We constantly confront dangers and opportunities related to our need to survive and reproduce. Many folks believe that our brain processes all the recognition and response functions that are required for our survival and a qualitative life. It’s a bit more complicated than that. We actually have two separate but functionally related recognition/response systems.
- Our three pound skull-centered brain, composed of hundreds of billions of neurons and glial support cells, receives, integrates, and responds to the kinds of information on current and potential dangers and opportunities that our sensory/motor systems can process.
- Our diffused immune system, which in aggregate weighs about as much as our brain, is composed of an infinite number of often free-floating specialized cells spread throughout our body (but principally in our skin and digestive tract regions). Our immune system recognizes and responds to the several pounds of invisible microbes and pollutants that have entered and now inhabit our body. (In effect, we’re a 30 foot digestive tube with a body wrapped around it.)
So combinations of our very interconnected brain cells respond to such larger visible external challenges as a rapidly approaching car or an opportunity for food, and cells in our diffused immune system respond to such tiny invisible intruders as flu viruses that make us ill and certain bacteria that aid digestion. Scientists now realize that the two systems are highly interconnected and balanced. A successful response to many of life’s challenges requires the two systems to collaborate, and illnesses such as asthma can occur if they don’t.
For example, our immune system’s capabilities tend to diminish (and we become susceptible to infection) during an extended stressful situation that requires our body/brain to focus on developing a successful cognitive response. Conversely, when our immune system is temporarily overwhelmed with a viral or bacterial infection, we tend to lay low in an attempt to reduce the level of cognitive challenge.
Our inventive brain’s development of vaccines is an example of our brain assisting our immune system. A flu shot boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off a flu strain through the inoculation of a mild form of the disease. This action increases the number of immune cells that process viral recognition and response, and this heightened response capability wards off the more virulent form of the flu when it later enters our body.
Our immune system often reciprocates. For example, our brain responds most vigorously to high contrast sensory information, and ignores or merely monitors steady states and subtle changes. This makes biological sense. Why expend cognitive energy on things that aren’t currently problematic or erratically fluctuating? Our brain thus tends to not notice (and thus ignore) gradually developing problems, such as low levels of air pollution, until the pollution becomes visible and affects breathing. Our immune system will pick up the initial subtle signals of pollution, however, and use nausea, runny noses, and headaches to inform our brain that it should attend to an increasing environmental problem.
So we have two systems that collaborate in recognizing and responding to external/mammoth and internal/minute challenges. School activities typically focus on students’ brain systems, and ignore their immune systems—except that schools insist on inoculations before they’ll admit a student.
An intriguing thought: Is school a form of cognitive inoculation, an educational flu shot? The curriculum inserts relatively mild versions of complex human problems into student brains, so that those who master curricular challenges will be able to effectively recognize and respond to the related more complex life challenges they’ll confront later. Role playing and simulations are good examples of school activities that allow students to develop important recognition/response skills in a non-threatening setting.
Schools should be concerned about both brains. The environment in which students learn should be intellectually stimulating—but also relatively free of the antigens and pollutants that can reduce cognitive capability and the quality of students’ lives. The escalating advances in biology demand that the 21st century curriculum help students develop a functional understanding of both brain systems—something certainly necessary in informed 21st century citizens who will confront many important legal/moral/economic/cultural issues related to our dual recognition/response system.