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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #89      A Publication of The Nature Institute           May 4, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Globalism Means Living with Your Neighbor
       Tales from the Computerized Classroom
    Failure to Connect: Jane Healy on Classroom Computers (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Finding a rationale for the computer isn't easy
    I Wonder What My Brain is Thinking? (Stephen L. Talbott)
       `Brain' language and the disappearance of the self
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Globalism Means Living with Your Neighbor
    One of the damaging notions that seems to have gained in currency along
    with the Net is that we can construct the most powerful educational
    experiences from what is foreign and distant.  This thought seems to lie
    behind the drive toward "multicultural education" via the Net, and also
    behind the love affair with rain forests and online expeditions to
    I have nothing against the foreign and the distant as such, but the
    sentiment here strikes me as dead wrong.  The truth is that the most
    powerful educational experiences come from what is nearest to us.  The use
    of the Net in pursuit of the opposite conviction often exemplifies the
    well-known contradiction:  "I love mankind; it's just people I can't
    stand."  The same contradiction could be put in environmental terms:  "I
    love nature; it's just the bits of it around my home I find rather dull."
    As I've pointed out before, if you really want to make Johnny a good
    global citizen, there's no need to check his folder of email from remote
    places.  Just observe which kids he doesn't get along with on the
    playground.  There's where your real educational opportunities are.
    We don't need to look further than the current tragedies unfolding in
    Kosovo to be reminded that there is only one challenge in the whole world
    regarding global citizenship:  it's the challenge of living with our
    neighbors.  To the extent we allow our digital networks to distract us
    from this challenge, we undermine the global spirit.
    Tales from the Computerized Classroom
    Some interesting facts and quotations drawn from Jane Healy's Failure to
    Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse.
    Healy's book is reviewed in the feature articles of this issue.  (Page
    numbers are indicated in parentheses.)
    ** Four of the ten best-selling children's CD-ROM titles in 1996 were
    marketed for children beginning at age three.  (20)
    ** A father:  "We bought our three-year-old this great computer, but all
    he wanted to play with was the box it came in."  (203)
    ** Lillian Katz:  "Children do not have to be amused, cajoled, or tricked
    into learning.  This is only an American problem and it's disrespectful of
    children."  (241)
    ** A survey of parents, teachers, "leaders" in various fields, and the
    general public showed "computer skills and media technology" ranking third
    in a list of sixteen possibilities -- considerably higher than "good
    citizenship" and "curiosity and love of learning".  Every group but the
    leaders rated computer skills more important than "values" (for example,
    honesty and tolerance).  (20)
    ** Eight-year-old:  "Yes computers can think.  Because they pick up tons
    of information.  I would think a computer is smarter [than a human].
    Because it tells always the right answers."  (127)
    ** According to an online children's survey, children who were asked which
    they trusted more, their parents or their computers, mostly voted for
    their computers.  (82)
    ** "In survey after survey, to most parents' astonishment, when children
    are given choices of activities, time spent with parents always
    heads the list."  (75)
    ** A father and scientist:  "Any parent who thinks the computer can
    substitute for a parent is just stupid."  (166)
    ** David Denby in The New Yorker:  "When Max is at home on a Saturday or
    on vacation, he may hit the computer as soon as he gets up, ignoring
    repeated entreaties to eat breakfast, and finally ignoring bowls of cereal
    placed under his nose as he plays one of the war-strategy games he
    currently loves .... What's lost is the old dream that parents and teachers
    will nurture the organic development of the child's own interests, the
    child's own nature.  In this country, people possessed solely by the
    desire to sell have become far more powerful than parents tortuously
    working out the contradictions of authority, freedom, education, and
    soul-making."  (191)
    ** "I am discouraged by my estimate of what [students using computers] are
    learning, namely:  Don't stop to think, don't work the problem through,
    don't read the few text screens (even if they could), just jump in and try
    something -- if it doesn't work you can blow it up, start again, or switch
    programs."  (46)
    ** "If we develop children who are empty of all but what is beamed into
    them from outside, we will have begotten nothing but the sad shells of our
    own ambitions."  (175)
    ** "In most studies, hypertext has come in as a poor second to traditional
    text.  Reading from a screen is slower, more fatiguing, less accurate, and
    more subject to information overload than standard reading.  In several
    studies, students tested for comprehension after reading from a screen
    demonstrated less understanding and poorer memory than those getting the
    same information from a book.  They tended to get lost or flip too quickly
    through the screens without reading .... Adding digitized pictures, sound,
    and animation to learning has not yet proven any more effective than
    studying illustrated books."  (152)
    ** "Reading consists much more of a person's `habits of mind' -- e.g.,
    sustained concentration, language, imagery, questioning strategies -- than
    it does of reciting words or alphabet sounds.  Computers ... tend to raise
    older children's scores if the tests focus more on mechanics of reading
    than on deeper comprehension skills .... In one study children using very
    popular reading software drill-and-practice (disguised as games with
    reward screens) demonstrated a 50 percent drop in their creativity
    scores."  (234)
    ** Dr. John Jacobi, optometrist:  "Thanks to computers, my business is
    booming, I'm sorry to say.  We're seeing humongous increases in the need
    for both vision therapy and occupational therapy because two-dimensional
    visual experience without related motor experience doesn't set the
    necessary base.  Kids come in with `the look' -- I can tell right away."
