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Philosophy of Education

Quantum Metaphors and the Study of the Mind-Brain

Delores D. Liston
Georgia Southern University

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ABSTRACT: Although much of current neuroscience literature speaks of the mind-brain, most study of the mind-brain generally remains focused on either the mind (psychology, philosophy or sociology) or the brain (physiology). Neuroscientists continue to be hampered by Cartesian dualism and the divisions it creates. Even when we speak of the mind-brain, our attention tends to revert to either the mind or the brain. A similar problem faced physicists earlier this century during the rise of quantum mechanics. I believe that adopting metaphors from quantum physics can help us overcome the tendency to dichotomize our study of the mind-brain. In this paper, I explore some of these metaphors (such as the participant-observer and wave-particle unity) to help establish a set of sustainable metaphors within which we can unify our interpretations of the mind-brain.

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Neuroscience's Potential for Teachers

An important focus of my academic work has been the application of recent discoveries from the field of neuroscience to classroom teaching. Neuroscience has the potential to improve our ways of teaching and learning, but that this potential can only be realized by 'humanizing' the highly technical language of brain science.

For example, through neuroscience, we are beginning to understand why many of our students perform poorly on exams when we are fairly certain that they 'know' the material. Findings from neuroscience indicate that this results from our students 'downshifting' as their brain physiology responds to stress (Caine & Caine, 1991). That is, under the stress of test-taking, their cerebrum, the most advanced part of their brain, is slowed in the formation of neural networks while their less-advanced brainstem becomes dominant. This is a very effective explanation of the physiological dimension of our learners. What remains is to translate this explanation into a format useful for classroom teachers.

Neuroscience does not help us understand the human factors that determine why some students interpret a test as threatening (and therefore 'downshift'), while others interpret the same testing environment as challenging (and are able to excel). Although physiological explanations from neuroscience help us understand the mechanisms of the brain, they fall short of explaining the socio-cultural and phenomenological factors which initiate a stressful versus challenging interpretation of experience. Thus, dehumanized explanations of neuroscience findings seem less than useful to classroom teachers and similarly remain outside the understanding of most people.

Bridging Empirical and Spiritual Languages

If we are to understand, not just pull apart our mind-brains, the materialistic language of neuroscience research needs the interpretive lens offered by philosophical and spiritual languages. Interpreted through these languages, brain science can become more widely accessible to both lay persons and classroom teachers.

As explained above, the predominance of empirical analysis makes the translation of neuroscience findings into the human dimensions of teaching and learning very difficult. A neuroscience informed by human concerns could pursue useful explanations of educational experience outside of the laboratory, and lead to more applicable results for classroom teachers. A major obstacle in developing such a "humanized" neuroscience is the gap between empirical interpretations and spiritual/philosophical interpretations of neuroscience research.

Most authors in the field have attempted to address physiological questions, for example: "How does the brain work?", "How are neural networks formed?", or, as in our example, "What happens in a brain under stress?" These are what Kosslyn and Koenig (1992) refer to as the "easy questions." Meanwhile, these researchers have deftly avoided difficult spiritual and philosophical questions such as: "What is the relationship between a neural network and the thought associated with that network?", "What is the relationship between body and mind?", or, as in our example, "Why, given the same environment, does one student feel stress while another thrives upon challenge?"

Thus, there has been a tendency to either present neuroscience research in the reductionistic terms of the purely physiological and observable (Dennett, 1991; Churchland & Sejnowski, 1992), or dismiss neuroscience and pursue more humanistic interpretations of educational experience. In this way, a chasm has formed between the laboratory and the classroom. Classroom teachers, who should benefit greatly from neuroscience research, are often left with the impression that these discoveries do not have practical implications for their own classroom behaviors and practices. Indeed, most teacher education courses and textbooks make no mention of neuroscience. My research seeks to bridge the gap between the language of neuroscience (which tends to be very technical), and the languages of philosophy and human spirituality (which tend to be more open-ended), in order to make neuroscience accessible to the classroom teacher.

