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The Brain and Social Well-Being

Paul Grobstein's picture
The Brain as a Learner/Inquirer/Creator:
Some Implications of its Organization for Individual and Social Well Being


Paul Grobstein
Eighth Olympiad of the Mind
Washington, D.C.
15-16 November 2007
(14 Nov revision)

Abstract. At its best, empirical research opens new and fruitful directions for exploring what it means to be human. In this essay, I will describe several aspects of research on the brain that seem to me to have this character, suggesting that we can and should think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as active creators and revisers of meaning, for ourselves and for the world we find ourselves in. I will conclude with several social policy recommendations that follow from this perspective.


The past fifty years have seen explosive growth in human understandings of ourselves as biological entities, not only in narrow terms but in quite broad ones as well. Empirical science has given us new appreciation not only of mechanisms of inheritance but also of the complex processes by which genetic information influences all aspects of humanness, and of the evolutionary process that creates that genetic information and links us with each other and with other living organisms in an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of life. We have as well new understandings of the brain, not only of the details of its internal workings in relation to particular behaviors but also of how its complexity yields rich potentials for the continuing development and evolution of humanness, both individually and collectively. In this essay, I want to focus on several of these understandings that seem to me of particular importance for the future, for creating new conceptions of humanness that could in turn yield richer and fuller lives for all human beings.

An Historical Context: Genes, Behaviorism, and the Brain

In 1971 two books were published, near simultaneously, that provide a useful landmark for this essay. One was B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Skinner, 1971); the other was Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (Monod, 1971). Skinner drew on a life time of research in behavioral psychology to argue that human behavior was nothing more and nothing less than the product of the individual experiences that individual human beings had during their lives, and that with deliberate and careful control of those experiences it would be possible to achieve ideal human societies. Monod, on the other hand, wrote as a pioneering molecular biologist. While he himself made no sweeping claims comparable to those of Skinner, he was read by many as implying a different but comparable challenge, that human beings were nothing more and nothing less than the product of their genes. Monod was attacked as a proxy by those (including Skinner supporters) who felt that it was trivializing humanity to attribute its characteristics to genes, and Skinner was attacked by those (including Monod supporters) who similarly felt there must be something more to humanness than individual experiences. The deeper question posed by the two books went more or less unnoticed at the time. Suppose genes and experiences both affect behavior? Is that all there is to humanness, or is there something more (Grobstein, 1991)? And if so, what? Must one fall back on spiritual or religious traditions to give us something more than our genes and our experiences, or is there something else that can be explored by empirical science?

If the brain is indeed the underpinning of humanness, as seems increasingly to be the case (Crick, 1994; Grobstein, 2002; Ramachandran, 2003), then these questions ought to be approachable through empirical studies of the brain, and that has indeed turned out to be the case. That genes affect the brain was the subject of classical work (cf Sperry, 1956). And more recent work has made it abundantly clear that experiences do so as well (Kandel, 2006). The human brain is influenced both by genes and by individual experiences, including those, like language and values, acquired by interpersonal and cultural influences. Given findings on the brain (and in other realms), there is no longer a nature/nurture controversy. The brain is proving to be the nexus of all influences on behavior.

In terms of the broader concerns of this essay, two further implications of this work are worth making explicit. One is that no two brains are identical. Given the interplay of two different sources of variability, genetic and environmental, and its own enormous complexity, the brain of every living human being is unique. Indeed, there is no possibility that the distinctive brain of any individual has existed in the past or will exist again in the future. The other is that every brain is itself continually changing. The brain is not fixed at birth, or at any later point in life, but is instead continually being altered in one way or another by its ongoing activity.

The brain gives each of us a unique and continually revisable self. But the question still remains of whether that self is simply a product of genes and experiences or whether there is something more, some additional features of humanness that can be identified from empirical studies of the brain?

The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior:
Intrinsic Variability

“Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal behaves as it damn well pleases” is an ironic complaint of graduate students (and senior investigators) studying animal behavior (Grobstein, 1994). And it is one that echoes day to day experience, outside the empirical laboratory, of anyone trying to predict the behavior of another person, or of themselves. We all have a sense that, irrespective of how well we know people (including ourselves) we can never fully predict behavior (including our own); there is always an element of surprise.

Could there in fact be something beyond genes and individual experiences with the outside world that influences behavior, in ourselves and other organisms? Recent empirical research on the nervous system suggests that indeed the answer is yes. Successive identical inputs to an isolated nervous system yield responses that differ each time (Grobstein, 1994), with no evidence that successive responses depend in any way on previous ones. This sort of observation is common in studies of the nervous system of all organisms, but has tended to be ignored or dismissed on the grounds that the observations are not sufficiently “carefully controlled”. Increasingly, though, neuroscientists (Grobstein, 1994; Carpenter, 1999; Glimcher, 2005; Maye et al., 2007) are beginning to take seriously the likelihood that there exist, within the nervous system itself, processes of “intrinsic variability”, i.e. mechanisms that introduce a degree of randomness in nervous system function, so as to assure that “under carefully controlled circumstances” (i.e. identical genetic and experiential factors), the responses of organisms (including humans) to a given input will exhibit some random variation from occasion to occasion.