    ** UCLA researchers polled 350,000 U.S. college freshmen, who chose as
    their highest goal, "being very well off financially".  In previous
    decades, aspirations such as "developing a meaningful philosophy of life"
    received top ranking.  (90)
    **  "Cause and effect -- as well as self-control -- are easy to learn when
    you're trying to hammer a nail into a board (if I miss, then I might hurt
    my finger), but hard to learn when a system crashes for no apparent reason
    or things jump around the screen without a visible source of propulsion."
    ** "Much of the software your children are playing with was developed by a
    company founded by two brothers who, as children, created their own secret
    world in an alcove under the stairs based on their reading of the Hardy
    Boys adventure series.  Although their software is among the `better'
    products, I am quite sure its manufactured delights don't hold a candle to
    that wonderful secret kingdom that occupied so many of their hours -- and
    later enabled them to make a fortune from parents who feared their own
    children might have too much unscheduled time."  (228)
    ** "At Vancouver's DigiPen (short for digital pencil) college, students
    spend four years -- often after four years at another university --
    learning to create video games.  Applications for admission at last count
    were running at 12,000 for 77 places."  (158)
    ** A Forbes magazine editor:  "In the end it is the poor who will
    be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers."  (47)
    Goto table of contents
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    Notes concerning Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our
    Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse, by Jane Healy (New York:
    Simon and Schuster, 1998).
    Jane Healy walks into the school's computer room, where she sees a huge
    banner proclaiming, "COMPUTERS ARE OUR FUTURE!!!"  Thirty-two nine- and
    ten-year-olds sit at the computers, pursuing their solitary math and
    reading tasks while a teacher and an aide lend what support they can.
    Taking up a position behind Raoul, Healy watches as he effortlessly solves
    a few simple addition problems and then gleefully accepts his reward:  a
    series of smash-and-blast games.  When the games end, Raoul is confronted
    with more math problems.  "Groaning slightly, he quickly solves the
    problems and segues expertly into the next space battle."
       By the time I move on, Raoul has spent many more minutes zapping aliens
       than he has doing math .... [I] wonder if what we are really teaching
       Raoul is that he should choose easy problems so he can play longer, or
       that the only reason to use his brain even slightly is to be granted --
       by an automaton over which he has no personal control -- some mindless
       fun as a reward.  (p. 43)
    Then Healy observes Dareesha, who is practicing reading skills.
       Dareesha watches as a page with a few lines of storybook text appears,
       embellished by a colorful illustration.  She examines the pictures as
       the cursor highlights and a voice reads each phrase of the text.  This
       takes approximately twenty seconds; now Dareesha's face breaks into a
       broad grin as she seizes the mouse and for several enchanted minutes
       clicks skillfully on the objects in the illustration.  In response,
       each picture animates and performs a clever act:  a mailbox opens and
       waves its flag, flowers bend in a rhythmic dance, vegetables turn jet-
       propelled and zoom across the screen.  Dareesha, mesmerized, laughs
       aloud, unfortunately attracting the attention of the aide who
       materializes over her shoulder.  "Read me that story!" she demands.
