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Biology 202
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip


Sural Shah

The room is bare with the exception of the long, glass table, six wooden chairs, and a blackboard, but one hardly notices this fact. Instead, the first thing that outsiders notice is the energy in room created by the dynamic of the six women seated around the table. As they share ideas and frantically sketch diagrams on the board, the problem they are attacking is simplified again and again until it is solved. Amid pats on the back and "Good job!" comments, each woman thinks to herself how impossible the problem had seemed while she was alone, but now, in this group, the solution had come so quickly.

Over the past century, the idea of learning theory and society has become a prominent field in neuroscience and education. Neurologically, several theories exist concerning the actual processes of learning on an individual basis. The most significant aspect of these theories, perhaps, is the idea that learning can occur both consciously and unconsciously. In other words, humans are capable of learning without even being aware of the fact that the process is occurring. In the terms of Biology 202, it is possible for the brain to recognize patterns in a game, for example, without the I-function even realizing that there is a pattern or its structure (1).

On a higher level, as well, similarities exist within the theories presented by different psychologists and neuroscientists. Virtually every theory, for example, relies on the existence of the usefulness of learning tools, such as toys or games, in the process of cognitive development. It is in the identity of these tools, however, that significant differences may begin within the various theories of learning. In particular, the ideas of Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who applied Marxist social theory to the psychology of individuals (2), presented a new aspect to the process of learning. This theory focused upon the impact of social interactions between humans on improving cognitive development, much like the type described at the beginning of the paper. The eventual result is the development of consciousness through the internalization of the ideas learned through this socialization (3).

In his theory, Vygotsky begins by introducing the model of the zone of proximal development, which he discusses as, "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential capable with peers. What children can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (4)." The theory behind this statement is that those tasks that a child may perform with assistance today are the same tasks that the child will be able to perform individually in the future. This zone of cognitive development is particularly useful in childhood, according to Vygotsky, and the only way fully attain one's potential of proximal development is through social interaction in the form of peer collaboration or adult guidance (3).

The second significant principle of Vygotsky's theory flows naturally from this zone of proximal development. This idea emphasizes the importance of culture and language as tools by which cognitive development is facilitated (5). As he writes,

Culture creates special forms of behavior, changes the functioning of mind, constructs new levels in the developing system of human behavior...In the process of historical development, a social being changes the means and methods of his behavior, transforms natural inclinations and functions, develops and creates new, specifically cultural, forms of behavior (1983). (6)

This development of the mind, for Vygotsky, begins with elementary mental functions and expands through culture to higher mental functions. Elementary functions are those which are unlearned and innate, such as hunger and sensing. Higher mental functions, however, are those functions which involve self-generated stimulation, where artificial stimuli are created and used as an impetus for behavior, such as thought, attention, memory and language (5). In order to go from the elementary functions to the higher functions, one must utilize tools, such as mnemonic techniques, art, algebraic symbols, maps, etc. (2). In terms of memory, for example, Vygotsky's theory suggested that as children age and are exposed to an increasing number of cultural references and phenomena, they are able to utilize this information as a means to forming associations with new ideas (mnemonic devices) (5).

Of all of the psychological tools, however, Vygotsky placed the greatest importance on the role of language in the development of children, viewing it as a link between micro- and macro- socialization, as well as a connection to the dialectic of culture and history (6). In the beginning of life, language is initially used as a means of communication, whether the "language" be crying or talking. However, gradually, this language becomes internalized and comes to represent the idea that the child is in control of his or her own activities and thought processes (7). Through three separate stages, the child goes from social speech (i.e. crying) as an infant, egocentric speech (playing, talking to oneself to direct one's behavior) from ages three to seven, and then to inner speech (soundless direction of one's behavior) (5). In Voygotsky's view, language, as a form of symbolism, is a means of constructing reality and a framework for perception. The significant aspect of this concept is that this symbolization of experience would not exist without the context of social relationships in which it can occur (2). Therefore, the internalization of ideas which occurs through language would not be possible without the presence of society.

In summary, Vygotsky thought that it was only after exposure to language as a symbol of experience that children would be able to internalize the experiences themselves, or have a sense of consciousness. In this same way, he proposed that any function of the cultural development of children must develop on two planes, or twice in the lifetime of the child (6): first, on the social level, then on the individual level; "first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). All the higher functions [from mathematics to memory] originate as actual relationships between individuals (3)."

While Vygotsky rejected a popular model of the time, that of the tabula rasa, which suggested that infants are born as a "blank slate" of knowledge, he still thought that infants could not exist or develop on their own (4). Instead, his approach suggested that the interactions of adults with the infant gives meaning to the infant's actions. It is only through these actions that the child eventually can move from the intermental existence of infancy to the intramental existence of adulthood (4).

The intrigue of theories similar to Vygotsky's lies in its necessary implications concerning the brains of other members of society on the brain of an individual, and in attempts to align these ideas with the brain = behavior model of neurology. Which qualities of the individual brains allow them to supercede their respective parts when brought together socially? In Bio. 202, we initially discussed the brains of individuals as simple input output model (box), where stimulus A causes response A on a consistent basis (8). As we analyzed our model and attempted to apply our personal experiences to it, however, we began to discover its flaws: it did not account for the presence of internally generated signals, how one shuts off a signal, or the fact that the output of one signal could be the input for another. Throughout exploration of vertebrate and invertebrate nervous systems alike, we developed the model of the brain as a box containing boxes which also contained boxes, each set getting progressively smaller until the smallest box, a neuron, is reached (8). This neuron, thus, represents the smallest unit of input output processing in the brain (=central nervous system), but then we had the question of behavior caused by the peripheral nervous system, many of which we were not even aware that we had performed on a conscious level! In this way, we developed the model of the I-function as a result of the interactions within the brain as the missing element of "consciousness." (8).

