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This is the twelfth 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. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication
Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers
are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions
near the end of this newsletter.
We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free
IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are
available at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
Appropriate 21st Century Education:
The Issues of Consciousness and Free Will
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
article focused principally on the beliefs about consciousness and
free will that the renowned neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga expressed
in Who’s in Charge: Free Will and
the Science of the Brain (2011). The article ended with an
introduction to the dilemmas the legal, educational, and theological
professions are beginning to confront because of new discoveries about
our brain’s decision-making processes. The basic dilemma is how to
decide what changes (if any) our society should make in defining
inappropriate and criminal behaviors, and in determining the
appropriate societal response to such behaviors. Since social skills
are central to human development and interaction, this issue is
obviously educationally significant.
David Eagleman, who directs the Initiative for Neuroscience and the Law
at Baylor University College of Medicine, has written an excellent
non-technical book with a principal focus on this issue, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
The previous article indicated that our brain is made up of an immense
number of highly interconnected neural networks—each specialized to
automatically process a very specific element of the external or
internal environment. Related basic networks combine into more complex
networks. Various line segments, colors, and textures can thus combine
into massive networks that form the remembered image of a house.
We tend to think that we experience the totality of what’s out there,
but the reality is that we don’t need to process every element of a
familiar house in order to recognize it. All animals sample and act on
only a small part of their respective environment. Honeybees, for
example, access ultraviolet wavelengths and can manufacture honey,
neither of which we can do. Conversely, we can gather their honey,
place it in bottles, and use it in cooking—which they can’t do.
The book’s title implies Eagleman’s belief that most of our brain’s
activity is hidden from conscious thought. Over evolutionary time we’ve
been biologically programmed to automatically recognize/ignore,
seek/avoid, resolve/fail most of the challenges that confront us. The
automatic nature of conversation and jazz improvisation are examples.
We have a conscious sense of the basic theme we’re trying to
communicate, but what comes out is principally the unconscious
automatic flow of verbal or musical information.
Our brain networks occasionally confront competing information, such as
in optical illusions that require a conscious resolution. Consider the
common set of illusions (below) in which we consciously try to
determine the orientation of the figure.
When a brain’s challenges reach a certain level of complexity, it needs
a relatively small but powerful conscious system to direct the huge
number of evolved automatic systems. Think of consciousness as akin to
the newly hired CEO of a company with a long successful history. Staff,
technologies, procedures, etc. function automatically and efficiently
for the most part. The CEO’s basic job is to monitor the automatic
systems, to identify immediate and long-term goals that the automatic
systems will carry out, and to take over in emergencies when the
existing automatic (rule-bound) systems can’t resolve a challenge. In
the previous article, Gazzaniga used the term Interpreter to identify
this core element of our conscious brain system.
We’re a social species, so although our conscious system plays an
important role in controlling our individual behavior, our species
survival requires cooperative behavior. We thus evolved deeply embedded
cultural rules and policies that help resolve disputes quickly and
peacefully, even if some rules seem arbitrary. These rules were
codified in such moral prescriptions as the Biblical commandments to
respect elders, and to not kill, steal, lie, covet, or misbehave
sexually. This was later condensed into “Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you”, and still later into the scientific concept of
We seem to function with parallel moral systems, such as that killing
is wrong, but it’s all right to kill to protect self/kin. And just as
we have a conscience to adjudicate internal conflict, we have cultural
mores and a legal system to adjudicate conflicts among individuals.
We’re thus not completely free to do whatever we want to do without
fear of censure. The continuing dilemma is whether to follow one’s own
desires and needs or those of the larger group. Home and school
instruction and interaction (and religion for many) help to develop the
requisite moral/ethical competencies.
Scientists have been exploring this dilemma through studies in which
participants are asked to settle hypothetical moral conflicts—such as
whether it’s OK to steal to get needed food or medicine for one’s
family, or whether it’s OK to do something that will cause the death of
one person in order to save the lives of several others.
One such classic study of moral behavior is the hypothetical case of a
young adult brother and sister who are traveling together. Neither is
married. After a pleasant day on the road they check into a motel room.
They later decide on a whim and without any coercion that it would be
fun and interesting to have sex. The sister is on birth control pills
but the brother gets and uses a condom to be safe. Afterwards, they
decide that it was enjoyable but that they’ll keep it a secret and not
do it again, resolutions they follow.
When asked if the sibling behavior was OK, study participants
overwhelmingly deemed it immoral and/or disgusting, but few could give
a logical reason why. Are some moral beliefs so deeply ingrained that
they are beyond conscious awareness? When the incest taboo emerged,
societies had only a primitive (at best) understanding of reproductive
biology/genetics and contraceptive technology, and the taboo was
reinforced by a seeming biological aversion to sexual behavior between
close relatives. Although the adult consensual siblings in the vignette
knew what they were doing, and the chance of a pregnancy was remote,
the taboo still exists in the minds of most people.
Similarly, the issue of same sex marriage is currently creating
cultural confusion because our scientific understanding of the
biological underpinnings of romantic attachment is ahead of our
cultural ability to accept it.
Legal and Educational Challenges
Eagleman does an excellent job of explaining the issues
confronting the criminal justice system as science is coming to grips
with the reality that many criminal behaviors are more complex and
biologically driven than previously believed. Our supposed free-will
brain isn’t the only player in determining our identity. It partners
with our endocrine and immune systems, and the three are inseparable
from the chemical systems (from nutrition to air pollution) that
influence our development and behavior. Toss in the effect of our
complex social system on identity and it becomes problematic just which
part of our personal community is the principal perpetrator who should
go to jail.
Eagleman doesn’t suggest that we simply forgive criminal behavior, but
rather that society should begin the torturous path of trying to
connect culpability to neuroplasticity, societal response to biological
reality. The goal, for example, should be to place young offenders with
still maturing frontal lobes into an effective residential school that
will focus on developing self-control, and to place those with frontal
lobe or other damage that precludes social restoration into a humane
setting that will also protect society from them. Costs and recidivism
would eventually decrease, and social satisfaction would increase as
punishment becomes only a part of the societal resolution, rather than
most of it.
Schools (and possibly religious organizations) would play an important
support role in reconceptualizing the criminal justice system, since it
requires a society that understands our brain and its support systems
and a willingness to question existing a priori assumptions.
Human biology and cognition must thus become embedded into the entire
K-12 curriculum, so that students truly understand our social
body/brain by the time they become voters. We now see political and
marketing strategies succeed with deceptive and dishonest allegations.
It’s because of our low collective understanding of the underlying
neurobiology of decision, behavior, and probability. The era in which
our understanding of our brain and cognition was somewhat speculative
is over. It’s thus time to get serious about helping students develop
the ability to understand their own unconscious/conscious brain, and
how to assess the credibility of allegations—to know and properly
respond when they’re being manipulated.
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.
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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