By Marybeth Herald • January 05, 2016•Writers in Residence
Here is a new year’s resolution that I bet is not on your list - “Get to know my brain.” Why not? Well, I bet you think you know it pretty well already. After all, you have lived with it since birth, and haul it with you everywhere you go. But given you are roommates for life, you should want to get to be better friends with your brain, even if the relationship occasionally devolves into frenemies territory.
This year, I hope to introduce you, help nurture the bond, and make some suggestions to get you past the rough patches as you navigate your brain through law school and practice.
Let me warn you. The brain can be a bit controlling. Well, the reality is that your brain is directing you every moment. The brain performs most of its work behind the scenes, leaving you blissfully out of touch. You are not conscious of what those 100 billion neurons are busy accomplishing. Good thing as no human can handle that kind of sensory overload. It seems like a perfect combination – it works for you and does not bother you with the messy details.
Still, it is a little unsettling. Your brain is interpreting and editing the world for you. Sometimes the interpretations can be slanted and the edits selective. Optical illusions are built on the idea of playing with your brain’s interpretation of the data that yours eyes are relaying to it.
What does this all have to do with law school and your goal of learning “how to think like a lawyer.” Oh, law school and practice are all about “thinking” and “deciding,” and yet often you are pushed into the pool without any basic knowledge of how the brain learns, thinks, or makes decisions.
Knowing how the brain processes new information can help you learn more efficiently and effectively in law school. Those who are in law school know well that given the mass of information you have to conquer, you need to ruthlessly pare the process down.
There are helpful tactics. For example, studies show that taking tests can help you learn. (I will talk more about this testing issue in a future blog post and translate the science that can come wrapped in perplexing titles such as “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,”) The evidence is solid, although not generally greeted with the expected joy associated with revealing a secret and powerful strategy. Why? Perhaps because tests are associated with the anxiety of the SAT, ACT, or any number of standardized torture techniques that are inflicted on minor children. Perhaps tests seem like a lot of work. In any event, even armed with this knowledge, many students stick with their routine of endlessly re-reading their outlines rather than the proven technique of self-testing.
Who is responsible?
Blame the brain. Yes, your brain is responsible for some of your poor strategic planning. To be honest, your brain is not always truthful with you. It lies. As a creature of habit, it likes to take cognitive shortcuts and can spin stories to make life more comfortable for you. Hey, these strategies have helped humans evolve over the years so they cannot be all bad. Occasionally, however, they can prove a real hindrance to law school and practice. I will talk about cognitive biases such as framing, confirmation bias, availability, and selective perception in future posts. To know them is to avoid being trapped by them.
Know Thy Brain
That is why you have to get to know your brain this year. Learn when and how to coax your brain through this sometimes harrowing process. Assert yourself more with your brain, especially when your brain finds law school less than exciting or law practice intimidating.
I cannot resist a Star Wars reference before closing.
Finn: We'll figure it out, we'll use the Force!
Han Solo: That's not how the Force works!
Unless you know something about how the brain works, you will not be able to use this powerful force to its maximum potential. So join me as we explore more about the brain and law this year.
Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of Your Brain and Law School (2014).