Eleventh International School on Mind, Brain and Education

2016 September 7–13

Dynamical Coupling:
From Brain-to-Brain to Social Interaction

Directors of the School: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Directors of the Course: Uri Hasson and Thalia Wheatley

Abstract: Sidney Straus
School of Education. Tel Aviv University, Israel

Teaching and Brain to Brain Coupling
We humans are massively social animals. Even a casual, non-scientific glance at what happens on the street, at home, in playgrounds, in the fields and virtually every place on our globe, shows that people are interacting socially with each other.
Among the many kinds of social interactions, I will be focusing on one of the most remarkable of human achievements: teaching.
A caveat: try not to think of teaching as taking place only in schools. It is ubiquitous outside of schools. It also occurs in cultures where there are no schools.
I make the claim that teaching is a natural cognitive ability on the part of humans. Of the many kinds of evidence for this claim I present three: (1) children age 3½ teach even though teaching is remarkably complex and it is unlikely that toddlers were taught how to teach. It also appears that there is cognitive preparation for that: non-verbal children age 1-1½ years display cognitive precursors for teaching, (2) teaching with theory of mind is probably species-unique, and (3) teaching appears to be species-typical. Research indicates that it is universal and has been found in all social organizations, including hunter and gatherers.
Teaching is also not only cognitive in nature, where a teacher attempts to pass on knowledge to a learner. It also has important emotional and motivational aspects. Teachers detect them and their valences in learners’ cues and vice versa.
We humans are not only incredibly social animals. We are the only ones who have cumulative culture. Other animals, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees, which are also very social animals, do not have cumulative culture. Some taxa teach, using a definition of teaching based on evolutionary theory and animal research, but they don’t appear to have a cumulative culture.
Teaching is deeply implicated in human cumulative culture and could be seen as one of the characteristics that make us human. As such, it should be a top candidate to be studied widely. Learning has been studied extensively but, surprisingly, there has been little research on teaching in the brain and cognitive sciences. This is now just beginning to change.
Given the above, teaching’s centrality to the human enterprise makes it a sterling candidate for the topic of this conference, where one focus could be on brain-to-brain coupling when a teacher’s brain teaches a learner’s brain.

I received my PhD at Berkeley in 1967 in the School of Education and then did postdoc work, also at Berkeley, in the Psychology Department from 1967-1969. I immigrated to Israel in 1969 and taught and researched at Tel Aviv University from 1969-2008 when I retired. My retirement has not stopped my academic work.
I left academia for three years (2005-2008) to become a civil servant when I was appointed by the then Minister of Education to be the Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Education.
My abiding interest has been cognitive developmental psychology which I view with a broad transdisciplinary lens such that it includes normative and non-normative child development, nonhuman animal behavior, cultural development, cultural anthropology, cognitive archeology, AI, brain to brain coupling, and much more.
In the past 25 years or so, I have been studying and writing about teaching. My claim is that it is a natural cognitive ability on the part of humans. Lately I have been working with a team from India where my research and theory on teaching has been translated into practical teaching in poor villages there.