Gilbert Ryle and the brain

During a recent Twitter conversation I was urged to read philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind, written just after WW2. ryle

The conversation was about the purpose of speech and evolved into a discussion of brain function. I enjoyed reading Ryle’s book – he thinks incisively, has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of the absurd – and I think I grasped at least the key points of his argument.

On the mind

If I’ve understood him correctly, Ryle is saying:

1. When we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we make a ‘category error’. Even if we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we can’t infer that the mind exists in the same way as the body exists. A body is a publicly observable thing; we can see it, touch it, measure it, weigh it. We can’t do any of those things to minds; a surgeon couldn’t dissect out someone’s mind from their body. Ryle illustrates the point by comparing the clause ‘she came home in a flood of tears’ with ‘she came home in a sedan chair’; both clauses might be true, but they are true in different ways.

2. We use the term ‘mind’ to refer to a particular set of things that people do – thinking, feeling, knowing etc. But thinking, feeling and knowing are characteristics of people, in the same way as brittleness is a characteristic of glass. We might say ‘the glass broke because it was brittle’, but we don’t mean that the fact that the glass was brittle caused it to break; something else was the cause – like a stone striking the glass, or it being dropped.

3. Similarly, when we say “Jill stormed out of the room because she was angry” we don’t mean that Jill felt anger in her mind and the anger caused her to storm out of the room, we mean that something happened to make Jill feel angry and also to make her storm out of the room – someone was rude to her, perhaps. We don’t have to introduce a hypothetical construct like ‘mind’ in order to explain Jill’s feeling or her behaviour.

Having demonstrated that the concept of mind itself is flawed – it isn’t a thing inside human beings but a label that we attach to certain human activities, Ryle goes on to explore the far-reaching implications for the way we construe knowledge, will, emotion, sensation, intellect etc. I was with him up to this point.

On the brain

What was noticeable about The Concept of Mind is that Ryle hardly mentions the brain, except in respect of psychologists studying patients with brain damage. One could argue, with justification, that Ryle isn’t writing about the brain, he’s writing about the mind, or more accurately, the non-existence of the mind. Others have argued that the brain and the mind are the same thing, but that idea poses a problem if you don’t think the concept of ‘mind’ is necessary to explain thinking, feeling, knowing or behaving. So where does the brain come into all this?

Philosophers, brains and education

Philosophy isn’t my field, but I had come across Ryle previously. When my son started school, he was identified as having ‘special educational needs’. Years ago, when I was teaching, I’d taught kids like my son, and even more years ago had gone to school with kids like him, and I was puzzled as to why his not uncommon difficulties with literacy and numeracy seemed to be posing such a challenge for the education system. So I started reading up on the subject. One book I read was Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion by Gary Thomas and Andrew Loxley, published in 2001. We were getting along swimmingly until chapter 4, ‘Thinking about learning failure, especially in reading’. Here, the authors questioned the existence of phonological awareness, a key concept in some models of learning to read, and they drew on the ideas of Ryle, Willard Van Orman Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all philosophers of language, in support. Thomas and Loxley appeared to acknowledge the involvement of the brain in learning, but didn’t seem to know much about what happens in the brain during learning. They claimed, for example, that “When we learn to drive, we do just that: learn to drive – and we do so in a car, on a road” (p.69). From the perspective of a casual observer, maybe. But at the level of the brain, there’s a great deal of complex activity going on whilst learning to do something like drive a car. And of course some people don’t learn to drive however hard they try, and others can’t because of brain damage or physical disability.

Thomas and Loxley’s model of learning appears to be one in which the brain is an amorphous mass. For example, they cite Wittgenstein’s observation of seeds where he says;

nothing in the seed corresponds to the plant which comes from it: so that it is impossible to infer the properties or structure of the plant from those of the seed … so an organism might come into being even out of something quite amorphous, as it were causelessly; and there is no reason why this should not really hold for our thoughts.” (p.69)

Wittgenstein made this observation in 1947, two years before Ryle wrote The Concept of Mind. He prefaced his comment by being quite explicit about brain function:

No supposition seems to me more natural than that there is no process correlated with associating or thinking; so that it would be impossible to read off thought-processes from brain-processes. I mean this: If I talk or write there is, I assume, a system of impulses going out from my brain and correlated with my spoken or written thoughts. But why should the system continue further in the direction of the centre? Why should this order not proceed, so to speak out of chaos?” (Klagge p.98)

Thomas and Loxley also base their claim for the non-existence of phonological awareness on work by Karl Lashley and Antonio Damasio (p.70). In the 1950s Lashley had concluded that the ‘engrams’ he believed encoded memory were distributed evenly across the brain. Antonio Damasio’s work is much more recent, but the authors appear to have misunderstood it. They say “current knowledge of the brain provides a picture of indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate, for example, the relationship of that which we call affect from that which we call reason” (p. 70). It’s certainly true that Damasio’s work showed that ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ aren’t clearly demarcated in the brain, but that’s as much to do with our constructs ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ as it is to do with the way the brain functions. You can’t deduce from that that the brain as a whole consists of ‘indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate’ things the brain does.