       Dareesha wilts and begins futilely to attempt sounding out the words on
       the screen.
       You'd better try harder or you'll never pass this grade", comments the
       aide, moving on.  Dareesha sighs, looks over her shoulder, makes a few
       limp passes at the words, which are clearly too difficult for her, and
       begins once again clicking on the pictures.  (pp. 43-44)
    Later, Healy chats with Dareesha's teacher:
       "No, I don't have nearly enough time to give attention to each kid",
       she sighs.  "Actually, I'm not really a trained teacher.  They drafted
       me because I was pretty good with these machines.  So I get the kids
       started on the programs, then I can go about my business -- a lot of
       paperwork and there are always a few of these darn things that need
       fixing."  (p. 44)
    Looking for the Benefits
    In her new book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our
    Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse, Healy offers numerous such
    stories based on her remarkably extensive observation of computer-based
    education around the country.  The stories range from good to bad to ugly
    -- with the great majority being decidedly ugly.  It's enough to make any
    sober-minded reader despair of the American educational system.
    Healy herself struggles mightily to see benefits, real or potential, in
    the classroom use of computers.  Currently, however, her typical positive
    scenario runs something like this:  Here's an example of a reasonably
    healthy exploitation of the computer in a richly textured classroom
    setting; but, of course, given the healthy setting, much the same thing
    could easily be achieved without the massive expenditures on high-tech
    equipment and support.
    "There's no question that one's initial reaction to much children's
    software is bedazzlement", she says.  It may take awhile to realize that
    "the remarkable tricks are mostly being played by the computer, not by the
    child" (p. 48).  It's a measure of our extremity today that Healy is
    driven to spend a good deal of time repeating such obvious truths.  For
       "The mere presence of computers guarantees nothing about their
       educational value".
       "Just because children like something does not mean it is either good
       for them or educational".
       "Using a computer will not automatically make your child smarter".
       "Facility with a computer signifies nothing special about a child's
       "`Information' is not the be-all, end-all of learning".
    But Healy's advice is by no means all so elementary.  She is a
    psychologist and educator of some thirty-five years' standing, who
    previously wrote Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think -- and What
    We Can Do About It.  Her new book, grounded wonderfully in wise
    observation of actual classroom work, is a vital resource for educators.
    By way of the endnotes, it provides excellent access to the current
    research literature.  And throughout the book there are valuable
    checklists for parents and educators:  for example, how to
    *  evaluate software for different age groups
    *  encourage girls to use computers
    *  boost motivation with computers
    *  avoid "online addiction"
    *  improve attention
    *  control video-game use
    *  protect against health hazards
    *  plan for the introduction of computers in a school
    and much more.
    I found some of this advice about how to make the best use of computers
    slightly disconcerting -- especially when it immediately followed a series
    of horrific pictures illustrating our society's systematic inability to
    engage the computer sanely.  This was particularly true in the discussion
    of pre-schoolers and children in the lower grades, for whose use of the
    computer Healy could find few redeeming benefits to offset the many
    disastrous consequences.  Given her awareness of our society's "irrational
    obsession with high-tech solutions" (p. 81), and given the computer's
    near-perfection of our prevailing imbalances, I half expected her to say
    (as I myself am always tempted to say) "Ban the cursed machines from the
    classroom; in today's social context they are almost certain to work
    But instead (for which we must thank her) she offers her eminently
    sensible advice about how to get the most from the machine.  As a
    practical, feet-on-the-ground guidebook for parents and educators, and as
    an admirably comprehensive introduction to the massive literature bearing
    on computers in education, Failure to Connect is perhaps the most
    valuable book we now have.
    Remembering the Alternatives
    If I had to lodge one complaint, it would be that Healy does not follow up
    on her repeated observation that most successful projects would prove just
    as successful without the computer.  That is, she does not spend much time
    helping us to imagine the alternatives.  This exercise is important,
    however, because it almost invariably shows how the alternatives can
    readily provide what children are most lacking in our society, whereas the
    computer itself tends to exacerbate the lack.  Surely this has a bearing
    on educational policy.
