Rocco’s dad taught me in preschool that “every child’s imagination is different,” he recalled a few years later. “And you don’t want to teach it to him that he can’t think a little more than a centimeter wide, that it’s about 1.3 meters. You just don’t want him to be told that he can’t swim.”
The turtle is the result of months of research by Rocco at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By drawing a photo of Franklin he can simulate the size and shape of the turtle, just as he did for Rocco’s father. His drawings reveal a “turtle-sized” individual, not unlike the one he drew from the beach at age 1.
The technique is known as “retraining,” and it is now widely used by psychologists to help children learn to think differently.
“One of the challenges when they see adults learning that way, from drawing pictures of dogs or monkeys, they’re not sure what’s going on,” says Rocco. “We’re trying to explain that to them.”
Retraining is used in training animals, too, and Rocco wanted to train students to think differently about the world in a similar way.
“Some kids get really excited about these kinds of things,” he says, but others think they don’t understand the science behind it. The kids “have this idea that they’re in charge of everything,” and a teacher can easily undermine their faith in their own ability.
Rocco and other psychologists are studying how the way we think about how things work affects how we interact with them — and even our brains.
A study published earlier this year in the journal Current Biology suggests that people think differently about the world, such as thinking the Earth is flat and that clouds are formed by rain and wind.
And those ideas affect how we form memories in our brains, the researchers say. Previous research showed that participants have more vivid memories of a past experience when they consider how things worked at the time than when they believe things just happened. Those memories were related to how we think about what happened.
“That’s what we’re trying to understand,” Rocco says. “So to take the concept and put it into practice and then teach it in real life.”
He hopes his research can help students who have had trouble thinking abstractly because of autism. For example, children with autism often have trouble working memories that are encoded in long-term memory
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