Here’s how it worked: Researchers briefly showed 32 healthy people computer screens containing patterns, one slightly brighter than the rest, similar to tests used in eye exams. First, the volunteers had to rapidly choose which screen contained the brighter pattern. Because some people are simply better observers, the computer adjusted the level of difficulty to each individual so that the task was equally hard for everyone and no one could be completely sure their answer was correct.
Then the volunteers had to rate how confident they were in their answer. The idea: People with good introspective abilities would be more confident when they were right, and more likely to second-guess themselves when they really were wrong. People who are just brash and overconfident might lead an outsider to think they were right, but in reality wouldn’t show that correlation.
Brain scans showed the people’s introspective ability was strongly linked to the amount of gray matter in a spot of the prefrontal cortex, right behind the eyes, the researchers reported.
In addition, the study found people who were more introspective also had stronger functioning white matter in that part of the brain — the nerve fibers that act as a telephone system to allow cells to communicate with others.
The economics here might claim some relevance for improving labor or management performance, but that is not really the point here. It is, though, an interesting finding for anyone involved with education.
But much more research is needed to address the which-came-first question: Are these brain differences innate? Or do they reflect this brain region getting stronger as people try to spend more time monitoring their own mental state, meaning it’s an ability that might be improved with training?
It seems to me that many educators already treat this ability as something that can be improved–with training that involves reflection and dialogue.