Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CCK11: The Orchestra of Mind

In Chapter 9 of Sporns' book Networks and the Brain, I think we reach the heart of the issue for the discussion about Connectivism. In this chapter, Sporns is tackling the issue of cognition, or neural activity in all its various forms: learning, thinking, feeling, daydreaming, dreaming, etc., and he makes the bald, bold statement that "cognition is a network phenomenon" (181). This is the basis of Connectivism. It is certainly consistent with Stephen Downes 2008 statemtent in his Innovate article Connectivism & Connective Knowledge that "the term connectivism describes a form of knowledge and a pedagogy based on the idea that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections and that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks." Sporns lays a strong, well researched, authoritative foundation for the discussion of Connectivism, and I think it's helpful to consider three traits of this network concept of cognition as Sporns lists them at the end of Chapter 9:
  1. "Cognition has an anatomical substrate" (205).
  2. "Integration involves dynamic coordination (synchrony, coherence, linear and nonlinear coupling) as well as convergence" (205).
  3. "Stimuli and cognitive tasks act as perturbations of existing network dynamics" (206).

Anatomical Substrate

I find it easy for my own New Age imagination to posit some cosmic Mind emerging from the idea of cognition as network, but Sporns assiduously avoids any hint of the New Age, keeping his conversation firmly grounded in the physical anatomy of the brain and its observable and verifiable behaviors. As he says, "All cognitive processes occur within anatomical networks, and the topology of these networks imposes powerful constraints on cognitive architectures" (205).

These neural networks have "small-world attributes" that are similar to other networks that are perhaps more familiar to us: social networks, the Internet, Wikipedia, or gene networks (Small-world network). Small-world networks are characterized by clustering, which groups nodes about a more well-connected node, thus facilitating quick connectivity to most any other node in the large-scale network. This is similar to the way Google works on the Net: it is a well-connected node that reduces the hops between us as individual nodes and most any other node on the Net. It may be the way an orchestra works with clusters of violins, bassoons, and drums, with a lead violinist about whom the other violins cluster and who connects those violins to the rest of the orchestra.

This small-world architecture means that cognitive processes are both segregated and integrated. An act of knowing relies on segregated clusters of neurons firing in different regions of the brain (different instruments sounding in different regions of the orchestra), and these segregated firings are then integrated (apparently within milliseconds) into a coherent thought, much like all the sounds of the orchestra. Which brings us to Sporns' second trait of cognition as network phenomenon.

Dynamic Coordination and Convergence

The brain apparently has a couple of mechanisms for integrating segregated patterns of neuronal firings into a coherent whole pattern. First, the brain can synchronize neuronal firings, or perhaps the better way to say this is that the neurons can synchronize themselves, much as a jazz band can find its way back to a  chord progression, time signature, or tune to synchronize the various flights of solo fantasy. Then, various firings can converge in a particular firing which takes the inputs and feedforwards them as a single input.

I do not understand neurophysiology well enough yet (perhaps never) to understand how synchrony and convergence work in the brain, but I understand the import: the brain is an incredibly rich orchestra of instruments which can sound or not, in unison or not, according to an internal rhythm, pitch, timbre, tone, and volume, and the brain's clusters of instruments—say, the woodwinds—can converge to create a single tone amongst the tones from the other regions of the orchestra. Every single instrument is vital to the orchestra, but no single instrument makes the orchestra. Every instrument must maintain its own integrity (the trumpet must not try to become a cello) just as surely as it must find its place in the orchestral network.

Stimuli and Cognitive Tasks as Perturbations

I think Sporns is using perturbation in its scientific sense as a variation or deviance in a system caused by some outside effect, and this is perhaps the most amazing trait of cognition as a network phenomenon. We in education typically think of external inputs (classroom lectures, for instance) as the most important aspect of learning, yet if Sporns is correct, then external inputs are best seen as an interruption of or as a more-or-less complimentary addition to the internal system. As I noted in a previous post, any external input must earn its place in the orchestra. An external input hardly ever totally supplants the music the orchestra of the brain is already playing, except in the case of trauma or other profound experiences. Of course, anyone who has ever tried to get the attention of twenty-five kindergarteners (or of twenty-five kindergarten teachers, for that matter) knows how difficult it is to keep them focused on your external input, whatever it is. This, it seems, is the natural state of things. Education is not the systematic, mechanical input of data into the blank data banks of students' minds; rather, education is an attempt to join and to modulate the tunes already playing in our students' minds. Surely these two processes are radically different and require radically different pedagogies.
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