Pinnacle of Human Evolution: The Goal-Directed Brain

Pinnacle of Human Evolution: The Goal-Directed Brain

Pinnacle of Human Evolution: The Goal-Directed Brain photo

Birchwood School of Hawken science class

In their new book, “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, begin their thesis with the idea that “Our ability to establish high-level goals is arguably the pinnacle of human brain evolution.” The human capacity to determine and reach high-level goals distinguishes humankind from all other animals.

From their evolutionary perspective, they add, “Our proficiency in setting goals is mediated by a collection of cognitive abilities that are widely known as ‘executive functions,’ a set of skills that include evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning.” Yet our evolutionary heritage of a goal-directed brain and executive functioning requires a third component. They write, “Our ability to effectively carry out our goals is dependent on an assemblage of related cognitive abilities that we refer to as cognitive control. This includes attention, working memory and goal management.” Setting the stage for their thesis, the authors write, “Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting.”

I am not a scholar by any means, but I interpret their findings as an equation with a variable. As human beings, we are endowed with a goal-directed brain. That endowment includes the capacity for executive functioning: planning, organizing, decision making, and evaluation. However, the variable in this equation is “cognitive control.” It implies a capacity to regulate, or not, our goal-setting abilities and our executive functioning.

I believe this simple equation has profound implications for education. It explains that every child is endowed with the capacity for setting and reaching high level goals. Yes, all children! Certainly these goals will be mitigated by genetic endowment, nevertheless, as long as they are human they can set and achieve high goals. Why then do some children not have high goals? Why do some not achieve their goals?

Why do children languish on behavioral pathways that do not enable them to live their life as fully as possible? It seems self-evident. Their general education requires focused supplemental training, support, guidance, and the deliberate development of cognitive control.

In previous blogs, I wrote essays about Laurence Steinberg’s work: one on engagement and the other on the development of the adolescent mind. Steinberg’s studies hinted on educational accommodations that help establish “cognitive control” and empower children to realize the potential of their goal-directed brains. Leading a goal-directed life with strong executive functioning abilities, does not happen by chance. Children need an education and support system that models and instructs for cognitive control.

There is no question that some children develop this regulatory process on their own just through the circumstances of life, but many do not. Here is where education at home and at school should take a major role. If we are to help our children live a goal-oriented life that thrives and flourishes then it requires parents and teachers to make cognitive control part of their home-school curriculum.

What does this mean practically at home. Well, before your son or daughter develops cognition control you have to provide the model in partnership. You will need to insert yourself (as a partner, not an authoritarian) into their life and their tasks at hand. This takes time, energy and patience, but children will not learn this skill by being told what to do. It needs to be modeled for them by the people who love them most.

The Need for Engagement by Charles Debelak
William James on Habit and Character by Charles Debelak
Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain by Charles Debelak

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