• Question: I showed students this: http://bigthink.com/neurobonkers/assessing-the-evidence-for-the-one-thing-you-never-get-taught-in-school-how-to-learn and as I was telling them, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a paradox at play with regards students and brain research. They are interested to listen but much brain research suggests that due to the late development of the teenage brain, they can be stubborn and refuse to change their minds despite the evidence put in front of them. What do x Is there no link between stubbornness and brain development then?

    Asked by mrgsimpson to Nikki, Kathrin, Joni, Joe, Iroise, Ian, Emma, Ellie on 22 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      Mr G asked this during the live chat the other day and it’s a really good question. My intuition at the time was to wonder whether stubbornness to new information despite evidence varied by age or whether adults were equally bad at accepting new facts. I had a little search and although I still don’t know the answer, I found that that Andrew Shtulman has done some cool work on this topic: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22595144. In a nutshell, the problem is that people need not only to learn the new information but often to unlearn their own naive intuitions about this information.

      Keven Dunbar took this a step further and looked at this problem using an fMRI scanner: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~dunbarlab/pubpdfs/FugelsangSteinGreenDunbarCJEP2004.pdf. He found that when people where shown counterintuitive but true scientific results such as two different size balls falling to the ground at the same speed, they had increased activation in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — a part of the brain know for “error detection” (indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the “oh shit” center). Interesting, when he showed these videos to physics majors (who presumably knew this was correct), he saw activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) — a region important for cognitive control. What’s potentially most relevant to MrG’s question is the fact that the ACC and DLPFC are parts of prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is slowest to develop to maturity. In fact, full biological maturity doesn’t really happen until one’s early 20s.

      So to my surprise, there may be a link between stubbornness, at least in some forms, and brain development — something I had never heard before our chat the other day. One of the (many) reasons I like this “I’m a scientist” forum — I’m learning new and interesting things! So thanks for a great question. I look forward to learning more about this.

    • Photo: Iroise Dumontheil

      Iroise Dumontheil answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      A lot of research suggests the brain is plastic and new learning is implemented by changes taking place in the brain. There is suggestion that the brain may be even more plastic during development. So one approach could be to tell adolescents about the fact that their brain is able to change and learn new things, and this may help with the fact you find them stubborn.

      This may relate to the growth/fixed mindset idea, according to which some students think their cognitive capacities are fixed, so there is no point trying to learn new things because they will not get better (e.g. in maths). Such students may appear particularly stubborn.

      As Joe said there is a different set of research that suggests that we do not replace our wrong/naive theories or misconceptions by new correct theories when we are presented by evidence, but that the two theories remain store in our brain, and every time we need to solve a problem we have to inhibit the wrong/naive theory and select the correct theory. This even happens in expert. We are at the moment running a study to investigate how much inhibitory control plays a role in solving maths and science problems that are counterintuitive, during adolescence.