“Is our education system teaching us to learn but not to think?”

Recently I was posed this question by a media personality in Ireland and asked to write my comments for an upcoming Q+A TV show on this topic. Here’s my personal view …


The Western education system teaches students to be logically irrational rather than creatively rational. We teach our children to debate and defend their viewpoints rather than to escape and find even better ones. We teach our kids to lock themselves defensively inside the square rather than take an innovative leap outside the square. This makes them very slow thinkers.

Of course, in spite of all this, there are always a few exceptions and, depending on our mood, we either sing their creative praises or we single them out for judgement and correction. Interestingly, there are deep historical reasons for why we do this in our schools and in Western culture a lot can be traced back to Plato’s thoughts about the concept of TRUTH. There are basically two strategies when it comes to TRUTH: defence or search.

Pre-enlightenment thinking was about the DEFENCE of truth. “There is only one truth”, “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong”, “God is on our side”, “Do what we say, or else”, “We know better than you because we have authority and rank”, “Our truth is the right truth”, “We have THE TRUTH so stop looking elsewhere. Just do as you’re told”. “Kill the infidel”. etc.

This authoritarian approach to ownership and defence of THE TRUTH got going in a big way after St Thomas Aquinas embedded a somewhat distorted view of Plato’s thinking into the Church at a time when the first universities were being set up. And, later when the European education system was being disseminated around the world by Roman-controlled missionaries, this Greco-Roman logic became the basic cognitive operating system for all of Western education.

In Australia, Greco-Roman Logic was imported here about 200 years ago along with rabbits and various other European delights. Even today, our children are still taught the ‘right/wrong’ system of sorting information. “This-is-right-and-that-is-wrong”. Logic is somewhat useful for sorting out the past but totally inadequate for designing much safer and more productive futures. We have come to call this kind of Greco-Roman Logic, ‘inside the square’ thinking.

So what do we see? We see grown-ups deeply trapped in irrational logic in business, in economics, in our legal system and in our parliament. In Canberra, for example, all the adults on one side of the House say “We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Meanwhile, all the adults on the other side of the House say, “No. We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Many of these members of the parliament are highly educated people; lawyers, journalists, business people and teachers. Watching it all on TV can be a most cringing experience. Electors in Australia are deeply dissatisfied with the performance in Canberra and are leaving the established political parties in droves.

Yet there is another strategy for TRUTH other than it’s mere logical defence. Since The Enlightenment we now have the innovative and scientific SEARCH for truth.

To encourage this strategy I use the formula: escape + search = think. If we can first escape from the righteousness of historical or traditional or authoritarian truths we can then search, experiment, and design much better truths. This is an ongoing and never-ending process.

Science offers us the search for much better truths than we currently have and we have developed very powerful tools to assist us in this search. Post-Enlightenment we now have The Scientific Method. We also have Darwinian Thinking. We have the use of evidence. We have the technology for observation and measurement. We have the forensic power of questions. “Why is this so?”, “What is the evidence?”, “What other possible explanation could apply?”, “How do you know?”, “What else have you tried”, “Give me ten other options”, “What are ten other possible explanations?, “Who is doing this differently?”, “How can we make this faster?”, “Why not do an experiment in order to see what happens?” etc. We often call this kind of thinking, ‘outside the square’.

It’s been my experience that although many highly educated Western people do know about The Enlightenment and might even be able to write a short essay on it, they are still very much pre-Enlightenment logical thinkers. Curiously, this is not the case in China. My experience there is that most highly educated Chinese people are post-Enlightenment thinkers and this is giving them a big advantage over their Western competitors. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next decade.

In short, Western education has been about teaching kids to learn and logically DEFEND THE TRUTH (as revealed by their teachers) rather than giving them the thinking tools to discover much better truths through searching and measurement.

Evidence of this is in the type questions that teachers ask their students in school. There are closed questions that seek a correct answer. e.g. When was the Magna Carta signed? There are open or authentic questions where the teachers can provide an opportunity for the student to do some fresh thinking. e.g. What might have happened if the Magna Carta was never signed?

In one Harvard study of a large group of the top teachers in the US, the teachers were asked to estimate how many authentic questions that they had asked their students in the first semester of that year. The shocking results were: less than 1!!

On this big question about Western education my opinion is: We do not teach our kids to think for themselves. We teach them to learn what we tell them.

As a consequence of that, when we become adults in business, in law, in the media and in government we spend an extravagant amount of our time and energy defending what we believe to be true rather than discovering what we are capable of finding out.


Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.

– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)


Let’s talk about attention.

But first a small experiment.

INSTRUCTION: As soon as you have finished reading this sentence, turn your head around about 180 and describe something you can see that is coloured green and does not belong to you.


