A No-Brainer

A Human Brain: Thanks to EUSKALANATO on Flickr for making this image available.

I am reading a book right now recommended by a friend called How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer.  She recommended this to me when I needed to make a decision and had consulted her; her statement to me was, “You actually already know the answer. Now you’re just trying to rationalize it.” And then she loaned me this book.

I have only read the first few chapters, and what I am learning is that we don’t yet know a lot about how our brains all work (“tip of the iceberg,” as one neuroscientist observed) , but we do know that they can work in amazing ways and that we should pay attention to what we do know.

Several years ago, I attended a conference about teaching and learning, and one idea that I took away was that “perfect practice makes perfect.” I have always been a skeptic of “perfect” (who needs that pressure?),  but the idea is that if you practice something incorrectly, it will likely become lodged in your brain incorrectly. And if you practice it correctly, it will likely become lodged in your brain correctly. Kind of a no-brainer (no pun intended), but for an educator, it’s a neat idea to keep in mind and I apply the idea in all sorts of ways with my students.

Lehrer’s book echoes a slightly different take on this idea, though. He tells the story of Bill Robertie, a champion backgammon player. As Lehrer points out, Robertie didn’t become a world champion by playing a lot of backgammon: “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality.” By this he doesn’t mean practicing perfectly; instead, he argues for critically reflecting on the errors.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized. . . Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. (p. 51)

I’ve argued for learning from our mistakes before and I’ve shared my All Time Favorite Quote that “reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning” (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985). Robertie has argued for the same thing, and Lehrer explains the neuroscience that makes it all work. Basically:

If you want to be good at something, practice it. And when you mess up, analyze the mistakes and learn from them.

That, in a nutshell, is possibly all you may need to know about brain science (or at least all you need to know to be a PLA writer). Let your dopamine neurons and anterior cingulate cortex do the work that they are supposed to: that’s what they do best, for they’ve been practicing it, “perfectly,” for a very long time.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.


2 thoughts on “A No-Brainer

  1. I remember a broker recommending an investment for my daughter’s first foray into investing. We picked three investments. Two were thoroughly examined and debated. The third he called a “No-Brainer”.

    The “No-Brainer” turned into a disaster. I have since applied my brain to my mistake, and treat “No-Brainer” suggestions with utmost skepticism.

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