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Education Bookcast

Sep 20, 2021

This book touched my heart, and it changed my mind about neuroscience.

I wasn't going to read this book. While I was at my friend's house, I picked this book up and read the preface, written by Will Self. He wrote that Oliver Sacks is extraordinary in the way in which he fuses such humanity with his scientific probing of the brains of his patients. At that point, I got interested, and my friend told me I could borrow it. I gobbled the book up in two days.

Having read the book, I can see what Will Self was saying. I used to feel that neurologists were dehumanising of people, seeing them as a pile of neurons, and seeing themselves arrogantly as masters of the most important discipline. Oliver Sacks couldn't be more different. He has a real care for the humanity, for the soul of his patients, even as he describes the areas of brain damage. He marries up scientific description and human concern in a way that is life-affirming and touching.

I used to think that neuroscience is too low-level to be relevant to education, and that higher-level cognitive science is enough. To  a large extent, I still believe this. Neuroscience in education seems to me like trying to understand why your browser plugin isn't working properly by inspecting your computer's microchips - yes, the fundamental problem is there somehow, but it's just not the best way of solving the issue. Eric Jensen's useless book Brain-based Learning also vividly showed how neuroscience seems incapable of making a tractable theory or set of coherent principles for teachers and others in education to work from (I covered this book in detail in episode 53).

However, I now see a different relevance to neuroscience. Just as psychologists have been sampling too narrowly by focusing almost exclusively on Western university undergraduates, so have they been sampling too narrowly by only looking at people without brain damage. I see neurology now as a new ground in which to sample widely, in order to get a proper sense of how the mind works by considering really different minds, or minds that don't seem to work properly.

Enjoy the episode.