Information Age Education
   Issue Number 85
March, 2012   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

This is the eleventh of a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters are written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to contribute to this emerging collection.

For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions near the end of this newsletter.

We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are available at

Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
The Issues of Consciousness and Free Will
Part 1

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The human conceit, long fueled by theology, philosophy, psychology, education, and law is that we’re basically independent agents. We function principally on the basis of consciously directed reason and logic—something we call free will.
Well maybe. But think back to last night or the night before when you needed but couldn’t get a good night’s sleep because your brain was having an extended inane conversation with itself. How successful were you in consciously telling it to “shut up already and go to sleep”?

Initial widespread public awareness of the shift in scientific opinion on the issue of free will was fueled by the publication of two widely read and acclaimed books, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee’s On Intelligence (2004) and Malcolm Gradwell’s Blink (2005). Three 2011 books for general readers by internationally renowned cognitive neuroscientists have now added to the growing scientific belief that we’re perhaps not as consciously autonomous as we formerly believed.

This article will focus on Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011). The next article in this series will explore the cultural applications of the underlying cognitive systems that regulate decision and response, focusing on the perspectives of David Eagleman (2011). A later article will focus on the widely acclaimed book by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, Thinking: Fast and Slow (2011).

Who’s in Charge?

Gazzaniga clarifies his basic position early. We are not the boss of our brain. If it wants to chat with itself when we really need to sleep, it will chat. Like the Internet, our brain doesn’t have a boss. Further, who is the “I” who wants freedom of action? Are individuals in a mechanistic universe who are members of a social species really free to do whatever they want to do? And if I want that freedom for myself, am I willing to grant it to a cab driver who prefers to drive somewhere other than where I want to go?

Gazzaniga has written an often light-hearted book about a serious perplexing issue. The first half is an excellent non-technical functional introduction to our brain, woven into the story of the development of the cognitive neurosciences as only a true pioneer can tell it. He was a graduate student in Roger Sperry’s lab when Sperry was doing the transformative split-brain research that would lead to his Nobel Prize. Gazzaniga designed many of the imaginative initial studies on the split-brain patients.

Brain Organization

The organizational perspective that eventually emerged is that our brain is composed of an enormous number of highly interconnected networks (or modules). Each processes a very specific task, such as to recognize a vertical line or a specific tone, or to bend the left index finger. Initial fragmented sensory/motor information becomes integrated as it moves hierarchically through the relevant brain systems to produce emergent properties that are greater than the sum of the initial activations. Thus, shapes, colors, and textures combine to become a face; individual sounds become melodic sequences that then become a song that emerges from a vocal system and face.

The large deeply folded sheet of cortex at the top of our brain is divided into two hemispheres that are connected by a massive fiber tract (the corpus callosum) that was severed during split-brain surgery to reduce intractable epilepsy. Gazzaniga discovered that the two hemispheres process different kinds of tasks, and function differently.

Goldberg (2009) has proposed that the fundamental hemispheric difference is that our brain must of necessity use different strategies to process novel and familiar tasks, and that the right hemisphere (in most people) seeks to understand novel challenges and develop creative solutions, while the left hemisphere recognizes familiar challenges and activates established responsive routines. Language is processed principally in the left hemisphere because it’s an efficient established communicative system.

Our conscious rational brain is thus equipped to recognize and respond to both the novel and familiar challenges that we confront. Although the constant chaotic sensory input into our brain is rapidly processed at a subconscious level, our (avoid, approach, or delay) response is unitary and feels conscious. Gazzaniga has proposed the intriguing concept of a left hemisphere Interpreter that creates a single, unified, coherent response out of the massive sensory input and memory retrieval. The narratives that emerge out of decision and action create our sense of self and the beliefs that bias our future decisions.

These discoveries intrigued many educators who then began to read the growing literature for general readers. Seeking practical applications, they often made claims that went beyond what the research had discovered. Well, scientists don’t always get it right initially either, but by the beginning of the 21st century scientists and educators had developed a functional understanding of our brain and cognition, and educators were developing credible applications.