Thomas and Loxley aren’t the only authors I’ve encountered who appear to have concluded that thinking, feeling and knowing aren’t an outcome of processes in the brain. I once ploughed through PMS Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). What Hacker seemed to object to was neuroscientists referring to the brain as if it were an agent; as in ‘the brain detects…’ or ‘the brain responds by…’. I could see what he was getting at; one of the points Ryle makes about the mind is that if we have to construct it in order to explain what causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc., we then have to ask what causes the mind to cause thinking, feeling and knowing etc, and so on and so on in an infinite regression. I suspect Hacker sees the brain in the same way; that if we assume the brain causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc, we have to ask what causes the brain to cause these activities in another infinite regression. It makes more sense to construe thinking, feeling and knowing etc, as characteristics of people, as things people just do. But I think there are two problems with the arguments put forward by Hacker, Thomas and Loxley and Wittgenstein. The first is that they are making another category error and the second is that they have overlooked how the characteristics of things contribute to the causes of events.

Another category error

Ryle might not have been writing about the brain, but some of the people who are applying his reasoning to the brain are doing just that, and I think they are making exactly the same kind of category error that’s a key point in Ryle’s argument against the existence of the mind. Ryle, rightly, pointed out that even though we talk about the body and the mind as if they are the same type of thing, it doesn’t follow that they are the same type of thing. Indeed we know they’re not the same type of thing because bodies are publicly observable but minds aren’t. But bodies and brains are the same type of thing; brains might usually be hidden by the skull, but they can be dissected out, weighed, measured and made publicly observable. In other words, although there’s no evidence that the mind exists, the brain indisputably exists, is the same sort of thing as the body and is inextricably linked to it.

The characteristics of things

Ryle refers several times to the analogy of glass being brittle to show why we can’t argue that the mind must cause things to happen. He sees brittleness as being a ‘disposition’ of glass, something inherent in its nature that means it shatters rather than bends when certain causal events occur, such as it being hit by a stone. In the same way people have dispositional characteristics that result in them thinking, feeling or behaving in certain ways when certain causal events occur – they feel angry when people are rude to them, or sad when someone dies. Although I can see Ryle’s point, what he overlooks is the process that occurs when glass shatters.

Glass (mainly consisting of silicon dioxide) shatters rather than bends if hit by a stone, due to its molecular structure. And its molecular structure is an emergent property of the arrangement of the sub-atomic particles that make up silicon dioxide and that function according to the laws of physics. Biological organisms have structures that are much more complex than glass and they behave very differently to glass, but ultimately they are also made up of configurations of sub-atomic particles that conform to the laws of physics. It’s the configuration of the particles that makes glass behave like it behaves and allows human beings to behave as they behave; obviously because the configuration in humans is much more complex, we have constraints placed on us and affordances open to us that glass doesn’t have.

At one level, you could say that glass shatters if it’s hit by a stone because that’s just what glass is like; but at another level, being hit by a stone causes a reaction in the molecules of the glass that results in it not maintaining its structure and falling into fragments. Similarly, at one level you could say that people just get angry or feel sad when certain things happen, and you don’t need to invent some hypothetical thing called a ‘mind’ to explain it. At another level, that’s a cop-out, because it completely overlooks what happens in people’s bodies when they do get angry or feel sad in response to something happening.

Moving back to Bowlby

It was instructive to compare Ryle’s chapter on emotion with John Bowlby’s chapter on feeling and emotion in Attachment, published 20 years later. Bowlby applies Ryle’s line of reasoning to feelings. (He refers to ‘feelings’ rather than ‘affect’ or ‘emotion’ because ‘feelings’ encompasses the other two and is self-explanatory.) Bowlby doesn’t see feelings as having an independent existence but as characteristics of physiological processes, in exactly the same way as Ryle saw thinking, feeling and knowing as being ‘dispositions’ of people. Bowlby quotes philosopher Suzanne Langer;

“When iron is heated to a critical degree it becomes red; yet its redness is not a new entity which must have gone somewhere else when it is no longer in the iron. It was a phase of the iron itself, at high temperature.

