This brief article was shared by Professor Sylwester with the Initiative in April 1996 after his participation at the November 1995 Wingspread conference.

Dramatic advances in brain imaging and other research technologies are moving cognitive scientists towards an unprecedented view of our brain and its functions. This has led to an intense interest in the development of a comprehensive brain theory that will be of the scientific magnitude of E=MC2, in that it will spark a revolution in the cognitive sciences analogous to the revolution in physics that Einstein’s theories sparked. The theorist who develops the theory will immediately join the ranks of the great scientists.

This comprehensive brain theory will emerge in part out of Charles Darwin’s discoveries about natural selection as a scientific explanation for biological diversity (about 150 years ago), Albert Einstein’s reconceptualization of time/space/energy/matter in his theories of relativity (about 100 years ago), and James Watson and Francis Crick’s discoveries about DNA as the cellular mechanism for Darwinian natural selection (about 50 years ago).

It’s difficult to predict when such a major theory might actually emerge, but it probably won’t occur before the turn of the century, and will certainly contain elements that will be culturally and professionally controversial. Our profession may thus have five years or so of lead time (1) to begin to shift from its current social/behavioural-science orientation to incorporate the biological sciences that are now answering the teaching/learning questions that have long mystified us, and (2) to focus our energy on trying to understand the development before we seek practical educational applications.

Educational leaders must therefore develop a functional understanding of our brain and its processes, so they’ll be able to develop and evaluate educational applications, and deal appropriately with the controversies that will certainly arise. Uninformed educators will become vulnerable to all the pseudoscientific fads, inappropriate generalizations, and dubious programs that will certainly emerge.

This article introduces three important potentially controversial issues that will probably be incorporated into the global brain theory. The readings at the end of each section are accessible to educators with a limited background in science. They will get you deeper into the issue, and so help you to use the article as an effective discussion guide with colleagues and students.

The comprehensive brain theory will use biological and not disembodied concepts to explore our brain and its conscious/unconscious processes.

1. It’s important for educators to understand that this theory is emerging out of the material world of biology and Darwinian natural selection. It will thus seek to explain cognitive behaviour through the electrochemical actions of neural networks, and not through such disembodied concepts as mind/spirit/soul/enthusiasm. It’s not that the theory will necessarily argue that God doesn’t exist, but rather that the concept of God emerges out of theology and philosophy, and not biology. Thus, most biologists currently believe that they must use biological concepts and principles to explain organisms and their activities, and so they can’t include an external non-biological design/directive force in the equation. The theory will thus probably argue that our body/brain is a self-organizing system that draws on its long genetic history and current environmental challenges to organize and maintain itself.

The theory will argue that the same natural selection principles that created biological diversity over aeons of time operate within our lifetime to regulate the development and maintenance of our brain’s neural networks. The evolutionary base of the theory will obviously disturb those who reject Darwinian evolution, and this may spark educational controversies.

2. The theory will further argue that natural selection can explain many things that we currently view as taught and learned. We are born with a brain that is genetically tuned to the environment in which it lives, that is born capable of solving many survival challenges. We don’t have to learn how to breathe or suckle, or to recognize different line segments and tones (although we have to learn that the line is called vertical and the tone G#). The theory will probably eventually lead to a controversial reconceptualization of such concepts as teaching and learning.

3. Consciousness will be a central problems in the development of the theory. Consciousness refers to the subjective way in which we can combine and experience, but can’t precisely describe, the objects and events in our physical environment (such as the redness of a red ball, the painfulness of an injury, the joy of love).

Our brain uses several separate sensory systems (that scientists understand) to divide and process incoming information, and each system does further separate analyses (such as color, shape, and motion in vision). A major issue in consciousness (that scientists don’t yet understand) is the binding problem – how/where/when our brain recombines or synthesizes all the things it has separated. For example, we have a unified impression of a red ball rolling along a table, even though the color, shape and movement are all processed in separate visual areas and no one area sees the red rolling ball. Our profession has a related problem, in that we have a much better understanding of how to teach analysis than synthesis/metaphor/creativity.

Understanding the mechanisms of consciousness will obviously be an important discovery, but reducing consciousness/joy/love/beauty/metaphor to the mere actions of neurons will certainly disturb those who will view such reductionism as the loss of something indefinitely human. The comprehensive brain theory will propose organizational structures, systems, and priorities that differ from current perspectives

1. We’ve tended to think of ourselves and our behaviour in rational logical terms, but our emotions more often direct the decision. Emotion drives attention, which drives learning, memory, and behaviour – and so emotion is the triggering mechanism for just about everything we do. Far more neural fibers project from our brain’s relatively small emotional center into the large rational/logical cortex than the reverse. We can’t regulate and evaluate students’ emotions, so schools have tended to reduce the emotional (or contextual) loading of activities, and to focus rather on the pure mastery of concepts/facts/skills. We’ve even turned more student emotion into misbehaviour. The emerging brain theory will require us to return emotion to its central cognitive position, and that will be difficult in a school that values systematic management, order, and evaluation over emotional comfort, flexibility, and intelligence.