Thanksgiving break is a good opportunity to catch up on some podcasts and write blog posts with immodest titles. So I was listening to Melvyn Bragg's "In our time" panel discussion on neuroscience. Though many histories might be written, the panelists suggested that neuroscience really only emerges in the mid-nineties with the development of technologies like fMRI, which allows for the mapping of brain activity. The central point the panelists make is simply that we have discovered that the "conscious" mind does very little. Generally speaking the brain is massively networked, so the parts are all interdependent, but if you pin down these panelists, they say the conscious mind is responsible for "planning, organizing, and memory."
So, for example, let's say you were going to decide between going to the gym and writing a blog post. The conscious mind wouldn't "make" the decision, but once it became aware of the decision, it would be responsible for the planning. That is, if I'm going to the gym then I know I need to get my gym clothes, update my podcasts, find my car keys, etc.
The panelists offered several examples of how parts of the brain function despite the apparent confusion of consciousness. An optical illusion may make two identical objects appear different sizes b/c of the background against which they are placed, but the body is able to grasp either object equally well and is not fooled by the illusion. Or the famous "gorilla illusion" where one is asked to watch a basketball team and count the passes made by players in the white uniforms. At the end of the video, one can say quite accurately how many passes were made, then one is asked: "Did you see the gorilla that walked across the court and waved to you?" The answer is no, even though when the video is reshown the gorilla is obviously there. The eyes pick up the image but the conscious mind never sees it.
By now I think all this kind of business is getting to be familiar to us, even though we have only begun to really study the brain. The question is, at least from our disciplinary perspective, what does this imply for the work we do?
I suppose the answer is both nothing and everything. On one level, you could say that neuroscience obviously doesn't change how my brain works. It only changes how I understand how my brain works. My experience of "free will" doesn't change, but my understanding of what that experience might be changes. My writing practice doesn't have to change but my understanding of that practice probably does.
Generally speaking, teaching practices are based on humanist notions of the consciousness, which certainly give the conscious mind a far larger role in thought than neuroscience has discovered. That said, teaching practices work fairly well for the most part, even though they are built on a likely faulty model of the mind. Still, if we wish to develop new teaching practices, adapt teaching practices for new (online) environments, or even understand why some practices might be more effective than others, it would seem that we might need to reconcile with the posthuman.
Much of the way we evaluate learning has to do with conscious operations like memory, like when we give a test. For those of us who teach practices however, the principle concern may not be what we can memorize, and for writers the compositional practice is not one that can be understood as fully conscious. It may be that planning and organizing a text are conscious operations. However other elements from word/sentence formation to the intuitions that we rely on as we compose would draw on other parts of the mind. This should not be taken as a mystification of the writing process but rather as an opportunity to recognize that development as a writer requires strengthening of unconscious mental operations. We do this all the time (think of developing any physical skill), and we, in fact, already do it when we develop as writers. The pedagogical question then becomes what practices can we invent that will help us develop the unconscious process of composition?
There is, however, one other element to mention, which I have hinted at as the "rhetorical mind." The panelists talked about the mind-brain split and all agreed that the mind is really nothing more than the brain. However, they also contended that it is important for us to develop a model of the mind. We use our model of ourselves as a way of creating models of other people's minds. It is the basis of social interaction and ethics (a la the golden rule). In a sense, we might think of the mind as a kind of rhetorical device that allows us to construct relationships like author and audience for purposes of communication.
Now however it seems like that model will have to change.