“We are not our Brains:” Alva Noe & Brain-based Education

Even though the 90’s was said to be the decade of the brain, education still seems to be fascinated with this wrinkled grey organ. Neurological descriptions, explanations and instructional strategies seem to be everywhere these days. But there are significant limitations to “brain-based education:”

  1. Brains are not the same thing as persons. We are also our bodies, our actions, and our relations to others; and none of these are reducible to our brains or others’ brains. Bennett and Hacker (in Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience; 2003) call the reduction of personal attributes to the brain the “mereological fallacy,” using attributes of a small part to characterize the whole.
  2. New ways of “getting inside the brain” (MRIs etc.) provide a neurological language to explain activities for which we also have non-scientific language. But how valuable is it to learn that kindergarten-aged brains are stimulated in valuable ways from a bright, colourful environment, or that patterns in brain activity change as people gradually learn to do something new? Having recently read studies that report on these kinds of findings, I can’t help question the value of being able to restate neurologically what is already known and studied in less abstract terms.
  3. It is much more productive to consider education a socio-cultural endeavour than an exercise in biological or neurological engineering. To see education as connecting neurons and shaping brains rather than developing free and responsible persons (the two are, to a degree, incompatible) raises significant ethical and political issues.
  4. “Basing” education and instructional strategies on the brain take us back to Cartesian dualisms and the problems associated with them: Brain is separated from the person, thinking occurs in the skull, consciousness is located in a kind of “brain in a vat.”

The “brain in a vat” critique is articulated by Alva Noe in a chapter, “the grand illusion” from his recent book (Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain), and in the video above. I don’t agree that the answer to this critique is a new evolutionary biologism (as Noe suggests); I rather think that Noe’s references to phenomenology and other methodologies suggest more helpful alternatives. But in the video, Noe describes consciousness as being “more like a dance than digestion,” and with that I couldn’t agree more.

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