As soon as feeling is regarded as a phase of a physiological process instead of a product of it – namely a new entity physically different from it – the paradox of the physical and the psychical disappears.” (Bowlby p.108)

Like Ryle, Bowlby concludes that people’s feelings and dispositions aren’t things with an independent existence in the ‘mind’, nor are they what causes people to behave in certain ways. But what he does recognise is that physiological processes are involved in feelings, and Bowlby appears to know a good deal more about those physiological processes than Ryle, Thomas and Loxley, Hacker and Wittgenstein.

Why does any of this matter, anyway? Isn’t it all a storm in a philosophical teacup? It matters because Ryle’s reasoning is being applied, and applied wrongly, to child development and education.

Child development and education

Something that’s intrigued me in my recent exploration of the child development and education literatures is their focus on theoretical frameworks developed prior to the 1950s. Lev Vygotsky died in 1934, Sigmund Freud in 1939, Wittgenstein in 1951 and Lashley in 1958. The Concept of Mind was published in 1949. But the 1950s saw a sea-change in our understanding of both genetics and brain function. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published their work on the structure of DNA and in 1959 David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel figured out the basic mechanism for sensory processing from their work on the visual cortex of the cat. These two discoveries alone essentially spawned the modern sciences of genetics, molecular biology and cognitive neuroscience that have transformed biology and medicine. But these discoveries have implications for child development and education of which people working in child development and education often seem blissfully unaware.

I suspect that lack of awareness is because of the increased specialisation that’s taken place alongside a rapid increase in human knowledge over the past century or so. People studying child development or education have their work cut out getting a good knowledge of their own field, never mind studying genetics, molecular biology and brain science as well. But you don’t need a vast knowledge of genes, molecules or neurons to understand the principles of how they function, and if our understanding of those principles has changed in the last sixty years, it’s important to know how it’s changed. It’s disastrous to carry on using models of child development and education devised before we knew how genes or brains functioned.

I recognise that some people see brain science as the answer to everything – when it isn’t. We don’t need to know what’s happening in children’s brains to know whether a particular method of teaching reading or arithmetic has been effective, or to have to do a brain scan to demonstrate that maltreatment in infancy might have been harmful. But what happens in children’s brains is crucial to their development and learning, and the better we understand the processes, the better we will understand how to best support development and learning. If thinking, feeling, knowing and behaving are being construed, wrongly, as ‘just happening’ in children, and brain function and physiological processes are simply being overlooked, or worse, denied to be happening, we’re missing an important piece of the human jigsaw puzzle.

Bennett, MR & Hacker, PMS (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell. Bowlby, J (1982) Attachment (2nd edition), Basic Books.
Klagge, J(2010) Wittgenstein in Exile, The MIT Press.
Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, Peregrine Books.
Thomas, G & Loxley A (2001) Deconstructing special education and constructing inclusion, Open University Press.

Acknowledgement: photograph of Ryle from Philosophy Pages


what social workers *really* need to know about child development

In the final report of her review of child protection, one of Eileen Munro’s recommendations is the development of social workers’ expertise, including an understanding of child development and attachment – in relation to which she cites four texts. In my previous post I suggested that the model of child development presented in these texts is normative, over-emphasizes emotional and social development and has an incomplete frame of reference, for two reasons;

It’s policy-based rather than evidence-based – an evidence-based model would give weight to all factors of child development.

It’s based on biological knowledge that pre-dates WWII. Old knowledge isn’t necessarily wrong, but research has moved on since then. The model of child development proposed by the texts doesn’t seem to recognize this. Continue reading

what social workers are supposed to know about child development

Earlier this year, I read through the final report of the Munro review of child protection. The report is part of a lengthy investigation of the child protection system in the UK prompted by the deaths of several children known by social services to be at risk. The report’s scope is broad – it looks at all aspects of child protection and makes some wide-ranging recommendations including the need to develop social worker expertise. Eileen Munro cites four texts to support one of her recommendations in respect of expertise – that social workers know about child development and attachment (6.41; ref. 152). What surprised me about these documents was that they weren’t so much about child development and attachment, but about child development as attachment. Or at least, their predominant focus was on emotional and social development rather than development per se.

Here are some quotes from the four texts to illustrate the point. I’ve commented briefly on each and will discuss the collective implications of the texts later. (My access was restricted to material that’s online; I don’t want to misrepresent the texts, so bear this in mind when reading.)