“Intrinsic variability” may seem to many like a cause without an explanation, perhaps verging on an appeal to the spiritual, but it is not in fact so. As the physicist Erwin Schrodinger pointed out many years ago,

“we know all atoms to perform all the time a completely disorderly heat motion, which, so to speak, opposes itself to their orderly behavior and does not allow the events that happen between a small number of atoms to enrol themselves according to any recognizable laws. Only in the co-operation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate ... All the physical and chemical laws that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind; any other kind of lawfulness and orderliness that one might think of is being perpetually disturbed and made inoperative by the unceasing heat motion of the atoms" (Schrodinger, 1944).

To put it differently, some element of randomness underlies all regularities observed at the level of biological activity. That an element of intrinsic unpredictability should be present in brain function is not surprising. Indeed it would be surprising if it were not the case.

From this perspective, the issue is not whether intrinsic variability is real but rather why it exists, ie what adaptive biological function it might serve. Contemporary thinking suggest a number of possibilities, including the need of organisms to be unpredictable to one another. In the present context, however, what is of most interest is that some capability to generate outputs not fully determined by inputs provides a mechanism to acquire new information, to learn. Nervous systems seem to have an inherent capability to “try out things”, to explore by generating unexpected and novel outputs to “see what will happen”. And to learn by comparing what happened to internally generated predictions/expectations (Galistel, 1980; Kelso, 1982).

If nervous systems in general have this inherent capability, so too do humans. We are, by virtue of our exploratory capacities, capable of things that go beyond those made possible solely by our genes and our experiences. This creative learning capability, involving action and comparison of resultant with expectation, is as much a part of our humanness as genes, experiences, and, for that matter, neurons and synaptic interactions among them.

Distributed Processing:
Society of Mind

“we can make versatile AI machines only by using several different kinds of representations in the same system! This is because no single method works well for all problems; each is good for certain tasks but not for others.” (Minsky, 1986)

It is not uncommon for human empirical research to discover what has previously been revealed as important adaptive principles by the undirected processes of evolutionary change. It is increasingly clear that the human brain, like nervous system in general, has a “modular architecture“, (Fodor, 1983), ie that it consists not of a single master processor but rather of a set of more or less independent parallel processors, each of which has representations related to particular tasks and each of which has the capacity to update its representations with regard to those tasks (Gallistell, 1980; Kelso, 1982). “Multiple intelligences“, may be a relatively new idea with regard to psychology and education (Gardner, 1983 ) but it is, in evolutionary terms, an old idea. Our internal sense of ourselves as single, coherent entities notwithstanding, we each consist of a large array of relatively special purpose processors, each of which is, in particular contexts, able to provide an informed and adaptive response to particular circumstances, often more rapidly and better than that which our coherent and experienced selves can provide (Gladwell, 2005).

An ability to see and recognize others and ourselves as a “society of mind“, rather than as single coherent individuals, is clearly important in acknowledging the different and distinctive capabilities of individuals in educational and other contexts. But it has significant wider implications as well. Among these is the importance of developing an ability to not only accept but actively value the idea that we are not always internally coherent (Rorty, 1982), that internal incoherence in fact provides both the motivation and the grist to create new ways of making sense of both ourselves and the world around us (Grobstein, 2004; Grobstein, 2005). This valuable incoherence too is a part of the new vision of humanness that empirical research on the brain offers.

Dual Processing:
The Story Teller

That we tend to be largely unaware of our internal multiplicity and valuable incoherence is largely due to an additional feature of our brain organization, the existence of a distinct “conscious” module, that has evolved to try and create “stories” that make coherent sense of the various special purpose modules that underlie much of our behavior (Dalke and Grobstein, 2007; Grobstein, 2005a,b, 2007, in press; Haidt, 2003). This additional module, the story teller, operates to improve coordination and cooperation among the various unconscious modules, but also, at least as importantly, to conceive possible ways of behaving that would not develop from any of those modules on their own, or even from the interaction among them without a dedicated effort to conceive a coherent way to make sense of their independent activities.

These stories represent our conscious efforts to make sense both of ourselves and of the world around us. They are inevitably and necessarily based on the prior processing that goes on in the unconscious modules from which they derive their input, and in turn from the outputs and resulting of those modules, ie their interactions with the outside world. These reach the unconscious as intuitions, feeling, and the like, with little or no information about how they have been arrived at. The upshot is that our “understandings” are always tentative, “stories” in at least two important senses. They need always to be understood as influenced by authorial processes of which we are largly unaware (those reflecting the organization of unconscious processes). And they are always subject to revision based on additional experiences.

It may come as a disappointment, even a shock, to many to hear that our conscious understandings are not, and cannot be “authoritative”; they are not “Truth”, either about ourselves or the world around us but only the best “story’ that can be made of the cacophonous, and themselves always changing, reports we receive from our unconscious modules. However, the combination of the unconscious society of mind and our story tellers, both the coherences and the incoherences between them, gives us something perhaps better than an ability to discern “Truth”: the capacity to conceive new ways that things might be and to act to try and achieve them, an ability to play a creative role in our own evolution and in that of the living and non-living worlds of which we are a part.

