The Committee in Our Heads, Part I: Personalizing for our Cognitive Subcommittees

This is the first in a five-part “Brain Talk” series that explores how and why the inner-working components of the brain work together.

My friend and colleague, David Rose, the co-founder of CAST and key articulator of Universal Design for Learning, has sometimes described the working brain as something rarely seen in the real world-a well-functioning committee. When neuroscientists observe the brain performing a task, they observe a great deal of activity taking place. Reading or doing math doesn’t happen in one part of the brain. Instead, it’s a committee of parts working together that makes the task possible.

The Domain Subcommittees

Applying this committee metaphor can help us think about how we support individual differences among learners. Take reading, for example. The brain has multiple “subcommittees” that work together to make reading comprehension possible.

One subcommittee is phonological, focusing on the sound of the words. We’re born with these subcommittee members ready to tune themselves to the sounds they hear as infants, toddlers, and children. Oral language typically develops without formal instruction, as part of our informal experiences. We hear words and work to articulate those sounds back to the world.

Another subcommittee in the brain targets the meaning of the words. This subcommittee uses contextual and grammatical cues to associate meaning to the sounds.

A third orthographic subcommittee works on the symbolic, written, representation of the words and connects the sounds and meanings to collections of letters. When the subcommittee members are all clicking, the reading committee in our brain is humming along.

Similarly, mathematical tasks, like arithmetic, involve a collection of coordinating committee members and teams. One of those teams focuses on what neuroscientists have called the ANS, or approximate number system. This subcommittee is active early in life and across the animal kingdom. It allows us to, among other things, make visual comparisons of quantity and determine which one is greater.

Naming quantities incorporates another linguistics-based subcommittee which connects eight objects with the name “eight.” This team of committee members also seems to be involved with math facts. We retrieve the fact three times four equals twelve as a linguistic relationship. Communication between these two subcommittees can give the fact a visual meaning. Three times four looks like three groups of four. Then there’s the symbolic subcommittee that connects 3x4=12 into the system.  Again, when the committee members all do their jobs and communicate, our math brain is clicking.

How fine grained is the work of the committee members? A subject working with Michael McCluskey, a cognitive neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, illustrates the detail of the committee work. A 12-year old girl had suffered a stroke damaging part of her brain. As a consequence, she could no longer recognize letters or numbers, except for the letter O. The numeral “8” looked like a blur. However, show her an image like this   and she would say it looked like an “eight.”  She knew the name and what the quantity eight of something looked like, but the symbolic committee member dedicated to recognizing the numeral was fried.

Many committee members coordinate their efforts to accomplish tasks that eventually become commonplace and any one of them can have a potential defect. The more parts in a complex system, increases the possibility that more parts can break. But, these reading and math subcommittees are only part of the bigger picture.