Building this bridge is very difficult, as the response to my paper, "Brain Compatible Classrooms: Theory to Praxis" (presented at the 1995 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association), demonstrated. During my presentation, I deliberately adopted the term "mind-brain" in order to avoid materialistic reductionism on one hand, and immaterial ungroundedness on the other. I was surprised by the reaction I received from my audience. It seemed that the room was divided in half. One group of the listeners took issue with what they perceived as a reductionistic bias, while the other half opposed what they saw as overly philosophical or spiritual. Thus, in mutually contradictory fashion, I was accused of being both too ethereal and too materialistic. It seemed that some reduced the term "mind-brain" to mean only "mind," while others misconstrued the term to mean exclusively "brain." I left the presentation determined to understand this division in the audience. I realize now that my shift in terminology away from the common language, dualistic separation of "brain" and "mind" to the unity of "mind-brain" requires elaboration.

For this reason, an objective of this paper is to explore new metaphors from quantum physics which allow incorporation of both the physiological aspects of brain, as well as the philosophical/spiritual implications of mind. In this way, we can move toward a humanized neuroscience of the unified mind-brain. I hope to work toward a language that allows us to avoid the "either-or" separations of common language. I believe that metaphors from quantum physics can help overcome false separations and mistaken dualisms.

Metaphors for the Mind-Brain Unity

The common language of brain and mind is hampered by Cartesian dualism. The separation of mind versus body and brain is an essential premise of seventeenth-century Cartesian thought. Drew Leder (1990) states the case, "Cartesian categories of mind and body [brain] merely reify and segregate classes of experience that stand in ceaseless interchange." (p. 149) An integrated experience and understanding of mind-brain can generate new interpretations of our worlds which overcome separations of object and subject.

There are postmodern, alternative, non-objectified positions which challenge Cartesian dualism and its misunderstanding of the human mind and brain. For example: biogenetic structuralism. This view "holds that 'mind' and 'brain' are two views of the same reality—mind is how brain experiences its own functioning, and brain provides the structure of mind." (Laughlin, McManus & d'Aquili, 1990, p. 13) This position is significant in the field of neurophilosophy. My use of the term mind-brain, based in biogenetic structuralism, allows me to explore and supersede the culturally-imposed line between objectivity and subjectivity, matter and spirit, physiology and metaphysicality. Thus, biogenetic structuralism provides one possible bridge over Cartesian dualism. However, this bridge is difficult to sustain, as study tends to concentrate either on the physiological or the spiritual.

Other possible metaphorical bridges are found in metaphors drawn from quantum physics. I believe these bridges are sustained over the long term. My choice of quantum metaphors is not arbitrary. Traditionally, we adopt metaphors from our most complicated discoveries and inventions to describe the functioning of our mind-brain. In previous centuries, we compared our brains to complicated machinery, such as clocks and automobiles. Presently, we adopt metaphors from computer technology, such as parallel processing and programming.

Although these metaphors have been useful, they perpetuate the false separations of brain and mind. Metaphors from quantum physics, another highly advanced field, can help us move beyond Cartesian dualism. Twentieth-century quantum physics has changed and enriched the metaphors for human existence. Furthermore, quantum physics has shown that the metaphors we employ to explain and understand our mind-brains are especially important to the creation of our worlds. The metaphors from quantum physics that I seek to draw from are the participant-observer, fuzziness and exchange and wave-particle unity.

The Metaphor of Quantum Participant-Observer

According to quantum theory, we participate in the creation of our realities through our status as participant-observers. Thus, a look at the metaphors we use to describe our selves is significant. As Deepak Chopra notes:

No matter where you look, the visible universe is fundamentally a set of signals. Yet these signals all hold together, turning totally meaningless vibrations into full-blown experiences that have human meaning. (Chopra, 1989, p. 130)

The human act of using metaphors to attribute significance and value to these "meaningless vibrations" generates the world as we know it. This means that the use of metaphors and models creates our reality. In this way, the traditional understanding that we create models to explain what we observe in the world gives way to a quantum mechanical understanding that we create models as part of our participation in the creation and explanation of our worlds.

Also, the model of quantum physics informs us that the choice to measure certain properties actualizes those properties. All possibilities exist until we choose to measure or actualize a particular one.(Wolf, 1988) The models and metaphors which our understanding of the subatomic level generates allows the creation of new metaphors to explain and create new ways of being. This metaphor of the participant-observer can allow us to envision a bridge between matter and spirit facilitating a more integrated understanding of our worlds. For example, our metaphors regarding the human body can be revised based upon these new metaphors generated by quantum physics. Rather than continuing to use outmoded Cartesian metaphors, we can metaphorize our worlds and bodies in quantum terms. Thus, the term mind-brain can take on a more significant and integrated meaning.

