The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Language and the Power of Speech

The teacher as catalyst

We all know that – as the poet said – ‘the times they are a-changing’. Yet throughout these blogs I have been talking about human values and sensibilities that Greek scientists and philosophers recognized over two thousand years ago – and which have remained the touchstone for western civilization until the advent of the contemporary ‘computer-digital’ culture: an era when scientific exploration and worldwide personal communications are heavily dependent on the ubiquitous finger and the computer screen. Yet while the benefits to science of computerized factual investigation have been enormous… it is becoming obvious that human discourse – the communication of ideas, feelings… and personal attitudes to life in general – is less well served simply by recourse to the finger-friendly keyboard.

For the finger cannot substitute for the primary act of ‘shaping’ thoughts and feelings by struggling to find the words which allow them to have meaning in consciousness – uttering them soundlessly or giving them voice. It is becoming apparent to neurologists that this process of mental-wrestling to discover and phonetically ‘shape’ the best word or words to express and convey the content of a thought, and the nature of the feelings that accompany it… is the prime way to ‘know’ the nature of our own individual existence… as well as to comprehend the form of the world around us. Such is the way our naturally questing mind and brain delivers comprehension to consciousness. Without the phenomenon of language – ‘speaking’ to oneself or to others­… or writing to oneself and others – the insights provided by the human mind and brain may never be brought to mind. (The differing functions of mind and brain in this regard are discussed in my book ‘What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To?’)

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Yet it should be noted here that composers of music, together with visual artists, communicate without need of words.

However, let’s get back to the digital world. Some neuroscientists are suggesting that the texting nature of computer conversation does not demand the degree of ‘mental wrestling’ to ‘find’ the words and phonetically ‘shape’ them – as is demanded by speech or cursive writing - inasmuch as the relative shortness of time involved, the ‘built-in’ necessity and quality of being brief and concise, and a delivery dependent on ‘texting’… demands less of this primary verbal way of comprehension… makes for a less insightful, more ’mechanical’ and superficial level of consciousness. And I would add that there is also an impersonal quality to ‘texting’ as opposed to ’writing’… a practice that tends to inhibit originality of thought and attitude.

Which brings us to the significance of the teacher: either the parent-teacher or the classroom-teacher. In referring to the teacher as a catalyst, I am obviously postulating a high – if not ideal – level of teaching ability. For to be a catalyst, he or she must become the stimulus that sets alight the mental condition we describe as curiosity… the desire ‘to know’ which is a natural mental characteristic of most children.

Yet how is such mental arousal to be both stimulated and maintained? First, teachers must have a genuine – if not consuming – interest in, and passion for, their subject. Second, they should cultivate a flair for presentation of the ‘facts’ involved: animated… no mere monotone delivery… but employing a touch of theatre… dramatic pauses here and there… and a little body language to go with it: allow the lesson to become a performance… born of the moment.

But after ‘the facts’ should come discussion: students expressing their own opinions… evaluations concerning the content and significance of the subject matter in terms of human existence in a neutral and physical world: verbal interchanges that promote both philosophical and scientific understanding of individual purpose and of nature’s function… for both teacher and student.

Facts alone do not comprise an education: they must – as I have just mentioned –be written about, or taken up in conversation – contrasted and compared to determine relevance. And, in so doing, help the individual to become more self-aware – conscious of the many psychological levels at which he or she lives. Good teaching creates a situation where the student’s thoughts are interacting with those presented by the teacher.

It’s called education. And it cannot be achieved solely by a ‘hands-on-dialogue’ with a laptop. The computer is a wonderful tool for accessing information, but as the English historian Edward Gibbon said: ‘Every man who rises above the common level has received two educations: the first from his teachers; the second, more personal and important, from himself’.

Even in large lecture classes of up to 300 students I always found it possible to initiate a discussion. Make the questions significant and provocative enough – walk up and down the aisle inviting responses – and there would be no lack of short and controlled debates. It never got out of hand.

Colleges of Education must turn out teachers loaded with specialized knowledge and passionate about recruiting their younger charges to the grand Cause of Curiosity: Objective Knowledge, and Self Discovery. Without talk and human interaction, constantly sitting alone with a laptop can turn individuals into near-mechanical robots. 

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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