[1] Aldgate, J. (2006), ‘Children, Development and Ecology’, in The Developing World of the Child, Aldgate, J., Jones, D., Rose, W. & Jeffrey, C. (eds.), pp.17–34. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

In her opening chapter Aldgate includes several citations from a textbook published in 1990 by Mussen et al, which I assume to be Child Development and Personality by Mussen, Conger, Kagan and Huston. They include the following quotations:

Child development is both a basic and an applied science. It is the study of how and why children develop perception, thought processes, emotional reactions, and patterns of social behaviour. It also provides knowledge that is important for advising parents, forming educational programmes, creating and defending Government programmes for children, making legal policies affecting children, and devising treatments for problem behaviour.” (pp.17-18)

“‘Children may go through different stages at different ages, but they all go through them in the same order.’” This is a fundamental principle and one that can be applied to all children no matter whether they have the special circumstance of illness or disability or have been affected by abuse or neglect.” (p.20)

Then, on disability and developmental milestones:

The authors [in Aldgate’s book] have strong views about the imperative to avoid stigmatising or ‘pathologising’ children and believe such an approach is unethical. We also believe that to do nothing where a child may be impaired on the grounds that this will place the child apart from others is unethical. Accordingly, this book takes the stance that, in order to apply our vast fund of knowledge in a non-stigmatising way, we need to know, what are, for want of a better phrase, the normative expectations. Using milestones, for example, to identify expected stages of development, is a useful tool in identifying impairments as early as possible, so that each child who has a developmental problem may be given the best possible opportunity to address that problem and reach his or her optimal potential as an individual.” (p.22)

And from Marchant (see [3] below);

professionals should assess whether the child is developing in line with what would be expected of a child with similar impairments at a similar level of development (not necessarily age).” (p.22)

Comment on [1]

1. The model of child development described in Aldgate’s book is comprehensive but noticeable by their scarcity were references to children’s physical development. There is a chapter on genetics and biological influences (from a neuropsychiatrist) and physical development is mentioned in the four chapters that deal with different stages, but overall, child development appears to be construed in terms of perception, thought, emotion and social behaviour, with genes, physical health and the physical environment playing a minor role. I could find no geneticists, developmental biologists or specialists in developmental disorders on the advisory panel. This was puzzling, since children are embodied beings; perception, thought, emotion and social behaviour are dependent on physical development.

2. The developmental trajectory is presented as normative; it has pre-determined stages so even a child with a disability is expected to develop in line with other children with similar impairments – despite the complexity of the outcomes of biological and environmental differences of individuals.

3. Several unresolved tensions emerge in relation to policies regarding children with disabilities:

• Normal/average trajectory vs abnormal/individual trajectory
• Stigmatising and pathologising vs identification of impairment/difference
• Social inclusion vs providing an enabling environment for child.

For individual practitioners and parents, these tensions pose serious problems because anyone attempting to identify the cause of a child’s developmental differences and to meet the child’s needs risks accusations of pathologising, stigmatising or socially excluding the child.

[2]Davies C. & Ward H. (2011), Safeguarding Children Across Services: Messages from research on identifying and responding to child maltreatment Executive Summary. London, Department for Education, Research Report DFE-RBX-10-09.

Davies and Ward’s report isn’t about child development – or attachment for that matter, though both are mentioned – it’s a review of the findings from The Safeguarding Children Research Initiative “an important element in the government response to the Inquiry following the death of Victoria Climbié; the research has encompassed a specific focus on neglect and emotional abuse, significant elements in the maltreatment of Victoria Climbié.” (p.12)

While there is considerable consensus both nationally and in other Western societies concerning what constitutes physical and sexual abuse, there is much less common agreement concerning the definitions and the thresholds for emotional abuse and neglect. Both the systematic reviews of literature that explored the evidence in this area concluded that neglect and emotional abuse are associated with the most damaging long-term consequences, yet they are also the most difficult to identify.” (p.18)

Comment on [2]

The authors are explicit about why they highlight neglect and emotional abuse and acknowledge the complexity of the factors involved in atypical development. But their focus on emotion (264 mentions in 226 pages) could give the impression that emotional abuse has more significant outcomes than, for example, physical neglect or poor support of parents and children by public sector services – although these are mentioned too.

[3] Marchant, R. (2009), ‘Making assessment work for children with complex needs’, in The Child’s World, J. Horwath (ed.), London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

I couldn’t access Ruth Marchant’s chapter in this book, but I did find a pdf [no longer accessible] with the same author, title and chapter number, which I assume to be the same one. It considers;

• what is meant by complex needs
• human rights issues and the social model of disability
• issues in the assessment of children with complex needs
• involving children in the assessment process
• pointers to anti-oppressive practice with disabled children (p.161).

