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How Your Brain Can Get You into Trouble

Train your brain to take SAT questions literally.

How Your Brain Can Get You into Trouble

Your brain is an amazing organ. It operates all the time, making sense of the world around you. Without your trying, your brain continuously sorts through the stream of impressions it receives from your various senses, and pieces together meaningful information from all this data. Your brain continuously interprets what you see and hear—and it does so largely without your awareness. (Bear with me for a few seconds. You'll see how this all creates a hidden danger for you on every section of the SAT shortly.)

So far, so good. In the real world, you want your brain to interpret what you see and hear. And by and large, your brain does a pretty good job. In fact, if the brain perceives nonsense, it will interpret that for you, too.

Let's say I tell you that the speed limit on Chicago residential streets is 30 miles per hour, and that John is driving at 40 miles an hour. What would you conclude? Probably that John is speeding, right? You might draw other conclusions, such as John's likelihood of getting a speeding ticket if he is caught.

But notice that I did not say where John is driving. For all you know, John is driving in the slow lane of a NASCAR race in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Now, in real life it would be ridiculous for someone to say that the speed limit in a city is 30 miles per hour, and that someone is driving 40 miles an hour—but in another city. You know that would be ridiculous, so your brain "figures out" what the other person "really meant."

But on the SAT you don't want to interpret ridiculous statements, you want to eliminate them as wrong. Don't interpret on the SAT, or read between the lines, or search for hidden meanings. There are no hidden meanings, and there's nothing between the lines.

Okay, time for an experiment. Let's take an example from an SAT reading passage about warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals and their different physiological responses to climate changes. Then let's say you get to the following question: "The passage suggests that if the external temperature drops significantly, which of the following would be the effect on the metabolism of a frog compared with the effect on the metabolism of a mouse?"

Don't worry, SAT reading passages don't test what you know about biology or history or literature; all the information to answer a question like this would have been supplied in the passage. Here's my question for the experiment: as you think about this question for fifteen seconds or so, what images come to mind? Close your eyes and imagine the frog and the mouse, create a detailed picture of the situation the question is asking about, and tell me what scene you saw in your mind's eye.

Most people report seeing something like the following: a mouse and a frog, on the ground, in cold weather, probably winter, maybe snow on the ground. Go back to the question and see whether that scenario captures the situation being asked about. Does it?

Unfortunately, that depiction is wildly different from the question being asked. The question did not ask what happens to a mouse and a frog when the weather gets cold, it asked what happens when the temperature drops significantly. Maybe the temperature dropped from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 30 degrees; that would be cold. Then again, maybe the temperature dropped from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees; the same significant temperature drop but we're still in warm-to-hot weather. Notice how easy it is for an SAT question to ask one thing, and for your brain to hear something entirely different.

Unconsciously interpreting what you read can get you in trouble on every section of the SAT, but especially on the reading questions and on the grammar (proofreading) questions. Misreading questions is another big cause of errors, but at least there you can reread the question and verify that you read it correctly the first time. Once your brain has interpreted some text in a particular way, on the other hand, it's very hard to be objective and seek other interpretations.

Train yourself to take everything you read on the SAT absolutely literally—without interpreting or overanalyzing. I'll give you drills to help you develop this skill on each type of question.

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