As a longtime admirer of neurologist Oliver Sacks, his bit of fluff in the New York Times recently, “This Year, Change Your Mind,” was a disappointment. The subject is very important, and the title is provocative, but the substance is missing.

At the core of his column, Dr. Sacks asks a good question: Since “the brain is capable of such radical adaptation…to what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains?” That question, to my mind, can lead to fruitful enquiry and insight.

But under the guise that peoples “can strengthen their brains in a similar way…as going to the gym,” Sacks proceeds to ask the wrong question: “Can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers?”

The mind and brain are not strengthened through cognitive calisthenics. Paradoxically, the brain is made stronger and quicker by attention within itself to the movement of cognition.

It’s often said, and neuroscience has confirmed, that we only use a portion of our brains. But no matter how many facts one fills one’s head with; no matter how many languages one speaks; and no matter how much knowledge one accumulates, the brain’s capacities are confined to a small space when the cognitive dimension is put first.

Thought (the intellect in all its aspects, including the past stored as memory and emotion) is synonymous with the cognitive dimension. The cognitive mechanism in humans is inherently separative. That is, its function is to “remove things and make them ready for use.”

Separation and manipulation of ‘things’ is what we do as humans. But it is also the source of division, self-centeredness, fragmentation, and violence in the world.

Does making our brains more cognitively capable, whether in educating children, or continuing to learn as adults, address the human crisis one whit? Clearly no. There has to be a new understanding of learning.

Besides, what meaning does learning have when computers can not only amass knowledge, but also create knowledge much better than humans can? We stand on the threshold of being surpassed by the machines we have made. We need a new understanding of what learning is, beyond a cognitive definition.

Oliver Sacks follows a theory of mind that defines intelligence in terms of thought, making cognition the context for how “existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons.”

But the brain is much more than the senses feeding into and being filtered through the mechanism of cognition. That isn’t to invoke the age-old dichotomy between thinking and feeling, but to point out that there is another capacity of the brain altogether–for direct perception and insight.

Learning a new language or to play an instrument, while good things to take up at any point in life, are secondary. And when the secondary is made primary, the primary loses ground.

Again, though it’s a paradox, the mind and brain are quickened and strengthened not by putting the cognitive dimension first, but by putting observation, awareness, and attention first.

The brain wasn’t ‘designed’ with the capacity for direct perception and insight, any more than it was designed for cognition. But the evolution of cognition, along with previous capabilities that humans barely use, gives the brain the capacity for awareness beyond thought.

For that capacity to develop, in children and adults, we have to redefine learning. The goal of childhood and adult education should not be to give us “greater cognitive powers,” but to awaken the latent capacity for insight, understanding, and compassion in the human being.

When that is one’s primary intent—as a person, parent, and teacher—cognitive abilities increase as a byproduct of the growth in insight and understanding.

It doesn’t work the other way however. Putting the emphasis on cognitive capabilities tends to diminish the capacity for insight.

Indeed, the prevailing definition of learning is better suited to the functions of increasingly sophisticated computers: memory, storage, and retrieval. I propose a new definition of learning, one that encompasses and transcends the obsolete theory of mind to which Dr. Sacks and most neuroscientists subscribe. Its attributes are awareness, attention, insight, and newness.

Actualizing a non-accumulative way of learning, our minds and brains retain an openness, flexibility, and freshness as we age.

Martin LeFevre
[email protected]

Oliver Sacks column: