The Seven Magic Words

a neuron

I’m a bit of a brain junky.   For years I’ve been fascinated by this gray hulk that sits inside the skull—about the size of a grapefruit—three pounds on average.  I don’t get how it works—and what happens when it doesn’t work.  Think about it.  We human beings are forced to rely on information that comes in on a mere five sensory systems.  All those billions of bits of information are then funneled into the brain and the nervous system—and from there springs language, thought, art, music–and everything else.

Years ago I was teaching developmental English at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  I was disheartened by the challenges my students were facing.  How could they balance the tough life issues they were facing and still focus on college?  Why would they care whether a word was a real verb or  verbal, a clause dependent or independent?

A couple of years into my teaching career there I was introduced to the work of Dr. Rita Smilkstein.  Over many decades she had developed an approach to teaching that that she calls “The Natural Human Learning Process.”  She wrote a curriculum for teaching sentence structure based on the way people naturally learn.  On the surface, this seemed like a no brainer, but as I worked with her process, I was stunned by the results.  Each lesson begins by having students connect with something they already know.  They work individually, then together, then as a whole class.  The teacher does not “teach” but waits for the students to get there—in the meantime the students get it wrong, get confused, stretch a bit further, practice, etc..   Each step of learning mirrors the way the brain works, always seeking the next thing to understand.

My students started coming to class excited to learn the next step toward correct sentence grammar.  Yes, I said excited.  Attendance went up, completion of my classes doubled and then tripled.  More importantly, my students were rediscovering their own love of learning and feeling excited and capable to do more.

Rita points out that the one thing that brains—and human beings—like to do best is learn.  All kinds of crazy things happen—endorphins flow, serotonin flows, neurons grow treelike structures called dendrites which form highly complex neural.  Neurons like to talk to one another—they are social  organisms and they can’t solve the problems unless they get together.

Here is the key.   The new learning has to be just beyond the reach of the last learning.  Too much learning and the brain gets swamped and gives up.  Not enough learning and the brain gets bored and begins to yawn.  Ho Hum.

Several years ago in my graduate program I was studying the brain and came to the conclusion that the brain is like this exotic plant living like some beautiful orchid in our heads.  It needs good food, several hours of darkness (and dreaming) each night, plenty of water, and the right kind of “sunlight.”  For us, that sunlight streams in when we say the simple words, “I don’t get it.”

It can be uncomfortable to admit that we just don’t’ get it.  Somehow we think—or are told—that we should be good at something instantly or we must be “stupid.”   To avoid discomfort, too many of us stay away from new challenges, just continuing on with what we have already learned.  This leads to a kind of stale, gray depression, because in order to get the natural high that comes with natural learning, there has to be a new challenge followed by practice, making mistakes, and getting it wrong.  If we are getting it right the first time every time—the task is too easy and we aren’t really learning anything new.   Or if some know it all always steps in to tell us how or what to do, our learning is short circuited.

Rita says the seven magic words for natural learning are “See if you can figure this out.”  Oh, the brain loves that alluring invitation.  See if you can figure this out.  Learning something new is like a fascinating puzzle we want to solve.  I don’t get how this works.  What is going on?  What do I need to do next?

A great sage once said, “Never do for another what they can do for themselves.”  I take this advice seriously.  I let my children figure it out. I let my friends figure it out.  I let my own brain figure it out.

Just yesterday I was standing out in the sunshine with my ancient cement mixer.  We have been building a straw bale house for three years with a natural sand, clay plaster covering the whole thing.  My old cement mixer was groaning, squealing and coming to a sudden stop.  I was alone there with no big man to help me figure it out.   If I wanted to continue mixing without burning out the motor, I had to do something.  I went over to my brother’s metal shop and borrowed a grease gun.  Then I found a small foam brush—it was just the right size and shape to add grease to each of the teeth used to make the thing go round and round.  The grease was pink—not sure why—and very thick.  One by one I greased the gears.  Voila—my mixer thanked me and went on mixing quietly—well, as quiet as a cement mixer can be.

I had figured it out.  By myself.  It’s amazing how we can get that little high when we figure it out.  Endorphins.  Magic.  Neural networks.  I guess I am just a brain junky.  I get it.


This was my commentary for last Saturday’s Between You and Me on KAXE/KBXE.  The topic this week was to fill in the blanks on the sentence “I don’t get . . . ”  I had some fun with it.  As always, be sure to subscribe by adding your email below in order to get my Monday posts (sometimes on Tuesday) each week.  I am happily mudding the interior of our house–lots of walls to cover!



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