Comment on [3]

Marchant offers some sensible, practical advice about how to approach assessment, but little about assessing the complex needs themselves. The emphasis appears to be on the form rather than the content of assessment. Horwath’s book is based on the assessment framework proposed by the Department of Health (DH) in their Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families, published in 2000. I’ll discuss this framework in more detail in a later post.

[4] Brandon M., Sidebotham P., Ellis C., Bailey S. & Belderson, P. (2011). Child and family practitioners’ understanding of child development: lessons learnt from a small sample of serious case reviews. London, Department for Education, Research Report.

The report opens with a clear statement about the authors’ theoretical position:

Attachment is the principal theoretical foundation for the analysis of the child’s development in the context of their environment … (Howe 2006)”. (p.3)

In their conclusion, they address social workers’ expertise directly:

Social workers should have a good working knowledge of the key developmental processes for the child from infancy through to adolescence and maturity (Aldgate et al 2006). They do not need to be experts in child development, and indeed will work closely with colleagues in other agencies to consider the child’s developmental progress. Nevertheless they should be able to recognise patterns of overall development, to promote optimal child development and to detect when such development may be going off track. However in a recent study, Ward and colleagues found that many social workers did not feel that child development had been a major part of their professional training and also that some professionals showed “little understanding of infant attachments; the impact of maltreatment on long term well being; of how delayed decisions can undermine life chances.” (p.20)

Reference is made to gathering expertise from other disciplines: community nursing services, GPs, secondary health care providers, adult mental health care and education staff (p.20). The authors also draw attention to the current absence of child development from training for social workers, teachers and GPs (p.21).

Comment on [4]

1. Brandon et al acknowledge the complexity of child development in listing the areas of expertise that social workers might need to draw on. But the claim that “attachment is the principal theoretical foundation for the analysis of the child’s development in the context of their environment” simply isn’t accurate. Attachment is only one strand of one facet of child development.

2. Their model of child development also appears to be normative. ‘Optimal’ child development should be promoted and social workers should be able to detect when development may be going ‘off track’ (p.20). There are several references to children not ‘meeting milestones’.

3. Despite the issue of an inadequate understanding of child development amongst those working with children in health, education and social care being raised (p. 21), I couldn’t find an acknowledgement of the possible adverse effects of this. I still fail to understand why child development should not feature prominently in the training of people who work with children.

What these texts aren’t saying

At first, I found it difficult to put my finger on exactly what it was about these texts that made me uneasy. After all, they recognize that child development involves the complex interaction of many factors, they’re comprehensive in scope, and children’s welfare is at the heart of their agenda. On reflection, I had three main reservations about the model of child development presented:

• It’s normative.
It assumes that there is a normal sequence of developmental milestones and that each child should meet them – even if the trajectory might be a bit different for children with disabilities.

It emphasizes some aspects of child development, such as emotional and social development, but others are almost completely overlooked – genetic, physiological and socio-political factors, for example. As a consequence, the causes of the problems experienced by children are marginalized.

It’s coherent and complete within its own frame of reference – that is, in relation to promoting and safeguarding the welfare of children in need (DH, 2000). If the model is viewed from the perspective of child development as a whole, some flaws start to appear.

I suspect that these three issues have arisen for two reasons;

The model is policy-based rather than evidence-based, despite claims to the contrary. If it was evidence-based it would be framed in terms of child development as a whole. This would include an evaluation of the physical factors involved in individual development, the root causes of children’s needs and the socio-political context that determines which children are in need and what their needs might be.

The model is based on biological knowledge that pre-dates WWII. (I’ll expand on this point in the next post). Old knowledge isn’t necessarily wrong, but research has moved on since then. The model of child development proposed by the texts doesn’t seem to recognize this.

I can understand why practitioners working in child protection focus on the emotional and social aspects of a child’s development and why attachment theory has intuitive appeal. But attachment theory and social and emotional development aren’t synonymous with child development per se.

My understanding of the term child development is that it refers to every change that a human being undergoes between conception and adulthood; genetic, anatomical, physiological, emotional, cognitive and social. It would be unreasonable to expect everyone working with children and families to be experts on every aspect of development, but since all aspects are interrelated, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect them to have an accurate overview of all aspects. This is analogous to the level of knowledge one would expect in relation to common infections. To become an expert on bacteria and viruses would take many years of study, but a basic overview of the differences between these organisms, what illnesses they cause, what symptoms to look for and how to treat infections can be grasped in a matter of minutes. Similarly, it wouldn’t take long to understand the basic principles of physical development and how they impact on children’s development as a whole. I think there’s a reason for the physical aspects of child development being marginalized. In the next post, I’ll explain what it is and expand on my misgivings about the model of child development set out in the four texts.