Great question. So I love the idea of I’m a left-brained logical type or a right-brained creative type, because it’s one of the few ways we have of talking about neural differences. You’re acknowledging that not all brains work the same, but that’s not exactly it.
It’s true that we all have two brains inside of our heads. We have two largely separate information processing devices that are in most of us, connected by a high speed band of white matter called the corpus callosum. This is like the ethernet in the brain.
And you might ask, why do we have these two hemispheres? All vertebrate animals have this kind of structure. And the answer is that this allows us to take in the world and execute kind of different computations on them. What the nature of those computations is, is highly debated still. But here are some ideas:
Some people talk about approach in the left hemisphere and avoid in the right hemisphere. You could imagine if you were processing the world to figure out what you need to approach and what you need to avoid in the same regions they would collide. Right? You would have gas and brakes at the same time. So it’s really advantageous to have those things separate and then communicating with one another after they’ve processed the world.
Another hypothesis is that the left hemisphere is kind of like the detail oriented local modules tree hemisphere, where the right hemisphere has a lot of broad connections with one another and sees the world as a forest, understands everything through patterns and context and so forth and so on.
But it’s not the case necessarily that people are using one hemisphere more than the other, or one hemisphere is driving more than the other. But instead, one of the key differences between people is actually how different the point of views of these two hemispheres are and how lopsided we are, basically scales up to how different in size and function the two brains within you are. Are they really seeing two dramatically different points of view or are they more aligned, are they more distributed in their sort of function?
Phil Stieg:You also talked about the card sorting tasks in terms of what captures our attention. Please explain that to me.
Chantel Prat: The card sorting task is a task in which you’re asked to sort an item into either heart, club, or spade. And each item, each picture has the word heart, club, or spade and an image of a heart, club, or spade. The trick is that some of the pictures, a small number of them, don’t match. The word might be heart and the object might be a spade. And what we’re really interested in looking at, is how does a person sort those images? Which piece of information is most salient to them? And this is really cool because you find some people who sort every image based only on the word, and some people who sort every image based only on the picture, which you might predict based on the fact that real cards have only the picture and not the word. And some people do about half and half.
And other research has shown that the extent to which you focus on verbal versus visual material relates to how your brain organizes information about the world. Both pictorial and verbal information might be stored in a way that’s more visual in nature or more verbal in nature. So that really tells you something interesting about not only what you pay attention to, but what your code of thinking is.
Phil Stieg: I’ve always been impressed with how much information is going on around us and how we focus and concentrate. And I think you touch upon this with your concept of the attentional blink. Explain what that is.
Chantel Prat: This is a great example of tradeoffs. Filtering the information in the world based on some internal goal is paying attention. But when we are paying attention, we are actually distorting the sensory world around us to the extent that the attentional blink shows us that if we’re looking for a target of some kind, when we detect that target, we actually stop for a second, for about a quarter of a second, taking in new information.
So, if you’re looking at a stream of letters and trying to find a number in them, the minute your brain detects that number and now switches to encode that information, you have a moment in which you cannot see new incoming information.
The attentional blink means I am effectively not processing the outer world because I’m bringing something important into my conscious awareness.
Phil Stieg: I think my children would agree with you. They’d start talking to me and I’m focused on something I’m doing and they go, “Dad!”
Chantel Prat. Yeah, exactly.
Phil Stieg: I have this amazing capacity to just zone in on something. So you talk about some of the tests that you can do and the way you go about it. And you mentioned earlier about the carrot and the stick. So the carrot is the dopamine. What’s the stick component?
Chantel Prat: The stick is dopamine too. The stick is what happens when your brain binds to the inhibitory dopamine receptors.
I think this is one of the things that I’ve learned in my career that really changed my idea of how we teach, is that when you learn from the outcomes of your actions, in every learning moment, we learn both if the outcome is better than expected or worse than expected.
If the outcome of our action was exactly as we expected, there’s no learning like we predicted it. Right. But about 60% to 70% of the people we’ve studied in the lab learn equally well from sort of success and setback, the carrot learning path and the stick learning path. But there are about 25, 30% who learn almost exclusively by moving toward good things or learn from successes, or almost exclusively from moving away from setbacks or things that are not rewarding.
And it turns out that the stick learners are really good at figuring out when the strategy they’re using isn’t working.
I called it when your train of thought is on the wrong track, because think about all the times in life that you don’t get explicit feedback. You’re not in an experiment, it’s not telling you wrong. You’re just trying to do something hard, and you might be making incremental progress and you have to generate, “is the way I’m going about this working? Is this incremental progress good?” Or if I’m a stick learner, I’m like, “I’m not going anywhere very fast. Maybe I should try a different strategy.”
Phil Stieg: So is a stick learner more creative because they have the ability to pivot saying, yeah, I’m not doing it right, I got to try something different?
Chantel Prat: Yeah, I would bet that a stick learner would do better on creativity tests. One of the things that prevents us from being creative is that we come up with the first rational solution and we get stuck or fixated on that thing and can’t pivot to, “well, what else could I do”? And the stick learners are more able to inhibit or quench this first answer to kind of consider other things.
Phil Stieg: So let’s think about the benefit of our listeners. Are there, I don’t know, we’ll say three questions that they could ask of themselves that would give them some insight in terms of how they as an individual think.
One thing your listeners might ask themselves is about the environments that their brains have adapted to and thinking about the environment that they’re in now and deciding and behaving in. Is this environment similar enough to the way that I was raised, that my lifetime of experiences carry over and the decisions I’m making are successful now? Or might I be making decisions based on an environment that I adapted to that is no longer applicable here?
I think oftentimes we get hung up because our brains are operating us based on an idea of success that was in the past and that we’re no longer in that space.
You might say, like, “I have a lot of fear and anxiety about relationships” or something like that. Is that valid now? Or are those things that my brain – just understanding like that comes from a brain that has adapted to a very different environment.
Phil Stieg: So is the hard question then what’s creating anxiety in my life, stress, or tension? And then look at that and say, “okay, now I have to make a value judgment on, do I like that or do I dislike that?” And then how do I work? If I like it, then you keep doing it. If you don’t like it, how do you get rid of it? Right?
Chantel Prat: Right. Sometimes anxiety is very functional to motivate what you don’t do. But I also think that we add a layer of storytelling like, “I am anxious,” or “I am a verbal thinker,” or “I am relationship avoidant” or whatever. And that’s the second thing I would ask is, are the conscious stories that you tell about yourself true today?
Like, if you just dropped into your life today, would you agree with your opinion of yourself? Or is this something that either someone else told you or you inherited or was true of the past? Because again, I think that we tell ourselves what our strengths and weaknesses are. We tell ourselves what kind of human we are, and this guides the way we behave, but it might not be accurate. And then I would say the third thing is what am I missing?
I know that the brain has tradeoffs. So if I am a verbal thinker, a logical thinker, or this kind of thinker, what am I missing? If my neural synchronization is really fast and it allows me to juggle a lot of things. What am I missing?
What am I missing based on what I’ve identified as the way my brain works?