You may think as adults, we are reasoning, logical, intellectual beings, full of abstract knowledge gleaned from our experiences. Well, we can be like that, but from the brain’s point of view, with some reluctance.
Although the computer relies on abstraction – which allows its gleaming logical calculations to be applied to any content – the brain is reluctant to abstract. Its processing occurs within dedicated sensory and motor systems, configured to identify the physical state of the external world and to prepare the right actions. With its sensory and motor towers, the brain is designed to pull out patterns within patterns, and to integrate information across senses to make best guesses about the external world and generate appropriate behaviours.
The brain can abstract. This involves making connections between different sensory and motor systems, at the behest of the modulatory system. It requires bringing together different situations, actions, and objects under the same ‘abstract’ categories labels.
Take the abstract concept ‘six’, which children usually learn about between 3 and 5 years of age. From the point of view of the brain, six is a diverse set of linked situations, involving recognising sounds or visual patterns, and making sequences of actions. There’s counting six on fingers. Recognising and writing the number 6 or the word ‘six’. Knowing that six is an amount of stuff bigger than, say, three, but not as big as, say, nine. There’s forming groups of six items. Placing the number six between five and seven on a number line. Finding ways to split a pile of six sweets among two people, or three people. Splitting a single pizza into six equal parts to give to six people, each getting a sixth. Learning sentences like ‘two times six is twelve’. When all of these situations are linked together, the child has learned an abstract idea of six – realised across multiple brain systems, and co-ordinated by the modulatory system.
Brains are designed to learn patterns within patterns in sensory and motor systems – all mammals do this. The shape of a stable branch. The difference between ripe fruit and rotten fruit. But learning concepts like ‘six’ takes time and instruction. It requires exposure to particular situations, and makes use of language to help unify the different situations. Education provides the opportunity for this kind of learning, exposing the child to several years of deliberately structured environments.
By contrast, left to its own devices, the brain will stick with its experience, and the world of the concrete rather than the abstract. To give a flavour of this world, here’s a discussion between an ‘educated’ human, taught to abstract, and a peasant from a remote area of the Soviet Union (taken from Alexander Luria’s 1976 book on the social foundations of cognitive development, pp. 108-109). In this example, the peasant is asked to use formal, abstract logical reasoning:
Question: All bears are white where there is always snow. In Novaya Zemlya, there is always snow. What colour are the bears there?
Answer: I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.
Question: But what do my words imply?
Answer: If a person has not been there he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man was 60 or 80 and had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.
We’ll come back to logic later in the section ‘So darned clever’. In the meantime, while the brain may not readily abstract, it does develop complex sets of knowledge. For example, it builds knowledge of scenarios – sometimes called schema or scripts. This is information about what tends to happen in the different everyday situations you find yourself in. Making toast. Getting on the bus.
These scripts are probably stored in the same area of the brain that stores meanings of individual words (so-called semantics), the front of the temporal lobe (the part of the brain lying underneath the side of the head). This is the type of knowledge that babies have yet to develop, so that situations are mostly new and surprising to them. Babies find repetition reassuring because it is an escape from continually not knowing what’s likely to happen next. At the other end of life, scripts are one type of knowledge that is lost in the types of dementia that affect the front of the temporal lobe (such as Alzheimer’s disease). Here, adults become disoriented in normally familiar surroundings, because the scripts can no longer be retrieved. Healthy adults can experience what it’s like to lose these everyday scripts when you go abroad, and find normal things work in subtly different ways – shops sell different products, doors open differently, people queue up differently. These remove the knowledge that supports everyday actions in familiar situations.
By the way it works, then, the brain loves to spot patterns, make connections between patterns, and predict what patterns are likely to come up. But abstraction and reasoning are things it must be taught to do.