Information Age Education
   Issue Number 92
June, 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 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

Summary 1: We Have Several Brain Systems

Robert Sylwester
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 cognitive challenge.

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 non-threatening setting.

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 response systems.

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.


de Lange, Catherine (5/8/2012). Bilingual brain boost: Two tongues, two minds. NewScientist. Retrieved 6/28/2012 from
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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 http://brainconnection.posit

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