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The Executive Brain written by Elkhonon Goldberg, is a book that examines the role of the frontal/prefrontal cortex (frontal lobes, frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex will all be used interchangeably in this article) in the overall functioning of the human mind. Goldberg, who studied under the venerable Russian psychologist Alexander Luria, is an engaging writer who describes the critical functions that the this brain structure plays in higher level thinking such as judgment, attention, problem solving, personality, imagination and ethical behavior. He uses a wide variety of examples and many excellent metaphors making the concepts accessible to most readers. One of the metaphors he uses in his book is that of a computer, wherein skills such as language, motor control, knowledge, and all of the possible skills that any brain can acquire are elegantly accessed via the frontal lobes, which serve the same function as an internet search engine. The book , written in 2001 largely precedes the phenomenal emergence and importance of the internet search engine but the power of this comparison written almost in passing, continues to become more and more apt. Increasingly, our minds are more and more challenged to stay focused, to access what is relevant, much the way a search engine cuts through irrelevancy and delivers the information we want.
The frontal lobes, and in particular, the prefrontal cortex, are connected to all of the other areas of the brain. They do not store knowledge, per se. Instead,they act as a a CEO, a general, or a sophisticated search engine to access the right information at the right time. Damage to this area of the brain can be devastating because even with normal functioning in other cortical areas, there is no way to get to it, to organize it, to use it. Likewise, the development of these areas is critical because in an increasingly complex world, one must know how to think, to prioritize, to act appropriately more than ever before.
Recently, I attended the Project Zero education conference in Washington DC. Howard Gardner, best known in educational circles for his theory on multiple intelligences, outlined 5 “new minds” that will be required of the new generation of brains. These new minds, as defined by Gardner include:
1. The Disciplined Mind – A mind that can concentrate, hold attention, and understand in-depth. In the digital world, the temptation is to take in snippets of information rather than to learn deeply. However scholarship is a prerequisite to new ideas. As Gardner stated, “You can’t think outside of the box until you know what the box is.”
2. The Synthesized Mind- A mind that can blend and compare concepts. Cognitive flexibility.
3. The Creating Mind- A mind that can create new ideas. Entrepreneurship. The willingness to make mistakes en route to new discoveries. Imagination!
4. The Respectful Mind- A mind that can understand the perspectives of another especially those who are from a different culture.
5. The Ethical Mind- A mind that does not confuse resourcefulness with cheating.
Never have the frontal lobes been more important in successfully navigating the challenges of today and in the future. As the world rapidly changes and information, data and stimuli approach us from every angle, a way to sort through and select the right course of action will be critical. As a society, how are we progressing toward this goal? Within the next few months, I will be attending two Learning and the Brain Conferences to find out what the experts in the field are saying. One conference is titled, “The I-Generation: How the Digital Age is Altering Brains, Learning and Teaching”, the other is “The Science of Success: Optimizing Student Success and Reducing Failure.”
Whether one is a student, a young adult embarking on a career, or someone wanting to reinvent him or herself, the concepts are the same. Optimizing how we learn and respond, given the challenges and rapid pace of today’s world, is going be an important component for success moving forward. The prefrontal cortex is indeed your personal search engine and mindfully and deliberately attending to it’s healthy development will pay off long into the future.
For general suggestions on how you can tune up your “search engine”, please contact me at email@example.com or see my website at http://annholm.wpengine.com/