Maturana’s Theory of Biology of Cognition

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the researchers at the AIMS Center are currently taking part in a book study of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s book, The Tree of Knowledge. This book is essentially a description of their theory of biology of cognition, which has had a profound effect on many different academic disciplines, and is, in essence, a different way to understand human cognition.

Since the Renaissance, Western tradition has put forth a hierarchical, linear narrative which has dominated the popular Western view. The analogy that can be used to represent this viewpoint is an individual as a “cognitive explorer” living in an external world. This external world is full of absolutes, all that is “out there” is concrete, knowable, and transparent to our perceptual/cognitive capacities. Knowledge can be thought of as the “big K,” independent from the observer and just waiting to be discovered.  

Maturana, on the other hand, has presented a very different epistemological viewpoint in his Theory of Biological Cognition, which involves an observer-dependent reality. As we are beginning to learn in our book study, this theory talks about knowledge as a construction of the observer based on limited sensory input gathered from the outside world. Even more important, that knowledge is not just based on sensory input from the outside world, but it is also extensively a construction of the prior experiences specific to the individual observer. This is a much different epistemological frame from the idea of knowledge as the “big K,” which is out there waiting to be discovered. It is an alternative viewpoint that does not sound right or sit well with our Western traditions and training.  

Maturana’s work is concentrated around the mind/brain problem and current neuroscience research in the realm of perception has tended to provide positive correlations to his theories involving the brain. Where our Western tradition of objective realism tends to fail, Maturana’s Theory of Biological Cognition helps provide an alternative explanation for ideas like origin of order in complex natural systems, the surprising degree of autonomy of living systems, and the coherence between behavior and circumstances.

But as it is often stated when talking about the interaction between the mind, the brain, and consciousness, there is a paradox here that is difficult to get around. How can we use the brain to study the brain? Can we really use cognition to help understand the process of cognition? If you are interested in exploring this idea of an observer-dependent reality further I would suggest that you watch a 17-minute TED video by Alin Seth called “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality.” It is a wonderful video that will challenge the perception of your own reality. Certainly, these are all interesting questions based around very big ideas.


What Part Does Technology have to Play in the Future of Education? (Part IV)

In the final installment of my blog series concerning education and technology, I would like to look ahead at the new technology that is currently attracting interest within educational and academic research. As a reminder, this series stems from the Jean Piaget Society conference I attended which had the theme “Technology and Human Development.” In… Continue Reading

What Part Does Technology Have to Play in the Future of Education? (Part III)

This blog post is the third in a series concerning technology in education stemming from the Jean Piaget Society Conference I attended in June. The theme of this year’s conference was “Technology and Human Development.” It provided a venue to discuss technology through a variety of different academic disciplines and research frames of reference all… Continue Reading

What Part Does Technology Have to Play in the Future of Education? (Part II)

I have been exploring the idea of technology in education since attending the Jean Piaget Society (JPS) Conference in San Francisco in early June. The theme for the 2017 conference was Technology and Human Development. In my last blog post, I reflected on the increasing rate of change in technology and how that exponential change… Continue Reading

What Part Does Technology have to Play in the Future of Education? (Part I)

The major theme of the Jean Piaget Society annual conference in June was Technology and Human Development. Since attending the conference, I have been part of several fascinating discussions that I would like to explore concerning the future advance of technology within education. In his book Singularity, Ray Kurtzweil talks about how human beings are… Continue Reading

Attending a Jean Piaget Society (JPS) Conference

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the 47th Jean Piaget Society (JPS) Conference held in San Francisco. This annual conference brings together an intriguingly diverse group of individuals interested in the psychologist Jean Piaget and his prolific work in the area of constructivism and childhood cognitive development. At this conference, you can… Continue Reading

Personal Perception of Reality

Teaching science I often wonder how my students perceive the physical world as they delve deeply into science concepts. It is often assumed that our personal perception of the world around us is the same from one person to the next. Yet current cognitive research indicates that we have far more “senses” than the five… Continue Reading