Monday, December 12, 2011

Learning from Exceptions in the Brain

There is a learning style that seems unmistakable in some - and it seems to involve learning from exceptions. These may be children who from a very young age seem to question rules and challenge assumptions. They're kids who if you try to tell them what to think, they may quickly answer, "Actually..."

This learning preference often goes hand-in-hand with novelty and inductive learning because discovering an exception means that you might have to rethink your rules and shuffle your categories. 'Exception' learners are often highly motivated by bizarre facts and incredible stories that might push the limits of what is known, what is done, or what might be possible.

Texas researchers now have shown that learning from exceptions comes from processes originating in the medial temporal lobes, an interesting area of the brain because it's also where episodic memory (memory for personally-experienced events or scenes) lives.

Learners who drive their episodic memory systems over rote (many dyslexics, for instance) prefer experiential learning, learning from exceptions, and reasoning back to simple principles.

The weakness of 'exception' learning is that it may cause one to doubt 'obvious' rules (over-interpreting multiple choice questions for instance) and create chaotic grade records (i.e. "I don't get it" (fail, fail, fail)" - "Oh, I get it." (success)). 'Exception' learners don't feel they understand something until they've had enough examples or data points. They need enough observations to see that a rule exists - but also enough exceptions to distinguish examples or conditions that don't fit with a rule.

The advantage of 'exception' thinking, though, is when you need to break the mold.  If you need a paradigm shift or completely different perspective on a problem, go to the rule breakers.


  1. Fascinating! That describes my daughter. Totally unique viewpoint, thinks outside the box, hard time with multiple choice and questions everything!

  2. As a four year old, my now-adult middle son started many replies to adults with, "Well, actually...". Fast forward to grade school where noting exceptions often meant correcting or challenging his teachers. We are fortunate that he survived his education with his 'exception-seeking style' intact!

  3. Thanks for the post. As a four year old, my now young adult son started many replies to adults with, "Well, actually...". Fast forwarding to grade school, he spent a lot of time apparently challenging his teachers, but in his mind, he was going for clarification. Fortuntately he survived his formal education with his 'exception-seeking' style intact!

  4. Wow! Describes me to the button. I'm always driving at the most fundamental principles beneath a thing and even then accepting a degree of substance, I still expect some potential exceptions to exist for the discovered rule. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Fascinating! I believe that describes my son (and myself!) very accurately. This information will help me to be more tolerant and patient with him.