Open Systems, Open Minds

Reflections on consciousness and education

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 19
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Bob Samples is an author and scholar who has been in the forefront of exploring the implications for education of basic research on the human system. The following article draws on material from his most recent book, Open Mind, Whole Mind, (Rolling Hills Estates, CA: Jalmar Press, 1987, $14.95) and from an address given at Windstar’s "Choices For the Future" Conference, in June, 1987.

– Robert Gilman

Looking at the world as a pattern of systems has become increasingly popular in recent years. One of the distinctions this allows is between open and closed systems and the attitudes that go with these. Buckminster Fuller described it this way to me: "If you draw a circle in the sand and study only what’s inside the circle, then that is a closed-system perspective. If you study what is inside the circle and everything outside the circle, then that is an open system perspective."

Open systems interact with what is around them and can be understood only by including an understanding of their relationship to everything else, which means that – in a closed-system sense – they can never be fully understood.

Each human being is an open system, and with the help of the research of the past few decades, we are coming to understand that the human mind is the ultimate open system. The significance of all this to parenting and teaching is that our current perspective of how the mind works differs greatly from that of the past.

We once felt that the brain was like a mental file cabinet where order and structure prevailed. We determined it would best be served by orderly and structured experiences. Parenting and schooling were designed to provide specific closed-system training. Routine and discipline were seen as virtues rather than conveniences. Children came to be judged by how well they conformed to closed-system rules. They quickly learned to play the game to win. It was seldom their prerogative to learn how to write new rules and thus open up their own systems of thought. Pitiably, growing up meant fitting in – conforming to the rules which, once written, were seldom questioned.

With television, visual and auditory media and computer access, today’s children can simply by-pass such attempts to limit their experience. The so-called "shallow" TV situation comedies and even the Saturday morning cartoons address issues that are years away from textbook and standard school curriculum coverage. Racism, sexism and other bigotries are exposed through entertainment. The values and customs of contemporary life are held up to question each evening. New broadcasts usher into the child’s consciousness clandestine war, Apartheid, injustice and hypocrisy.

As parents, we are being asked far more difficult questions than ever before. Fathers and mothers are yearning for "the old days" when the most-feared responsibility of parenting was to disclose the "facts of life." Now the questions center around unwanted pregnancy, homosexuality, AIDS and herpes. Divorce affects every family – either directly or indirectly through friends. At the same time, questions emerge about world hunger, the arms race and global peace. The lyrics of popular music contain topics central to the lives of the twenty-first-century child – drugs, relationships and thermonuclear war. Try as we may, we cannot enforce a closed-system life for our children. We cannot go "back to basics" and the fantasy of the values expressed in the 1950s films. Today, in our homes, schools, churches and workplaces, we are required to instill an ethic evolving from open-system possibility, not closed-system repression.

What, then, is our choice? I suggest it is as simple as honoring the reality of experience in our world. It requires that we accede to what is known about the design of the brain-mind system, that we embrace the fullness of our consciousness. This may involve possibly painful re-examinations of our own attitudes and beliefs about learning, decision-making, living. Our egos may suffer as we falter and stumble through this deliberate renaissance. But the rewards are worth the effort, for we will acquire for our children and ourselves the skills of survival. All the tomorrows are tentative. We need courage to greet the tentative.


Developing that courage can be helped by using and embracing all the capabilities that our consciousness has to offer.

The noted neuroscientist Karl Pribram once said, "consciousness is what you pay attention to." No better definition exists. With exquisite economy, Pribram binds consciousness with choice – "paying attention" is the choice, the intentional focusing of the senses on experience.

Focusing attention involves both apprehending and comprehending, for the mind pays attention in two major ways. By sensing or apprehending, the human mind recognizes the emergence of the act of paying attention. This happens without cognitive understanding and is commonly called a "gut" feeling or an involvement of a "sixth sense."

The second and more conventional way of paying attention is through comprehending or understanding. Comprehending results from having new experience that may be understood in relationship to previous experience. Sometimes the experience refers to previous personal involvement or it may be bonded to cultural norms and collective knowledge.

Apprehending focuses attention but may not "make sense." Comprehension focuses attention and does make sense. Our human capacities for reason, logic, deduction and the search for meaning are well-recognized and honored. For more than eight thousand years the development of these qualities has marked a series of noble steps in the history of civilization. These ways of knowing are the foundation for comprehension.

Less understood are the workings of apprehension. When we apprehend something we are immersed in the domain of pre-understanding – our senses are involved in configuring something without personal or cultural reference. Instead of experiencing bonds to reason and logic which characterize comprehension, the apprehending mind is bathed in emotion and tentativeness. There is often a strange mix of excitement and fear – a blend of wanting to continue into the unknown and a reflex to retreat to the safety of that which is already understood. Apprehension is the training ground for both fear and courage in the human mind. It is also the doorway to discovery.

Both are part of the natural design of the human brain-mind system. Both are the product of the sweep of human evolution and both represent clear cut advantages for survival in our species. But unfortunately, they are not both equally honored. Historically, Western civilization has forced a choice between them, and comprehension wins, hands down. Comprehension has status; apprehension does not. The tragedy of this is that it blocks us from fully using most of what nature has provided in our mental capacity.


