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Brain and Behavior Institute Summary 2007

Ashley Dawkins's picture
Monday July 9, 2007

One of the first things that we did today was get to know one another. Paul did this by simply polling the class to find out information like; urban schoolteachers v. suburban schoolteachers, and who teaches elementary, middle, and high school. The teachers then had a better sense of who was in the Institute with them. They all agreed that the mix of K-12 and all the diversity that they brought was a good thing and beneficial.

The next thing Paul discussed was a way that we should be thinking about science education. In doing so he proposed that we are all scientists and have been our entire lives. The instinct we were born with to do science may have been distorted through the years, but we are still capable of doing science. He then suggested that science is a process of becoming less and less wrong and that, in fact, we can therefore learn more when we are wrong.

If this will help us to become more effective as scientists in our own sense, we then have to reconsider the way science is being done in our schools. Paul suggests that the standard scientific method tends to be linear, and we can think of science as loops instead. In order to do this, he introduces “loopy story telling”. “Loopy story telling” does not encourage right answers; instead it requires a reexamination of the summary of observations that we have made. We also must recognize, what he calls, the “crack”. The “crack” is where things such as cultural, personal temperment, and individuality are taken into consideration during the observation process. Paul argues that the “crack” is indeed as good thing because it provides different perspectives, different stories to share.

Tuesday July 10, 2007

Today we looked at an excerpt of a poem by Emily Dickinson

The Brain- is wider than the Sky-
For-out them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease- and You- beside

After analyzing the excerpt we discussed its implications pertaining to the Institute. Dickinson suggests that our brains are large enough to basically contain all that is around us, mostly because without our brains we would not be able to make sense of what is around us. Therefore it raises the question, is it all in our brains? We also learned that we can generate outputs without inputs. Therefore our brain does not operate strictly on an output/input basis; it is far more complicated than that. As we continue in the Brain and Behavior Institute we will try to figure out a “less wrong” way to explain the brain.

We also learned that the things around us change our brains. Because of this it would be meaningful to note that teachers can be seen as “brain surgeons” because they are changing the brains of their students.

Wednesday July 11, 2007

There was a fire drill yesterday and we were unable to get as far as planned. We finished talking about Emily Dickinson and the brain. In order to figure out if we were in agreement with Dickinson we had to be informed how the brain functions. With that, we learned about neurons; which are located throughout our body. There are three types of neurons: motor, inter, and sensory. Paul informed us that the majority of neurons in our bodies are interneurons, about 99.99999…% while the motor and sensory neurons make up about 0.0000….1%. This was striking to all of us.

Paul concluded that the brain is indeed the way Dickinson has described it in her poem because:

• Sensory neurons the only way in, motor neurons the only way out, mostly interneurons
• Similar but different in different organisms, different in the same organism at different times
• All neurons, differences in behavior are differences in organization of neurons (change organization of neurons, change behavior)
• Neurons have some degree of autonomy, so therefore does nervous system, can view as output/input box as appropriately as input/output box
• The architecture of the brain gives it the characteristics of an explorer

These bullets highlight an important aspect of neurons. It turns out, that as far as we know, they are all the same in every living thing. Because they are all the same, it is the architecture that decides the differences in everything.

In further attempts to understand the brain and its processes we learned about something called an action potential. “Neurons receive, process, transit information in form of action potentials” (/exchange/bbi07/session7). Further more, the action potentials have a threshold for action that is received by the sensory neurons. If the threshold is not reached, action does not occur; everything happens at the threshold.

In the afternoon Peter Brodfuehrer went more into depth about thresholds, action potentials, and leaky membranes. Leaky membranes allow for signals to be sent to the brain without an input. Brodfuehrer also discussed how our knowledge of action potentials and threshold could be useful when it comes to medicine. For example, we take medicine, such as, Novocain to affect the threshold associated with pain. We also learned that the Patellar Tendon Reflex is related to action potential and threshold.
Brodfuerhrer also provided various websites related to this topic.

Thursday July 12, 2007

During our review of yesterday we had an interesting conversation trying to link what we learned back to the classroom. Some questions/ statements arose from that discussion:
1. Behavior seems to be context dependent
2. Is school less interesting than the World?
3. Look at yourself and then the students.
4. Is disinterest the beginning or the consequence?
5. Metacognition requires that you do brain surgery on yourself.

