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Brain Behavior Institute - Session 7



The bipartite brain: The frog and the story teller


Computers and the classroom

  • Your reactions so far
  • Using computers to collect observations (Time to Think, and others)
  • For tomorrow afternoon, create something that will engage students (us), make students (us) think differently about something, cause students (us) to to conceive new questions

Review (and extension)

  • Nervous system consists of very large numbers of neurons
  • Sensory neurons, motor neurons, mostly interneurons
  • Neurons receive, process, transit information in form of action potentials
  • Neuron as computer, both excitation and inhibition involved (cause things to happen vs allow things to happen)
  • Assembly of neurons (architecture) is what makes difference people (organisms) different, is changing all the time
  • Acting is pattern of action potentials in neurons, so too is perceiving, thinking, and ....
  • Diversity and change are fundamental features of the nervous system, and hence of behavior
  • Still need to have ways of thinking about consciousness, free will, society, culture

we may only be "scratching the surface" ... I'm having this impression because from our discussions so far, it gets to a stage where we stop investigating the boxes as we go inwards (towards the neurons) and also as we go outwards (into the universe as a whole). To be more explicit, by outwards I mean going out of the brain (as a box) into it’s immediate environment and further out into the rest the world, then our solar system, our galaxy, intergalactic realm, universe and so on without any end in site. The whole things is quite exciting and as Paul said we can't really get to the end of anything, we just have to continue investigating (both outwards and inwards) without really hoping to have any end in site. This is science and the essence of our existence ... Tunde (different properties at different box levels?)

Input and output doesn't always seem to equal each other; is there a reason for this? ... Judith

With the "headless chicken" running around, I am beginning to think that my students are the way they are because they have some inhibitions being disabled in them. In other words does that mean that the "normal" kids are those operating under regular inhibitions? ... Tola The conversation about the internal generation of action potentials makes me think of schizophrenics, who can't discrimminate between an internal and an external source of information, hence their audio and visual hallucinations. I think this explanation of their psychosis is much kinder, and more accurate ... Carol (see Muses, Madmen, and Prophets by Daniel Smith) My experience was with an Alzheimer's patient progressing through initial diagnosis to death over 10 years later. One of the things that I found interesting was just how much this man attempted to mask his confusion. He had recognized the unreliability of his own perceptions. He used logic and reasoning to determine what components of the information he was receiving was being responded to by other people ... Julia

The variety of inhibitory and synaptic action potentials is amazing. The idea that each of us have such differrent brains makes me wonder how we manage to successfully educate such a diversity of brains? Are there specific adaptations in classroom environments work for most students? Do we rely on trial and error to help deterrmine what works for the ADD and autistic spectrum students? ... Grace

One thing important to keep in the back of teacher’s minds is both things that not only excite but also inhibit student learning. With that said, teachers should make a conscious effort to minimize or (ideally) eliminate the “boring” found in the classroom/lesson/etc ... Luisana

I understand why teachers are questioning how we can reach and teach such an abundance of unique individuals. My plan over the last several years has been to develop a ‘differentiated classroom’, a methodology that tends to support reaching each unique student. However when JR Lewis (Julia) indicated in her blog that she worked with an Alzheimer’s patient who endeavored to hide his confusion so as to appear ‘normal’ within what must have been a terrifying reality for him; I began thinking about the deeper problem in high school of teens who recognize their unique way of viewing the world and who try to suppress it to reflect the teen norm. Just like the random fireflies or cars that Paul throws into a program and eventually form a pattern so do our students (for the most part) come to a consensus of behavior. That group-behavior is shaped in a variety of ways dependent on the accepted culture of the school which can sometimes be anti-adult ... Joyce

One of the ways that we deal with this in the informal education world is to set up structured social interactions to address social dynamics ... Adi


Important general architectual features (continuing to get it less wrong)


The reafferent loop: brain as scientist

Topographic organization: action and perception as distributed activity 

The "I-function" and Bipartite Brain (cognitive unconscious and story teller)

  • Unconscious/conscious distinction fundamental to nervous system organization
  • Nervous system as distributed system
  • Begins to account for story telling as distinct from acting

Implications for education?


Cynthia Henderson's picture

I Function

I function is a function of the cognitive unconscious.Input and output signals determine patterns of action potental.
Seta Palmer's picture

I Function

Coming Soon!
Seta Palmer's picture

I Function

From what I learned today, the I Function helps us to make decisions where as the cognitive unconscious allow us to use our creativity. How do we get our students who mainly use their I Function to make unwise decision, example a boy loses his life by climbing over two fences to get a hat at a theme park or pulls fire alarms in school, how can they be trained to use their cognitive unconscious to discover and design?

