I just finished listening to Dr. Virginia Campbell Brain Science podcast replay of her 2012 interview with Dr. William Uttal. At that time he was discussing his book: Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience. My takeaway from the conversation was Dr. Uttal’s conclusion that prevailing assumptions about mind-brain organization are “not supported by empirical data but rather by preexisting and antique assumptions” (p. 370). His approach to describing mind-brain organization was to conceive of the microscopic interaction of neuronal networks and the macroscopic level of distributed, weakly bounded neural areas with variable functionality (as per neural plasticity).
Dr. Uttal’s metaphor of mind-brain organization makes sense to me because, to my understanding, he is describing an ecological system of neural networks whose interactivity and variability explain the emergence of consciousness as a phenomenological expression of biological processes.
Dr. Uttal is critical of ‘antique assumptions’ of mind-brain organization because they are based on categorical divisions of functionality arbitrarily defined and assigned by human brains studying human brains. It is well known that our human brains make sense of perturbations in our field of perception by identifying, assessing, and evaluating with the use of categorization. At its most basic, this system of perception creates definable divisions to simplify processes of sense-making or meaning-making. However, the actual operations of living systems do not actually follow such neat definitions and descriptions. In fact, what we are learning about living phenomena is that the emergence of living organisms and systems are complex, interactive, iterative, and reflexive. I believe Dr. Uttal is correct in his critique of ‘antique assumptions’ of mind-brain organization that are rooted in phrenology, the localization of cognitive function in certain regions of the brain.
It makes sense to me that the organization of mind-brain activity would reflect emergent systems of complexity found in all living organisms. Consciousness, as an expression of phenomenological activity occurring in complex systems of human bodies perceiving perturbations from their field of perception, does not follow simplistic instrumental notions of physiology, biology or neurology. Rather, it is emergent, self-organizing, and structured within the constraints of environmental conditions and pre-existing ecologies of relationships.
My argument is that our human consciousness, what we are capable of imagining, is an expression of these macroscopic distributed complex systems of cognition that are embodied within individual cognizing bodies, and in networks of related interconnected cognizing bodies. The micro applies to the neurophenomenology of physiology and biology, the macro applies to the interconnected communicative relationships that constitute ‘social ecologies of learning’.
I appreciated Dr. Uttal’s comments about the issue of defining what is thinking, decision making or problem-solving. In fact, these are all processes arising from continuous processes of learning – where we have been, where we are, who we are, who we are with, and where we are going. I find Dr. Uttal’s work supportive of my theory of social ecologies of learning.