Labels on the Brain

We love labels: they make things easy. 

We love labels for what they do well — they make things easy for us. Labels are a product of the way our minds work – in fact, this process may be one of our brains greatest feats. Our brain circuitry pattern-matches like nobody’s business; doing so affords a necessary level of simplicity in an otherwise overly complex world. We are bombarded with a veritable cacophony of stimulation every waking moment: sights, sounds and smells proliferate everywhere we turn. Our brains protect us from “overwhelm” by blending sensations together, narrowing our focus to attend to some things and not others, and by categorizing these experiences. We couldn’t get along without doing this, but there is a dark side to the process. The process – both its light and dark sides – is what this post is about.

Here’s how it works: You scan a label and “know” what’s inside:

  • “blogger”
  • “feminist”
  • “democrat”
  • “professor”
  • “bed-in-a-bag”
  • “dark roast”

When you read one word or phrase, a cascade of thoughts follow, and likely some emotion and mental imagery too (and sometimes even more – can you smell and taste that rich cup of dark roast coffee? Yum!). A single word shapes our thoughts. That is, when the words or phrases are familiar. When they are unfamiliar, and no cascade happens, we stumble, trip on our words, and with dismay realize we don’t know how to act or what to say. Has something like this ever happened to you: you answer the phone to a political poll, and you don’t recognize the name of the candidate in question and you panic; “A democrat? A republican? A libertarian – what’s that, again? – Oh dear, I don’t know what to say! What to do?!…”  That’s why we both love and hate labels. Labels afford understanding. Labels tell us how to act. We count on it.

Here’s another example, from one of my favorite classic studies by Bransford & Johnson (1972). Quickly read the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the near future, but then, one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

Do you get it? Or are you thinking “Wha…?!?” My guess is that many of you are left hanging. I find over and over again that in classes of 20 or so, usually only one or two students get it the first time through. But when I say something like “You mean you didn’t realize this is about doing laundry?” they all laugh, groan, and shake their heads. “Of course it is!” In Bransford & Johnson’s research, some students were told the title before reading and some weren’t. Those who were primed with the label remembered quite a bit when asked to recall it; those who weren’t hardly remembered a thing.

This sort of thing happens day in, day out to all of us, all the time. It’s how our brains work.

This is your brain, on labels.

To explain your brain on labels, I’ll start small, really small. Our brains are made of neurons, billions of them, and our experiences are represented in the form of complex inter-connections among neurons. When you have an experience, select networks of neurons in your brain become active, enabling you to perceive in your mind’s-eye what your eyes, ears, and nose encounter. We don’t have two sets of neural networks – one set for interpreting present experience and another set for remembering – we only have one set. When an experience is remembered, an approximation of the original network of neurons that was active when you had the experience becomes active again. This is why memories feel so real – your brain is doing now what it did then (to a degree, anyway, you never actually have the same experience twice, so you never quite have the same memory twice either).

The more often a network of neurons becomes active, the more likely it is that that set of neurons will activate together again, in the future. This is Hebb’s rule in a nutshell and explains how repetition creates memories. Memories are highly sensitized networks of neurons that fire in circular succession (i.e., as reverberating circuits; for more detail on this process, see here). As we notice connections among elements of our experience, the respective networks that go with each aspect of experience become linked, creating an increasingly complex web of neurons firing over and over again, in a circular pattern.

These webs represent your knowledge of the world – they are what you think about. When your thoughts about a particular topic start, a chain-reaction is occurring in your brain, as the activity of one part of the web of neurons causes all others linked in with it to “fire” too – the cascade of thoughts comes from a cascade of neurons firing down the chain, kind of like a string of dominoes, but one that rights itself and falls down again, over and over. In this way, a single memory is not stored in a single spot of your brain. Rather, memories are contained in the pattern of activation that spreads across your brain, as the neurons that support each aspect of the stuff you are recalling fire again and again.

As experiences repeat themselves, networks become so sensitized that the “spreading activation” process happens at an astonishing rate. For all intents and purposes it feels like the information is just there for you. When this happens – a body of knowledge pops into your head — we call it “schema activation.” Schema is a fancy word for “category.” Once a category is formed via regular, repeated experience, the sense of knowing is so strong that it instantly guides your behavior.