Sage Hunter's picture

compliance and creativity

The idea of teaching students to be compliant suffocating their creativity is of interest to me. It was questioned in discussion today whether or not our constant demands of compliance on our students is causing them to loose their creativity … I don’t think that this is the case, in addition I think that the different perspectives on this depend largely on the student population you’re working with.

For instance, the students I work with are primarily grade levels behind where they should be, come from rough neighborhoods and low-income households with little to no parental involvement. These students need to be taught to conform to rules or they will not survive in the ‘real’ world and unfortunately the only place they are receiving this lesson on compliance is at school… Their creativity is not being stifled by this lesson in compliance, they are being given tools to compete with the students they will be up in classes with when they reach college. Which brings me to the point I mentioned concerning people’s opinions on this matter depending on what population you are working with. I have worked in suburban schools where students receive lessons in compliance at home and when they come to school (generally) they demonstrate respect and cooperation. Perhaps in these cases, student’s creativity is being stifled when they are taught compliance in school…
Paul Grobstein's picture

Education: compliance, individuation, symphonies, and jazz

There are, it seems to me, some REALLY important issues here. Particularly when taken in the context of an earlier discussion we had about the wish of teachers at any particular level to have teachers at earlier levels prepare students for what they want to do (its "compliance all the way down"?). And I think the issues are relevant to all of us, whatever level we teach at and whatever populations of students we're working with (cf symphonies versus jazz).

Students do of course come to classrooms with different backgrounds/degrees of preparation in lots of respects, including "inclination to conform to rules," and we need to be aware of/responsive to that. I'm less comfortable with the notion that there is a different broad educational objective for some students than there is for other students, that, for example, some students need lessons in "compliance" and others don't. I'm worried that a focus on "compliance"would set the bar too low not only for students from "rough neighborhoods and low-income households" but also for those in "suburban schools where students receive lessons in compliance at home" (cf The Disadvantages of an Elite Education).

Sage and I had an interesting conversation about this one, from which come the following thoughts about how one might usefully reconceive the issues ....

The broad educational task, for all students at all times, is to enhance their own abillities to shape and reshape their own distinctive lives. Some facility at effective and mutually productive social interactions is one such ability, and clearly one that some students (for whatever reason, cf Temple Grandin) have more of than others. For students who have less of such skills, the task is to provide experiences that help them see what they have to gain from them in terms of their own enhanced capabilities to shape and reshape their own lives. Perhaps the route to development of enhanced social skills (like that to enhancement of all skills?) is not teaching "compliance" but rather encouraging distinctive individuation? And perhaps if we thought of encouraging ongoing distinctive individuation rather than compliance then the results of "elite education" would also be more useful to students?

On a broader scale, the issue here is whether we think of education as a process of "standardizing" our students (re social skills, re chemistry, re math, re whatever) as opposed to a process of encouraging the ongoing evoution of distinctive individuals. I suspect the former is more deeply built into many of our presumptions about education than we often recognize. And the latter would certainly make our classrooms less "orderly." But maybe there are advantages in that, not only for our students but for ourselves (cf. Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable and Make it Productive)?

Symphonies do, of course, depend on different individual players ... and jazz combos do come up with some pretty spectacular music.

bronstein's picture

Sensitivity to Pain is genetic

We've established that pain occurs in the brain, not at the perceived site of the pain. That doesn't say that the stimulus that brings about the pain response also takes place in the brain. The stimulus may, indeed, originate at the perceived location (or at any site along the path to the brain). However, whether the signal is perceived as pain or not when it reaches the brain -- or whether a pain signal even arises -- may depend on genetics.



Here is the story of the Pakistani family with a mutation that blocks their ability to feel pain:

Bernadine Dancy's picture

The bipartite brain The frog and the storyteller

From today's lesson it started me thinking as I teach I should encourage students to be active in using their cognitive unconscious. It would help students to learn and be more creative.

bronstein's picture

MS research and also "gait training"

Multiple Sclerosis is currently believed to be an auto-immune disease characterized by the loss of myelin coating nerves. Thus, the nerve impulses cannot travel down the axon . . . or they travel very weakly or slowly. Getting the myelin to "recoat" the nerve is the major thrust of current MS research.


Here are a couple of recent news tidbits in that area:

There is a clinical trial of a new drug underway:


AND here are 2 tidbits that kind of prove that the spinal cord is more than just a cable of axons or a pathway to the peripheral nerves. Several rehab centers have introduced "gait-training" in which low-level paraplegics are trained to "walk" by reawakening the "subconscious ability" of the spinal cord to coordinate the pattern needed for all the muscles involved in walking.

