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As Matthew Taylor has reported in his blog, we hosted on Tuesday an RSA/NIACE event on neuroscience and life-long learning. I want to pick up on two points that were made by speakers. First, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore talked about the ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscientific explanations – that even when neuroscience adds nothing to an explanation, the mere use of neuroscience language, or images of the brain, adds gravitas. Second, Paul Howard-Jones mentioned briefly that when teenage learners were taught about the links between brain function, learning and environment, they were more motivated to engage with learning and change their behaviour.


I wonder if these points are connected? Perhaps it is just our empiricist culture, but there is something convincing about literally seeing images of the brain. Images of neglected children’s brains really ram the message home that early years deprivation is a terrible thing. But we know it is anyway, so why is it that brain images make such a difference? I would conjecture that we associate the brain very closely with our sense of agency – our sense of self as a source of actions and decisions. And because this agency is so closely bound up with our identities as individuals, brain images both draw on our empathy and make us think very seriously about possible harmful affects upon ourselves.


I wonder whether it is viable to use neuroimaging to inform certain cohorts of young people about how their behaviour/environment affect their brains? Perhaps this would add, in explanatory terms, nothing more than ‘seductive allure’. But if it made such people think seriously about their agency and empowered them with the motivation to change their behaviour (where they could), perhaps this doesn’t matter?