Information Age Education
   Issue Number 86
March, 2012   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

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

Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
The Issues of Consciousness and Free Will
Part 2

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The previous 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 (2011).


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.

Optical Illusions

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.

Cultural Constraints

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 reciprocal altruism.

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

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

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.
Readers may also send comments via email directly to

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back issues, go to You can change your address or cancel your subscription by clicking on the “Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this message.