OK. Here’s the point. Once you look in a direction it’s easy to see what is there. Here’s how it worked:

1. I gave you the cue above to turn your head and look for something specific
2. You turned your head and looked
3. You saw.

I don’t know where you are right now but most readers would have been able to carry this experiment out successfully, once you decided to look.

Here’s the special insight that I would like you to get now as a result of this little experiment. It will help you get better use out of the cvs2bvs brain software. It’s this:




Managing Your Attention
Many people feel that if there is an opportunity somewhere – a BVS – why, they’ll see it and go get it. They assume the very presence of a BVS will make itself known to them, that it will attract their attention. But no, it doesn’t work that way. You have to direct your own attention.

BVSs are there all the time, you’re tripping over them all day long, literally hundreds of them, but you’re not seeing them. The reason you’re missing them is obvious: It’s impossible to notice a BVS if your attention on defending your CVS.


Attention is the gateway to consciousness. Attention is the business of your mind. Attention is the principal service provided by the management section of your brain which enables you to focus in and have a mind– for you to think about things.

How you move your attention around is very interesting. There are three distinct aspects of attention-directing in your brain:

1. disengagement: escaping from your present fixation of attention
2. movement: movement of attention across the cognos, the vast universe of possible thoughts
3. engagement: attending to a new object out of a competition of an infinite multitude of possible candidates.


The cvs2bvs brain software is designed as a switch that helps you to control your attention and move it around, especially when your attention is habitually focused on your CVS and its defence. CVS2BVS can help you disengage and move your attention away from your CVS and to engage it elsewhere on a BVS.

Pay attention! This is a command with which we are all familiar. We all heard it many times as children and we still hear it (if more subtly expressed) every day in business. We know what it means to direct our attention even though it is something we do inside our head.


For example:

– In a noisy cocktail party, you can hone in on one particular conversation.
– In a business presentation, while presenting to the room at large and doing justice to her presentation as planned, an account executive can shift the attention around in her vision to catch the expression on her executive client’s face while apparently staring intently at her audio-visual.
– A marketing professional can show you how to deliberately shift your attention away from your product-driven strategy to a better client-driven one and then you can notice the way the information before you rearranges itself.
– A habit of attention may mean that the first thing a hairdresser notices about you is your hair while a dentist may notice your smile instead.
– On arriving at O’Hare International airport, I can pick out my driver from the dozens of others waiting even though my name is badly misspelt on his sign.
– An over-critical parent can pick out the one mistake in a child’s work and not see that the child has accomplished a great deal.
– A shared goal, like Sir Bob Geldorf’s Band-Aid, can cue a diverse group of individual and even competitive entertainers to give priority to a certain event where otherwise they would all be paying attention to something else.
– A team leader can pull back the attention of her team to a project-in-hand after a distraction had drawn attention away.
– A specific motion put before the board can focus the attention of the directors after a long and wandering discussion.
– Most languages have a word like Achtung! which focuses one’s attention.


We experience attention as a filter that the management part of our brain applies to the flood of competing information that comes in from our senses.

Attention Disorders
Individuals who have suffered brain-damage can lose their ability to control their attention. Attention disorders are manifested in different ways depending on the nature of the damage. It can take the form of an inability to escape from a particular fixation and so they remain stuck in a viewpoint regardless of the demands of their environment.

Or, damage to the right side of the brain can make it impossible for patients to pay attention to the side opposite the damaged hemisphere even to the point of failing to dress the left side of their bodies.

Sometimes, loss of attention-control means constant and debilitating distraction. This is because a person suffering from an attention disorder cannot prevent attention from being diverted by irrelevant stimuli.

Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the very nature of the world we attend to. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I an investigating. my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

– Iain McGilchrist, The Master and The Emissary

Patterns in the brain: What is pareidolia?

Holy grilled cheese sandwich! What is pareidolia?

By Kevin Brooks

How much would you pay for a grilled cheese sandwich? $6? Maybe $7, if it was deliciously fresh and you were really hungry?

In 2004, Diane Duyser from Florida, USA sold a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich for US$28,000. And the reason for the 4,000-fold inflation?


Would you pay US$28,000 for this? *ivo*


This particular snack showed a pattern of browning that Ms. Duyser claimed resembled the Virgin Mary. Others agreed enough to create a news story that reached across the globe, piquing the interest of eBay bidders with deep pockets.

Religious icons have a habit of turning up in the most unlikely places. In recent years, the Virgin Mary has also been spotted in a pretzel that sold for US$10,600 and in a wooden stump near the cliffs in the Sydney suburb of Coogee (“Our Lady of the Fence Post”), while Mother Theresa has appeared in a cinnamon roll (the “Nun on a Bun”).

