Clute International Academic Conference 2013

"Knowledge: Brain, Mind, and Self"

James Cohn

In discussions of the brain, the words “self” and “mind” are often curiously absent. Yet the pedagogical process, which is not about information but knowledge, is profoundly linked to our concept of Self and our understanding of others as possessing a Self. This “Theory of Mind” is a product of consciousness that influences how we view others, which in turn deeply affects our ability to teach them or learn from them.

No one seriously believes that teaching and learning are to be found in the process of siphoning information from the teacher’s brain (which is full) into the student’s brain (which is an empty receptacle waiting to be filled). Yet our practice as educators appears to flow from that belief.

The Pygmalion Effect (wherein students rise or fall to the expectations of their teachers) is a phenomenon recognized as a “given” of primary education, but often overlooked in higher education. Yet if the maintenance of a Self over time is a lifelong and constantly-evolving process rather than one restricted to early development, the interaction of the professor’s Self with that of the student will inevitably affect the student’s acquisition of knowledge at any level of instruction.

The student’s positive or negative Self-Efficacy (composed of attitudes, emotions and beliefs) is a feature of the mind supported by plasticity in the cortical structures of the brain in a complex self-system that is “revealed” to us as reflective consciousness. Neurobiological research (brain mapping, especially functional MRIs) has strongly suggested the interplay between our conscious experience of a Self and specific areas of both hemispheres.

The connection remains elusive; as Owen Flanagan put it, “We do not understand how it is that numerous complexly structured, insentient neurons, in virtue of being well connected and living in a sea of exotic, but equally dumb, neurochemicals, generate a subjective life… Why, in addition to processing information, storing it, and utilizing it, do we… have experiences?”

This workshop begins with brainstorming and conversation about which of our everyday activities require reflective consciousness, and which do not (such as teaching, learning, communicating, speaking, writing, reading, listening, reasoning, problem-solving, etc.). Videos of phenomena such as “Blindsight” are be used to deepen the conversation:

The workshop then moves to an exploration of an idea set forward by Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. Jaynes asserted that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution, but is a learned process that is taught culturally and is based on metaphorical language. To support his theory, Jaynes drew evidence from a wide range of fields, including neuroscience, psychology, archeology, ancient history, and the analysis of ancient texts. Jaynes's theory presents educators with valuable implications for how to view the role of the Self in human transactions, especially pedagogical transactions. Its implications also touch on a variety of components of modern society such as mental health, religious belief, susceptibility to persuasion, psychological anomalies such as hypnosis and possession, and the ongoing evolution of our reflective conscious minds.