Sitze reported in a recent IAE article (
) that theology and other fields had ignored or even became hostile to what was occurring. Thus generally uninformed, they will now have difficulty in getting up to speed in interpreting and applying neuroscience discoveries that relate to their field—issues such as free will.

Free Will

The clean, crisp, authoritative exposition Gazzaniga presents in the first half of the book becomes tentative as he jumps into the murky waters of consciousness and free will, which weren’t originally scientific constructs. The cognitive neurosciences began to seriously explore their underlying neurobiology towards the end of the 20th century when Nobel Laureate Francis Crick (1994) suggested that advances in research technology now made such explorations possible (

In a determinist era during which many deny the existence of free will, Gazzaniga argues that free will in humans is possible because the rules that regulate things at one level don’t necessarily apply to subsequent levels. For example, quantum mechanics governs atoms and Newton’s laws govern objects, and one set doesn’t completely predict the other. That molecules don’t exhibit free will doesn’t mean that humans and societies can’t.

Consciousness is a property that emerges out of the interplay of a constantly shifting multitude of specialized systems, and the thalamus seems to play a central role in this integration. Consciousness provides us with a unified sense of self, a personal subjective awareness of our existence and of the environment we inhabit. It thus abandons us during sleep and magically reappears when we awaken. And when we’re conscious, we not only know something, but we know that we know it.

The issue of free will in conscious problem solving begins with the nature of problems. Factual problems have a single correct response, such as 6 x 5 = 30 or Salem is the capital of Oregon. The other kind of problem permits alternative responses, such as what to order from a menu, or how to get from Portland to Seattle.

A major task of cognitive neuroscience research will be to discover how automatically processed sensory input morphs into conscious moral decision and action, and the innate and cultural constraints that bias the response. Is it a response to a factual problem that draws on learning and memory, or to a multiple solution problem that draws on feelings and preferences? Scientists have discovered that initial subconscious processing has already biased our decision up to ten seconds before conscious systems get involved.

What parts of this subconscious bias are innately and/or culturally determined? For example, we’re born with an innate ability to acquire such properties as language and a moral code, but family and cultural constraints guide us to a preferred specific language and moral code.

Free will wouldn’t be an issue if we were a solitary species. Social relationships are central to the moral/ethical elements of behavior. The concept of personal responsibility is meaningless unless others are present to be responsible to. Gazzaniga suggests that five universal moral rules exist that have precursors in chimpanzee behavior: Help rather than harm others. Be fair and reciprocal in relationships. Respect elders and those in legitimate authority. Demonstrate group loyalty. Be pure in body and behavior.

Gazzaniga ends his book with a thoughtful discussion of perhaps the most complex problem humans confront, and that’s how to develop a legal system that recognizes the validity of societal needs, individual responsibility, and the biological factors that can limit a person’s ability to behave in a culturally responsible manner.

We’re not a mindless machine, regulated solely by physically determined forces (or by a controlling deity for all that). Rather, we are the product of all the life experiences that impact our emerging self. Responsibility is thus a contract between two or more people rather than a brain property—and pure determinism is meaningless in this context.

We’ve domesticated ourselves over evolutionary time by punishing and even killing those who don’t follow the basic moral/ethical rules we’ve developed, and so we’ve become a basically cooperative social species. Still, misbehavior continues, and the educational, theological, and legal communities will have to wrestle with how best to make us even more human than we currently are.
The next issue of this newsletter will explore the underlying neurobiology and cultural constraints of that issue, and the role that education can play in its resolution.


Crick, F. (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Scribner.

Eagleman, D. (2011) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. New York: Pantheon.

Gazzaniga, M. (2011) Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Harper Collins.

Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little Brown. Review by Robert Sylwester in Brain Connection:

Goldberg, E. (2009) The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. New York: Oxford University Press. Also see

Hawkins, J., and Blakeslee, S. (2004) On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines. New York: Henry Holt. Review by Robert Sylwester in Brain Connection:

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

New Scientist (2-4-12) has an interesting informative special section on sleep and its relationship to consciousness:

Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. See

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