Wednesday 1 August 2018

The Physiology of Understanding and Teaching

Most people assume that "knowing", "learning", "remembering", etc happens in brains. By implication, they mean that consciousness is a property of the brain. There is considerable evidence to support this: damaged brains usually produce impairment in cognitive function. However, although  sometimes radical changes in behaviour are observed in those with damaged brains, the humanness of the individual remains. Anybody who has had a relative with Alzheimers, a child with learning difficulties, or cared for someone after a serious accident knows this. The more profound changes occur in individuals around a person with brain damage: their behaviours change too, as accommodation is made for cognitive impairment, extraordinary efforts are made to support an individual in the expression of their identity in new ways which fit their new condition. Being human, it seems, involves rather more than an individual brain. It is not even in the "whole" person. It is in the whole community.

Processes of empathy and emotional connection are not separate from individual high level cognitive function. That we have believed that it is is largely the fault of an education system which seeks to categorise individuals, rather than explore and express relationships. The neural basis of consciousness has been further reinforced by assumptions about the brain being a computer. Neurons, axons and synapses seem like wires and connections, and the logical firing of one neuron seems to trigger knock-on firings of connected neurons, much in the same way that an electric signal triggers knock-on effects in a circuit. And indeed electricity plays an important role in the brain. The problem with this view is that it is a long and hard journey to get from knock-on causal effects to empathy and emotion. More often than not, the emotional aspect of consciousness is ignored.

Some physicists and neuroscientists have, however, taken a different view. David Bohm was highly aware of the importance of emotion in communication. In fact, he believed that direct emotional engagements provided a deeper scientific insight into the nature of the world than rationalistic talk. His theory of Quantum Mechanics, which is increasingly in vogue (see Adam Becker's new "What is Real?", not only united relativity with quantum mechanics (which had eluded Bohr), but made a connection between the structure and process of matter, and consciousness. We ought to know more about this in education.

The connection between matter and consciousness must work through physiology. Some like Terry Deacon have made the connection by examining how information works from the material world (see, psychology and through evolution. By focusing on those aspects of biology about which our knowledge is rather vague - like epigenesis - Deacon has emerged a theory of mind based on the study of semiotic communication. If there is a weakness to this, as with all theories of mind, it lies in the theory's ability to account for the way in which it thinks about itself. But I think this is important work.

Deacon does not align himself to quantum mechanics, but instead prefers to talk in terms of Newtonian ideas like the "physical work" which has to be performed on any physical medium in the process of transmitting information (there have to be electrons moving down a wire, or vibrations in the air, etc)

John Torday goes much deeper than this in a theory which has hit me with some force as being obviously right (I have to be careful here!), and an important missing link in our understanding of information. Torday's idea draws on Bohm basic idea of what he called the "holographic universe" (see Consciousness, Torday argues, arises from the evolution of the cell as the basic unit of physiology, and that cellular evolutionary process has been driven by the cell's adaptation to ambiguity in its environment. Moreover, the cellular adaptive processes reflects fundamental structural adaptations in pre-history. There is a pattern written throughout our flesh which connects us to one another and to a single point of origin. Torday is not the first to suggest that consciousness is holographic - Karl Pribram made this connection many years ago with his "holonomic brain theory" (see but Pribram based his work on Fourier analysis of cerebral activity. Torday's emphasis on cellular evolution is quite a few steps beyond this - which makes it important.

I wonder if another word for Torday's "ambiguity" in the environment is "broken symmetry". Broken symmetry is the process whereby quantum mechanics believes the structure of matter - atoms, molecules, etc - emerges. Whatever originating broken symmetry there was is written in new molecular adaptations later on, which in turn are performed in environmental contexts which twist the path of evolution in one way or another. Torday's biology emphasises the importance of stress from the environment, which causes cellular mechanisms to stretch and acquire new functions (swim bladders change into lungs, for example). And consciousness could be part of the same process.

What this means is that the essence of consciousness lies not in neural pathways, but in cellular evolutionary history. Torday suggests that we see this in moments of deep human connection - empathy, love, art. I would add "great teaching" to this. Bohm suggested something similar - that in music, for example, we could glimpse the fundamental structure of nature.

Understanding something deeply means becoming aware of a fundamental pattern of broken symmetry which connects us to a common point of origin. At its root, "understanding" and what we consider to be "spirituality" are the same thing. Because of this, it is critically important that we build an education system for understanding, not for the delivery of qualifications. To concentrate on the delivery of qualifications above understanding (which is most of what happens in today's universities), is to drive a wedge between our common origins, to isolate individuals who in truth are connected, and to create the conditions for what we call "mental illness".

As R.D.Laing noted, mental illness is not the sickness of the individual. It is the sickness of their environment. Being "mentally ill" is the only truly authentic reaction to that environment, only exacerbated by the naive attempts of others to "cure" the individual.

Torday is pointing the way to a scientific underpinning of the way we understand understanding. One may hope that the light of science may one day lead us out of this rather dark place we have ended up in!

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