Using Cognitive Psychology to Improve MCAT Performance - Interview w/ Don Osborne of INQUARTA

Don: Hello everybody and welcome back to the MCAT Club. This is another bonus session where I have the opportunity to interview Leonardo Radomile of the Cambridge Learning Center. Leo, thanks very much for coming back. I really appreciate it.

Leonardo: A pleasure Don.

Don: You know we were wrapping up in our last video and we just got on the hairy edge of talking about the relationship between MCAT Verbal, Verbal Reasoning, and sort of the greater picture of how can I use the our understanding of cognitive psychology and neuroscience in order to help me improve my MCAT Score. So I wanted to pick it up there.

Leonardo: Okay, well I mean cognitive psychology and neuroscience is critically important in performance in verbal reasoning. In the last 10 years we’ve learned an awful lot doing brain scans, EEG studies, MRI studies on exactly how the brain functions when doing critical reading. And what the research has shown is that there are a number of ways that we can increase brain functionality, literally raising the level of neurotransmitters, integrating brain function and engaging a larger portion of the frontal cortex in the activity so you bring more power to your work. In the research we’ve seen that there are certain exercises that students can do that literally raise brain functionality by about 35% in this area. So when you combine the increase in verbal skills, knowing language and how essays work, with an increase in brain functionality, this is where students can get a 10 or better [the equivalent of scoring in the top 20% on MCAT CARS] on the MCAT because not only do they know what they’re doing but their brain is functioning at a higher level and they completely eliminate test anxiety. So they’re really operating on all eight cylinders.

Don: Okay so forgive me, but it sounds a little voodoo. What do you mean about improving my brain’s ability to function by 35%?

Leonardo: Okay, there’s a lot of research and a lot of lectures we took from Harvard and MIT that we give out students in this regard. What happens is this: there are certain exercises that you can do involving certain types of meditation, journaling, and visualization that have been proven to raise dopamine and serotonin levels and other neurotransmitter levels. So that’s the first thing. And there’s a ton of longitudinal studies on this.

Don: Let me stop you there. Do I understand you right that you’re implying that if I increase the, literally, the volume of neurotransmitters then my brain is actually going to function fundamentally better?

Leonardo: Absolutely.

Don: Alright, that makes sense.

Leonardo: Okay, the second thing it does is engage a larger portion of the frontal cortex in the executive analytical function. So you’re bringing much more brain power to the task itself. And this is true not only in verbal reasoning; this is true in any type of studying, any type of reasoning. It just raises brain functionality. The third thing that it does is to help greater integrate all of your brain functions. And if you take a look at the MRI studies you’ll see that before doing these types of exercises there are discrete areas of the brain that are doing things that aren’t really synchronized. But after doing these exercises for a couple of months, you see total brain synchronicity and the electrical energy going through the synaptic connections being pushed towards the frontal cortex so a larger portion of the frontal cortex lights up. And the test results, the actual test results, of people doing things - looking at pictures for detail, answering questions, reading texts - their performance goes up. In our experience, these particular exercises account for 2 points on the exam.

Don: Wow.

Leonardo: And we tell students that we spend probably about 3% of our class time explaining these and students spend 15, maybe 20, minutes twice a day doing the exercises, but it is literally 50% of their performance.

Don: You know, you just said 2 points on the MCAT. You know that’s almost one full standard deviation in improvement.

Leonardo: That’s right.

Don: By any statistical measure that’s significant.

Leonardo: Ya.

Don: Wow, got it. So forget about anything else, it’s worth looking at just because of the result.

Leonardo: Sure. Well any student that studied neuroscience or even going to YouTube videos on neuroscience will see the lectures from Harvard and Cal and Stanford on this. I mean it’s been established science for probably about 7 or 8 years now. It just hasn’t hit the mainstream yet.

Don: Right, I’ve got it. Fair enough. So can you at all relate this to things like how I would manage MCAT test questions?

Leonardo: Oh, very much so. In questions and answers, detail is absolutely critical. One word, like an adjective or adverb, in a question or answer makes all the difference in the world. What these exercises allow you to do is give you a clarity of focus so that you pick up those details and you don’t miss them. It gives you a razor sharp concentration; a laser-like focus on exactly what the questions and answers say so that you can relate to them and get the right answer. It really does make a difference.

Don: Okay, so you’re talking about specific words and how specific words really affect a test question and the context of that test question and therefore the answer choices.

Leonardo: Absolutely, that’s right.

Don: And then if I understand you right, you’re saying that by being more cognitively engaged, taking advantage of this neuroscience, I’m more adept, more capable at recognizing, at being tuned into those and recognizing them.

Leonardo: Sure, I mean when you think about it Don, it’s basic physiology. You know, if you’re out of shape and then go to a really healthy diet, get eight hours sleep a night, and train four or five times a week, you’re going to function at a much higher level than you would if you didn’t. The same thing is true with regard to brain functionality. If you know, which science tells you, how to make your brain healthier and more functional and go through the exercises, your brain is going to - absent neurological damage - your brain is going to be more functional. It’s just looking at and trusting the science.

Don: So I want to talk some more about how to approach an actual MCAT Verbal passage but we’ve run out of time in this video. So I want to say thank you very much Leo for participating.

Leonardo: It’s my pleasure.

Don: If students want to take advantage and go further with you, do you offer a free class or something that they can sign up for?

Leonardo: Yes we do Don. We have a free one-hour class and then we open it up for another hour of questions and answers, usually on Tuesday evenings. And it’s a place where students can really learn an awful lot about what they need to know to succeed on the MCAT test and even get some free information from us with regard to study guides.

Don: Okay, awesome. So why don’t I put a link to that so they can sign up for that free class in the description below and I’ll try to add it on the video too if you’re watching on YouTube.

Leonardo: Excellent.

Don: Leo, thanks very much. I look forward to talking to you in the next video.

Leonardo: Pleasure, Don.

Don: Take care.