In the field of education, the issue of mental availability is treated by John Hattie, a New Zealand education academic, in his book – Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. This availability refers to the mental ability to have the appropriate information and sufficient cognitive resources available to solve problems relatively easily, i.e. accessing and using information from memory with relatively little effort.
The origins of the term mental availability come from the field of marketing, where it refers to the need for a brand to come quickly to mind in relation to a need or occasion, so the buyer will notice, recognize and/or think of that brand when considering a purchase.
But returning to the field of learning and development, why should we put effort into accessing the right information when other information is much more readily available? the wandering mind asks.
Obviously, there are several good and moral answers to this question, yet our attention is focused on the easily accessible information, the one that possesses the property of easy access.
Usually, the mind wants to use and act only on that knowledge it can immediately access and not make the effort to rummage through the stored information to find exactly the right one.
Thinking is directly dependent on the ability to access information held in long-term memory. Our judgment is tied to and can be easily influenced by any information that we can easily recall. One of the most important attributes of any stored information is the ease with which we can access and then process it.
When information is not easily accessible, people feel uncomfortable, less confident and less motivated to take action.
Whenever the mind is stressed by the demand to access stored information that is difficult to access, the difficulty experienced also becomes a determinant of how people use the recalled information.
From Dr. Daniel Willingham’s point of view, a psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, the main role in the allocation of effort is played by curiosity.
By nature, we are motivated by curiosity to learn more about the world around us, but this also represents a constraint on motivation.
We are very selective about what attracts our attention. And this selectivity creates a major problem whenever we expect other people to put effort into learning or thinking. When thinking is driven by natural curiosity, it involves high levels of understanding, skill mastery and problem solving. Unfortunately, John Hattie argues that there is no such thing as general curiosity.
Curiosity as motivation only works when it is sparked.
Thus, we cannot show curiosity towards every possibility, but we are prompted by a lack of knowledge. We will seek out and pay attention to things we already know something about in an effort to broaden our knowledge base, but we will do these things more in cases where epistemological gaps can easily be filled in a relatively short amount of time. This factor is critical in resource allocation.
We strive to minimize cognitive gaps, but reducing knowledge lacunas requires much more effort and much stronger motivation.
We become curious when we discover gaps in knowledge that can be minimized.
Paradoxically, having some knowledge in a certain field provides the impulse to acquire more knowledge. This effect is strong if the new information can be accumulated in a relatively short period of time and with little effort.
A metaphor used by John Hattie to describe this process is as follows:
When forming our information base, we tend to invest much more effort when the foundation is already built and secured, but we show disinterest in starting to build where we don’t have a foundation.
And Dr. Daniel Willingham argues that much of human functioning relies more on memory activation and less on thought. By nature, we try to avoid thinking and seek to solve our problems using more of our memory. Naturally, we prefer to do what and how we are used of doing, even if it is not efficient, rather than think of a new approach.
Willingham actually argues that the mind is not made to think.
But what is the mind made for?
John Hattie notes several areas in which the human brain naturally excels. The list includes walking bipedally and moving the body over uneven terrain, using visual information to make assessments and judgments about time, distance and space, developing a receptive vocabulary of about 250,000 words, being able to instantly name between 20,000 and 30,000 common objects, the ability to recognize and associate the names of thousands of individual faces, the ability to use social cues to accurately assess the mental states of others, along with the ability to hold a conversation while considering orientations, moods, and the other person’s intentions. Impressive, right? But how much thinking is actually involved in these actions?
Philosophers may argue that most people can think without much effort, but in Hattie’s view this is not an argument that can be pushed very far. Certain individuals may be seen as products of a thinking social community, such as intellectual families or institutions that support high levels of academic achievement, but this is not the general human condition.
Either way, here we are, reading how some may argue if the mind is or not made to think, thinking they might be right…
To summarize, the mind usually does what we accustom it to do, it’s not the most ecstatic when it comes to making an effort, but it reacts very well to curiosity.
And on a humorous note, Michael Shermer, an american psychologist and author, noted that Homo rationalis, the species that carefully weighs its decisions through logic and rational data analysis, may not only be extinct, but may very well have never existed.