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What A Damaged Brain Can Tell Us About A Culture of Isolated Approaches
This understanding has become known as “brain lateralization” or “hemispheric brain function”
All of this has become heavily popularized but rarely do we see actual applications of this knowledge.
Also, the generalizations are so widespread, e.g. :”left brain:structural, right brain: ‘artistic’, etc.” that it’s sometimes hard to get to the core of it.
Like many valuable insights in our culture, this too has been trivialized into “fridge-magnet” slogans and hollow platitudes. Everybody seems “to know”, yet through this unreflected popularization we render those understandings impotent to effect real, sustainable development.
Let’s take a look at the mapping of major language centers in the brain, for a second.
It all started when Pierre Paul Broca, a French physician discovered that one of his patients who had a severe speech disorder (he couldn’t say anything else than “tan”) suffered from a lesion in the left frontal lobe of his brain.
Later the German Karl Wernicke found out that if patients had damages in their brain in a different place, they didn’t have any problems to produce speech motorically but they couldn’t comprehend what was said!
Like colonies, the two previously unmapped areas now were called Broca/Wernicke.
What do the discoveries of Broca & Wernicke have in common?
My professor in neurolinguistics once summarized it as follows: “If it can be broken, it must have a function.”
Imagine you are a visitor from the jungle without exposure to modern civilization and you find a computer.
You want to find out how it works.
So you start destroying parts of it. When certain parts of it don’t work anymore you assume that the one that you destroyed must have had this or that function. But since it’s now broken you need to get a new one to confirm this understanding.
While I don’t want to imply that the two physicians actively destroyed parts of patients’ brains to have an understanding (mostly they looked at autopsies), their research is nevertheless based almost exclusively on observing damage.
Now, if we go back to our jungle man and his computer, he will be able to gain isolated understanding of certain parts but by merely deducing from brokenness he will never gain an understanding of the whole.
Holistic Approaches to Learning
Our whole education system sits on the premise of “understanding in isolation”.
At least, in the West, this is how we learn.
We look at a situation. Isolate the problem. Fix it or try to deduce general rules from this about the whole situation.
It has brought us great advances in science, economics, etc. But we might just have reached the end of the ladder.
In a globalized world, we need global thinking and global understanding.
Not just in a geographical sense, but in a psychological one, as well!
What that means for the brain is that however you want to classify all the different parts of it (left/right hemisphere, Broca/Wernicke centers, etc.) merely mapping them is not sufficient. It might help you to identify certain problems, localize and maybe find solutions to them, but this approach is only a fracture of what we’d call holistic learning.
In other words: Knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding.
Information doesn’t automatically lead to learning.
Here are some examples:
- Many European countries pride themselves on being pluralistic societies and at the same their leaders rant against the lacking “integration” (see also: assimilation) of immigrants.
- Every schoolteacher has learned about the lateralization of brain functions. Yet he almost always falls back on the structuralistic, rigidly linear one, whether out of his own preference or the way the system is built around normative evaluation and isolated understanding.
- We are living in the information age. We have an almost infinite access to information about health. Yet, as the Journal of Nutrition wrote in 2010 “nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet that is not on par with recommendations”
Scatterbrains & Non-Sequential Thinking
Sometimes people tell me that my writing style is non-linear and jumping from idea to idea.
When I hear this, I always have to smile.
Because, I think to myself: “They totally got it. And yet, they didn’t.”
If you read a recipe for a cheesecake the end-point is clearly defined and the whole text only leads to this: the cake!
The same is true if you have a piece of “opinion politics” where the author from the beginning has a fixed view on things and tries to convince you (this is the true meaning of rhetorics) that his point is right.
There are many other examples.
But the article which you are reading right now, and the rest of my writing, for that matter, have a completely different approach.
While I do have very deliberate outlook from the beginning, I’m not interested in turning the exposition of my understanding into an autopsy, which implies of course that it’s already dead.
In teacher’s training in university we were taught to plan every five minutes of a class. We were supposed to set a “learning goal”, make predictions of how the students will react and then reverse-engineer a so-called “lesson-plan” which successfully leads to this goal.
Personally, I think this is a load of bollocks.
Learning is not about instilling pre-packaged beliefs or understanding in someone else’s brain as if you’re installing a software.
Unfortunately, this is often the standard approach.
My articles here are written in a way to draw the reader into the creative process by systemically leaving gaps that cannot be bridged by sequential or pure logical thinking but demand an effort from your side. This is not at all a popular or common approach, I know. We have come to expect everything to be pre-packaged, prepared and served to us on a silver platter.
This is not learning, though. This is consuming knowledge. Go and read a standard news article, if you want to know what I mean.
What some people understand as “jumping from topic to topic” is just looking at the same thing from different angles. You could call it “lateral thinking”, serendipty or deliberate derailment. It’s not completely wrong.
But one of the best descriptions that I’ve heard so far was by my friend and colleague Sylvia Guinan who called this approach “holographic” which fits really well, because only by switching attention and looking at a topic from all sides as if we’re walking around it we reach a “three-dimensional” grasp of it, as it were.
Here again, 3D-films are experiencing a revival, but are our thought patterns becoming equally multi-layered like the entertainment programs we like to consume?
I believe that most of us have forgotten to think in a holistic way. On the one hand we have people who are over-structural, over-linear and pedantic in their approaches and on the other hand of the spectrum we have people, often influenced by Far-Eastern methods, who simply believe that “thinking is bad“. Not to mention those who subscribe to the thinking modes of “apathy” or “righteous indignation”.
This blog is for those who fit in neither of those boxes and are looking for challenges to crusty assumptions and predictable thinking.
In any case, if you feel that my articles aren’t giving any real answers, you might have to re-consider what your questions are.
If you feel that there’s something going on here that you can’t quite put your finger on, but it lifts you out of your thinking routine for a second, you could say my “job” is done. But in fact, it only begins there.
Now, feel free to read the article again or check out some others from this new perspective.