The Purpose of a Brain…

As my career has moved from mainstream cognitive psychology to applying psychology to education, I have become aware of how far apart these two fields (psychology and education) are. There are many educationalists who are very aware of psychology, and a number of them have psychological backgrounds. What surprises me is how the field of education has so many theories and ideas that are not based on what we know about the brain.

One of the most pervasive is the learning preferences (VARK) idea. With no empirical evidence to support it, it has become a fundamental principle of teaching. Other educational theories are brilliant ideas that just don’t fit when it comes to the reality of how we work.

A friend of mine once said to me that the brain is the organ of selection. Using the various sensory inputs, vast storage capabilities, and incredible processing power, the brain uses information to select a course of action. There are various domains of action that might be considered from selecting nourishment from among everything that could be consumed or identifying physical threats to manoeuvring through a complex social structure. I need to be able to select the edible berries from the poisonous ones, respond appropriately the big cat while ignoring the zebra, or differentiate between the sarcastic remark of my line-manager belittling my work, and the joke at the water-cooler. I must be able to select the proper course of action, my brain is the bodily organ that serves that function.

Over the years, I have filtered my understanding of behaviour through that simple theory of the brain with great effectiveness. If someone has an idea about what some form of behaviour represents, I ask myself if this fits with the brain being the organ of selection.

For this reason, I wonder about the recent ideas that the digital world results in the brain rewiring itself. Or the idea that exposure to digital stimulus means that the brain wires itself in a different manner somehow. I know that the brain has incredible plasticity, and changes constantly on exposure to new (or even repeated) stimulus, however, I think that the educationalists who are proponents of brain rewiring are thinking of something more profound and fundamental. This leaves me asking the same question again: how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection.

As the organ of selection, the brain stores, reuses, recombines information that has been useful in making good selection decisions in the past (learning), and will create novel solutions that can be used to make good selection decisions either in the present or in the future. A vital aspect of the brain’s selection processes are tools. Tools are incorporated by the brain as being extensions of itself, and can include bodily appendages (arms and hands or legs and feet) physical implements (spear, hammer), or mental implements (abacus, computer or internet). When incorporating a tool into its arsenal, the brain does rewire itself in order to effectively use it, but the brain does not become a fundamentally different organ. It is still about selecting the proper course of action.

I read again Siemen’s connectivist theory of learning, and asked myself, how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection. I think connectivist theory is a brilliant way of thinking about how we can incorporate and use information for selecting a course of action, however, I wouldn’t say that connectivist theory is a theory explaining learning. I think of it as a tool that the brain uses to carry out selection. A powerful tool that provides competitive edge to those who understand and use it, but a tool nonetheless.

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