Sunday, March 17, 2013

UNESCO and the science of mind,

I have been involved in a discussion on the UNESCO's Friends group on Linked In of the biology of mind and the need for an international venue for discussion of the policy implications of the emerging science and its technological repercussions.

Scientists have been illuminating the incredible plasticity of the brain. That plasticity is not that the different organs within the skull migrate physically. Scientists now know that the number of neurons in the brain peaks during early childhood and then some die not to be replaced; they also have shown that there remain stem cells in the brain and new neurons are created long into adult life. Still it is believed that most of the changes are in the connections among neurons and the ability of neurons to excite or inhibit the actions of other neurons.

The biology of mind seems to be an emerging discipline. Imaging techniques, electrical recording techniques and molecular biology are combining to produce rates of scientific knowledge production in this area that were hardly imaginable a couple of decades ago. It seems likely that the burgeoning of knowledge will lead to important applications. This turning point might turn out to be similar to semiconductor physics leading to semiconductor electronics or atomic physics leading to nuclear energy.

We now know the Flynn Effect, that average performance on IQ tests is improving:
The average rate of increase seems to be about three IQ points per decade in the U.S. on tests such as the WISC. The increasing raw scores appear on every major test, in every age range and in every modern industrialized country although not necessarily at the same rate as in the U.S. using the WISC. The increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present.
This may be because people are increasingly learning things measured by IQ tests instead of other unmeasured things that they learned in the past, or perhaps because people are on average actually becoming more intelligent. (Perhaps a smaller part of the population are subject to poor nutrition and childhood diseases that limit the development of the brain, or are subject to poor intellectual environment and inadequate schooling that would limit their learning opportunities.) Whatever the explanation, since IQ test performance is clearly a function of the behavior of the brain, on average, the brain of today (in industrialized countries) is different than was, on average, the brain of yesteryear.

I see no reason to believe that brains will not continue on the average to change. I would suggest that our objectives in schooling and in lifelong learning would be to encourage brain development, on average, in beneficial directions. Schooling has tended to focus on facts and analysis. Perhaps it should focus more on other aspects of learning. For example, perhaps it should seek to assure that learning excites the pleasure centers of the brain.

Homo sapiens are social animals, and there is evidence that we make better decisions in groups than as individuals. Perhaps we need to consider the biology of the group mind. Perhaps schooling should include specific efforts to help people learn better how to think together, to solve problems in groups.

It has also been suggested that we think with our surround. In my father's day (born in 1905 in Ireland) it made sense for schools to promote the development of memory; in my youth (born 1937) we were taught library skills but had less memory training; today's infants will be brought up with hand-held devices connected to the Internet and will be taught to find and evaluate information from cyberspace. So too, modern schooling should help people learn to use the analytic capabilities of computers to amplify their own analysis.

My point is that the improving science of the biology of the mind should be reflected in changes in educational policy. This would seem to be an area of special concern for UNESCO with its emphasis on both education and science. UNESCO also has for decades focused on the ethics of science and technology and bioethics, and there are clearly ethical issues in educational policy raised by the emerging science of the biology of mind.

However, that is but one area of policy that should reflect our emerging knowledge of mind. Clearly psychiatric policy will change as we better understand the brain, and as we develop better technology for diagnosis and treatment of brain dysfunctions; given the relation of "physical" and "mental" health, better science of the mind might also lead to more general changes in medical policy.

Legal policy may well change as we learn more about the brain and the biological bases of decisions and behavior. That seems obviously true for criminal justice, but it may also be true in areas such as legislation regarding marriage/

Information is accumulating as to the interplay between culture and the biology of mind. We know that the language we learn as children influences the allocation of space in the brain to different mental functions. We also know that culture is plastic -- that the cultures of today's nations have changed from the cultures of their predecessors. Not only are Western cultures different today than they were a century ago, but so too are "indigenous" cultures in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Perhaps we might induce positive changes in culture for our descendants through examination of the increasing knowledge of the biology of mind -- perhaps promoting cultures of peace and improved understanding among cultures. Again, UNESCO focuses on culture, science and ethics, so the ethical dimensions of the impact of the biology of mind on cultural change seems a natural area for UNESCO's concern.

UNESCO has served as a forum for discussion, a laboratory and a clearinghouse for ideas. Those are just the functions most immediately needed with respect to the science of mind!

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