Individual and collective story telling, with its attendant imagination, creativity, and associated emotionality is proving, from empirical studies of the brain, to be as important to its function as logic and rationality (Damasio, 1994). While we may, in the past, have thought most highly of the latter and of “realism” as the greatest expressions of humanness, current and likely directions of empirical work on the brain can and should help us give renewed weight to those activities that focus less on trying to explain what has been and what is, and more on the subjective and creative processes generating new potentially productive paths for future exploration.

Being Human: Summary and Policy Recommendations

It is sometimes said that advances in empirical science not only necessarily alter our sense of humanness but invariably demean it, that Galileo removed our privileged position at the center of the universe, that Darwin eliminated our privileged position among living things, that Freud challenged our control over even ourselves. One might read the history of empirical research on the brain and make predictions about its future in the same light: that we will gain practical knowledge useful in various ways but find ourselves to have even less of a meaningful role in our own lives, to say nothing of in the universe we inhabit.

I see Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and, most particularly, the current and projected impact of empirical research on the brain in a quite different light. The earth may not be the center of the universe, and we may indeed, along with our fellow living organisms, be an accident of an ongoing evolutionary process lacking either an architect or an objective. While this may frustrate efforts to derive meaning from things outside ourselves, it simultaneously frees us to create meaning from within ourselves. And the evolutionary process has given us the wherewithal to do that, a brain that comes already equipped with a set of past observations that have proven useful (our genetic information), a capacity to learn from new observations in a host of different ways (our unconscious society of mind), and an ability to ourselves conceive and explore candidate futures (the story teller). Moreover, it has given each of us all of the these things in slightly different forms, so that by sharing our observations and stories we can generate a still richer array of candidate futures. What the empirical evidence tells is that, far from being meaningless, we are, individually and collectively, equipped not to appreciate meaning but, even more importantly, to continually conceive and revise it. The evidence suggests that to be human is to be a meaning maker, individually and collectively.

Social and cultural organization, like empirical science, reflects stories based on previous observations (genetic, historical, and contemporary). Social and cultural stories tend though to have more inertia than scientific stories, since, among other things, it takes time for the observations of empirical science to move beyond the scientific community and become part of wider social and cultural story making processes. Contemporary social and cultural stories, and their associated values, tend to place special emphasis on transmitting to individuals the accrued (or received) wisdom of the past (the “best practices”, to “socialize” them in one way or another. While such stories have served usefully in the past for a variety of purposes, they have also created problems, both serious human suffering due to disabling within cultures (McDermott and Varenne, 1995) and substantial conflict between cultures, with attendant further human suffering.

Perhaps the most significant potential outcome of contemporary and future work on the brain would be its contribution to a revision of social and cultural stories of humanness, and hence of cultures themselves (Grobstein, 2007), to give greater weight to the role that all humans can and should play in conceiving new avenues of exploration and new possibilities of how things might be. In such cultures, diversity of all kinds would be recognized as the asset it is, rather than as a set of problems to correct or of difficulties to overcome. And we could all could stop fearing differences, and instead value both the continuing development of our own stories and their contributions to the ongoing development of collective human stories to which we all contribute.

Social and cultural change is slower than one might hope (though, of course, rapid in comparison to evolutionary change), but it can and does occur. The following recommendations for social policy are intended to contribute to spreading as rapidly as possible the new story of humanness emerging from empirical research on the brain ….

1. Expand support for further exploration of the brain, with such exploration understood not as the isolated project of a small number of specialized investigators but rather as a collective human activity with the widest possible participation so as to achieve the widest possible benefits

2. Reorient educational systems from serving primarily the function of transmitting existing social/cultural values and associated “desirable” skills to encouraging the ongoing development of each individual as an active, creative explorer and story teller (cf. Dalke et al, 2007). Introduce research on the brain as a central element of educational curricula.

3. Assure universal access to the internet so that all individuals can both gain from and contribute to the widest range of information and perspectives.

4. Enhance support for the creative arts as an essential source of new cultural and national stories that reflect a commitment to the value of both individual and group diversity, and to the development of still broader human stories to which everyone contributes and in which everyone can take pride.

5. Re-evaluate and, as necessary, reform political and economic structures to assure that they contribute to, rather than detract from, individual and collective efforts to conceive futures that improve on but are not constrained by experiences of the past



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Kim Burdick's picture

multi-disciplinary thinking

Serendip is awesome and I am your new groupie!

apple's picture

the brain and learning

this was quite an informative article i personally learn a lot

Serendip Visitor's picture

Communal distributed activity processing

I read with great interest your articles. Your take on a "society of mind" I find particularly striking and something I myself have recently begun working for.

I believe that in order to facilitate the ideal condition for human growth and evolution we'll need to fundamentally alter the way in which we interact and perceive ourselves.

Establishing a state of mind that individuality is valued, but contributions to the society as a whole is valued more. The collective sharing and building of knowledge and wisdom is essential.

Through this we should be able to harness the collective power that rise from the inherent distributed processing capabilities we have as humans.

/ Christoffer

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