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This is the 18th 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) provided two
introductory articles. Newsletter # 77 and most of the subsequent
newsletters were written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund
have also contributed.
For the most part, these articles focus on cognitive neuroscience. Dave
Moursund is providing 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.
Summary 1: We Have Several Brain Systems
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
We constantly confront dangers and opportunities related to our need to
survive and reproduce. Many folks believe that our three-pound brain
processes all the recognition and response functions that are required
for our survival and a qualitative life.
It’s a bit more complicated than that. As indicated in the 17 previous
articles in this series, we actually have several separate but
functionally related internal and external recognition/response systems
that the 21st Century School needs to attend to in order to help us to
survive life’s challenges. We have personal brain and immune systems
that are principally focused on self-survival. We’re a social species,
so we developed linguistic/cultural/political/moral/etc. systems that
are focused on communication and the well being of our group. We’ve
developed an expanded body/brain that uses tools to augment our
sensory-motor limitations—from microscopes to telescopes, cars to ships
to planes, calculators to computers, snail mail to e-mail….
A Personal Brain and Immune System
Our skull-centered brain is composed of hundreds of
billions of neurons and glial support cells. It receives, integrates,
and responds to the kinds of information on current and potential
dangers and opportunities that our sensory/motor systems can process
and pass on to our cognitive problem-solving systems.
Our diffused immune system, which in aggregate weighs about as much as
our brain, is composed of a huge number of often free-floating
specialized cells that are spread throughout our body (but principally
within our skin and digestive tract regions). Our immune system
recognizes and responds to the several pounds of microscopic microbes
and pollutants that have entered and now inhabit our body. It
identifies and then seeks to destroy those that are dangerous. In
effect, our body includes a type of highly diffuse immune system
“brain” that functions at a subconscious level and continually works to
help keep us healthy.
So for example, combinations of our very interconnected skull-centered
brain cells respond to such larger visible external challenges as a
rapidly approaching car or an opportunity for food, and cells in our
diffused immune system respond to such tiny invisible intruders as flu
viruses that make us ill, and certain bacteria that upset our digestive
system. Scientists now realize that the two systems are highly
interconnected and balanced. A successful response to many of life’s
challenges requires the two systems to collaborate, and illnesses such
as asthma can occur if they don’t.
Our immune system’s capabilities tend to diminish (and we become
susceptible to infection) during an extended stressful situation that
requires our body/brain to focus on developing a successful cognitive
response. Conversely, when our immune system is temporarily overwhelmed
with a viral or bacterial infection, we tend to lay low (perhaps stay
home from work and take to bed) in an attempt to reduce the level of
Our inventive brain’s development of vaccines is an example of our
brain assisting our immune system. A flu shot boosts our immune
system’s ability to fight off a flu strain through the inoculation of a
mild form of the disease. This action increases the viral recognition
and response awareness, and this heightened response capability wards
off the more virulent form of the flu if it later enters our body.
Our immune system often reciprocates. For example, our brain responds
most vigorously to high contrast sensory information, and ignores or
merely monitors steady states and subtle changes. This makes biological
sense. Why expend cognitive energy on things that aren’t currently
problematic or erratically fluctuating? Our brain thus tends to ignore
gradually developing problems, such as low levels of air pollution,
until the pollution becomes visible and affects breathing. Our immune
system will pick up the initial subtle signals of pollution, however,
and use nausea, runny noses, and headaches to inform our brain that it
should attend to an increasing environmental problem.
We thus have two basic systems that collaborate in recognizing and
responding to external/mammoth and internal/minute challenges. School
activities typically focus on students’ brain systems, and tend to
ignore their immune systems. Of course, schools insist (with varying
levels of success) on inoculations before they’ll admit a student. An
important educational challenge is thus to help students and their
caregivers understand the underlying neurobiology of the two systems
that maintain our health and cognition.
A Social Species, Culturally Creative
We’re a social species, highly dependent on collaborative
interactions with others. Language is the principal conduit for such
interaction. Speech is almost intuitive. In effect, we’re born capable
of mastering any language in the world, but we’re not born proficient
in any of them. Reading and writing are a learning challenge that
typically requires some school help.
Language communicates not only factual and emotional information from
others, but also important elements of the culture itself. This deeply
embedded cultural concept is well documented in a recent intriguing
article in New Scientist Magazine (de Lange, 5/8/2012).
The 21st Century is adding yet another widely accepted computerized
communicative device that can very quickly transmit speech, print, and
video to nearby and/or distant people. We’re now totally into the world
of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The next (and final) article in this
series will focus on that 21st Century development.
The Role of the 21st Century School
These multiple information systems propose an intriguing thought: Is school now simply another form of cognitive/cultural inoculation,
an educational flu shot? The curriculum inserts relatively mild
versions of complex human problems such as sustainability, poverty, and
global warming into student brains, so that those who master curricular
challenges will be able to effectively recognize and respond to these
very complex life challenges they’ll confront later. Role-playing and
simulations are good examples of school activities that allow students
to develop important recognition and response skills in a
Schools should be concerned about our total brain system—our
cognitive and immune systems, our social nature and its cultures, and
now our increasing body/brain extensions, such as computerization and
other technologies. The environment in which students learn should be
intellectually stimulating—but also relatively free of the antigens,
pollutants, and cultural deceptions and outright lies that can reduce
cognitive capability and the quality of students’ lives. The escalating
advances in biology demand that the 21st Century curriculum help
students develop a functional understanding of our several brain
systems. This is something certainly necessary in informed 21st Century
citizens who will confront many important legal, moral, economic, and
cultural issues related to our increasingly complex recognition and
Schools in the pre-21st Century focused on the geography of the world
in which we live. It made sense. It was important to know why folks
lived where they lived and how the geographic world affected life. The
21st Century will introduce us to a new exciting geography—that
of genes/viruses/brains, that of how ethnic and cultural groups can
best co-exist, and that of how the addition of technological tools to
our body’s total brain system changes who we are and what we can become.
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.posit
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