Judith Lucas-Odom's picture


Sometimes the I-function does get in the way of learning but the lack of the I function would make us act like the frog. The fact that we are human, we need to be creative, to think, and to enjoy things that we do. We also need to let our unconscious experiences help us. I think the trick is when do we turn the I function off to allow us to be more "creative".

I think we all take risks in our life. Some small, some large, even when our I function says no. I think the older we get doesn't change, the fact that we want to take risks but we make conscious decisions to put others before ourselves. When we are younger with little or no responsibility it is easy to take a risk because someone will be there to help us but as we get more responsibilities our I function pushes us into reality and conformity of what is expected of us.   Our I function makes us think that we are not being risky or spontaneous but ...... Just by coming to this workshop is a risk because it changes the way we think about teaching and the way our students learn.

Paul Grobstein's picture

I-function, risk taking, and creativity

Glad you're all willing to take the risk, at whatever age. As above, I suspect the "wisdom" of age is as much a function of changes in the unconscious as of an enhanced I-function. Yes, one can sometimes increase creativity by turning down the I-function, but one can also enhance creativity by using the I-function. Along these lines, see Informed Guessing and Beyond.
cynthia's picture

Christopher Reeves

The illustrations today emphasized the computer conections as it relates to the spinal cord.Brain equals behavior in this course.The transmitters are not an electrical system or relay.They are constantly changing.There are many ramifications to "these stories".

Babtunde A Oronti's picture

I-function and older folks...........

The notion I"m having about today's interactive discussion on I-function in relation to the cognitive unconscious is that the I-function has a lot to do with our experiences in life.

As we grow older, we have a repertoire of knowledge based on what we have gone through in life and this greatly affects the way we make decisions and of course engage in risky ventures.

My 18 year old son will take more risks than I will like to imagine. Think of any situation from driving, investing in a business, traveling at night, going on the most tumultuous ride in a theme park just to mention a few.

To make a connection with today's discussion topic, my son's I-function is suppressed most of the time when he engages in these activities whereas mine is "over" activated.

My question is this; if the way we operate is a reflection of our experiences in life which in turn over activates our I-function; can we blame old people for not wanting to take risks like bungee jumping etc because their I-function is over activated? Don't they say "once beaten twice shy"?


Ayotola Oronti's picture

I-function and older folks

I agree with you Tunde, that personal experiences affect the functioning of the I-Function and I do not blame the older generation for not wanting to take "risky risks" as such. The fact that I have been exposed to so many things in life makes it possible for my cognitive unconscious to be overruled by my I-Function unlike my son. I can then imagine why my mother will take forever to decide whether she wants to take any risk at all. I think her I-Function has taken over completely.

This summary of observation comes to mind: The I-Function gets stronger with age advancement while the cognitive unconscious gets weaker.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Age, the I-function, and the cognitive unconscious

I certainly know the diminishing inclination to take (at least certain kinds of) risks as one gets older. And there may well be less I-function inhibition of the cognitive unconscious when one is younger. My guess though is that at least some of the change has to do not with a strengthening I-function but rather with a cognitive unconscious that is altered by experience. Its my unconscious rather than my I-function that inclines me to avoid things now I might not have avoided years ago. I just don't feel like doing them.
cisrael's picture

A closet Freudian!

As a dyed in the wool Freudian, I can't help but be completely amused by Paul's discussion of the cognitive conscious and unconscious. I know that he said he was deliberately using the word 'cognitive' so that all we Freudians wouldn't have a fit, but I love the story he is developing about the I function and the cognitve unconscious because if you substitute Ego and Id (and make a few adjustments in definition) it seems to me you have pretty much the same thing; and Freud had this notion over 100 years ago. One difference, I think, is that Paul (and his kind!) have a whole lot more observations to support his story, but I love that the stories are really, really similar. And, of course, it is a story I completely believe.
Paul Grobstein's picture

the freudian and the cognitive unconscious

Yep, I agree that there are interesting similarities in the two stories, certainly enough to encourage the two communities to talk more together than they do. See Making the Unconscious Conscious: A Bi-Directional Bridge Between Neuroscience/Cognitive Science and Psychotherapy.

That they don't connect as well as they might is partly for historical/sociological reasons, but there are as wel significant differences between the freudian unconscious (even as it has evolved today) and the "cognitive unconscious," a term that I've borrowed but that is itself understood differently by different users of it. Those differences may in the long run as important to bridging the gap as the similarities.

The "cognitive unconscious" in my usage is neither "primitive" nor the detritus of things that have previously been conscious nor independent of culture. It is instead a quite sophisticated information processing system that learns and is altered by culture. Perhaps most importantly, it is the essential foundation of consciousness rather than a by product of it. Nothing reaches consciousness except via initial processing in the unconscious.

