Concerns about brain-based analyses
Are we chasing the right squirrel?
Contemporary cultures seem to me to venerate the “mind,” the brain. We have become accustomed to reading reports about relationships between neural functioning and thinking. We hear why we should employ certain cognitive tasks to help us with aging, some mental features differentiate between psychopaths and sociopaths, and why it’s beneficial to talk to ourselves. Now, I admit to a bit of cherry-picking here, I just took the first few links I found when I searched “news” and cognitive science. But, are these mind-based ideas accurate?
I don’t think that there can be any dispute that humans’ brains are important in their day-to-day behavior and their learning. But have we elevated the brain (and cognition) to a too-exalted position?
About the brain (i.e., mind)
The “brain” and the “mind” are not, of course, interchangeable. One is a physical organ. The other is a hypothetical entity that reflects personal experiences, including more ephemeral factors (feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and etc.).
To be sure, the brain is involved in (i.e., responds to and influences) thoughts, feelings, and etc. An important question is whether the brain is causing these phenomena and, more importantly causing our behavior.
In this regard, it’s important to remind ourselves of the difference between brain and mind as we discuss the topic of “mind-behavior” or “brain-behavior” relationships.
The popular press is rife with reports about brain studies about learning. Usually there’s some hint that there is mystery in these findings (“new research upsets old views”; “current brain findings cause changes in our thinking”; etc.).
To be sure, there is often something of interest in popular press sources for those of us concerned about individuals with disabilities. Scans of individuals’s brains before birth may capture problems (i.e., “Brain differences tied to autism can be detected in the womb”) and analyses of the MRIs of kids with reading disabilities will reveal important stuff.
But, let’s think again.... Is behavior the product of our thinking, or is our thinking the product of our behavior? As William James wondered, are we afraid because we run or do we run because we’re afraid? Do we run because we see a bear and, fearing it, set to flight...or do we see a bear, commence to run, and then feel afraid? The sequence of events is important. Does the behavior precede the action or vice versa. In a masterful analysis (“The Illusion of Conscious Will”), the late Dan Wegner explained how we BS ourselves about some aspects of our cognition; we are not cognitiveley in charge of out lives. I’m pretty sure he’s right, and I think we all ought to sit up and think about his analysis.
The argument I’m advancing is, I think, pretty important. It’s nice to be able to describe educational outomes by reporting, for example, changes in brain (cerebral) blood flow, but it’s more important to know how to cause those changes.
We educators can explain how to get individuals to behave in specific ways (e.g., to read). Y’all cognitive psychologists can tell us what it looks like when we succeed.
Fundamental problem with focusing on cognition
Our brains are mysterious to us primarily because they’re are OURs. It’s very hard for we users of brains to view those organs any way but subjectively. It’s very hard for we humans to separate ourselves from our observations. This was a terrific problem for Freud, Piaget, and many other well-known psychologists.
So, modern psychologists have sought more objective methods of understanding brain-behavior relationships. There are a couple of famous methods:
Rejecting introspection, some adopted behavioral perspectives. Famously, B. F. Skinner, following on the work of Pavlov and others, essentially invented modern-day behavior analysis. Instead of looking for the structure of behavior in “thinking,” Skinner and those who followed him, looked for that structure in learning from environments. These researchers depended on studies about individuals’ behavior under different enviromental condtions.
Rejecting behaviorists like Skinner, some psychologists such as Ulrich Neisser, promoted an analysis of cognition. They wrote about perception, memory, and cognition. They saw behavior as a product of the mind. Neisser’s approach has been the favored one among cognitive psychologists. Although they may argue about which particular branch of his approach they are pursuing, they share a rejection of arguments founded on behaviorism. Those researchers who describe human behavior as a product of humans’ cognition, use research from studies about how certain individuals repond under theoretical conditons.
The key difference between them is the conditions. Advocates of cognitive aproaches will likely object that “theoretical” conditons are really “differential environmental” conditions that I’ve ascribed to the behavioral view.
Let me acknowldge the beauty of the cognitive view. It’s wonderful to describe the outcomes of learning, to illustrate what the brain’s behavior is when it learns.
From my view, it’s better for we educators to employ practices that allow y’all to get the chances to observe those beautiful outcomes