Information Age Education
   Issue Number 120
August, 2013   

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.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the sixth in a series on complexity, and the final in a set of three that focus on specific kinds of development that occur as we come to understand and master complex phenomena. The process can sometimes begin with a Eureka moment, as the first article suggested. The second article suggested that some developments begin with a basic natural capability (such as speech) that then expands into something far more abstract and complex  (reading). This final article in the set focuses on major cognitive neuroscience developments that gradually expanded our naive understanding of brain processes, and how the education profession then began to incorporate these discoveries into instructional policy and practice.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Understanding Our Brain and Applying that Knowledge

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon


The 1910 Flexner Report ( decried 19th century medical research and training. It eventually led to advances that moved medicine from its behavioral orientation in which doctors with a limited understanding of body systems prescribed nostrums to patients who had described their symptoms. To be fair however, what options did doctors have, given the limited biological understanding at the time?

During the 20th century, medicine dug deeper inside our body in search of the underlying causes of invasions (such as infectious disease) and insurrections (such as cancer or asthma). During the 20th century the percentage of deaths that occurred during childhood dropped from 30% to 1%, and life expectancy expanded 30 years. Infectious diseases are now reasonably well understood and controlled, and such body insurrections as cancer are rapidly moving towards effective understanding and control. Understanding the biology of our body made the difference.

Educational policy and practice had a similar limited perspective when I began my teaching career in 1949. Behaviorism, the reigning psychological belief, considered our brain to be a Black Box. Educators could observe incoming stimuli and outgoing behavior, but Behaviorists believed that the intervening cognitive activity was too complex for discovery. Instead, they focused on stimulus and response.

An initially small number of educators begged to disagree, and that number increased over the years as the brain sciences made startling discoveries that often made intuitive sense to fascinated teachers. Much about cognition still awaited discovery, but teachers who work with students for years functionally understand much of what's going on within student brains, even if they didn't understand the underlying biology.

Educators made errors along the way as they sought practical applications of these cognitive neuroscience findings, but most of the fallacious applications disappeared over time. A new field of Educational Neuroscience emerged to displace Behaviorism. It has become a respected scholarly search for legitimate educational applications. How we got to the current point of understanding our brain and its cognitive processes is an interesting story.


Primitive humans didn't understand the purpose of our brain and how cognition was processed. Four thousand years ago, however, some Egyptians, Greeks, and perhaps others had already begun to think of a brain as the body's center of decision and action. However, conventional wisdom still opted for the heart to at least process emotion. Although we now know much more, we're still mystified about several central brain and cognition issues, such as the neurobiology of consciousness and morality (Sylwester & Moursund, 2013), and how neuronal networks can develop and maintain memories of past events. We can only speculate about the future, and what roles sleeping and dreaming play in life.

It became increasingly evident over time that our brain's neuronal and hormonal systems determine and direct cognitive decisions, but it wasn't until the late 20th century that the research momentum towards a reasonably clear understanding of brain and cognition began to develop. Our brain's awesome complexity was its own barrier to understanding itself. At the cellular level, our brain's three-pint three-pound mass is somewhat evenly divided between perhaps 100 billion minuscule neurons and a trillion much smaller glial support cells. Neurons are massively interconnected—most to multiple neurons within millimeters, but others to a muscle as far as a meter away. Any neuron is only a few neurons away from any other neuron. If that surprises you, realize that the coding system of the world's five billion phones can quickly connect any two of them via a sequence of 7-12 digits. Or, consider the “six degrees of separation” idea that a chain of a friend of a friend of a friend…(a chain of six friends) links you to almost anyone in the world. See

Written documents and artifacts from early humans allow us to speculate about what might have happened as human frontal lobes developed sufficiently for self-awareness and thoughts about the nature of existence. Expanded frontal lobes had earlier led to tool-making capabilities with sticks and rocks, and later to include various fabrications. The domestication of animals and plants along with cooperative human relationships allowed individuals to expand their personal support capabilities. Frontal lobe expansion also led to increased curiosity about frequently unseen forces, such as seasonal and weather changes and the causes of illness, birth, and death. Science eventually emerged to help explain these phenomena.