This is how labels work. A single “cue” is all it takes to activate a schema. Labels are cues that trigger schema-activation. When you hear a word, spreading activation happens and your mind is instantly full of knowledge and expectations related to that word. You can’t control this process, it happens whether you want it to or not. In many instances, this is a good thing. When spreading activation happens, you have a feeling of knowing: you know how to respond, can anticipate what will come next, and you understand the situation you are in. Imagine for a moment:

  • You are in an unfamiliar city for a conference, wandering the city-center before the first session begins
  • You are hungry and tired and your heart races as you wonder where on earth to go for food?
  • You see green & white out of the corner of your eye and hone in on it: Starbucks!
  • Relief washes over you.
  • You walk towards the sign, your problem solved
  • Before you even enter the door, you are thinking about other things because you know what you’ll order

Schemas help us feel connected to the here and now when what we experience in the present reminds us of where we’ve been. Schemas help us deal with the complexity around us – they guide our attention, filtering out information we likely don’t need to know, and facilitate memory to boot.

Once a schema is established adding to it is “cake” – as long as you see connections between the new and the old. As experiences accumulate, our neural networks grow and coalesce. Knowledge starts with single encounters, and then repeated encounters merge into generalities. Single encounters with dogs, combine with single encounters with cats, that combine with single encounters with gold fish, and from there a category called “pets” is born. This all boils down to neurons connecting with other neurons.

When educators, caregivers, and parents know how this process works, they can create environments to promote it; this is the entire premise behind the notion of “constructivism” that guides many progressive education programs. Because labels guide our thoughts in this way, we should – and do – love them. When spreading activation doesn’t happen (either because no label was given or because the label was ineffective), you draw a blank, you are stumped, and you don’t know what to do next. You feel frustration.

But be warned: there is a dark side to labeling

Labeling knowledge, as in category formation, is an absolute necessity. Socially though, this process can cause problems. Let’s take school as an example, keeping in mind though that this discussion can fit any situation where people might be labeled.

First off, though doing so comes naturally, we all need to control ourselves! Labeling students is never advisable, especially not when the labels have to do with abilities. But it is tempting – how to teach a math lesson to 30 5th-graders, when their abilities range from below-to-above grade level benchmarks? Easy! Make three groups and teach each group to their level; isn’t that an approximation of working within their “zones of proximal development?” Though appealing on the surface when put this way, the costs of doing this outweigh the benefits. The debate about this rages on, persisting in a variety of forms (see here and here). But the debate is won, in my mind, and the side against gets the trophy.

Here’s why: students in lower-ability/lower-achieving tracks …

… receive lower-quality instruction.

… may not belong there – there’s no fool-proof assessment tool used to create groups or tracks. And achievement isn’t the same thing as aptitude either! So much more goes into a students’ grades than ability (whatever ability is…but I digress.)

are labeled as such, and the label directly influences how they are treated, which then shapes their self-confidence and achievement motivation.

Remember that labels guide our thoughts and our actions. Once the meaning of a label is firmly established in mind, the meaning and all that comes with it is applied to a single human, a child, or yourself, when in fact the category of knowledge does not represent a single human nor a single child. Nonetheless, the damage is done. A child is labeled, the label is loaded, and the child is treated in accordance with the label, not her own unique characteristics. Not only that, but labeling by a teacher enforces a fixed mindset in students, and this, we know, is something that should be avoided at all costs.

Proponents of ability grouping are quick to say that if you use non-related labels, students won’t know the difference. To that I say, how insulting! When students in a classroom are grouped by ability for targeted instructional purposes, no matter the actual label given to groups, students quickly learn what differentiates one group from another. Colors, birds, or shapes don’t mask the fact that each group experiences something else.

Many of us, and many of our children, have experienced this. Want to hear about my memories of 5th grade math instruction? I was in the “middle” math group, oopps, I mean “the green group,” but my desk was at the back of the room, right up against the rug-area where each group met with our teacher. I don’t recall the work I was supposed to be doing (it literally bored me to tears), but I do recall the work that the “high” group was doing, oopps, I mean, “the red group.” I recall avidly listening to their lessons on Venn-Diagrams, then asking my friend later on if my understanding of her lesson was correct – and it was! I remember going home that day and asking my Mom why I wasn’t in the red group, and wondered if she could talk to my teacher. I really wanted to do what they were doing. That entire year I was a bored, frustrated, misunderstood “middle” achiever, held back from learning something advanced and interesting (the red group got to use colored pencils and all I got was a lousy regular one!), only because my teacher didn’t think I was smart enough. She didn’t realize that it wasn’t my smarts – it was my motivation – that “put” me where I was on the achievement spectrum. Mediocre instruction stemming from a label produced mediocre work from me. That was 30 years ago and I did turn out OK in the end, but I also left elementary school a very insecure learner.

As much as labels help us, they hurt us too.

