March 21, 2013, by Jonathan

Can a rat teach a rat with only its mind?

Sometimes scientific news stories amaze me. Here is one: scientists have connected the brains of lab rats, allowing one to communicate directly to another via cables. One rat knew which lever to push for a reward because it was attached to another rat who knew. Scientists made the tentative conclusion that one of the brains was ‘talking’ to the other. Scientists also showed that a US-rat could talk to a Brazil-rat by sending the brain signals over the internet.

Of course there are lots of philosophical issues here. However, the question which interests me is this: “Did the rat learn anything?” In some sense you might think the answer is ‘obviously yes’! The second rat went from a state of not knowing which leaver to push to knowing which one to push. So if learning is about gaining knowledge then the second rat learnt something. But is that right? Is that all that learning something requires? I’m not so sure.

Let’s go a bit ‘sci-fi’. Imagine a university of the future. The lecturer plugs her brain into a computer, which is then fed into 50 student brains. A button is pressed and instantaneously the students know what the lecturer knows; the student suddenly knows about, macroeconomics, the philosophy of time, the history of Victorian England etc.

However, has the student learnt about macro-economics, the philosophy of time etc? My intuition is that the student has neither learnt, not the lecturer taught.  But why? Three things come to mind.

First is the distinction between syntax and semantics. The second the distinction between knowledge that and knowledge how. The third regards phenomenology.

Famously Searle’s (1980) Chinese room thought experiment concluded that syntactic manipulation wasn’t sufficient for understanding. Knowing that certain symbols and words are appropriate in a given context (syntax) doesn’t generate meaning (semantics). Perhaps then one way of capture the intuition that the student hasn’t learnt anything is this. A sufficient condition for learning x is coming to understand x; brain connections can only give us syntax’s; syntax is not sufficient for understanding. So brain connection is not sufficient for learning. This though leads to the question why might brain connection only give us syntax. This leads to the next two points.

Learning seems to be about being active. To put it a different way learning is about know how as much it is it about knowing that. In our future lecture theatre imagine if the lecturer wanted her students to know how to ride a bike by the ‘plug in’ method. Is this possible? Arguably not.

Knowing how to ride a bike requires knowledge how; that is, it is about the development of a skill which you can only get by – well, basically, falling off a bike. Perhaps then learning isn’t simply about filling our heads with information and rules it is about being actively engaged in the world, experiencing, trying, failing etc. Then this might be what is absent in lecturer brain to student brain example.

Finally, we might think that there is something that it is like to learn. That there is a particular phenomenology associated with learning how to play the piano, or how integrate in mathematics. If this is true, then for the brain to brain connection to be about learning then there would have to be a particular phenomenology. It is of course an open question what the phenomenology of the students in our ‘sci-fi’ example would be like. But we might conjecture that if there is a phenomenology associated with learning things, this would be absent in this case.

Of course, I have no idea about these issues and unfortunately rat’s aren’t particular good in interviews. If pushed I would deny that a lecturer could teach a student via direct brain communication, or that the student learns anything. I do think that they could gain some knowledge. But that simply makes me think that learning and teaching is more than simply taking knowledge and dumping it in another person’s head.

Reference: Searle, J., 1980, ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3: 417–57


Andrew Fisher

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