The Mind as a Muscle

Some further thoughts on the mind as a muscle and training it to perform more effectively:

I recently gave a presentation to colleagues that began with a different sports analogy — a baseball player who wants to improve his (I’ll stick to the male pronoun to reflect professional baseball in the USA) ability to hit the ball. At batting practice, the player can focus improving his ability to hit one type of pitch — before moving on to another type. For example, a player who is weak at hitting curve balls can spend the day trying to hit nothing but curve balls. Another option is to try to hit a random variety of pitches.

The latter training method is most effective. Why? First, the inability to predict the kind of Babe Ruth pitch that is thrown makes hitting the ball more difficult, and the greater mental effort that is needed to hit the ball creates a stronger memory of how to successfully achieve this goal. Second, the unpredictability of pitches better reflects the conditions that the player will experience in an actual game.

The hypothetical player also has another choice to make: he can engage in batting practice for ten hours on a single day once a month, or do it for one hour on ten different days each month. The latter method is more effective at improving performance, because repeatedly retrieving a memory over a long period of time helps strengthen it.

My use last semester of MIT’s Visualizing Cultures image database in my Asia history and politics course was based somewhat on these ideas — have students repeatedly engage in different tasks, encountering the same information in different ways, throughout the semester, with a slight element of unpredictability:

Stage 1 – Analyze (short essay)

  • What is your interpretation of an image?

Stage 2 – Critique (short essay)

  • How do your ideas compare to someone else’s?

Stage 3 – Communicate (presentation to the class)

  • Can you collaborate to teach about the topic?

Stage 4 – Evaluate (survey)

  • Were you and your teammates effective?

Stage 5 – Test (quizzes)

  • Do you remember what you have read, seen, and heard?

Stages 1 to 4 were team-based — each team selected a different topic from the Visualizing Cultures curriculum and delivered a content lesson about the topic to the class. For Stage 5, all students took two quizzes on each topic. Quizzes for a topic were spaced forty-eight hours apart and contained the same questions. Obviously students had no idea what questions would appear for the first iteration of the quiz, and had to try to remember what they had seen a few days earlier for the second iteration. The first quiz on a topic did not become available until after the team that had chosen the topic had completed its Stage 3 presentation. Each quiz was available for only a twenty-four hour period and had a fifteen minute time limit.

Each student completed Stages 1 to 4 within his or her team over a period of several weeks. The entire class experienced Stage 5 eight times, because there were eight topics, and with two quizzes for each topic, they were tested a total of sixteen times over the entire semester.

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