Overflowing the Funnel

September 27, 2018

  Our brains are like funnels.


When you are trying to fill a jar or bottle that has a narrow neck, you probably use a funnel. The funnel allows you to pour much more of the substance into the top opening at a time than you would be able to directly into the neck of the container. This allows you to pour more accurately and spill less. Spillage is waste so it’s generally thought of as a more efficient and effective way of filling a container. 


But here’s thing about funnels. 


They can only hold so much at a time and, because the bottom opening must fit into the container opening, the substance goes into the container somewhat slower than you can pour more in at the top. The result is that, once you have filled the funnel, you have to take a break and wait for the substance to make its way into the container before you can add more to the top of the funnel. If you don’t wait, you overflow the funnel, spill your substance and waste it.


Our brains work much the same way. 


The hippocampus is the top of the funnel. It’s where our short-term memory is funneled from the pre-frontal lobe and other sensory processing parts of the brain into long-term memory back in the cortex. It allows us to input a lot of information at a time and then funnels the information to the various parts of the brain that store it long-term. Every experience we have inputs a ton of information into the top of our brain funnel. Our brain doesn’t just store the facts we are trying to remember. It also stores information from the environment, from all of our senses. It’s why if you hear a song that was playing when something happened to you, you will remember that thing that happened vividly. Our brains make connections to all of the data our bodies collect. That data gets connected in the funnel but also gets sorted into different parts of the brain for long term storage. And that takes time.


This is why we need to rest our brains in between educational experiences. We need to let the substance (the information we are trying to learn) get through the funnel before we put more in. If we don’t, then the added information is just going to overflow the funnel and that is just a waste.


When you are designing you educational environment, keep this is mind. If you build in time to clear the funnel, your students will retain more and you’ll spend less time teaching each lesson. Keep in mind too that the younger your students are, the narrower the bottom of their funnel is. That means that they need more time to clear their funnels before you can refill them.


Want to learn more about how our brains deal with information we are trying to teach?

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