The shift from traditional classical mechanical metaphors of experience to quantum mechanical metaphors results in understanding the mind-brain as a participant-observer. Through this metaphor, the brain is no longer a separate entity owned by the Self and mind. Instead, the mind and brain are understood as mind-brain, with integrated physical and metaphysical dimensions. The traditional split between subject and object is overcome through the participant-observer model. This metaphor allows the body to be experienced as presence. No longer a thing to be owned or observed, the body is understood as a complex part of the participant-observer unity which serves to actualize the world.

The participant-observer metaphor breaks down boundaries and encourages a view of the world in which discrete objects no longer exist. Instead, the emphasis shifts from the borders to a recognition of the constant exchange taking place everywhere and all of the time. For example, the transformation of food into thought by the mind-body demonstrates physicality transforming into metaphysicality.

The Metaphor of Quantum Fuzziness and Constant Exchange

The shift to quantum explanations and metaphors allows new understandings of the constant exchange of molecules and matter in and through the mind-brain. An emphasis on the changing conditions of the body and the brain, as well as the continual exchange between body and world, makes exclusive ownership of a singular body or brain impossible. If one were to "own one's body" within quantum metaphors, "one's body" or one's brain would have to include everything. Chopra describes the body and brain using the metaphor of a quantum experience and process:

If you could see your body as it really is, you would never see it the same way twice. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body were not there a year ago. The skeleton that seems so solid was not there three months ago...The skin is new every month. You have a new stomach lining every four days, with the actual surface cells that contact food being renewed every five minutes...It is as if you lived in a building whose bricks were systematically taken out and replaced every year. If you keep the same blueprint, the it will still look like the same building. But it won't be the same in actuality. The human body also stands there looking much the same from day to day, but through the processes of digestion, elimination, and so forth, it is constantly and ever in exchange with the rest of the world. (Chopra, 1989, p. 48-49)

Each system of the human body, including the brain, functions both separately and in union with the whole. Similarly, each of these particles and molecules, although involved in continual exchange, is also part of a synchronous and unified universe. The "fuzzy" boundaries and continual exchange recognized by and through quantum physics is also coupled with a connectedness between particles through which, "particles seem to know instantaneously what decisions are made elsewhere." (Zukav, 1979, p. 72)

The universe has traditionally been described as a series of linear, cause and effect type interactions. Now, however, we can borrow the metaphors of quantum physics and begin to think in terms of possibilities and non-linear exchanges which are constantly taking place. These metaphors can free us from the constraints of linear, cause and effect thinking. We can begin to recognize the continual, multiplicity of reactions, possibilities and relationships that are formed and re-formed through simultaneous exchange.

An example of this constant exchange experienced in the world takes place in the breath. The body, if it is full of life, is always in motion—if only the motion of breathing. We are involved in a constant exchange of material and information between ourselves, our bodies and our environments. Thus, in fact, the demarcation that we usually take for granted as separating the body from the environment is arbitrary.

The breath provides a relatively easy place from which to begin to integrate a quantum physical understanding into our way of thinking, and thereby broadening the metaphors within which we create and interpret our worlds. The activity of breathing creates a bridge transcending the physical and metaphysical. Where indeed do I begin and end in this process? What marks the boundaries of my world? What is it that gives and sustains my life? How does the breath, a physical transfer of molecules, accomplish the sustenance of life? These questions raise a dilemma for those caught within the Cartesian paradigm, and sustain the impulse to move beyond this limiting interpretation of the world.

Classical physical metaphors of breathing generate a visualization of breathing in which air is taken in to the body and released. The very real processes of transformation are obscured in this account. A quantum mechanical explanation, however, draws our attention to the simultaneous responses of molecule to molecule. When metaphorized through quantum physics, the focus is drawn to the constant exchange of matter. The process of transformation from in-coming to out-going air becomes the center of attention. The life-giving integration and transfer of information takes on greater importance.

Considering the breath in quantum physical terms generates an enhanced understanding of the tension which exists between the physical and the metaphysical. While the physical dimensions of the process of breathing are understood in detail by practitioners of modern medicine, the metaphysical dimension remains elusive. The metaphors and models of quantum physics makes possible a new understanding of the transforming nature of breathing in a living body. One of the reasons that we have particular difficulty distinguishing mind and brain lies in this fact of exchange. As noted earlier, this constant exchange between self and environment proceeds largely unnoticed, yet it occurs at a remarkable rate. The metaphors generated through quantum physics makes it easier for us to imagine this constant exchange and overcome the Cartesian categorical divide.

