Chapter 6: Understanding the mind

Understanding the human mind and learning: experience, brain, environment and culture

How does the human mind construct understanding? Ohlsson (2011) identifies five broad approaches in psychology that have tried, in different ways, to explain how the human mind works: phenomenological, neuro-psychological, environmentalist, situated socio-cultural and mentalist.

The phenomenological tradition describes the mind as subjective experience – what one conceives, thinks and feels. The primary focus of such accounts of mind is human consciousness, thus how the mind operates and changes can be understood from the subjective experiences expressed in actions and discourse. While the phenomenologists acknowledge the limits of human consciousness – there is much more in human thinking, behaviour and feelings than a person can express – the key way to understand the mind is to depict those subjective phenomenological entities that present themselves in behaviour and discourse. Learning, from this perspective, involves increasing consciousness about the relationship between oneself and the world; and change involves changes in human experience rather than in the mind:

“what changes in conceptual change is the world perceived and the learner’s capability of perceiving it. But these two things are actually two sides of the same thing: the experience of the world and the experienced world” (Marton & Pang, 2008, 542)

The neuropsychological account tries to understand the human mind by understanding the human brain. The focus is on those brain entities and processes that underpin human cognition, action, affect, and other psychological processes. Neuropsychological accounts aim to explain human development and how the human mind operates by looking at the structures and regularities that can be observed at the physiological level, such as in the functioning of brain cells, the activation of neurons and the formation of synaptic connections. On this view, memory, learning and other cognitive processes are embedded in large networks of interconnected neurons that dynamically change their interconnections (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; OECD, 2007; de Jong, 2008; Geake, 2009; Knowland & Thomas, 2014; Sousa, 2011). Over time, active connections are strengthened, while the inactive become weaker, increasingly tailoring the brain to fit the environment and producing a range of phenomena that underpin learning, change, expertise and skill development. From this perspective, learning and change are coupled with changes in the human brain’s architecture, detectable by measuring brain activities at the neuropsychological level. On this view, knowing how the brain works allows one to set up appropriate conditions for learning:

“Guidance can be optimised by understanding the process of learning, the neurophysiological conditions that allow it and the changes that learning causes in the brain.” (Knowland & Thomas, 2014, 101).

The environmentalist (or physically situated) accounts, in contrast, locate the agency and driving force for much of human behaviour outside the human skull – in the body and in the material environment. There are a number of different versions of the environmentalist view. For example, there are behaviourist accounts that see human behaviour and learning as a set of simple processes, coupling inputs from the environment (stimuli) with observable behaviours (responses), (Skinner, 1938). More complex accounts include the ecological approach to visual perception (Gibson, 1979) and embodied cognition and the extended mind (Anderson, 2003; Clark, 1999, 2012; Pecher & Zwaan, 2005/2010). These see human action, perception and the body as fundamentally entangled with the material environment. The main assumption is that much of the information that accounts for human behaviour is located in the material environment. Then cognition that informs intelligent behaviour is underpinned by a human perceptual system that is responsible for aligning actions to the predictions derived from environmental regularities. Learning and change from this perspective are embodied in the very flexibility of human perception: an ability to sense the affordances of the environment and align actions and the body with the dynamically changing situation (Gibson & Pick, 2000; Smith, 2005). As Noë (2004) succinctly puts it,

“perceiving is a way of acting. Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do.” (Noë, 2004, 1)

Situated socio-cultural (or socially situated) accounts look for patterns and processes that can describe human behaviour in the social environment and culture. This perspective ranges from accounts that say that much of what we think of as the human mind is based on internalised patterns of human social behaviour, to more extreme formulations associated with situated cognition, that generally assume no specific internal mechanisms are necessary to describe human behaviour (Cole, Engeström, & Vasquez, 1997). On this view, learning happens on an inter-psychological plane – by observing the behaviour of other people and by participating in communities of practice (Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Cole, 1996; Scribner, 1997). In Jean Lave’s (2012) words,

“…’knowledge’ or ‘knowledge-ability’ must be understood as part of, and as taking meaning from and for, persons engaged as apprentices to their own changing practice across the multiple contexts of their lives.” (Lave, 2012, 167)

Finally, the mentalist view aims to provide an explicit account of what kind of system the mind is: what entities make it up, what kinds of processes it carries out, and what kinds of transformations it undergoes. Cognitive functions, such as action, seeing, learning, memory, thought and decision-making, are implemented by a range of cognitive processes (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Newell & Simon, 1972). Mind, therefore, has a central “control executive” that represents intentions or goals and coordinates all the other simultaneously occurring mental processes. The main entities on which the intellect operates are mental representations. Most mental activity is constituted by three discrete steps: perception, thinking and action. Cognitive processes, including learning, belong to the “think” part of the mind. Much of the “think” part operates on representations encoded in long term memory, from where they are retrieved, on demand, into short term memory in order to perform an action. Learning and change occur through two broad categories of change processes that can be labelled “monotonic change” and “non-monotonic” change (Chi & Ohlsson, 2005). Monotonic change proceeds in modest increments, without disruptive effects on current knowledge structures. Non-monotonic change involves significant re-representation, reconfiguration or replacement in the structure of the learner’s knowledge (Chi & Roscoe, 2002; Ohlsson, 2009).