Today we continued our quest in getting it less wrong. This means we have a new model describing the brain. This one has a reafferent loop, inputs, outputs (with and without inputs), and the I-function. Thus we continue on in our loopiness. We have to try and account for things that happen to us that we are unaware of. For example, when your body adjusts to a rocking boat. And when your behaviors affect your other behaviors; for example, when you talk with your hands and you see your hands. It is fair to say that the brain is a scientist because it explores.

To describe the I- function Paul used the example of Christopher Reeves. Despite what you have been told, Reeves is not paralyzed. He has a disconnect to his I-function. This can be tested with a simple experiment. If someone where to pinched Reeves’ toe, it would pull away. He would say that he did not feel it and could not moved it on command, but his toe still has the ability to move.

Friday July 13, 2007

Not present.

Monday July 16, 2007

Not present.

Tuesday July 17, 2007

I think the theme of today may very well be that, you can see the same thing in a different way. We only have our perception of what we believe exists. We perceive what exists through what are called sensory inputs. Our nervous system is constantly picking and choosing what is most important to take in and then testing its inputs. Because of this we never really know what we are not recognizing as being there. Some key points Paul has highlighted are:
• Input is always incomplete (and affected by output)
• Input is always interpreted based on prior information (including genetic information)
• Input is always ambiguous
• Interpretation is proved (but not complete) by combining multiple perspectives, resolving conflicts
• Both input and interpretation are different for different people
• What we see is a “story” reflecting unconscious processes
• “Reality” is a collective story, reflecting (desirably) the different perspectives of different people
• Stories can in turn generate new questions/observations/stories, and new stories

Trying to apply what they have learned to the classroom, they came to a consensus that because everyone perceives differently, they do not know what is going on inside the heads of their students.

Wednesday July 18, 2007

Today we are going to attack mood and emotions. Paul used the example of what I will call, waking up on the wrong side of the bed. In this case you may wake up not feeling well and not know why you feel the way you do; likewise you could be happy as well. We learned that emotions allow you to take observations in a new way. Your mood can be affected by the I-function. The I-function can use emotions as a way to try things out and be creative.

That afternoon we met with Earl Thomas of the Bryn Mawr College Psychology Department.

Thursday July 19, 2007

There are some issues in viewing the brain as a bipartite. Some issues include:
• Learning versus memory
• Self versus story of self
• Impacts of story on the unconscious

We then played this interesting game called Three Doors. Without giving too much away I can tell you that you have to play the game until you understand it and then when you understand you must click a button. After the game is over you will see your graphed results. The skills you learn in order to succeed at the game do not give you insight of why you are doing what you are doing, instead you have the understanding that as long as you play the game a certain way you get the desired results. Your understanding is minimal, but it allows you to achieve becoming “less wrong”.

There becomes a conflict between a three different loops that are contributing to who you are. The teachers in the Institute renamed them to extrapersonal (or Paul’s inside/outside loop), the interpersonal, and the intrapersonal (or unconscious/storyteller). This means there is communication between the environment and the body, the body and the brain, and finally between what we will call “thinking” and the brain (respectively).
“Thinking” encompasses things such as, internal experience, story telling, self-identity (or the lack thereof, and the I-function (/exchange/bbi07/session17).

Friday July 20, 2007


Today is our last day and the teachers will be presenting their web projects. They were given time in the afternoons during the Institute to explore something of interest. It was deliberately left open- ended so they could be free to look into something they desired. Bur before they began Paul wanted to end with a few points:

Trust your past (including your genome/culture/experiences), but not too much
Trust your unconscious, but not too much
Trust your thinking, but not too much
Trust making choices, observing, learning, but not too much
Trust other people's stories as well as your own, but not too much

The hardest part ... ?

* Choose/act, even if you don't/can't know the "right" answer
* Recognize that disagreement is valuable; you have things to learn from other peoples' stories
* Being wrong is the only way to get it "less wrong"
* Choose/act to see what new things there are to see/do/create

Keep looping ... And repeat, over and over and over again: "getting it less wrong" - its what your brain, and everyone else's, is "designed" to do