How Bias Works in the Brain and What it Means for Language Teachers

August 2023

Across our lifetimes, through all of our experiences, our brains develop an entirely unique interpretation of the world around us. This singular perspective can sometimes blind us to reality, or bias us towards seeing only what our brains choose to see. This month, we’re looking into how bias forms within ourselves, and what we can do to recognize bias in action in both ourselves and our students. 

Our cover: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”– Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost

Cover photo by Maria Loznevaya on Pexels. Others from Unsplash & Creative Commons            

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at bias, the brain’s natural way of interpreting the world and taking actions. While we cannot live without bias, we can refine it and moderate it. The key is learning how it works, as is explained in the Main video. The Deep listening helps teacher look at their own implicit biases.

Curtis Kelly starts us off with his own observations of bias and the brain. Stephen M. Ryan carries that discussion on, adding how predictive processing invariably calls the four horse-persons: Bias, Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination. Lexi Basciano discusses the problems caused by prior knowledge and how, as teachers, we can open our minds to avoid them. Then Valeria Bogorevich explains how an accent can lead to one particular kind of stereotyping and what to do about it.

In the PLUS section, we offer a touching letter to a father from a student, Risa Iwanaga, that tells us something about ourselves.

Hedreich Nichols

Uncovering Your Implicit Biases: An Exercise for Teachers

Our Thoughts on Bias

Bias is a Fundamental Process of Thinking Curtis Kelly

This issue is about bias. Bias is a term we normally associate with ill deeds and try to avoid, but I am going to start this article with another way of looking at bias. Ultimately all cognition is bias. Anytime we encounter new information, make a decision, or engage in an action, we bring up mental models to give meaning to what we perceive and use the affordances and emotional valances in those models to steer our reaction. Those built-in models are based on a lifetime of experiences. They are the “truth” of us, whether prejudiced, demeaning, leaning one way or another, or not. If X happens, there are only so many ways I can interpret it or act in response, and past experience tells me these one or two choices are probably the best. Bias merely represents our brain’s fundamental way of deciding. (To read the research on this perspective, look at the Harvard Bundle on Bias and Heuristics)

Think Tank Articles

They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught Stephen M. Ryan

They ride! Bias. Stereotyping. Prejudice. And Discrimination. The four horse-persons of the Illiberal Apocalypse. They ride through all lands. Through the domestic and international news. In our streets. In our classrooms. In our students’ heads. And (whisper it who dares) in our own.

Knowledge: A Tool or a Curse? Lexi Basciano

As a future neuroscientist and educator, nothing grinds my gears more than images depicting a left brain versus right brain ideology. “Take this quiz to find out if you are left-brain dominant (logical) or right-brain dominant (creative)!” I roll my eyes every time. Through my education about language and the brain, I’ve learned that this dichotomy is not scientific and is far from the truth. Every semester I am caught off guard when a student references this left-brain, right-brain ideology. Why is there a student with this misconception in my class every semester and why does this always surprise me? The answer to my students’ confusion and my surprise may be one and the same: the curse of knowledge.

Accent-Based Explicit and Implicit Biases Valeria Bogorevich

As a European immigrant who has been living in the United States for the past 10 years, I have been enjoying the white privilege but only up until the moment I open my mouth and start speaking. Once I do that, thanks to our powerful thinking machine, aka brain, biases jump at me in the form of “innocent” questions: “What’s that lovely accent?” or “Where are you from?” As a researcher, I understand why it happens. According to Flege (1984), it takes less than a second for people to classify speech as accented. As a human, I know that people with an accent are more than just where they are from, so, on the inside, I feel like the person in this video.

Think Tank Plus

Dear Father, Do I Miss You? Risa Iwanaga

In the class in Australia, where I was studying abroad. There were five minutes left before the chime for lunch rang.

Only the sound of running a pen resounded in the quiet classroom.


I was staring blankly at the clock on the wall, wondering what to eat for lunch today.

Knock suddenly echoes.


All the students stopped their pens and looked at the door.

As teachers were whispering to each other, we could easily hear that “somebody in this class must go back to their country.”

But I didn’t guess it was me.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Learning a language involves learning how to deal with the information carried by it. In particular, in this age of media lies, maybe we should be “inoculating our learners” against misinformation. Neuroscientist Sander van der Linden has been working on just that. Listen to this fascinating Brain Science Podcast.

The staff think his work carries a potential for English teaching, and we are working on some exercises you could use in class. While we could not make them in time for this issue, we promise to put them in the next. Here is a teaser:

Credibility – Look at these three headlines about a questionnaire given to mothers. Rank them from 1 (most credible) to 3 (least credible)

We are being raised by bad mothers!

70% of French mothers reported: “In raising my child, I made many mistakes.”

Mothers want to know how to raise their children better.

Make Believe Comix: This is a fairly simple digital tool you and/or your students can use to create comics.

MBE Logo

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Matt Ehlers

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari



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