On a societal level, the relationship between individual brains seems relatively simple. As brain equals behavior, the output (behavior) of one individual could very easily be the input for another, much as it results in an input for the individual's self. The existence of other human beings and interactions with them would exist as another set of inputs or stimuli. In the greater sense, if one considers all of society as a single entity, each individual person would be analogous to set of boxes larger than the individual brains where the entity itself would be the new "brain" (largest box). At the end of Bio. 202, we developed a model which considered the ideas of internal variability, expectations, distinctiveness, and internal generativity in the transformation from input to output (8). Similarly, this new neural model maintains these properties, and can attribute much of the success of group dynamics to them. As one can observe in the scenario presented at the beginning of the paper, the outputs (behaviors) of one individual may not affect the individual in a consequential way, but due to the principles of internal variability and expectations, these outputs may positively affect the mental processing of another member of the group.

In terms of Vygotsky's theory of learning, the idea of a societal brain is certainly applicable. When discussing the example of the dependence of infants on adults, he wrote that, "[the human infant] cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence...he is not an independent individual. He lives a common life as one term in a personal relationship (4)." In essence, the child only exists because of the relationship as he cannot communicate on his own. However, as the outputs of the child, such as crying, result in outputs by adults, the child begins to realize that his behaviors affect the behaviors of others, and therefore the kind of treatment he receives. As language is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of behavior, especially with technological advances ranging from the telephone to e-mail, one could conclude that the process of internalizing language corroborates not only with the process of recognizing the existence of a self, but also with the presence of other "selves." This would make sense as language is the connection between the individual boxes (each person's brain) of the societal brain, much as neurotransmittors and action potentials are the connections between boxes within the human brain (8).

The implications of all of the above information begins to explain the idea of group dynamics and the rationale for the utility of think tanks and research groups, but it still neglects one significant aspect of the human brain: the I-Function. In the nervous systems of humans, behavior and perception are often categorized as either unconscious or conscious. Those of the former type are performed by the nervous system without alerting the I-function, while those of the latter involve the I-function. In our analysis of the societal brain, the integration of these concepts is perhaps not as smooth as in earlier respects, but is valuable nonetheless. The occurrence of unconscious behaviors in a group dynamic is visible in many situations, such as the tendency of drivers to drive the same speed as the cars around them or the mimicking of speech patterns and accents in group settings. Perhaps a little easier to apply is the idea of a group I-function, or a We-function. Much like the I-function, the We-function would result from the interaction of the boxes with each other. In Vygotsky's terms, the We-function would be derived from the communication between individual humans. The significance of its presence, however, is that it implies a sort of societal sense of self or, in other words, culture. This, too, could be related to Vygotsky's theory concerning the role of culture in social development, where the dialectic between culture and history results in creation of new, cultural forms of behavior (6). In terms of the idea of a cultural consciousness, or a shared awareness among individuals of a group, the We-function could potentially account for the existence of such things much as the I-function unites the neurons and their connections to form an overall sense of self in humans. Perhaps, in a larger sense, this We-function could represent religion, an idea which, much like the mind, is intangible in most senses and shrouded with mystique. Similarly, both concepts involve a force which is significantly stronger than any of the boxes within itself, and one which participants are very passionate about despite relatively little knowledge and control concerning them. The relationship between this I-function and the We-function could potentially be determined as well. Much as the development of the child is a result of the dialectic between himself and his culture, the individual and societal brains are the result of a dialectic between the I-function and the We-function. As one author writes, "Both the social and individual frames cannot be understood independently or in isolation. What relates or connects the individual and the social world of which the individual is a part, are the meanings, tools, and goals of the sociocultural context (6)."

"....Amid pats on the back and "Good job!" comments, each woman thinks to herself how impossible the problem had seemed while she was alone, but now, in this group, the solution had come so quickly."

In the episode depicted at the beginning of the paper, the members of the group modeled the idea that a group is often stronger than the individuals of whom it is comprised. Based on Vygotsky's theory of education, ranging from the zone of proximal learning to the importance of language and culture, this idea of relationships fueling development is feasible, as it is these dynamics which give young humans their existence. In relation to the ideas of the brain and the I-function discussed in Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College, this network of individual brains parallels the network of boxes within these individual brains. Through the above discussions, one may still maintain concerns about details concerning the I-function versus the We-function, but the existence of a sort of societal awareness is certainly possible. The suggestions it allows for are fascinating as well. Perhaps, through the We-function, we have found religion or at least some aspect of it through the idea of an awareness beyond the control of any one human being. As one author writes, "We are because of others (6)," and as my kindergarten teacher always used to say, "Two heads are better than one!"

WWW Sources

1)Serendip Making Sense of Understanding, Some Basics of Learning Processes

2)Vygotsky, Introduction to Vygotsky's Theory

3)Social Development Theory, Vygotsky's Social Development Theory

4) Zone of Proximal Development , Summary of Zone of Proximal Development

5) Vygotsky's Cultural/Cognitive Theory Of Development , Tutorial on Vygotsky

6) Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky , Education Implications of Vygotsky's Theory

7) Three Stages of Speech Development , The Role of Language in Vygotsky's Theory

8) Neurobiology and Behavior 2001 , Class Notes for Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College

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