10/23/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Smart Thinking About Brains

A lot of smart people have been thinking about brains lately. I am not talking about the brains that appear to be missing in some quarters of Congress, but the brains that regular people like you and me use every day to keep up with the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls of life.

How could we have known that there are 84 ways to get our brains to learn better, two new layers of gray matter to sync, and important lessons to be had from children and the elderly? I can clue you in.

Open Colleges recently posted an interactive infographic "brain map" on the web that allows us to poke and prod at the complex internal computer that supports our interaction with the world around and within us. Click on brightly-colored icons at different locations on the gray matter and learn more physiology than you've forgotten you knew in college.

More usefully, this brain terrain is marked with pop-up signposts that describe the functions of its different parts, supported by references to research that explain how different environments can elicit predictable responses. If you make it all the way through the maze, you'll find 84 practical tips to accelerate learning: be selective with your attention, "transform information" rather than memorizing it, and don't let your teacher's bad mood get to you, for example.

If you can't wrap your mind around 84 things at once, then how about two? Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller have a new theory that challenges popular notions about the sharp differences between left- and right- brain functions. Their summary in the Wall Street Journal points to "another ordinarily overlooked anatomical division," namely differences between the top and bottom parts of our brains. The top-brain system takes in information from the environment around us and uses it to make and modify plans. The bottom brain uses data gathered through the senses to organize, interpret, and find meaning.

There are no true "bottom brain" vs. "top brain" people, any more than there are purely "left" or "right" brainers. Most of us continuously use all parts of our brains, although we use them in different ways and to different degrees. From a community standpoint, this is great news. Diverse thinking makes for good teams, in which the perspectives of one brain complement the views of another.

It's not that difficult to recognize people who have their brains fully in gear. Some remarkable examples can be found among children and elders, in fact. A case in point is Caine Monroy, an inventive 9-year-old who created an arcade out of cardboard boxes and a roll of duct tape in his dad's auto parts store. What he did inspired hundreds of thousands of people to get out of their boxes, so to speak, and join a "Global Cardboard Challenge" creativity movement that has energized children and adults in 43 countries.

And how about Martin Karplus, the 83-year old who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry? His career began with a microscope that his parents gave him when he was a young child -- a simple gift that sparked a lifelong quest to understand biology, chemistry, and physics. He hasn't stopped learning yet.

What's our take-away from all this brainy stuff? Use what we know about the many parts of the brain to accelerate your learning, say the folks at Open College. "Know thyself," say Kosslyn and Miller, so that you can use your brain's "preferred mode" to its best potential. Caine Monroy and Martin Karplus teach us a third lesson: go all the way with whatever gets those creative brain juices flowing.

We can get excited by the growing number of innovations recently inspired by scientific findings about the brain, how it works, and how we can help it work better. Many forward-thinking educators, edupreneurs, venture capitalists, employers, and researchers "get it," and that's got to be good for the future of education.

It's the rest of us that may be holding us back. We can't help the fact that we were educated to believe that learning is about absorbing what's in the text books, rather than maximizing the capability of the brains we've already got. But if we are smart, we will figure out how to lift our heads up from that outmoded page, refocus on the emerging evidence all around us, and relearn what it means to connect the dots.