Along similar lines, consciousness (conceived now as the "I-function" or "story teller" is not something whose business it is to constrain the unconscious but rather a system that acts to integrate a disparate set of unconscious elements and, in so doing, to influence their function. The primary function is not to "control" but rather to provide candidate "stories" which are in turn tested by the elements of the unconscious. It is not a "director" but a "fuschia dot" (see The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization).

Cynthia Henderson's picture


The spinal cord is a type of cable.The nervous system has "boxes".Pain essentially is a "pattern of thought".Action and thinkiing both take time.
jrlewis's picture

I have a problem with the

I have a problem with the idea that the I-function is inessential to an athlete's performance.  At least in the case of an equestrian.  While I rely on correct reflexes when jumping my horse around a course of obstacles, I would probably crash with out thinking.  My mare is young and inexperienced; she has a relatively undeveloped judgement.  In the middle of a course, I need to evaluate my mare's performance and make informed adjustments and decisions.  My response to her requires my I-function, I believe.  Without this meta component, my ride will lack finesse and sophistication. 
bronstein's picture

Practice makes perfect

But isn't the whole reason for your practice to bring the "inexperienced" horse to the point of being "experienced," which implies that much of the thinking work has been repeated so often that it has become "second nature," thus freeing you to think of more advanced moves, while the (now) elementary maneuvers take care of themselves?
Ayotola Oronti's picture

Bird's eye view of the Topographic organization

In relation to students in the classroom, if "Christopher Reeves" is believed to be in the front part of the nervous system, then I understand that the interpretation of feelings is what happens in the upper part of the nervous system. If one pinches Chris he cannot feel it because the system is not giving him an interpretation of the action. Pain is a feeling which is in the upper part of the nervous system.

Now does this mean that students that do not follow directions the first time given have a disconnection in their nervous system that implies that the auditory neurons are not sending the message or information through for any action to follow? Is their cognitive unconscious disabled or disjointed etc? Or is it the time gap for the I-function to respond to the stimulus that is causing the slow response? Or better still have they turned their I-function on very actively?

joycetheriot's picture

Compliance Enables Creativity

Try to tell a piano teacher for instance, that directing the student to use drills, memorize notes or practice musical pieces over and over again will inhibit their creativity. Actually this training is stimulating the brain, creating a more complex neural structure and developing muscle memory that will eventually ENABLE their student to take off into all aspects of the student's chosen direction of creative process!
bronstein's picture

drill and practice

Yes, Joyce. Ask any coach of any sport and I think they will back you up. The winning teams are those that drill repeatedly and comply with direction of the coach. He's the one who is supposed to be exhibiting creativity.

Once you make the necessary actions "second-nature," you can then employ the brain in higher order thinking skills and creative activity.

Come to think of it, isn't a skill an action that has been practiced to the point of making it second nature?

adiflesher's picture

Connecting the cables


The lecture made me wonder if people who are paralyzed could use the parts of the brain that controled their hands or feet. 

Turns out that at least at some level that may be possible. Scientists have tried to create an interface for a paralyzed man to control an avatar in the popular online world second life.,2933,361822,00.html

I am curious if this is really done through sending signals to parts of the brain involved in the movement of the limbs. How similiar is the pattern of firing to real walking? 




bronstein's picture

I will attempt to answer

I will attempt to answer your question(s). The parts of the brain that, before the injury, controlled movement of a limb will still fire off signals to the axon that goes down the spine. The problem is that the axon chain doesn't go all the way to the target muscle anymore. So, the signal can be generated. It just doesn't do anything. Now, the sensory neurons also still work, but whatever signal they may generate doesn't reach the brain. It stops in the spinal cord somewhere. On the other side of the lesion there is still a piece of that sensory circuit that used to carry signals to the brain. If that piece is enervated (activated), the brain will feel something. Whether that something is movement or pain touch depends on the signal. Generally, since the signal is spurious and uncontrolled, the sensation felt is generally that of pain, but whether the pain is burning or pulsing or constant or simply an itch, again, depends on the signal. This is the subject of intense research at the moment, since so many SCI victims suffer from phantom pain. There are several ways to mitigate this pain, any one of which may be employed: various drugs or combinations of drugs, TENS units, acupuncture, hypnosis, yoga.

I have not read anything about the “signal generating or receiving areas” of the brain being taken over by other functions once movement or sensation is no longer viable. However, other parts of the body may generate a sensory signal that is felt by the brain as coming from a limb that no longer can pass a signal to the brain.

