Brains That Are More Connected Reflect Better Life Outcomes

By Soon-Beom HongAndrew ZaleskyLuca CocchiAlex FornitoEun-Jung ChoiHo-Hyun KimJeong-Eun SuhChang-Dai KimJae-Won KimSoon-Hyung Yi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“Smith and his colleagues ran a massive computer analysis to look at how these traits varied among the volunteers, and how the traits correlated with different brain connectivity patterns. The team was surprised to find a single, stark difference in the way brains were connected. People with more ‘positive’ variables, such as more education, better physical endurance and above-average performance on memory tests, shared the same patterns. Their brains seemed to be more strongly connected than those of people with ‘negative’ traits such as smoking, aggressive behaviour or a family history of alcohol abuse.

Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, is impressed that the activity and anatomy of the brains alone were enough to reveal this ‘positive-negative’ axis. “You can distinguish people with successful traits and successful lives versus those who are not so successful,” he says.” [Bold added]

Sara Reardon, “‘Wiring diagrams’ link lifestyle to brain function” on

The Majority Illusion

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another cognitive bias to add to our list: the majority illusion. This illusion is not only important to consider for those of us who wade through social media frequently, but more importantly, for those of us who work in schools.

The majority illusion refers to “the local impression that a specific attribute is common when the global truth is entirely different,” according to a recent article on network research on MIT Technology Review.

Kids are especially influenced by their immediate social networks, in addition to their online ones. This study suggests that we are most especially susceptible to the habits and perceptions of our more popular or well-connected acquaintances, believing that many others may be doing or thinking what they are, even when it may only reflect that of a few (big surprise). This can be understood both in its positive and negative effects:

In other words, the majority illusion can be used to trick the population into believing something that is not true.

. . . that immediately explains a number of interesting phenomena. For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.

. . . Various studies have shown that teenagers consistently overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their friends consume. “If heavy drinkers also happen to be more popular, then people examining their friends’ drinking behavior will conclude that, on average, their friends drink more than they do,” say Lermann and co.

This points to a potential key to shifting the mindsets and behavior of an entire school: “identify the popular nodes that can create the majority illusion for the target audience. These influencerati must then be persuaded to adopt the desired behavior or product.”

Get the most well-connected kids sold on the importance of learning and reading first. You might then see a big shift in the attitudes of others.

Babies Learn New Words from Context—Not Quantity

“Surprisingly, the key factor that predicts whether a word will emerge from a baby’s mouth isn’t tied to how many times the baby hears that particular word. Instead, a feature called distinctiveness is what makes the difference, the researchers report September 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Word frequency is important on some level, says Roy. “If a child has never heard a word, he’s not going to produce it.” But distinctiveness — the contextual features that situate a word in a particular place, time or situation — was much more important than frequency for predicting whether his son would say a word, Roy says. “No matter how you cut the data, it was head and shoulders above the other factors.””

—Laura Sanders, “For kids learning new words, it’s all about context” on ScienceNews

How Long Does It Take to Shed the Skin of Society?

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“The first six months is like being in a washing machine – everything is painful. Body and mind. You can hear your friends and family in your head. It’s that onion again – peeling away that skin and hardening yourself. You are going through hell in that time. Everything is a challenge. Eventually, the noise stops. Suddenly, you are in harmony with nature. It’s all gone and then it’s not just another day of walking. That is what I am looking for. You live in the present and you are connected. You lose the sense of self. It’s a hard time, but the rewards once you reach that period of harmony, where you understand the immediate terrain around you, are wonderful.”

—Sarah Marquis in an interview with Andrew Mazibrada, “A State of Mind” on Sidetracked

Just need to highlight this: 6 months! And here you were, patting yourself on the back for a 2 day camping trip . . .

Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How? | IFLScience


“Kuo suggests that fresh air, sunlight and a beautiful view relax us and turn off our “fight or flight” responses. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes – growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” she said. If so, many of the same benefits can be achieved for those who really aren’t the outdoor type by doing what they love, be it reading a good book or spending time with friends. However, Kuo adds these don’t provide elements of good health such as Vitamin D.”

