My Brainstorming Class

My teaching philosophy is this: Try not to waste students' work.

This means try to get them to do something that not only facilitates their own learning, but also helps someone else, or the community, out as well.

In my undergraduate cognitive science methods class, I teach not only the scientific methods of psychology, computer science, etc., but also skills that scientists and students should have that might overlap with other disciplines, such as how to write papers.

I'd like to talk about how I teach brainstorming in my undergraduate methods class in cognitive science. I have written briefly about brainstorming in this blog before.

What I do is I teach them how to brainstorm in a brief lecture. After that I actually hold a "brainstormer" right there in class. The way I do it is I pick some cognitive science problem and then ask them to brainstorm solutions to it in the form of an analogy. The first time I did it the phenomenon I chose was memory. Maybe memory is like x in that it has the characteristic y. We generated about 26 of these. I wrote them down on big pieces of paper and taped them around the room. Here are some:

  • Maybe memory is like a city, in that it grows with use. The old buildings have character. It has to be rebuilt occasionally. Certain neighborhoods disappear if they don't get used.
  • Maybe using memory is like playing chess, in that it has patterns of attack to follow, with repeating formattions.
  • Maybe memory is like a weather system in that it's dynamic, there's more to it than you can perceive, and it's out of control.
  • Maybe memory is like an Etch-A-Sketch, in that forgetting is done by shaking it up, and that traces of previous drawings sometimes remain.
  • Maybe memory is like an EEG. Activity is recorded and made sense of under further analysis.
  • Maybe memory is like a magic eye drawing. Concentration brings clarity, and not everyone can see what's there.

Now, not all of these are terrific scientific theories or anything. Many of these ideas are difficult to understand, unclear, unfalsifiable. If you are finding yourself thinking these things than you don't appreciate what a brainstormer is all about. It's about generating ideas. Evaluation of those ideas comes later. Let's take the chess example. One might think that memory having a formation, or a pattern of attack is silly. There's no opponent, for example. But it might be a stepping stone to a better idea. Maybe the mind uses different strategies to retrieve memories of certain kinds or in certain contexts. It's not exactly like chess, but it needn't be. Chess is just a way to get you thinking about the phenomenon in a different way.

More on falsifiability in another previous post:

I recently read about a great historical anecdote in Cole (2003). Wolfgang Pauli, to make his equations work, hypothesized a particle that was, as far as he could tell, undetectable. Even he thought the idea was a bad one. "I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected." Fermi later named this particle the neutrino. Now the search for neutrinos is a major part of particle physics.

Aren't you glad somebody published this (at one time) unfalsifiable idea?


Cole, K. C. (2003). Fun with physics. The New Yorker. June 2, 2003, p. 48


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