Education as Changes in the Brain
“Written on the [brain] is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille.” (1)
In this paper, I would like to explore the origin of the writing on the human brain from a neurobiological perspective. Neurobiology can provide us with information about the material nature of the brain. After developing an understanding of the brain, I would like to consider the implications for learning and teaching.
The physical nature of the brain is good starting place for thinking about what is written on the brain. This approach will allow consideration of the literary constraints imposed by the material brain. The brain can be thought of as an enormous input/output box with many smaller input/output boxes nested inside. The smallest input/output boxes are neurons; cells specialized to receive and send information.
Neurons consist of a cell body and two types of processes, axons and dendrites. Neurons are connected through synapses the space between the dendrites of one neuron and the axon of another neuron. The receiving surfaces of neurons are dendrites. Sensory neurons have dendrites that extend out of the nervous system. Axons are responsible for transmission of information; therefore, motor neurons have axons that extend outside the nervous system. Anything that a human being does or experiences can be defined as their behavior. Therefore, behavior is equivalent to the nervous system or the brain.
One implication of brain-behavior equivalence is that changes in the brain indicate changes in behavior. The brain’s capacity to undergo physical changes by alteration of the internal structures of neurons or synapses is called neuroplasticity. The property of neuroplasticity corresponds to changes in behavior or the processing of learning. Any time the student experiences the teacher they are learning something from them. The role of teachers is to facilitate learning and changes in their students’ brains. Teaching as a profession is distantly related to neurosurgery, they both alter people’s brains.
One objection to the brain-behavior equivalence story is that the brain is more than behavior. The vast majority of neurons in the human brain are neither sensory neurons nor motor neurons; they are not directly involved in behavior. These are inter-neurons, which have synapses only with other neurons. A majority of the physical brain consists of connections between neurons. It is also important to note that some neurons are capable of generating an output in the absence of an input. In the absence of all input, the leach nervous system will generate outputs that signal swimming. The differences between brains are not the neurons, but the connections between the neurons. Writing on the physical brain consists of neuronal networks, a series of connections between individual neurons. There are kinds of connections being discussed, synapses and those between ideas. Synapses are the physical manifestation of the brain’s connection between two ideas. So “[n]euroscientists are like cryptographers trying to crack an alien script, an alien code.” (2)
Neurobiology research has created some useful interpretations of the text that is the human brain. It provides information about the historical, structural, and unanticipated factors affecting the brain. Throughout development and maturity, the brain is influenced by both genes and the environment. They are invaluable sources of information for human beings. However, the brain is not determined by genes, the environment, or their sum. There is a third contributing factor, the self who creates information. This source of daydreams, dreams, and thoughts is inter-neurons; the part of the brain that conceives of new observations and tests them without the use of sensory or motor activity. This is the nature of the writing on the brain. “You have, within yourself, an ability to make for yourself experiences no one else has ever had, and hence to see things no one else has ever seen and learn things no one else has ever learned.” (3) There is a diversity among brains and consequently stories that is reflected in student learning. Students create their own individual stories; this is the writing on the brain. Learning is the process of revising those stories or changing the writing on the brain.
Students are more than their logical and rational capacity for receiving, processing, and storing information. They are creatures with previous experiences that they have derived meaning from; they have their own personal set of stories. Such stories can act as an excellent background for learning a new concept or as a source of conflict. The clashing of ideas is a chance for students to revise their previous stories, selecting the useful elements and discarding the others. “Reflection is a search for connections.” (4, p167) Then, generating a synthesis of their old ideas and the new concepts that their teacher has introduced. This synthesis will be unique to each student because everyone has their own individual past stories. It will allow students to conceive of experiments, observations, and stories that they were previously unable to imagine. Learning is a process of enhancing creativity in the students. The most mature students are the ones capable of creating their own questions, planning a research program, and executing it. Sounds a lot like role of college professors or research scientists doesn’t it? Good education cannot result in conformity, it can only develop the neurodiversity between the students by facilitating personal story revision.
1. Winterson, Jeanette, Written on the Body. 1st ed. Vintage, 1994
2. Ramachandran, V. S., “Synapses and the Self”. Reith Lectures. 2003 http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/lecture2.shtml
3. Grobstein, P., “From Genomes to Dreams”. Serendip. 1991. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/gen_beh/Dreams.html
4. Zull, J., The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus. 2002
5. Troein, C., “If You Change Your Mind; the Effects of Learning on the Brain.” Serendip. 2006 http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro06/web3/ctroein.html