–Stephen Luntz, “Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How?” On IFL

The US Education System: Hard-wired for Inefficiency

“This tradition of hyperlocal control, hard-wired for inefficiency, hinted at one reason that the United States spent so much more than other countries on education.

. . . America’s tradition of local control was a nightmare for teachers. They were left to pick and choose between clashing standards as best they could, repeating subjects again and again under the direction of repetitive, sprawling textbooks. . . .

In Minnesota, a coherent, clear set of standards, which focused on a few important topics each year, rather than dozens, had helped repair this damage. . . His state had intentionally modeled its math education after the best practices used in the world’s education superpowers, and succeeded.”

—Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World

Become Aware of Your Cognitive Biases

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We’ve explored the fallibility of human perception, given the influence of environment, contexts, social relationships, incidental stimuli, stereotypes, and heuristics on this blog before (see especially, How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?).

Anyone who pays heed to education reform debates will be witness to—and perpetrator of—any number of biases. Lifehacker shared a great graphic from Business Insider‘s Samantha Lee and Shana Lebowitz that outlines some possible cognitive biases.

Screenshot from 2015-09-20 12:54:39

Such biases are also important to consider in our classrooms and schools. Stereotyping bears a well-studied impact on the behavior and performance of students, but what about the impact of these other cognitive biases? How many of these might arise during a team meeting or in classroom interactions? I can think of any number of “data inquiry” meetings where these biases have been on full display.

Another great resource I’d like to point you to is The site has freely available quizzes and lessons that will help you to understand the fallibility in your own thinking and become more aware of your biases. I especially like their tool on the Probabilistic Fallacy.

I’ll leave you with an interesting TED Talk (conducted at Burning Man, no less) from the founder of, Spencer Greenberg, on how you can use “probabilistic thinking” to overcome what he terms “dichotomous thinking”:

Relationships are Fundamental to Well-being

A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.
A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.

There’s a great post up on Nautilus summarizing research that drives home one of the key points of this blog: strong social relationships are fundamental to well-being (and thus, learning).

Here’s some key tidbits. Do read the whole thing when you’ve got some time.

. . . ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.

. . . In 2009, the study’s longest-serving former director George Vaillant was asked by Joshua Wolf Shenk of The Atlantic what he considered the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he responded.

. . .“The biggest take home from a lot of this, is that the quality of people’s relationships are way more important than what we thought they were—not just for emotional well-being but also for physical health,” he says. Marital happiness at age 50, he says, is a more important predictor of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels at 50. “Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. That is the bottom line. People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

Not only did strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, it affected the architecture of the brain.

For more on the importance of social relationships to learning, please check out Esther Quintero’s invaluable gathering of information on “the social side of education” over on Shanker Blog.

For more on this topic from this blog:

Executive Order: Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People

Came across this thanks to Vaughan Bell on MindHacks.

President Obama has issued an executive order that acknowledges the importance of design in impacting behavior and psychology, a subject we have discussed here, most recently in relation to a scarcity mindset and our cognitive fallibility. Here’s the overview of the executive order:

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that behavioral science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people.

Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights, they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve. For example, automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans have made it easier to save for the future, and have helped Americans accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings. Similarly, streamlining the application process for Federal financial aid has made college more financially accessible for millions of students.

To more fully realize the benefits of behavioral insights and deliver better results at a lower cost for the American people, the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use, and respond to those policies and programs. By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. [Bold added]

To the point about automatic enrollment for retirement savings, this echoes advice from the authors of Scarcity to design for automating opt-in, rather than opt-out, as well the idea of designing for better choices to be more immediately accessible.

While some will perceive this order as paternalistic mind-control, I think this points to a promising shift in an approach to human-centered design in policy, rather than decision-making solely based on bureaucratic concerns.