    To take one example:  Healy visited a fourth-grade class where the
    children were studying water resources.  They collected data on local
    water quality, in cooperation with twelve to fifteen other schools around
    the world.
       But hands-on learning comes first, as they visit a well to investigate
       local water sources and research water rights which date from the 1850
       gold rush.  Then they conduct science experiments to test water for
       chemical elements and send the results to a central "server", which
       collates them with data from children as far away as Russia.  Finally,
       an adult scientist receives their data, analyzes it, and sends back a
       summary of her findings.
    Much about this context is indeed healthy, and the notion of collecting
    and sharing "data" about environmental problems around the world is highly
    regarded in most educational circles.  And yet, the features most directly
    facilitated by the computer -- namely, the electronically mediated data-
    sharing and the scientist's analysis and report -- point to what is most
    questionable in the project.
    To see why this is so, listen to a story told by David Sobel in his
    exhilarating little booklet, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in
    Nature Education.  He is discussing how the water cycle is usually
       Starting in first grade, children do little experiments in jars and
       soon thereafter draw diagrams of clouds, condensation, rivers flowing
       to the ocean and evaporating back to the clouds.  Too often the
       denatured words have little connection to the real world.  Rarely do
       children step outside, investigate puddles, collect rainwater, make
       miniature landscapes, or follow streams.  (p. 22)
    Once, when Sobel was working with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who
    could all "recite the water cycle forwards and backwards", he decided to
    test their understanding.  He asked, "When it rains over the ocean, does
    it rain fresh water or salt water?"
       Almost all of them were adamant that it rained salt water.  If we were
       teaching the water cycle in an experiential fashion, these children
       would know the answer to this question.  But the problem is that we're
       not really teaching science or environmental education, we are teaching
       a veneer of words, recitation without reality.  (p. 22)
    The challenge for children today is to find a direct, meaningful
    connection with nature.  The scientist's chemical analysis of the
    children's data gains meaning only within a vast body of high abstraction
    that these kids must eventually find some approach to.  But that approach
    must be grounded in their own experience.  Far better at their age to test
    the water by observing its effects upon seed germination or other life
    processes the children themselves can observe than to have scientists or
    "black boxes" report back the presence of so many parts per million of
    such-and-such a molecule.
    We adults too easily forget that these remote facts make no sense -- not
    even to us -- except insofar as they are correlated with sensible effects.
    ("How does this chemical affect health?")  The child whose direct
    experience of nature has been shortchanged -- the child who thinks it
    rains salt water -- is not going to gain in scientific stature by
    obtaining abstract chemical analyses of unpronounceable trace elements.
    Sobel's book, incidentally, contains several examples of water-related
    instruction.  Students can undertake to clean and groom a section of a
    local stream -- an exercise that, by itself, could supply many years of
    curriculum in physics, biology, ecology, geography, map-making, and any
    number of other subjects.  Class trips can be taken to explore along the
    length of a stream.  (Sobel describes one fifth-grade class that went
    exploring to find out about the stream that flowed through a culvert under
    the playground.  It became an exciting adventure for the students, and fit
    well with a neighborhood contour-mapping project.)
    And, again, a third-grade class, after reading Paddle-to-the-Sea,
    constructed their own little boats and then, after a brief ceremony,
    launched them in a local stream.  When, a few weeks later, a canoeing
    stream-lover found one of the boats with its message and wrote back to the
    owner, the class excitedly traced the boat's position on the map and
    debated its further progress.  They also knew that they had been in touch
    with someone else out there who deeply shared their concern for the life
    of the stream.
    Upon reading this, I couldn't help thinking, "Now there's `distance
    education' that really works!"  As children grow, their horizons need to
    expand -- but by manageable increments, so that the threads connecting
    them to the surrounding world are continually lengthened and strengthened,
    not summarily snapped.
    It is precisely these connecting threads that our children most
    desperately lack in a society where they find themselves isolated from
    both nature and the world of adult work.  In this context, the computer --
    a veritable engine of abstraction -- a black box that inserts
    incomprehensible layers of mediation between the child and whatever it is
    he experiences -- is something the educator must always work against.