For the past fifty years, there has been a large scale exploration of the form and function of the human brain-mind system. This exploration has uncovered, among others things, the complementary ways of processing experience found in the left and right cerebral hemispheres. The left processes experience in accordance with cultural schemes of logic, sequential order and reductive analysis. The right exhibits dominant activity when thinking requires metaphoric, analogical, visual-spatial and proliferative operations. The left is more closely connected with comprehending and the right with apprehending.

Educators committed a grave error early on in popularizing this research when they assumed that certain subjects in school were either "right" or "left" brained in content and that certain students were right or left brained. The error was one of misinterpretation. The brain lateralizes the way it processes experience; the brain does not lateralize content. All curriculum is basically whole brained and all students are whole brained, but many subjects may be taught in ways that favor left or right processing. Schools clearly favor left brain processing (logical, sequential, analytical and reductive). In education we can create more holism and more complete brain-mind function simply by changing the way we currently teach what is already offered in existing curricula. Massive curriculum revision is not the issue, rather the issue is massive revision of teaching methodology.

Other insights into the core of the educational process are contained in the triune brain model of Dr. Paul MacLean. The triune brain represents both an evolutionary and a developmental model. The three basic parts from earliest to latest are: the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. Researchers often refer to the brain stem as the reptilian brain, the limbic system as the mammalian brain and the cortex as the neo-mammalian brain.

In terms of evolutionary development the earliest part, the brain stem, governed species survival capacities. These included 1) fighting and territorial defense, 2) fleeing and escape, 3) food, shelter and water access, and 4) reproduction of the species. It is unfortunate that in the history of brain research these functions, because they were so "basic," became seen as being of "lower" status and called by some, "animalistic". In contemporary times each of these so called "animalistic" needs have been elevated to art forms of human involvement. Athletics, dance, gourmet dining, architecture, and physical expressions of love are examples of the more aesthetic expressions of brainstem function.

One of the major weaknesses of developmental approaches is that either physical or psychological changes are seen as sequential. Sequencing results in the perception that there are lower and higher qualities of development. Anatomical structures and psychological abilities are seen to be separate from each other rather than as the continuous unfolding of capacities designed into the organism. In the human brain-mind system for example, developmentalists see the central nervous system and brainstem as more "primitive" than the limbic system and the limbic is seen as more "primitive" than the cortex.

While this perception may seem useful, it actually creates an erroneous portrait of the human mind. ALL the parts of the human brain-mind are simultaneously present and thus their interactions are synergic. Animals that have only a brainstem cannot be compared with humans which have a brain stem AND a limbic system AND a cortex. In education we have a profound responsibility to honor the specific functions of the brainstem (security, safety, nutrition, understanding of intimacy etc.). Beyond that, we can interface the processing functions of the brainstem with other brain systems to create a maturity which insures that the "art form" attributes of this part of the brain are honored as well as the "basic needs" functions.

The limbic system is a complex of eight different parts. When taken together, its functions seem to govern emotions, feelings and tacit forms of knowing. In educational terms the limbic is the body’s organ of the affective domain (feelings and emotions). Many studies indicate that the right cerebral cortex is also related to the affective domain. Some researchers report a larger physical connection between the limbic system and the right cortex than is found in the connections to the left cortex. It is likely that the limbic system apprehends the context or pattern of experience and depends upon the right cortex to prepare neural information for the left brain to put into conventional languages for reading, writing, ciphering and reasoning.

Much of what educators have traditionally called the affective domain originates in the central nervous system, the brainstem, the limbic system and the right cortex. It is through these components of the brain-mind system that experience and information is prepared for human action. Until recently, this preparation function was largely ignored because it is fundamentally without standard language and vocabulary to describe it. Instead psychological research has dominantly focused on what can be explained through language. Learning theories are powerfully biased toward cognitive functions. The affective, when dealt with at all, is often limited to that which lends itself to verbal expression via cognitive language. When Michael Polanyi said "We know more than we can say," he was describing the yawning chasm between the realities of apprehension and the reporting capabilities of language and cognition. Values clarification techniques have in the past been the most common technology of affective education in North America. In reality, values clarification is little more than a cognitive processing of a small part of what can be said about the vast nonverbal synthesis of the apprehending mind.

Thus more of the human brain-mind system is devoted to the apprehending functions than to comprehending functions. The brainstem creates an affective ecology in which children experience a sense of safety and physical well-being. The limbic system attends to emotions, feelings and tacit forms of knowing. The limbic system treats these attributes in two ways; 1) direct experiencing of emotions, feelings and tacit knowing and 2) pre-conscious "understanding" of the role these play in the culture at large. The right cortex builds the base for metaphoric and intuitive knowing. The left hemisphere creates the formal link between the child and the culture at large.

This brings us full circle back to the issue of open and closed systems, for it is through apprehending that our minds stay open, open to that which has not yet been integrated into some system of comprehension. If we are to fulfill our birthright as creative and explorative beings with the help of education, then our educational system will need to function in ways that give equal honor to all the brain/mind’s capacities.