Blog Post

Mind, Brain, and Digitality

When I lectutred last week in Italy on digital youth, someone asked mehow I made the connection between digitality and neuroscience. That'san easy question and an extremely difficult one and the path from oneto the other is: learning.


If we really believe that participatory learning (or what Alex Bruns calls "produsage") is new, that there is something unique about informal learning online that is collaborative, customizing, aggregate, a way of socializing and also learning and thinking together, then we need to figure out, in sophisticated ways neurologically and culturally, how learning works--old learning and new. We live in a great era in brain science, with new discoveries daily about neural plasticity, but we live in an impoverished age for making the connections between neurology, cognition, learning, re-learning, education, and informal learning, in its specific cultural and individual manifestations.


Here's a prime (if polemical) example: The No Child Left Behind Law of 2001 uses some version of the phrase "scientifically-based" methods for learning no less than one hundred and eleven (111) times. Since I believe NCLB is a national educational policy that flies in the face of everything both contemporary science and master teachers believe about "learning," it seems crucial to understand what those lawmakers believed to be "scientifically-based" and to be able to counter it with good science and the pedagogical experience of our best teachers.


Equally, I believe that the potential for exciting, imaginative, playful, and serious curiosity and learning that will last a lifetime is right here, with participatory learning providing interesting models even for those not online of different ways of thinking about learning as a collective experience. What we are learning about neural placticity also provides much hope for the rejuvenating potentialities of learning, which is why I'm studying infants but also those with disabilities, injuries, aging, and serious dementia. (The studies, incidentally and slightly off the point, of senility among those who are introduced to online communities are pretty astonishing; isolation and depression may well contribute more significantly to dementia than aging in far more cases than we realize.)


A decade or so ago, I began to study intensively in the science of the brain's way of mastering the world, the philosophy of mind, the psychology of knowing, and the anthropology of learning. It's been a fascinating journey.


There are also institutional reasons why i started making these connections. In my years as Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke (basically a position the university developed to foster innovation that wasn't coming from any specific discipline or division), the Cognitive Neuroscience Program reported to the Provost's office. It's name changed from CNP to "Mind, Brain, and Behavior." Then it was "Mind, Brain, Genes, and Behavior" when genomics was new and big. Then it was "Mind, Brain, Genes, Behavior, and Society" (or something like that). I believe it is once again the "Cognitive Neuroscience Program." The point is that all of the terms are very much up in the air, even though "brain" seems to dominate now. (I'm particularly fond of a study that says that if you include a diagram of a brain in any scientific or popular scientific article, people rate the article more highly and as more "serious," even if the brain illustration is wrong, silly, and has nothing to do with the argument of the article.)


We are in a brain-obsessed moment, and well we should be: as with the sequencing of the genome, the new computational tools have revolutionized neuroscience, we know more than ever about how the brain works. Which means it is now time to put Humpty Dumpty back together to understand what we can take from the best work on brain science and how we can put that together with the best work on cognition, on learning, on imagination, on creativity, and how all of those not only happen within a specific society and with enormously exciting individual variation, but how they can be enhanced, from birth to rejuvenation. If participatory learning is revolutionary, I want to be able to explain exactly how and where that revolution is happening and how it can serve us all by modeling new ways of learning that also renew us.