Welcome to the Cognitive Revolution: Why We Need to Shift the Way We Think About Our Brains

by | Dec 28, 2020

Behaviorism might have served us well in the last century. But with a deeper understanding of how the brain really works, it’s time for a revolution.

Behaviorism uses the reward-punishment system as the basis of learning. Yet all behavior has a biological basis. Why would we label a child’s natural output as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ based on a poorly-informed understanding of the human brain’s reactive capacity?

Unfortunately, this model is based on a very rudimentary understanding of the brain that doesn’t take any other factors into account (like personality, emotional state, nutrition, and more).

Unlike behaviorism, cognitivism is all about neural connections. Instead of viewing the brain as a simple device focused on rewards or punishments, cognitivism sees the brain as a powerful, complex learning system with limitless potential. 

Why do we need to move away from behavioralist thinking?

For much of the past hundred years or so, we saw our brains through a behaviorist lens. This lens assumes that our behavior is explicitly linked to punishment or reward. 

Perhaps that system worked for labor workforces and schools in the early twentieth century. But for modern companies who thrive on creativity, innovation, and personal drive, this model is destructive. It is a major cause of frustration among teachers, students, parents, employees, managers, and HR departments. It wastes time, money, and opportunities. Most devastating of all, this model prevents people from reaching their full potential and growing into a life they love. 

Good news: we can fix this. It all starts with the switch to cognitivism. 

What is the Cognitive Revolution?

It comes as a shock to most people, that there was a Cognitive Revolution. It might be an even greater shock to think that we (the majority of non-technical academics) missed it. It happened on a particular day and time, in a particular place. We can say that now… in hindsight. Eerily, the date was September 11th. The year was 1956. And the place was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ah sure, you are probably thinking. MIT is for nerds and geeks. No wonder we missed it. Many things occur in the ivory towers of the academy that never make it to Main Street. 

But wait! Not this one. 

Cognitive processing is about me, you, WE, us. It is about how we think, act, and behave. But more importantly, it is about the brain – yours and mine. What I grew up knowing about the brain was not much and sadly I find that most of it was just myth. So who got this information and who didn’t?

The cognitive revolution is responsible for today’s Information Age, where we now find ourselves. In our daily lives, we are kept busy in a precarious juggling act – managing leftover scraps of infrastructure anchored in the last sooty days of an industrial era (carbon footprint), while trying to keep pace with post-pandemic virtual workscapes and distributed ‘virtual metaverses’. On that fateful September day in 1956, Artificial Intelligence blossomed. It heralded the massive potential for visionaries like Tim Berners Lee, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. Their internet business models, and indeed humongous personal wealth, would have been incomprehensible but for Miller, Hebb, Simon, and the groundbreaking papers that they introduced to a small technical audience who were in the room on that day.

For instance, Berners-Lee’s invention changed the world in an extraordinary way. “The World Wide Web was ranked number one cultural moment that shaped the world as the fastest-growing communications medium of all time and changed the shape of modern life forever.” (British Council, 2016)

If science, computer science, mathematicians, scientists, and other academics immersed themselves in the cognitive revolution, sadly educators and learning systems lost out. They were not represented in the room on that fateful day and because of that – we all missed the cognitive revolution too. Simply put, the scientists in that room were very deliberate to move away from Watson and Skinner’s radical behaviorism – something that continued to shape schools and schooling right up to the present time. As a result, you and I and countless other individuals were raised and entered the workforce thinking that there was only one model – and that model was indelibly linked to rewards and punishments.

The potential of a cognitivist future

Unlike behaviorism, cognitivism is all about the power of thought. Instead of experiencing our brains as solely focused on rewards or punishments, cognitivism sees the brain as a powerful and complex learning machine that has limitless potential. Do the math. Each of us, you and I have 100 billion neurons (give or take) and each neuron has typically 10,000 connections. Thus we each have trillions upon trillions of potential.