How we learn pt.1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot test

One day last spring I sat my studio team down for our weekly meeting. We had previously been working through glaze chemistry and they had the "please don't make me do this again" look all over their faces. They instantly perked up when I switched to a hands-on clay exercise. I laid out the rules of the simple exercise. Make a teapot in fifteen minutes, no tools, no preconceived ideas. Ready... set... go! They laughed thinking I was joking until I pointed to the clock.

The first five minutes where painful to watch. Insecurity reigned as teapot bodies where pinched into form and immediately crushed back into balls of clay. This first level of idea making is very similar to fishing. Casting your line into the pool of ceramic form you hope to hook something that is at least recognizable. At the ten minute mark desperate ideas started to morph into functional volumes. The collective confidence of the group surged as spouts and handles where added. My coworkers cracked a smile as I called time and we sat back to critique our creations. With only fifteen minutes we had teapots that showed surprising clarity in design and form.

This stream of consciousness exercise recreates the naive feelings of a beginner student. As trained clay artists it is easy to lose the feeling of confusion and lack of direction that students experience. After all we know at least one answer to the questions we pose our students. Effective teachers have the ability to create empathetic links to their student's unsure state of knowing. Students need information, technique, and hope that they can push through their "not-knowing" to a sense of understanding. This is especially true of complicated subjects that do not have black and white answers. Subjects such as aesthetics and philosophy occupy the subtle grey areas of learning which can be both rewarding and frustrating for students. Behind this exercise there are many educational topics that deserve attention. In the next few posts I will highlight two specific areas- The role neural anatomy has on learning and how knowledge of this anatomy can change the way teachers communicate ideas.

Lets take a look at how the human brain grasps an idea. I am not a neuroscientist so please forgive the simplicity with which I discuss this topic. As we experience external stimulation our brain's billions of neurons record the sensations that we are experiencing. Individual neurons link together creating pathways for electrical impulses to travel through the brain. Picture an elaborate system of super highways that crisscross through your brain. Your memories, ideas, and identity are all manifestations of these connections. As we link new experiences to old information these pathways are revised. The saying "you will loose it if you don't use it" is actually true. The less a neural pathway is used the more likely it will be erased so the neurons can be used for more pressing matters. The human brain functions as a self-refreshing hard drive constantly updating with the most relevant information. 

(Click here for a video that provides a great visual for this concept.)

To understand this concept try to recall the details of a hobby you enjoyed at a previous point in your life. Do you remember specifics or the general feeling of enjoyment you had while doing the hobby? When you stop engaging in the hobby the specifics are lost, or condensed into a few enjoyable memories. My example of this is my teenage preoccupation with concerts. I spent many years going to music festivals and trading recordings of the events. In my passion for the music I filled my brain with loads of statistics that were relevant to that specific context. I could recall set lists from exciting shows off the top of my head. As I moved onto other passions the neural pathways encoding these statistics loosened leaving those memories blurry. I would have to reengage those pathways with more stimuli (other concerts, conversations with people of similar interests, etc.) to be able to recall that information again. At some point unused information completely fades as the neurons are reassigned to new information.

The process of learning is fluid, organic, and infinitely flexible. We usually aren't aware of our learning until someone challenges us to recall information and prove our understanding. My next post covers how we take ownership of learning by consciously strengthening our neural pathways through repetitious action (practice), expansion (connecting to prior knowledge), or dramatic stimuli (learning under duress). Check back later in the week for the next installment.

This is the first post in a series on how we learn. The series was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org


  1. I will be following your posts, very interesting thanks

  2. thanks for posting this, ben. i will be starting to study more myself in the new year and am looking forward to learn more about this subject :D

  3. Glad you guys like the post. Make sure to check out the Radio Lab podcast. Many hours of great science based listening. It was the inspiration for this series especially "Memory and Forgetting" and "Sleep" from season three. http://www.radiolab.org Happy Holidays!

  4. Radio Lab is one of my favorite studio listens.

  5. great exercise and some interesting forms can come out of making something in 15 minutes. I remember I used to do india ink drawings of buildings years ago and I would be hard pressed to get the correct perspective nowadays, I plan to revisit drawing more in the new year.