As Ohlsson (2011, 25-28) notes, these five different approaches tell a story about different aspects of human behaviour and cognitive change. The phenomenological approaches describe, but do not explain, the human mind. They equate mind with consciousness and subjective experience. Ohlsson argues that, “The process that produces those experiences – retrieval from long term memory – is not itself conscious” (25), and thus cannot explain mental events. In trying to reduce mind to brain, neuroscience offers accounts that are overwhelmingly complex and fundamentally uninteresting (26). The environmentalist approaches locate the forces shaping behaviour outside the person, in the environment. However, Ohlsson notes that behaviour does not emerge from the environment, but from an interaction between the situation and personal goals. The structure of the mind does not necessarily mirror the structure of the environment and behaviour cannot be explained without assuming that there is “significant internal processing” (27). The situated socio-cultural approaches try to explain human practices without reference to the mind, but as Ohlsson asks: “How does the mind work, such that a person can create and participate in social and cultural systems?” (28). He argues, questions about how communities and groups behave do not say much about how new practices are adopted by novices, or how the mind works when a person creates and engages in new practices.

Ohlsson concludes that “Mind cannot be reduced to conscious experience, the brain, the material environment or sociocultural factors” (28) and argues that none of these four approaches answers the fundamental question of how the mind works: only the mentalist approach will do this. He acknowledges that all the approaches ask valid questions, but that they replace the task of describing how the mind works with something else: subjective experience, the brain, the material environment or social factors. He sees these patterns and regularities as operating at different levels of the system and suggests that if one is serious about providing an account of how the mind works, one needs to close off these (purported) explanatory “escape routes” to consciousness, brain, environment and culture.

We broadly agree with Ohlsson’s analysis of the mentalist model. The attempts to model processes that take place solely in the mind have proven useful in many domains of learning and human performance, such as reasoning and problem solving (Newell & Simon, 1972), creativity and practical intelligence (Sternberg, 1985), and working memory and instructional design (Sweller, van Merrienboer, & Paas, 1998). In general, the mentalist approach suggests that humans have relatively stable schemas, models or frameworks that represent structures, causal and logical relationships and processes in the social and material world (Schraw, 2006). Such schemas support human understanding of various phenomena in the world – classic examples from research on learning being: how the human blood circulation system works (Chi & Roscoe, 2002; Chi et al., 1994), the shape of the earth and how the day-night cycle functions (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1994), and anticipating how events will unfold and how one should act in social situations, such as in a restaurant (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Mentalistically-oriented accounts of human cognition can be quite successful at explaining the mental part of much everyday situated activity (Vera & Simon, 1993). Moreover, teaching and learning using abstractions can be a useful way of gaining important knowledge that supports understanding and skill (Anderson, Reder & Simon, 1996).

However, our attempt to understand the resourceful and fluent mind goes in the opposite direction to Ohlsson – aiming to open up the routes between the mind and the places to which Ohlsson complains accounts of the mind usually escape. As Barsalou et al. (2007) note, in real-world, real-time cognition, it is impossible to understand cognitive processes in isolation from other processes, such as perception, action, and emotion.

“Indeed, understanding how a process coordinates with other processes may be as important, if not more important, than understanding the internal structure of the process itself <….> the coordinated relationships between perception, action and cognition must be identified to characterise cognition adequately.” (Barsalou, et al., 2007, 80-81).

In our view, the human mind

  • is constructed, in significant part, via introspection (thus, can be informed by the phenomenological perspectives),
  • operates in a human organism that underpins and extends beyond the mind (thus, the brain perspectives),
  • is embodied and, therefore, responds to the material environment (thus, the environmentalist perspectives),
  • evolves in communities and other social groups (thus, the situated socio-cultural perspectives), and
  • is able to operate with various kinds of mental representations and intentions (thus, the mentalistic perspectives).

It is simply necessary to consider all of these together if we are serious about understanding the knowledge that produces the knowledgeable action of the human body and mind in the real world. A productive flexible mind is in fact conscious, embedded, embodied, runs on the brain and in culture(s). These different facets of human cognition are not just different layers of a complex system. They are interacting elements from which cognition emerges.

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