    Given the endless opportunities of the sort David Sobel describes, why do
    we work so hard to make the task more difficult?  Do you realize what we
    could do in the way of nature education if we diverted even a modest
    portion of current computer expenditures toward real-world engagement?
    I say all this because Healy's exemplary fourth-grade class project does
    indeed represent one of the better educational undertakings in conjunction
    with the computer.  But it is important to see how the computer's role in
    this project is peripheral to the most urgent benefits of the project, and
    is actually a strong invitation to sacrifice some of the benefits by
    pulling the students away from a science rooted in their own experience
    and understanding.
    It's also worth noting that the communication function served by the
    computer in this project could readily be exercised by old-fashioned mail.
    I'm not aware of any educational loss that would result from the several
    days' lag time -- and there might possibly be a gain in the students'
    anticipation and in their more sustained focus.  If, as so many people
    think, the computer's role in such projects is educationally remarkable,
    one wonders why so few educators previously saw -- or now see -- the same
    remarkable opportunities being offered by the vastly cheaper postal
    service.  Apparently the computer exudes a glamor that simply pre-empts
    all "common" educational answers -- and thereby also pre-empts common
    Goto table of contents
                       I WONDER WHAT MY BRAIN IS THINKING?
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    One of the many virtues of Jane Healy's Failure to Connect (see
    previous article) is its emphasis upon the stages of child development.
    Healy carefully details the needs manifest during each period of growth.
    She then shows how the computer can distort the growth or (at least
    potentially, and after the first school years) complement it.  She is
    often compelled to point out that the consequences of particular computer
    uses for good or ill are currently unknown; we are conducting a huge
    experiment, with our children the guinea pigs.
    I will not try to summarize Healy's wide-ranging commentary -- an
    impossible task.  Instead, I wish to look at how she speaks about the
    brain -- a way of speaking that has profound consequences for our
    understanding of both man and machine.  I believe her many references to
    the brain are largely irrelevant to her case.  Or, putting it the other
    way around:  the immense amount of clear-headed advice in the book gains
    little from the misleading references to the brain.  Nevertheless, these
    references pose huge problems of their own.
    Here are some examples of her usage:
    *  "The need for relatedness is so ingrained in the human brain that even
       adults treat computers a lot like human beings" (p. 192).
    *  "Musical intuition and the sense of musical form are ... grounded in
       the brain's experience of the body during development" (p. 122).
    *  The problem with many prestructured computer programs is that
       "attention is guided by noise, motion, and color, not by the child's
       brain" (p. 178).
    *  "Contrary to popular belief, says Robert Sylwester from the University
       of Oregon, `adolescence occurs mainly within our brain'" (p. 178).
    *  "No one is sure how `creativity' arises in the brain..." (p. 163).
    *  "Since there are a limited number of [brain] circuits, it is hard to
       pay attention to both pictures and language at the same time" (p. 231).
    *  Section heading:  "Brain-Appropriate Technology for Elementary-Aged
       Children" (p. 263).
    *  "The intellectual job of the middle-school brain is to start divorcing
       itself from the total dependence on concrete experience..." (p. 273).
    *  Another section heading:  "New (and Some Old) Responsibilities for the
       Human Brain" (p. 299).
    It's not hard to understand why Healy might want to resort to this usage.
    As I heard Professor Bettye Caldwell, a child development specialist,
    remark at a recent conference, psychologists have been pointing out the
    harmful effects of various electronic media upon child development for
    decades, yet the larger public has yawned.  But when, today, researchers
    begin to talk about effects upon the brain, suddenly everyone jerks awake.
    Apparently the brain has become more fundamental and precious in our
    thinking than ... our thinking.
    All of which suggests that our thinking has lost its anchor.  This is
    unfortunately evident in Healy's usage, which is objectionable in the
    first place because it grotesquely alters the normal meanings of words
    without explanation -- and without making sense.  It's hard to know how
    the usual meaning of "adolescence" might apply to a brain -- unless,
    perhaps, adolescent brains produce their cortex in the shape of a baseball
    hat turned backward.
