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This is the eleventh of
a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the
current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob
Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide
two introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters
are written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to
contribute to this emerging collection.
For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive
neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and
Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In
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Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
The Issues of Consciousness and Free Will
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The human conceit, long fueled by theology, philosophy,
psychology, education, and law is that we’re basically independent
agents. We function principally on the basis of consciously directed
reason and logic—something we call free will.
Well maybe. But think back to last night or the night before when you
needed but couldn’t get a good night’s sleep because your brain was
having an extended inane conversation with itself. How successful were
you in consciously telling it to “shut up already and go to sleep”?
Initial widespread public awareness of the shift in scientific opinion
on the issue of free will was fueled by the publication of two widely
read and acclaimed books, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee’s On Intelligence (2004) and Malcolm Gradwell’s Blink
(2005). Three 2011 books for general readers by internationally
renowned cognitive neuroscientists have now added to the growing
scientific belief that we’re perhaps not as consciously autonomous as
we formerly believed.
This article will focus on Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain
(2011). The next article in this series will explore the cultural
applications of the underlying cognitive systems that regulate decision
and response, focusing on the perspectives of David Eagleman (2011). A
later article will focus on the widely acclaimed book by Nobel Laureate
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking: Fast and Slow (2011).
Who’s in Charge?
Gazzaniga clarifies his basic position early. We
are not the boss of our brain. If it wants to chat with itself when we
really need to sleep, it will chat. Like the Internet, our brain
doesn’t have a boss. Further, who is the “I” who wants freedom of
action? Are individuals in a mechanistic universe who are members of a
social species really free to
do whatever they want to do? And if I want that freedom for myself, am
I willing to grant it to a cab driver who prefers to drive somewhere
other than where I want to go?
Gazzaniga has written an often light-hearted book about a serious
perplexing issue. The first half is an excellent non-technical
functional introduction to our brain, woven into the story of the
development of the cognitive neurosciences as only a true pioneer can
tell it. He was a graduate student in Roger Sperry’s lab when Sperry
was doing the transformative split-brain research that would lead to
his Nobel Prize. Gazzaniga designed many of the imaginative initial
studies on the split-brain patients.
The organizational perspective that eventually emerged is that
our brain is composed of an enormous number of highly interconnected
networks (or modules). Each processes a very specific task, such as to
recognize a vertical line or a specific tone, or to bend the left index
finger. Initial fragmented sensory/motor information becomes integrated
as it moves hierarchically through the relevant brain systems to
produce emergent properties that are greater than the sum of the
initial activations. Thus, shapes, colors, and textures combine to
become a face; individual sounds become melodic sequences that then
become a song that emerges from a vocal system and face.
The large deeply folded sheet of cortex at the top of our brain is
divided into two hemispheres that are connected by a massive fiber
tract (the corpus callosum) that was severed during split-brain surgery
to reduce intractable epilepsy. Gazzaniga discovered that the two
hemispheres process different kinds of tasks, and function differently.
Goldberg (2009) has proposed that the fundamental hemispheric
difference is that our brain must of necessity use different strategies
to process novel and familiar tasks, and that the right hemisphere (in
most people) seeks to understand novel challenges and develop creative
solutions, while the left hemisphere recognizes familiar challenges and
activates established responsive routines. Language is processed
principally in the left hemisphere because it’s an efficient
established communicative system.
Our conscious rational brain is thus equipped to recognize and respond
to both the novel and familiar challenges that we confront. Although
the constant chaotic sensory input into our brain is rapidly processed
at a subconscious level, our (avoid, approach, or delay) response is
unitary and feels conscious. Gazzaniga has proposed the intriguing
concept of a left hemisphere Interpreter
that creates a single, unified, coherent response out of the massive
sensory input and memory retrieval. The narratives that emerge out of
decision and action create our sense of self and the beliefs that bias
our future decisions.
These discoveries intrigued many educators who then began to read the
growing literature for general readers. Seeking practical applications,
they often made claims that went beyond what the research had
discovered. Well, scientists don’t always get it right initially
either, but by the beginning of the 21st century scientists and
educators had developed a functional understanding of our brain and
cognition, and educators were developing credible applications.
