Educating the brain

The uniqueness of the homo sapiens is epitomised by the way of the human brain with its ability to perform a multiplicity of tasks from simple to complex. Educating the brain, therefore, faces a challenge beyond the ordinary befitting profound outcomes evolving from brain driven processes. Swift and persuasive, the messages from the brain travel through the nervous system at the breathtaking speed of 100m/second. Through a wire the messages will travel at the speed of light, the fastest movement in the known universe.

Brain functions are involved in all the senses, sight, hearing, touch and smell, and speech. The complexity of the workings of the brain are best left to neurologists and other experts in each relevant category. In the specific area of rational thought leading to actions the education of the brain comes to the fore.


Does the brain “self-teach” itself or do we as individuals have the responsibility of educating the brain a priori? A self-teaching brain seems to emasculate the need for prior knowledge from which the brain is rationalizing. The ‘self-teaching’ brain and educated brain are not easily understood concepts in practical terms. To illustrate the process of teaching the brain we can devise a scenario as follows.


Let us begin with educating the brain. A person reads a short text from a magazine to another person, “the dog is black”. The receiver of the text is then asked to repeat, word for word, this short text, “the dog is black”. Here is a very simple example of the brain being educated by absorbing and retrieving information.


Now to the ‘self-teaching’ brain.

From the same magazine, the next question to the other person is “What is on the next page of this magazine?”.

In this transaction there is no opportunity for the brain to be educated, a priori. The brain is left with the task of self-education from a blank page since no information has been offered as to the contents of the next page.


It appears rather obvious in these differing settings that the brain does not have any function for self-teaching without an a priori (cause and effect). Clearly the brain is totally dependent on the access to information and when there is none offered, it (the brain) can but rely on guessing, assumption and opinion, that is the full gambit of dogma.


Educating the brain requires a pool of information on which the extension of learning is structured, that pool of knowledge being the basis for a pedagogical structure. The effectiveness of the brain as a ‘working tool’ is dependent on the quality and breadth of the knowledge pool, a priori.


Rather than being intimidated by the neurological complexity of the brain we can access the advice of the philosopher, William of Ockham. “The more complicated an explanation is, the less likely it is to work. Keep it simple” (Ockham’s Razor).


So what are the main functions of the brain on the learning curve? Is the brain responsible for the teaching or rather simply gathering and recording the information for reproduction at some future time? How do we organize the retrieving of stored information; what is the stimulus that brings about the reproduction of the relevant knowledge. More to the point, is it possible to retrieve information that has not been previously stored?


We have access to very firm evidence regarding the power of stimulation by the experiments of the Russian psychologist Pavlov with his dogs. Of course, there is always the often repeated piece of advice,” You learn from your mistakes”. This advice may be somewhat glib in that it does not go on to say what you learn or how to make practical use of the learning.


The concept of educating the brain becomes further extended by the fact that the brain does not differentiate. Until the brain is educated there appears to be no identifiable guidelines for day-to-day behavior in the general conduct of life, that is, culture. Thankfully, back in ancient times, this deficiency in human development was identified and addressed by the early philosophers. Socrates was active with his questioning of the youth of the day designed to raise the awareness of morals and ethics. This activity cost him his life following his trial and conviction of disturbing the youth of his day. Some time later, fellow philosophy Aristotle was to open his Lyceum established for the purpose of peripatetic teaching. Following on came his writings on morals and ethics, the Nichomacheon ethics, these writings were consulted for the next 2000 years.


Precisely because of this accumulation of knowledge the brain was able to differentiate by using these learnings which became part of the human condition. If your learnings amount to little then expect the brain to reproduce little. The human brain with all its wondrous capabilities is rendered ineffectual without prior knowledge from Neanderthal man to modern day technocrat. It is rather exciting to know that we possess a human organ which operates at 100m/s. As a result the horizons for human progress are constantly expanding in keeping with the rest of our universe.


In which direction would one choose to proceed in life with such a lavish endowment for mental and physical activity? The reward for securing some understanding of such a “working tool” appears quite utopian. Acquiring skills and the use of logic and rational thinking give a stimulating outlet for brain-driven higher learnings.


A fellow traveler of educating the brain is the conditioning of the brain, perhaps the “darker side of the moon”. Conditioning is the verbal shortcut to educating the brain. It incorporates opinions, guessing, assumption, propaganda and anything for which the premises may be readily flawed. Educating the brain lays waste to dogma, et al.


In the technological age of a rapidly expanding pool of knowledge, the use of the brain a ‘working tool’ may be under threat. The move from analogue to digital places a rather small and highly organized group controlling a very large group of button pushers. It is one thing to make use of the benefits coming from the use of another person’s brain, and another to educate and use your own. Button pushing is a surefire method of using someone else’s brain and yours becoming moribund by stages.


Educating the brain depends on exposure to new learnings, technologies that bypass these activities could finally have humanity falling on its own technological sword. The subconscious mind is the storehouse for the whole gambit of our previous exposures to life. Every exposure to life is recorded by the subconscious in the manner of cerebral tapes for reproduction on relevant stimulus. The conscious mind relates and deals with the present.


The less valued occupations seem to identify themselves by the low level of prerequisite pertaining to that work or profession. In regard to lower levels of prerequisite, the task of parenting comes to mind. Surprisingly there is no social or educational prerequisite for becoming a parent. That is, you are not required to undertake any course or examination, mental or physical, to embark on this momentous task. Placing a higher value on business life seems somewhat questionable at first reflection. Children are the true innocents since they do not have any choice in who become their parents.


Teaching is a word used to describe a myriad of relationships. Syllogising the word “teaching” is an interesting exercise and the outcome no less interesting bearing in mind that the conclusion does not necessarily validate the premises,

Major premise: Learning is achieved with the brain.

Minor premise: Your brain is in your head.

Conclusion: Therefore, you are the only person who can teach yourself.


Here we have arrived at a conclusion which seems to have rid ourselves of the entire education system as we know and use it. Rather than teach people, it seems more appropriate to put forward the case for facilitation. Facilitation places the responsibility for learning where it belongs logically, with the facilitated. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. The transference of information from one person to another singularly or in groups represents facilitation. The responsibility for the quality of the information resides with the giver (facilitator). The responsibility for the learning with the receiver (facilitated). So often teachers, perhaps because of the title, are held responsible for poor outcomes on the learning curve. Given that the teachers are working from a set curriculum, they can only be responsible for the presentation.


If there is no action without the brain then every thought has the potential to become an action. This postulate brings into focus the longstanding debate as to whether human beings have the extension of free will or not. Decisions of the will are made providing all other senses are viable from the storehouse of learnings the brain has been exposed to in earlier times, good or bad. Behavior, through use of the will, is dependent on the exposures and knowledge available to each and every brain user. Somewhat surprising to speak of a category of brain users however in the final analysis this may be an apt description of humanity and its complex machinations.


Learnings which are not in the best interest of the individual can only be removed by the overlaying of the initial tape. Overlaying and unlearning by the making of a more beneficial tape is not always an easy task.

Educating the brain is a worthy “raison d’être” for human existence. The concept of the brain having the responsibility for teaching seems flawed at many levels.


John StGeorge 2009

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