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Deborah Hazen's picture

 Grobstein writes about the "bipartite brain.”

“The basic idea here is that because of how the brain is organized all the things we experience (including perceptions, understandings, and aspirations) are inevi- tably "stories", ie one of a variety of ways to make sense of the world and our selves that are grounded in unexamined (and hence challengeable) presump- tions of which we are unaware. From this, of course, and the added feature that all brains are somewhat different, follows the notion that one cannot in principle find anything like a complete "neutral standpoint” unwobbly pivots or unchal- lengeable starting points.”

I have not read every post on Serendip, of the posts that I have read, the discussion of the bipartite brain and subsequent exchanges about objectivity and subjectivity and negotiating truths and stories have focused on the negotiation between brains. I have become increasingly intrigued by the idea that just as there are no complete “neutral standpoints” or “unwobbling pivots or unchallengeable starting points” between brains (all of which are different), none of these states actually exist within a single “bipartite brain.”

My developing story comes from observations related to the biology of imagination, positive psychology, and discussions as I participate in the 2009 Brain and Behavior Institute at Bryn Mawr College.

For my purposes, I am using Baron-Cohen’s definition of imagination that presses past simple imagery and involves modifying second-order representations. This meta-representation is evidenced in our ability to think about the future, remember the past or imagine what it would have been like, conceive the viewpoints of others, and navigate between the first person and third person. These capacities allow humans to engage in pretend play and imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings (empathize and mind “read” in order to decode social cues). (Buckner, Self-projection and the Brain)

The implications of extending Grobstein’s story about the absence of those unwobbling pivots to individual brains are many. First, by appreciating that the human brain is at once forming images that are more or less faithful to the outside world and imagining multiple modifications of those images, we can move beyond the assumption that when an individual is presenting an idea that they are only capable of holding a single or dogmatic viewpoint. Instead of reacting to each other’s stories as though these stories were established belief or principle on the part of the story teller, we could instead invite/expect playful exploration of multiple stories originating from each individual. The assumption that each of us is capable because of brain architecture of holding a multiplicity of stories about the same observation may naturally support the self-application of skepticism as we reflect on our own stories and a greater openness to learning from other people’s stories and expecting all stories to change over time.

In the classroom, understanding the bipartite brain and the biology of imagination will help us extend the model that “brains evolve/explore by three comparing models with the outside world, by comparing stories with models, and by comparing with each other.” We might also consider that brains evolve/explore by imagining, the active manipulation of our first order representations of the outside world. (It should be noted that even young children are able to negotiate the difference between pretending that the banana is a phone and knowing that the banana is a banana--so I am proposing that this process does not carry with it any danger of people losing the distinction between first and second order representations.) It seems that by including this extension as a feature, not a bug, inherent in the bipartite brain that we make a mockery of the argument over the relative importance of subjectivity and objectivity. If I want to end world hunger, then I must first imagine a world without world hunger. Once I own that I am imagining that world, does the question of whether or not I’m being objective or subjective carry any importance?

More importantly, we can de-emphasize the idea of a single truth in the classroom, eliminate the classroom as a place where students succeed by reproducing facts and instead create a climate that values the exploration/imagination of original ideas. We’d be taking steps to create a classroom that Einstein might have appreciated. One based on his quote that “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

If the role of education is to ensure that students know themselves and are prepared to build lives of resilience and emergent transaction with others in healthy communities, then we need to make space and value the exploration of their imaginations in every grade. The adults in the room need to model this by engaging and reflecting upon their own imaginations. We can look to Zimbardo’s work on heroic imagination and Seligman’s work on learned optimism to see the importance of imagination in prospecting positive outcomes and maintaining a positive interior dialogue that supports self-acceptance and constructing alternate interpretations of behavior--both of which might just make more room for the acceptance of more “kinds of brains.”

The observations suggest that imagination is a function of the human brain’s architecture and that the exercise of imagination is natural (like breathing) and therefore we only need to ensure that our educational practices do not suppress it. In Quaker education, we sometimes say that we help students imagine what the world could be through our community practices with the hope that when they leave Quaker school, they will want to go out into the world and help form communities that will reflect their vision. It seems to me that if we treat education as the radical practice that it is, then we need to fully engage our students’ imaginations throughout their academic careers.

For more on imagination on imagination and brain architecture:

If you would like instruction on recognizing imagination:

For ideas about using imagination to support student learning and observations of improved student outcomes through the use of imagination in the classroom:

For more information on Positive Psychology: