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From disciplinarity through brains to cultures

Paul Grobstein's picture

I've been working recently on a paper that reflects my interests in taking ideas from thinking about the brain and seeing how useful they are in trying to make sense of the social realm. And in issues of academic and political organization that seem to me intriguingly related. The paper will appear in the near future in the Journal of Research Practice, and I'll put a link to it here when it does. In the meanwhile, here's a link to a pdf of the latest draft of the paper, originally called "Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Creation" and now titled "Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond, The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization" (a pdf of an earlier draft is here). Thoughts triggered by the draft and/or the publication when it appears are more than welcome.

3 November 2007

Journal of Research Practice version is now available at

20 December 2007 

Also relevant to this discussion is

GrobsteinJRPsept07.doc155 KB


Anne Dalke's picture

starting and ending in experience

Since spelling seems to be causing such a problem...maybe an image or three would clarify?

The options might be seen, then, as either being written on (by a social or genetic script)

...or learning how to revise the scripts that have been "written on the body":

I'm reading an interesting book right now for a discussion upcoming in the Graduate Idea Forum; it's Richard Panek's The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes. Panek observes that neither Einstein or Freud ever "broke faith with positivism....They hypothesized, and then, as need be, depending on the evidence, they revised, until the hypothesis matched observations. Freud, in a 1915 letter, characterized scientific creativity as a 'succession of daringly playful fantasy'--the speculative leap...he'd his initial identification of the unconscious--'and relentlessly realistic criticism.' He later elaborated....'all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. '"

Jed Grobstein's picture

Modeling Warm Supportive Exchange

One piece that interests me is the mediated relationship between the
fuscia dot and its surroundings. As you pitch it the story-teller has
_no_ independent relationship with the world around it. Two related

1) Is this necessary? Is it impossible to suspect that the neo-cortex
could function effectively if it had its own independent sources of
information? Would this throw the (un-biased??) story off in some
important way?

2) You state (both implicitly and explicitly) that the fuscia dot
cannot be a disciplinarian. Doesn't this piss off lots disciplinarians
of who see themselves as leaders and effective integraters of stories?

Paul Grobstein's picture

More on the fuscHia dot ...

Its fuscHia, dammit. FuscHia. What's the matter, you don't have a dictionary? Get WITH it. Problems of illiteracy notwithstanding ...

Yeah, there are indeed some interesting and related issues about the story teller/fuschia dot/neocortex lacking "its own independent sources of information". Very much worth more exploration.

The situation with regard to the neocortex is most straightforward but not entirely simple. Information reaching the neocortex from the outside world (ie outside the nervous system) is always relayed/processed by the unconscious, and in that sense there is no "independent source of information" (unless one appeals to ESP or some other direct source of "illumination"). On the other hand, the neocortex (like all parts of the brain) is distinctively influenced by genetic information and, in this sense, has a relevant "source of information" other than what it gets from the unconscious. In addition, the neocortex generally gets two kinds of information from the unconscious, one more extensively processed and the other less so. And language seems to provide a route to the neocortex in which at least some information can more or less bypass extensive unconscious processing.

The upshot is that the neocortex (and the brain "story teller") is not at all a "slave" to the unconscious. Its "stories" involve substantial contributions of its own, despite the fact they depend on the unconscious for information about the outside world. And it has ways to check on at least some of the kinds of processing done by the unconscious, both relatively directly (by comparing more and less extensively processed information) and through language-based interpersonal exchange.

In short, the neocortex/story teller is, because of its interactions with the unconscious, neither a slave nor a dictator. It is instead a semi-autonomus member of a larger interacting "society of mind" with its own distinctive specialization and value. What most makes it distinctive is not that it is relatively isolated from the outside but rather that it is specialized to acquire, evaluate, and synthesize information from most of the other participants in the society of mind. Its "own independent sources of information" are not a threat to its effective function, they are an asset. They need though to be understood not as "authoritative", ie something which can be used to deny the possible significance of information coming from other participants, but rather as a useful element in the information collection and synthesis that leads to broader stories reflecting input from all elements of the society of mind. There are no "unbiased" stories, but there are stories that are based on narrower or wider processes of information collection.

The "narrower or wider" scale is relevant in moving from the brain to social organization, ie from the neocortex/story teller to the fuschia dot. Yes, of course, "disciplinarians" not only see themselves but can in fact be "effective integrators of stories". The "disciplinary" versus "interdisciplinary" or "transdisciplinary" issue is not whether one integrates or not but rather the choice of scale at which one tries to do so. And it is not a matter of one scale being better than another but rather of acknowledging the usefulness of work at all scales, including scales broader than those that have been valued by academic traditions in the past.

The same holds in social organization more generally. Since everyone has a neocortex, everyone is, to one degree or another, a "fuschia dot" in their own lives. And may of course play that role as well in larger and larger groups (families, clubs, institutions, polities). Here though it is particularly important to recognize that the effective function of the fuschia dot depends on its not being seen, or seeing itself, as authoritative. Adopting and defending a fixed story, particularly by attacking the potential value of other stories, detracts from rather than enhances the ability of the fuschia dot to do its job. The fuschia dot is not and cannot be without "bias" at any given time. But it can and should be distinctively open to the potential value of all inputs, seeking what is useful in disparate stories rather than what is challengeable. Encouraging and facilitating the ongoing productive sharing of stories, in part by offering novel syntheses of them, is, it seems to me, the sine qua non of the fuschia dot. The point of the syntheses is to in turn generate new inputs to the process rather than to complete it.

Along which lines, thanks for the input. Its a helpful contribution to further developing the theory of the fuschia dot, whether you can spell the word correctly or not. Looking forward to more exchange. Warmly ....