    Similarly, if you were in charge of a row of brains and one of them failed
    to carry out its "responsibilities", how would you discipline it?  What is
    a fit punishment for an organ?  The notions of responsibility and
    punishment apply to whole selves -- selves with hands to reach into cookie
    jars, privileges that can be revoked, selves with faces that blush with
    guilt, chests that swell with pride, and limbs that grow unsteady with
    And, again, what does it mean for a brain to have a question?  Are its
    tissues "bothered" by something that doesn't quite make sense?  Do some of
    those tissues "quiver" with excitement when on the verge of discovery?  Do
    they experience a surge of pleasure upon suddenly "getting it"?  To
    imagine such experiences as the possession of a particular organ in the
    body or as somehow a consequence of the abstract logic networks we are so
    fond of projecting upon the brain is to engage in speculation far wilder
    and less justified than anything the medieval schoolmen have been accused
    The Brain as Violin
    In the second place, the shift in usage gives us a wholly illusory sense
    that we are approaching a scientific, cause-and-effect understanding of
    child development, whereas in fact the shift continually encourages us to
    move away from real understanding.
    How could we know that an activity is "brain-appropriate" in Healy's
    sense?  Primarily by observing the consequences of the activity for
    consciousness and behavior.  Even if we could trace in exquisite detail
    how brain changes correlated with the particular activities of a
    particular person, this correlation would forever remain inadequate as a
    basis for reasoning from brain to behavior -- even for that same person at
    a later time.
    Let me elaborate briefly.  Healy writes,
       Since metacognition [that is, self-evaluation] appears to be controlled
       by the prefrontal cortex, it is not surprising to learn that highly
       gifted children seem to have enhanced prefrontal functioning, just as
       learning disabled children show less.  (p. 190).
    There's no problem with the correlation, but one needs to remember that
    the only way we could have distinguished an "enhanced" cortex from a
    "degraded" one in the first place was by getting to know the owners of
    these cortexes in thought and behavior.  Further, having once drawn our
    correlation, we cannot absolutely rely on it in the future.  If there's
    one thing we know about the human race -- which has produced a Mozart,
    Gandhi, Picasso, Helen Keller, Einstein, Mao, Charles Manson, and Mother
    Teresa -- it is that it embraces vast potentials of consciousness
    impossible for any of us to imagine adequately.  And if there's one thing
    we know about the brain, it's that it exhibits enormous plasticity; it is
    like a highly expressive instrument in the hands of a consummate musician:
    there is no end of different ways it can be played.  A functional
    structure that correlates with one thing in one person may correlate with
    something different in another person -- now or in the future.  We are
    always driven back to conscious experience as the basis for assessing what
    is going on.
    So even if we started to see massive changes in certain brain structures
    over the next decades -- changes that looked (based on past
    correlations) as if they were pathological -- we would only know whether
    this was indeed pathology or instead, say, a new form of genius, by making
    judgments about consciousness and behavior, not by resting content with
    judgments about physical organs.  We would have to observe persons, not
    brains.  The human being -- as long as he remains fully human -- never
    stops growing toward new, unprecedented achievements of consciousness.
    These provide the standard for evaluating the brain, not the other way
    Who `Plays' the Brain?
    In the third place, what really drives this "brain talk" within society as
    a whole is the untenable assumption that, "well, one way or another it
    is the brain that produces consciousness.  After all, thinking is
    something that goes on in our heads.  If we want to understand
    consciousness, we've got to understand brains".
    When an utterly groundless assumption such as this becomes deeply
    entrenched and taboo-like, one can scarcely point the assumption out, let
    alone provide reason for rejecting it, in a few paragraphs.  I will merely
    offer a suggestion or two for those wishing to pursue the matter further:
    ** As Owen Barfield reminds us in Speaker's Meaning, until a few hundred
    years ago the universal consensus would have been that thoughts do not
    occur in our heads.  In fact, our ancestors would have found it as
    impossible to conceive of the head "containing" thoughts as we find it to
    imagine thoughts outside the head.
