Our expository brains are operating when we are reading a book, learning how to drive a golf ball, or learning how to drive a car. It is primarily operating through the front burner and is cooking alongside our ongoing reasoning. When we are operating at our best, the processes of reasoning and learning are tightly interwoven. Using a term introduced by Donald Schon (1983), we are engaged in “reflective practice” and are learning from our ongoing experiences and the actions we take in the world.
From a neurobiological perspective, we can point to our Prefrontal Cortex as the primary location of the front burners. On the one hand, the prefrontal cortex is a wonderfully flexible and complex cortical mechanism. It is the main reason for the “evolution” of the human species as “homo sapiens.” This small cortical structure located just behind our eyes is primarily responsible for the “sapien” in our name. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is the youngest part of our brain. It doesn’t come with much evolutionary history or accumulated wisdom. It can easily be overwhelmed.
There is a famous essay written by George Miller (1956) showing that we usually can only work at any one time with no more than seven entities (plus or minus one or two). We are likely to chunk things together in order to work in this limited capacity. For example, we group together a series of letters (producing sensical or even nonsensical words) that can be more easily remembered than the individual letters. While this chunking process is critical to our ability to engage the prefrontal cortex in our complex world, it can also lead to the distortion of reality. After all, nonsensical words are fine when engaged in a memory task; however, the nonsensical interpretation of facts or nonsensical acceptance of a political slogan or set of inaccurate “facts” that can be easily remembered is not very helpful.
Finally, it is important to note that the prefrontal cortex is most often overwhelmed when we are tired, distracted by a challenging task – or are operating under conditions of stress. Faced with the challenges associated with living and working in a world that is saturated with volatility, uncertainty, complexity ambiguity, turbulence and contradiction (VUCA-Plus) it is no wonder that our prefrontal cortex is often out of commission or focusing mostly on the management of anxiety (Bergquist, 2020). Our internal expert is rattled. We can no longer rely on this expert for matters concerned with thoughtful, and slow-operating rationality. Our specialist in communication, conflict-management, problem-solving and decision-making is exhausted and might even have abandoned us. This internal expert has taken our expository memory with them. This critical source of insight has been taken off the stove: we no longer are learning from our experiences. When our front-burner functions are no longer available then we often defer to the functions provided by our middle burners. We look for expertise from a new internal source.
As we turn to help from the cortical functions being provided by our middle burners, we are likely to find that this assistance has been offered many times before in our life. The middle burners are aligned the habitual ways in which we think and act in our life. All we need to do is turn on these burners and they do a fine job of cooking whatever is placed on them—even very complex and elusive issues that we moved from our front burner.Download Article 1K Club