Such practices still happen in many US school today and even more broadly in the UK. These practices should be abandoned. They create fixed mindsets, and fixed-mindsets set students up for insecurity and mediocrity at best, failure at worst.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, let me put it another way. When framed in more familiar, socially loaded terms, we really see the problem for what it is (i.e., “mindset” is a relatively new term in the educational lexicon). When the discussion of labeling and social groups comes up in the context of race and ethnicity, no one argues with the fact that stereotyping and prejudice are abhorrent. What doesn’t come up in these conversations though is the fact that stereotyping and prejudicial behaviors stem from the categorization process described here – we’ve only got one set of neurons and they operate in the same way, all the time. A stereotype exists when one has a schema (i.e., network of knowledge) about a particular social group and this schema is only based on a smattering of experiences, thus the information reflects bias, not objectivity. Despite the bias though, the owner of this knowledge widely applies the expectations stemming from the schema to anyone and everyone they think remotely “fits.” Schemas guide our actions like this:

Stereotype: “Coffee aficionados (CAs) are snobs and only talk about coffee. I know this to be true because I tried speaking to a self-described CA once and he was off-putting and boring.”

Action: Thinking to self in the speed-dating queue: “This person looks like a CA. I’m not going to pay attention to them.

Result: The opportunity to connect with a potential companion is lost because of a stereotype.

This example is, of course, silly (at least it is to those readers not on the speed-dating circuit). But I’m sure you can see how the terrible the process can be when the stereotype and actions stemming from it are negative, hurtful, and/or derogatory. When that occurs, it’s called Prejudice. This is how labels, or, more precisely the neurological and cognitive process that creates them and gives them power, can be used for ill. Labeling students in classrooms is just the same. Ability grouping reflects a stereotype of learning that is just as damaging as any other form of social stereotyping. It’s all part-n-parcel of the same process.

Stereotype: “Students who earn 65% on most of their quizzes struggle to understand”  

Action: Thinking to self in the classroom deciding how to answer a student’s question: “I’ll keep my answer clear and simple and not explain, if I talk to much they might get lost”

Result: The opportunity to attend to an actual student and provide her with a tailored answer is lost because of a stereotype.

Conversely, think about this:

Stereotype: “Students who earn 95% on most of their quizzes can understand anything I throw at them!”

Action: Thinking to self in the classroom deciding how to answer a student’s question: “I’ll explain the process to them and challenge them to apply the explanation to a different scenario, to see what they can do!”

Result: The opportunity to engage a student in a meaningful exchange was gained because of a stereotype.

How might inequities like the fictionalized one I’ve presented here be avoided? We can’t help but “group” after all, because that’s how our brains work (and my hypothetical teacher above isn’t intentionally trying to hold a student back…). But what we can do is focus less attention on outcomes, and pay more attention to improvement. The system most teachers work under today makes this exceedingly difficult because the threat of passing benchmarks hangs over their heads but it is not an impossibility. If, in the classroom students are “looked at” in terms of how much they’ve improved, then the teacher approaches each and every student with the same mindset of “how can I facilitate this student’s progress from point a to point b?” (btw, this mindset reflects a more accurate application of the “zone of proximal development” idea too). As I’ve discussed elsewhere, emphasizing process yields growth whereas emphasis on outcomes stymies motivation and confidence. Labeling students guides one to think about outcomes, not process.

Imagine a classroom without labels!

Or rather, imagine the possibilities in a classroom rich with the right kind of labels, and devoid of the wrong kind. Effective lessons stimulate schema activation. Improvement is the name of the game. When studying new material, students engage to connect new information with old by creating scenarios, drawing analogies, and forming metaphors. Teacher’s lessons capitalize on the spreading activation process by helping students add-on to already operative networks. When students engage in this way (linking new with old) they are substantially increasing the likelihood of recalling the material in the future because they are increasing the number of cues that can serve as signals for a particular pattern of spreading activation. In contrast, when students study material in isolation (e.g., rote repetition of definitions), they have to work much harder and for a diminishing return. This is because they are, in essence, creating a brand-new network and will have to spend time sensitizing it. Then, to add insult to injury after all that time spent, there won’t be many cues that will activate the network, making it difficult to bring to mind in the future unless the test conditions are nearly exactly like the study conditions, and how often does that happen? In other words, teaching around the test (and cycling back again) enhances networks; teaching to the test and nothing more truncates them. Of course enhancement is what teachers want. That’s the whole purpose of teaching.

In closing, students shouldn’t be labeled, but knowledge should. The human brain is both deeply complex and refreshingly simple. All networks operate in the same way. Knowledge is power. We all should use it wisely.

