Modern psychology has rich theories about how the mind works and how we learn. However, some aspects of the mind remain puzzling, even for psychology. Here are some of the puzzles:

  • Why can I forget what the capital of Hungary is, but not that I’m afraid of spiders?
  • Why do I find I have learnt things better after a night’s sleep?
  • I get 7 out of 10 in a test – why am I delighted if I was expecting to get 5, dispirited if I was expecting to get 9? A 7 is just a 7, isn’t it?
  • Why as a teenager did I start doing risky things to impress my friends?
  • Why does my mind go blank when I’m stressed in an exam?
  • Why do I learn a new language so much more easily when I’m 5 than when I’m 50?

The answers to all these questions lie not in psychology. Instead, the answers lie in the particular way our brains work. Our brains didn’t have to work this way. There are other ways you could do what the brain does. Brains work the way they do because of their particular biological and evolutionary origins.

Think of it like this: if you were GoogleAmazonApple Inc. and you were building a robot that learns, you could design your device so that it didn’t have any of these peculiar properties. The robot could store Capital-Cities and Animals-I’m-Scared-Of as similar types of memories. It need not forget either. You could build your robot without emotions like ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’, which on the face of it seem to detract from learning performance. It could learn without getting disappointed at failure or cock-a-hoop at success. And, battery life permitting, you could build a robot that didn’t need to sleep to achieve efficient learning.

This resource, prepared by members of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, is intended to give a gist of how the brain works, and how its way of working affects how we think and behave. At the end, we should have answers to why the brain shows all the above idiosyncrasies. The resource is aimed at teachers and parents, and is relatively light-hearted.

The next section explains the inspiration for this essay, and also what it is NOT about. So, honestly, I’d recommend skipping it.