If understanding seemed too complicated to early humans, perhaps spiritual deities could provide a useful solution. Deities could control what's good and bad in the world, but they would allow individual autonomy about what seems personally appropriate and inappropriate. The concept of deities removed the need to immediately know how our brain determines and executes decisions. The observation of behavior and the concept of a disembodied analogical mind would be sufficient, at least for now. Another widely held position that robustly continues throughout the world is that early humans didn't create deities, but rather that deities created humans and the rest of the universe.

Microscopes and Animals

Biologists first used microscopes in the mid-1600s to optically enlarge the size of minuscule cells. Electron microscopes that significantly enhanced cellular resolution emerged in the 1930s. See The discovery of dyes that selectively stain cells and cell components allows scientists to visualize only what they want to observe. Brain scientists use dyes to better understand interneuronal connectivity.

Ethical constraints limited research on human brains. Animals such as mice provided a useful substitute (although some also consider that to be unethical). Scientists also compared the autopsied brains of deceased normal people with those who had various cognitive and motor impairments. Animal and cadaver research was difficult and principally inferential, and so scientists needed to go one step further into direct observation and coding mechanisms.

Genetics and Brain Scans

The 1953 discovery of DNA sparked an unprecedented advance in genetics. It provided the simple coding system that regulates how our body's (approximately) 23,000 genes produce the protein scaffolding and machinery of our body's cells, and this development determines much of our understanding of our physical and cognitive self. See Cellular connections and interactions are central to all body systems, and especially so within our brain.

Neuronal network systems, however, still seemed complex beyond comprehension, but that is now changing. The recent development of at least eight kinds of brain imaging technologies that measure and display variations in chemical composition, blood flow patterns, and electromagnetic fields opened up the possibility of studying brain organization and function in ways that were not previously thought possible. See

Mathematicians have also entered the study of brain processing. They're searching for mathematical formulas that explain our brain's edge of chaos operation that allows it to quickly shift backward and forward in determining which of dozens of simultaneous events bombarding our sensory and thought processes will achieve attentional dominance, shifting us towards decision and action. See

Educationally-oriented studies related to perception, thought, and action now typically use Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines (fMRI) in university research centers. fMRI permits scientists to identify specific regional activity that occurs when the subject is carrying out a task, such as identifying a picture or reading a text. Researchers can then, for example, compare regional differences between two subjects who differ in reading effectiveness.
The Allen Institute for Brain Science ( decided to go back to the less complicated brain of a mouse in order to get a complete picture of a brain. They have now produced a complete imaged atlas of a mouse's brain. Can an equivalent atlas of a human brain be far behind?

When we realize what we've learned about the neurobiology of our brain during my professional career and add the career of a graduate who will now begin a similar career trajectory, one can only think that the past is but prologue. An expanded understanding of the wet brain inside our skull and increased technological advances in the dry computerized brain on the outside will combine to redefine educational policy and practice in ways that I can't even begin to imagine. The Resources section below provides information on relevant organizations, websites, and conferences that combine brain research and educational policy and practice.


Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (2013). Consciousness and morality: Recent research developments. Eugene, OR: IAE. (available in either Microsoft Word or PDF file form).


International Mind Brain Education Society. See

Neuroscience Education Website. See

Sharp Brains. Brain fitness and cognitive health. See

The Dana Foundation. See

There are a number of conferences focused on issues that combine cognitive neuroscience and education. They include presentations by both scientists and educators. Examples include:

Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (Corwin Press, 2010), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press, 2007), and co-authored with David Moursund: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (IAE, 2012), Common Core State Standards for K-12 Education in America (IAE, 2013), and Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments (IAE, 2013). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Email:

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