The Different Ways We Think: Conceptual Thinking and the Brain

In this interesting paper that looks at how conceptual knowledge develops in the human brain during decision making, the hippocampus (along with ventromedial prefrontal cortex), an area well known for its importance in spatial navigation and long term memory, seem to play an important role with decision making about future conditions. The importance of the hippocampus was a bit of a surprise. On other studies of conceptual learning, individual differences in patterns of brain activation were noted for conceptual decision making tasks, but the differences were more commonly related to right and left prefrontal areas, and not the hippocampus.

The reason we found this interesting, is because not uncommonly we see very different conceptual thinking and memory styles among the students. A common pattern among our gifted dyslexic students who are strong spatial thinkers (high spatial reasoning, love to build, hands-on learners) is their preference for autobiographical / personal memory. They have vivid memories for personal experiences, but may need many repetitions for dry information that is master by rote repetition. From Maguire and colleagues: "our findings (with the hippocampus and vMPFC)...offer a fresh perspective on the intriguing question of why these brain regions are engaged during such a diverse range of tasks (e.g. spatial navigation, imagination, autobiographical memory, self-projection, fear extinction)." Hippocampal involvement may also account for why associational strategies for learning such as mnemonics seem to be such a valuable approach for rote learning among these students.

Perhaps other group (the not-strong spatial thinkers, for want of a better term) are more likely to use the more conventional left prefrontal pathway - when they recall information or make predictions, it is less rooted in personal or autobiographical memory, but more abstracted like algorithms or rules. It's this pathway that may be more optimized for quick processing and retrieval, whereas the former, could be best for decision-making under uncertainty and be richer by its wider associations.


  1. Jeff. L7:56 AM

    My dad always had poor spatial relations, yet he had an excellent autobiographical memory.

  2. I wonder about what is really "best" for decision-making under uncertainty. I myself have an extremely difficult time reaching conclusions sometimes, because I tend to see a very large number of variables and I seem to evaluate probabilities rather differently from many if not most of my colleagues at work. But while I am agonizing, the others rapidly leap to judgment, move on, and never look back. I used to believe that by being more careful I was making better "calls," but now that I'm older and more honest with myself, I'm not sure if that's really true. I am slower than the others, though, and less productive. In today's high-paced world, I'm not sure what is really most advantageous anymore.