Side note – Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes as commercials, ad campaigns, and political speeches are created? The designers of these cultural artifacts are well aware of the power of labels and they chose their words and images with great care. They bank on spreading activation and its link with your behavior. Or rather, they take that knowledge to the bank.

Up next: I have more to say about labels and education. Up-and-coming posts will further discuss labeling and instructional practice, and will elaborate on how the ability to form and use categories changes with age. What are your thoughts on these matters?


  1. I tend to look at labels through the lens of evolutionary biology/psychology, in that we evolved in such small, homogeneous groups that these labels were probably quite accurate. That’s nothing new, of course–there are hundreds if not thousands who have said it before me–but I’m also starting to wonder about the quantity of labels that we are capable of carefully crafting. For instance, when we make flexible, more accurate labels, they can sometimes be a bit more helpful. I would never tell a student that he was “terrible at math” or something like that, but I would take the personal trainer approach and say he should be “math focused” for a little while. That kind of label–a progressive one that implies that we know about the problem, but that we’re also taking the dedicated steps to solve it–seems to work with my students. It lets them know that I have seen the demons they struggle with, but puts them in the driver’s seat when it comes to dealing with them. I suppose that this dovetails nicely with your idea of labeling knowledge… Thanks for offering the food for thought.

  2. I understand your reasoning against ability grouping, but if you don’t think children in a mixed classroom don’t know who the smart kids are, then you’re deceiving yourself. Then there’s a pacing issue, i.e. if you teach everyone the same thing at the same time, there will be some that get it right off and others that need to revisit the material, maybe several times. With large numbers of students in a classroom, achievement testing, and volumes of material to cover in a year, there’s no time to reteach. Students either get it or they don’t, and then they’re behind from that point on. Students will label themselves as stupid or not good at…(fill in the subject).

    As long as we equate slowness to learn with intelligence, and being able to learn easily with winning (meaning, there must be losers), problems will continue to exist.

    • I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment, Niki, thanks. You raise some very important points, as well. Before addressing them though, I wonder what made you presume that I assumed children don’t know “who’s, who” though? Of course they know, and ability grouping brings that information to the fore. My point, between the two linked posts (“Labels on the Brain” & “Labeling in the Name of Progress”) is that any benefit that comes from grouping is far outweighed by the costs. It’s the costs that I aim to emphasize, because folks don’t often think in those terms. When emphasis is placed on grouping for efficiency, no time is left to contextualize or review, and students are left thinking of themselves in “fixed” all-or-none terms (stupid vs. gifted) in the long run what will happen is the divide between successful and unsuccessful will continue to grow, and motivation for all students will suffer. Students are already leaving high school feeling like further education is not worth it, insecure in their abilities (or not even really knowing what their actual abilities are) and generally apathetic about what lies ahead in imminent adulthood. These “learned helpless” feelings stymy all kinds of growth, not just intellectual.

      If we want our youth to feel optimistic about the future and to leave school with the personal and intellectual skills they need to be happy, healthy, productive adults, then the public perception and teachers’ philosophies about how to foster these skills needs to change; something I discuss more in the post titled “Whats Struggling got to do with Achievement.” I am certain that running a classroom in a collaborative, mixed-ability fashion is no small undertaking and one that requires a completely different approach to curriculum planning and execution. But I see it as an imperative for the future to start working towards that much needed change. Small changes in terms of how teachers (and parents) talk to students (see “Planting Seeds of Change”), coupled with updated attitudes about things like grouping and learning mindsets can make big improvements in students’ achievement motivation (and thus achievement too). Of course what also needs to occur is a socio-political/cultural shift away from high stakes testing — something that will take a monumental effort for sure — but an effort we should be promoting for the greater good.

  3. Again, I see this as very relevant to videogames..! I feel that certain games’ outward uses of categorization for character classes/types, weapon effects (slashing damage vs. bludgeoning damage, for example), color implications, etc. really played a huge part in how I was able to learn quickly and easily when I was in school.

    It’s also helped me in my community organizing experiences, but I’ve also experienced the detriments! I can definitely name instances of myself passing up opportunities because of self-inflicted comparisons I’ve made between past and present interactions with people and situations!

    • Yes, indeed, once you get used to the idea of categorization the process becomes second nature and can translate across contexts. I hope that through conversation with the game-campers, this process can be made explicit, and we can deliberately help campers see ways in which such thinking can transfer from camp to school or other such contexts.

    • And tot he “dark side” – I think we can all bring to mind instances where we regret a hasty decision, as unfortunately that’s human nature too. No one is perfect, after all 🙂

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