Meanwhile, Jesus has appeared many times, including in a pattern of mould in a bathroom (“Shower Jesus” — sold for US$1,999), and even the rear end of a three-year-old terrier.

Although devotees herald the blessings bestowed upon them by these apparitions (before selling to the highest bidder), science takes a more sober view, ascribing the phenomenon to coincidence, aided by a few quirks of neural processing that underlie our everyday perception. This is known as “pareidolia”.

Seeing patterns in noise

Pareidolia occurs when an indistinct and often randomly formed stimulus is interpreted as being definite and meaningful. This is something with which everyone has at least some experience, whether exercising their imagination as a cloud-gazing child, or seeing images in a textured ceiling during the last few waking moments of the day.


The Jurist by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Wikimedia Commons


Examples in history abound. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci remarked upon this technique to inspire artists, while Italian painter Arcimboldo was famous for portraits in which the faces were actually arrangements of food.

Although vision is most commonly involved, the other senses are not excluded.

Auditory pareidolia appears to be the most plausible explanation for the “backmasking” controversies of the 1980s, when rock bands were accused of embedding subliminal Satanic messages in their music, which were supposedly revealed when the tracks were played in reverse.

But why is this error of perception so prevalent, and why does it so often involve faces, and specifically those of religious icons?

The ubiquity of faces

There can be no doubt that faces, as visual stimuli, are somewhat special.

At the slightest glance, we can extract information on age, gender, race, and mood from a face, and decide whether this is a friend to be approached, or a foe to be avoided.


Road line marker, or something more? Branzino Curiosso


From birth, humans show a fascination with faces that continues throughout our lives.

Given that babies’ blurred vision serves to exclude more distant objects while the faces of family members and friends are thrust into view, it is not surprising that we all become face experts, training our brains to search for and identify faces in any situation.

As social animals, we constantly surround ourselves with faces, putting this skill to the test every day.

The neural basis of pareidolia

When presented with a stimulus, the human visual system uses information flowing in two different directions. These are referred to as “bottom-up” and “top-down” processes.

Bottom-up processing starts with the smallest possible element of the stimulus and builds in complexity. As collections of photons hit the receptors in our retinae, they are encoded as spots of colour.

These signals are combined across the image at the next levels of processing, where the brain uses templates to detect edges, then corners, basic shapes, and eventually objects (including faces).

An important brain region in the face detection process is an area in the brain’s temporal lobe known as the fusiform face area (FFA).




We have no conscious choice in the matter. The search for faces is automatic, using a coarse template roughly corresponding to the general configuration of a face (for example two eyes, side-by-side, above a nose, above a mouth).

The coarseness of this template means that we will very rarely miss a face that is presented to us, even if visibility is poor, but this also opens the possibility that it may be activated by similar patterns other than faces.

This contention is supported by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies, which show significant FFA activation not only when faces are presented, but also when non-face stimuli are mistaken for faces.

It is likely that this activation is the neural basis of pareidolia.

Does religious thinking encourage pareidolia?

While the bottom-up neural machinery whirrs away, top-down processes flow in the opposite direction.

Here, the perception of a stimulus can be affected by an observer’s knowledge, expectations, beliefs and motivations.


Rorschach inkblot. What do you see? Wikimedia Commons


Although these factors are harder to measure, they can undoubtedly have an influence over what we see, and seem to play a prominent role in pareidolia.

The Rorschach inkblot test is a well-known example of using pareidolia to tap into motivations, emotional functioning, and other higher-level psychological characteristics.

Although pareidolic experiences are commonly reported during schizophrenic episodes and during the use of hallucinogens such as LSD, all “normal” people also experience this illusion on some level.

But there are some groups who are especially susceptible.

A 2012 study from Finland showed that those with strong religious beliefs, or belief in the paranormal were more likely to identify a face in a random stimulus compared to sceptics or non-religious observers.


The Mars face, which really isn’t a face at all. NASA


It seems likely their low threshold for pareidolia is a factor in the large number of examples that involve historical religious figures.

In addition, many of the faces that are often reported, such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary, are individuals who predate photography, and whose facial identity cannot be known, other than through iconography.

As such, the stimulus could match any one of many possible representations of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, making such apparitions more likely still.

Miracle or coincidence? You be the judge




Given the massive array of random stimuli human beings could possibly be exposed to, it is inevitable that some of them will bear a degree of similarity to certain non-random visual patterns, such as faces.

In these cases, it is not surprising that the brain activity caused by the face itself and the coincidentally similar visual pattern will be closely related, leading our rough and ready face templates to be matched, and for the brain to detect a face where there is none.

Coincidences happen. It would be truly amazing if they never did.

But then, who would notice?

Kevin Brooks has received funding from The Australian Reserach Council.

The Conversation

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