By Judi Fusco
One of the topics we learned about at Cyberlearning 2017 was the brain. Cyberlearning researchers are not typically neuroscientists. Many cyberlearning researchers are learning scientists, but there is a gap between neuroscience and the learning sciences. As we planned Cyberlearning 2017, we decided to try and address this gap so we invited Mary Helen Immordino Yang, a social-affective neuroscientist to give one of the keynotes. In this post, I’m going to introduce one of the topics she talked about and give you the link to her talk.
In much of the work we do in helping people learn, we’re trying to make sure they are engaged in a task and paying full attention to it. However, as with most things, there’s another side to consider. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain has a “default mode” that takes over and is active when the mind is wandering. This default mode network (DMN), that takes over when a person looks like they are engaging in off-task behavior, may be important for social emotional well-being, and it may serve to help “recharge” the brain for better focus in attending to tasks.
I’m grossly oversimplifying, but as we learn more about the DMN, we may need to consider the importance of downtime in the design of learning environments so that brains can work really well. Our brains are never idle and some of what they do when we look off-task might involve using our imagination to help us plan or think about what we are learning and better relate it to ourselves. Mary Helen Immordino Yang calls what is happening when the DMN is active “constructive internal reflection.”
While we know that it’s important to pay attention during tasks, without time in default mode, it may not be possible to focus as well as we should; it may not be possible to really internalize and personalize learning without this network. “Off-task” time may be key to deep learning. Of course, there is much work to be done to understand the balance needed between time for activities requiring focus and attention and time for the DMN.
Below is the Cyberlearning 2017 Keynote by Mary Helen Immordino Yang.
Here are some additional readings if you’re interested:
Why we shouldn't worry about our wandering minds
Rest is not idleness an article by Mary Helen Immordino Yang
Why your brain needs more downtime
I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions as you look at this research. I’ll be looking more at neuroscience, emotion, and learning in future blog posts. Please let me know if there are things you’d like to think about or questions you have.