You should also be aware that the muscles that can no longer be controlled may, in and of themselves, seem to “get bored” waiting for a signal . . . and initiate movement on their own. This is called spasticity. While in rehab I heard the story of one “partial quad” who could use these movements to enable a rudimentary form of walking. He could predict what movements in his upper body would generate a particular spasm. So, by making certain movements, he could cause hip and leg flexors to activate predictably. I, myself, can predict spasms, but none of them produce any useful movement. They only hinder the actions I wish to initiate.

Now, about the chip implant: First, the chip doesn’t need to send a signal to the brain. The motor cortex initiates the signal and sends it down the neuron – or in this case to the chip, which then sends it to the computer. If the signal were sent to the nerve below the injury level that activates the actual muscle instead of the avatar on the screen, we would have an “outside the spinal cord” cure for paralysis. There have been a couple of sci-fi movies or TV shows based on this concept.

Recently, the American who volunteered to have a micro-circuit implanted in his head a couple of years ago is now having a number of rejection-related problems. For this and a number of other reasons the thrust of the research today is focused on finding ways to have the damaged nerves regrow across the lesion. The mitigating factors are being identified and the problems are being solved step by step. The Spinal Cord Society has found a viable method of “dissolving” the scar tissue that filled the injury site, or introducing a substrate to support a mix of cells that will regenerate nerve cells while preventing the enzymes that block regrowth from activating. The SCS reported just this month that their newest attempt resulted in a good degree of recovery in the population of lab rats used.

Repairing the internal sets of cables is a much better option than trying to do it externally. The question still exists, though, as to whether once the connections are made, will the axon that once controlled the big toe reconnect to the appropriate axon below the injury site . . . or will the person have to relearn movement, e.g. use the signal that used to extend the right leg to move the left big toe?

I hope this doesn't come across as "too much information."

bronstein's picture

Jumper cables

Normally, the axons above and below the area of injury in a spinal cord still function. The problem is to reconnect them. So, most research is (simplistically) focussed on finding a means of installing a set of jumper cables across the lesion. Decades ago, when the Apple //e was THE personal computer, a team in Dayton devised a program to enable a paraplegic to control her legs, thus enabling a kind of walking, by attaching electodes to her muscles and having team members control the computer. This system simply took the brain out of the equation.

There was also a shortly-lived TV show that had a paraplegic develop an exoskeleton (like Ironman) that was connected to his brain thru electodes in a helmet that enabled him to move like the Hulk. This system removed the muscles from the equation, but left the brain in charge. What we are still looking for is the set of jumper cables that simply reconnects the axons above the injury to those that were severed from it below the injury . . . and to have the connection be functional.

adiflesher's picture

My questtion is


In the case of the second life brain control, is the person using the areas of his brain that control the legs and arms to walk, or are doing something more like stephen hawkings does when he writes, which is use his eyes to focus on the letter that he wants the computer to say. 

To be more explicit what happens to the part of the brain that is responsible for walking in a paraplegic.  I know in Phantom limbs the brain re-claims some of the territory of the Phantom limb for other functions. But what happens when the entire body is no longer neurologically connected to the brain. what does the brain do with that big map of the body?  

And in this paritcular case, can the brain still generate activity in those areas. What happens when you tell a paraplegic person to imagine themselves walking. Does their brain fire in the same way as it used to when they walked? Do paraplegic people have dreams of walking?  Do those patterns (in dreams or thoughts) become more and more diffuse over time? 


Paul Grobstein's picture

dreams, phantom limbs, paraplegia

We'll get back to this set of questions in re phantom limbs. In the meanwhile, Alan? Relevant observations?
Ayotola Oronti's picture

Compliance and Creativity

I still find it very unpalatable to think or accept that encouraging compliance is actually reducing individuality. I would have loved to believe that compliance is a positive trait that is needed in our system of today. Maybe what I am wishing for is that people {our students} can be compliant in their bid to be creative.


cisrael's picture

I agree

I do not think that asking students to learn what the rules are for them to live productively in a social context has to be seen as compliance. I agree with Tola. Learning those rules is a precondition to success in the social context in which we all live. I don't see that it needs to be an impairment to individuality and creativity.
adiflesher's picture

knowing what's under the hood of your car


I was struck by that metaphor.  We might want to know what goes on under the hood of our skull. Now aren't going to become brain mechanics, but we sure spend a lot time driving around in our head. 


bronstein's picture

under the hood, con't

I think that's a good extension of the metaphor . . . and it might enable us to "drive around" with a little more direction -- or to be more productive during our ride.

. . . or more to the point of this institute, to enable us to better direct or facilitate the voyage that we want our students to embark on.

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