    You may disagree with the older view, but you should at least acknowledge
    that none of the current brain research bears on the issue.  That is, it
    does not weigh against the notion that consciousness first fashions the
    brain as an instrument for its own subsequent use -- that the thinking
    self is the "violin player" who draws from the brain its expressive
    The reason current research is generally irrelevant to this question is
    that our culture has grown incapable of even asking the question in any
    coherent fashion.  This alone should be a red flag for us.  If we find it
    impossible to work our way into the mindset of our predecessors from just
    a few hundred years back -- if we can't experience the "sense" of their
    view from the inside, so to speak -- then we have also lost any ability to
    defend or even state our own perspective in relation to theirs.  We are
    imprisoned within the parochial environs of our own culture.
    ** Moreover, for one who is willing to look, it is easy to see why
    we are incapacitated in this way.  Starting with the Scientific Revolution
    (say, around the year 1600) we made a decision to begin ignoring the
    qualitative content of consciousness -- which is to say:  to ignore
    consciousness as such.  We chose instead to focus our attention on certain
    abstractions -- for example, mathematical abstractions -- that were easily
    available as a kind of precipitate of thought.
    It is hardly surprising that, given a history of such ignoring, what we
    ignored should have progressively disappeared from sight, until finally we
    convinced ourselves that it was really an illusory phantom all along, a
    ghost in the machine.  Having lost all vivid experience of their own
    thinking, many cognitive scientists now congratulate themselves for their
    great intellectual prowess in exorcising the ghost and manipulating the
    machine.  The question is whether it is insight or unconsciousness that
    earned the congratulation.
    This is not to derogate our extraordinary and vitally necessary victories
    of abstraction.  But an abstraction is just that -- something "pulled out"
    of a larger whole.  And to forget the whole is, eventually, to lose the
    meaning even of the abstractions derived from it.
    ** Lastly, I find it interesting that some of Healy's "brain talk"
    actually points in the direction I've been suggesting.  Referring to a
    dysfunctional eleven-year-old, she says, "Boyd couldn't manage his own
    brain" (p. 182).  That's rather silly, but at least it's a far sounder way
    of speaking than the various usages cited above.
    More substantively, Healy puts this question:
       What is the magic of language that helps the brain control itself,
       think more effectively, and deal with stresses of all types?  Language
       actually serves as "brain food" for the prefrontal cortex, enabling it
       to make effective connections and organize the confusing assault of
       information from sensory and emotional systems.  (p. 190)
    Despite the misguided mention of the brain "thinking" and "controlling
    itself", this reminds us of a profoundly important fact:  language --
    one's own as well as that of others -- must shape the brain before the
    brain can adequately mediate language.  Who knows whether the child's
    first, playful babbling -- the melodic eruption of a yet-unfettered
    imagination descending from forgotten realms -- is even mediated by
    the brain in any full sense?  It seems more likely that, like powerful
    sound waves evoking beautiful, delicate forms from a layer of dust, it is
    still to some degree singing and shaping the instrument by which later it
    will be sung.
    Barfield, on the basis of his work as a semantic historian, has remarked
    that it makes little sense to ask about the origin of language because
    this is to ask about the origin of origin.  It is noteworthy that few can
    see the sense of this remark -- not even those who make it a matter of
    religious profession that "in the beginning was the Word".  Many meanings
    that once confronted us right there in our language are simply no longer
    accessible to us, whatever our verbal professions.
                     *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    Nothing I have said above subtracts from the importance of brain research.
    If consciousness fashions this marvelously complex instrument for its own
    expression, then messing around with the instrument is surely the height
    of foolishness, and learning about the instrument is just as surely
    relevant to the one who wields it.  My point has been only that, in the
    end, all understanding of the brain is rooted in and made comprehensible
    by our understanding of consciousness -- our self-understanding -- and not
    the other way around.
    If you doubt the importance of all this, just ask yourself about the
    development of a sense of responsibility in the child.  Why should anyone
    begin to feel responsibility for the actions of his brain?  We don't in
    general feel that sort of relation to our internal organs.  Only
    people bear responsibility, and I fear that Healy's usage will
    contribute further to the underlying problems of dehumanization that she
    herself so heroically combats.
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #89 :: May 4, 1999
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