Jonah Lehrer’s Metacognitive Guide to College

October 8, 2010

"College isn't about learning new facts or filling your head with new thoughts. It's about learning how to think in the first place," said Jonah Lehrer to students, who packed inside the Sports Complex on Thursday, October 7. 

His book How We Decide, required reading for all first-year students this summer, explores the realms of decision-making from a neuroscience perspective.

Lehrer told the students they will discover new ideas throughout their college experience. "These ideas will become the most important things anyone has ever told you. This is what makes college exciting."
What's the dirty secret about these ideas though? "You will forget nearly all of them," said Lehrer, who believes the real value of a college education is learning how to think.

A graduate of Columbia University and now a Contributing Editor for Wired Magazine, Lehrer presented the students with what he deemed "The Jonah Lehrer Metacognitive Guide to College." Made up of five strategies and tips for undergraduate students, his guide aims to make students successful thinkers.

#1 Be an Outsider


"Every semester take at least one class you know very little about...Force yourself to experiment with new ways of looking at the world."

Lehrer said this will make students more complete and well-rounded, "but by now you are all pretty skeptical of sentences like that."

Instead, Lehrer explained the practical benefits of being an outside thinker.

Lehrer noted the key to the success of the website has been outside thinkers solving problems for corporate, government, and non-profit organizations. An "open innovation" company, it takes research and development problems in a wide-range of domains and posts them as "challenge problems" for anyone to solve them on its website.

The research department at Harvard Business School reports that 60% of problems on are solved within six months, many by amateurs.

"Chemists solve microbiology problems and microbiologists solve chemistry problems. In other words, being outside a domain allows people to come up with creative answers," said Lehrer.

#2 Learn to Relax


"I'm talking about a very specific kind of relaxation, which is useful when you're stuck on a really hard problem."

To explain, Lehrer described a study on people solving compound remote associates problems, otherwise known as "CRAP" he joked. The problems involve three words which can each form a compound word with a fourth word. For example the words age, mile and sand would equal stone (stone-age, mile-stone, and sand-stone).

"When you arrive at the answer of stone, what defines that moment of insight? It probably popped out of the blue...but what happens in the brain during such moments of insight?"

A pair or researchers from Northwestern and Drexel Universities wanted to see, explained Lehrer.

Their study revealed that the moment of insight that occurs immediately before a solution, a very specific area of the brain becomes active.

The two could determine who would be successful in solving a compound remote associates problem by looking at a person's alpha wave pattern. Those who were successful in solving the problems, had alpha wave patterns that closely resembled someone who has experience in meditation or is able to achieve a state of deep relaxation.

"We need to learn when to turn our gadets off," said Lehrer. "When we're in desperate need of an insight, we should go for a walk and leave the iPhone behind."