How Our Brains Learn to Steer

Steering Cognition is a model of a cognitive executive function proposed by Simon Walker through 15 years of research, involving more than 12,000 children and 40 schools, from the age of 8 -18.

Steering Cognition contributes to how we regulate our attention and coordinate our corresponding responses.

The analogy of the car is sometimes used to explain Steering Cognition. As the ‘controls of our mind’, Steering Cognition regulates the mind’s direction, brakes and gears. Studies have shown that it is distinct from the ‘engine’ of our mind, sometimes referred to as ‘algorithmic processing’, which is responsible for how we process complex calculations.

Regulating our Steering Cognition involves conscious effort; much like driving off-road, we particularly need to regulate our Steering Cognition when we are facing unpredictable and varied situations and stimuli. Failing to do so can result in cognitive, affective (emotional) and social biases.

The state of our Steering Cognition at any time is influenced by what are called ‘priming’ effects (cues in the surrounding environment such as sights, sounds and messages of which we may not be conscious). Studies have shown that environmental biasing of our Steering Cognition can contribute to non-conscious in-group behaviours, e.g. an increased likelihood of group-think or emotional contagion.

Studies have shown that, during adolescence, individuals develop more fixed patterns of steering. By adulthood, these patterns become recognisable as mental traits, behaviours and social attributes. There is some evidence that people with more flexible Steering Cognition have advantages in jobs which require greater social or cognitive dexterity.

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