Get Outta My Head: Quibbling with Brain Science

inside your head

Between societal changes and technological breakthroughs, it’s become abundantly clear that the human brain is transforming the way it processes and learns information.

How Technology Trends Have Influenced the Classroom, Carl Hooker

I’m not so sure, Carl* First of all I don’t see any evidence anywhere that we have changed the way we process information. We have certain capacities for understanding the world– reason, sense perception, emotion, language, intuition, imagination, memory, faith–and we have been using the same for ages. Maybe we mash those up differently on Flipboard than in the Spectator, but I don’t think that amounts to a transformation of brain processes. Now, we might argue that homo sapiens have greater reasoning capacity than, say, Cro Magnon did, and in that sense, transformation has occurred. But that leads to my second doubt: I just don’t think enough time has gone by under the influence of modern technology to produce evolutionary changes in our brains. We are, physiologically speaking, fundamentally the same as we were millennia ago when Aristotle was describing us as mimetic animals. What you’re describing as our craving for interaction, for example, Carl, is not new but rather the activation of something latent, I think.

I am at a loss to understand why we in education drive to biological accounting (think of the recent influence of neuroscience on educational conversations) though I suspect it has something to do with our nearly pathological need to quantify ourselves and our taste for reductionism. In any case, what we are seeing is cultural, not evolutionary, change and to see what that looks like we don’t have to look back very far at all. Clay Shirky was the one who tipped me to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s wonderful look at The Printing Press As An Agent of Change:

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

The reason all this matters is that a biological accounting gets us looking in the wrong direction–inward instead of outward. Learning is at once both a personal and a social act. Like Eisenstein’s historians, we’re overlooking the transition between those two. Our brains aren’t transforming the way we process and learn; we, as whole persons and as cultures are changing.

*Carl is a fellow Apple Distinguished Educator and I love his take on tech. His presentation as SXSWedu this year was a brilliant–and theatrical!–plea for keeping some balance in our digital and analog lives.

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