Sitze reported in a recent IAE article (http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter
-2012-82.html) that theology and other fields had ignored or even
became hostile to what was occurring. Thus generally uninformed, they
will now have difficulty in getting up to speed in interpreting and
applying neuroscience discoveries that relate to their field—issues
such as free will.
The clean, crisp, authoritative exposition Gazzaniga presents in the
first half of the book becomes tentative as he jumps into the murky
waters of consciousness and free will, which weren’t originally
scientific constructs. The cognitive neurosciences began to seriously
explore their underlying neurobiology towards the end of the 20th
century when Nobel Laureate Francis Crick (1994) suggested that
advances in research technology now made such explorations possible (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Astonishing_Hypothesis).
In a determinist era during which many deny the existence of free will,
Gazzaniga argues that free will in humans is possible because the rules
that regulate things at one level don’t necessarily apply to subsequent
levels. For example, quantum mechanics governs atoms and Newton’s laws
govern objects, and one set doesn’t completely predict the other. That
molecules don’t exhibit free will doesn’t mean that humans and
Consciousness is a property that emerges out of the interplay of a
constantly shifting multitude of specialized systems, and the thalamus
seems to play a central role in this integration. Consciousness
provides us with a unified sense of self, a personal subjective
awareness of our existence and of the environment we inhabit. It thus
abandons us during sleep and magically reappears when we awaken. And
when we’re conscious, we not only know something, but we know that we
The issue of free will in conscious problem solving begins with the
nature of problems. Factual problems have a single correct response,
such as 6 x 5 = 30 or Salem is the capital of Oregon. The other kind of
problem permits alternative responses, such as what to order from a
menu, or how to get from Portland to Seattle.
A major task of cognitive neuroscience research will be to discover how
automatically processed sensory input morphs into conscious moral
decision and action, and the innate and cultural constraints that bias
the response. Is it a response to a factual problem that draws on
learning and memory, or to a multiple solution problem that draws on
feelings and preferences? Scientists have discovered that initial
subconscious processing has already biased our decision up to ten
seconds before conscious systems get involved.
What parts of this subconscious bias are innately and/or culturally
determined? For example, we’re born with an innate ability to acquire
such properties as language and a moral code, but family and cultural
constraints guide us to a preferred specific language and moral code.
Free will wouldn’t be an issue if we were a solitary species. Social
relationships are central to the moral/ethical elements of behavior.
The concept of personal responsibility is meaningless unless others are
present to be responsible to. Gazzaniga suggests that five universal
moral rules exist that have precursors in chimpanzee behavior: Help
rather than harm others. Be fair and reciprocal in relationships.
Respect elders and those in legitimate authority. Demonstrate group
loyalty. Be pure in body and behavior.
Gazzaniga ends his book with a thoughtful discussion of perhaps the
most complex problem humans confront, and that’s how to develop a legal
system that recognizes the validity of societal needs, individual
responsibility, and the biological factors that can limit a person’s
ability to behave in a culturally responsible manner.
We’re not a mindless machine, regulated solely by physically determined
forces (or by a controlling deity for all that). Rather, we are the
product of all the life experiences that impact our emerging self.
Responsibility is thus a contract between two or more people rather
than a brain property—and pure determinism is meaningless in this
We’ve domesticated ourselves over evolutionary time by punishing and
even killing those who don’t follow the basic moral/ethical rules
we’ve developed, and so we’ve become a basically cooperative social
species. Still, misbehavior continues, and the educational,
theological, and legal communities will have to wrestle with how best
to make us even more human than we currently are.
The next issue of this newsletter will explore the underlying
neurobiology and cultural constraints of that issue, and the role that
education can play in its resolution.
Crick, F. (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Scribner.
Eagleman, D. (2011) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. New York: Pantheon.
Gazzaniga, M. (2011) Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Harper Collins.
Hawkins, J., and Blakeslee, S. (2004) On
Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the
Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines. New York: Henry Holt. Review by
Robert Sylwester in Brain Connection: http://brainconnection.positscience.com/content/214_1.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His
most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010,
Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007,
Corwin Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain
Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. See http://brainconnection.positscience.com/library/?main=talkhome/columnists.
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