Thus, understanding in great detail the physiology of brain function will not reveal the secrets of the mind. Instead, we must elaborate quantum metaphors of mind-brain in which 'mind' is not reduced to the material functioning of the 'brain.' Neither can 'brain' be properly studied alone. We must accept that the physiology we study is intimately related to—indeed inseparable from mind. The terms mind and brain are misleading and encourage the perpetuation of outmoded Cartesian dualism. The single term mind-brain will help us comprehend the inter-relationship of mind-brain.

The Metaphor of Wave-Particle Unity

Another metaphor from quantum physics supports this position. The firm lines of demarcation between "here" and "there," "me" and "not me" have not been substantiated in the subatomic realm. Neils Bohr's principle of complementarity provides a pertinent example. The principle of complementarity postulates that, "what we experience is not external reality, but our interaction with it". (Zukav, 1979, p. 116) Bohr hypothesizes multiple "pictures" whose views are complementary and contradictory. In order to make sense of our observations, Bohr maintains that we need to consider pairs of pictures or metaphors, neither of which is complete on its own.

Discoveries related to light epitomize the complementary relationship Bohr was exploring. In 1803 Thomas Young, using the phenomenon of interference, 'proved' that light is wavelike. Just over one hundred years later, in 1905, Albert Einstein, using the photoelectric effect, 'proved' that light is particle-like. (Zukav, 1979; Gibbins, 1987) Thus, scientific evidence supported two contradictory conclusions regarding the nature of light.

Bohr's complementarity principle is an attempt to reconcile these two "truths." By postulating that we understand light in terms of pairs of "pictures" or metaphors, Bohr was able to reconcile these two positions into a mutually supporting paradigm. Bohr maintained that in order to understand the nature of light, one must utilize the findings related to both observations, otherwise the account would be incomplete. Instead of insisting that light be understood in terms of either waves or particles, this principle of complementarity recognized that light is neither wave nor particle, but both wave and particle (wave-particle). The "pictures" of waves and particles help us metaphorize and therefore better understand the behavior of the "more complex" entity, light, in terms of "less complex" observables, waves and particles.

As this example makes clear, light must be accepted, studied and metaphorized as wave-particle. Seemingly contradictory explanations and metaphors must be held simultaneously. Quantum physics shows the either/or position of classical Cartesian explanations are invalid.

The same is true of our mind-brain. Neuroscientists and educators alike continue to seek explanations of brain functioning without taking into account the seemingly contradictory information regarding mind. To continue to study the brain alone would be as misguided as treating light as either wave or particle. Just as light must be studied and metaphorized in complementary terms so that it may be understood, the inseparable concept of mind-brain must be accepted in order to avoid misguided theories and partial understandings of our selves.


I have discussed these three metaphors from quantum physics in order to develop parallels between the nondualistic understandings of quantum physics and those of neurophilosophy. The convergence between these areas of inquiry supports an emerging alternative to dualistic interpretations. The separations between matter and spirit, which were taken for granted by Descartes and many others following him have come under serious attack in our century.

Quantum physics, the science of explaining the universe at its smallest, substantiates the elimination of dualistic interpretations of experience. The metaphors of quantum physics corroborate a more holistic interpretation of experience. The traditional dichotomies of objective and subjective, material and spiritual are challenged through these recent observations and discoveries.

Similarly, with regards to the neurophilosophy of the mind-brain, the different languages of materialism and spirituality unnaturally divide us into different camps. One group focuses strictly on understanding physiology, while the other focuses exclusively on understanding our "selves" apart from the physiological basis. Splitting ourselves into these disciplines enables only partial interpretations and analyses of the data available to us. The conclusions I have reached indicate that in order to generate a coherent analysis, which takes into account the wholeness of our human being, we must overcome the tendency to break down our communication. Utilizing the metaphors of quantum physics to sustain our bridge between matter and spirit, we must recognize the complementary interdependence of mind-brain.

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Zukav, G. (1979). The dancing wu li masters: An overview of the new physics. New York: Morrow & Company.

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