Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Reading :: The Working Brain

The Working Brain: An Introduction To Neuropsychology
By A.R. Luria

I have no scholarly interest in neuropsychology, but a great deal of interest in cultural-historical psychology, so I picked up this book to see whether it would be helpful for understanding the latter. Luria was, of course, a member of the Vygotsky Circle and his early work was very much in the Vygotsky mode of carrying on small interventions in mediation; later, he earned his medical degree and moved on to neuropsychology. But in various places, Luria has argued that his later work was a continuation of Vygotsky's insights.

This book certainly seems to bear out that argument. Published in English in 1973, it provides an introduction to neuropsychology, but the Vygotskian concepts and vocabulary are clearly there, and Luria credits Vygotsky liberally (as well as Vygotsky's "pupils" Leontev, Zaporozhets, Galperin, and Elkonin) (p.30).

Luria first covers some basic concepts, many of which are familiar to those who have read AT works, such as functional systems (pp.27-30), internalization and mediation (pp.30-31). After giving examples of mediators—tying a knot in a handkerchief, using a multiplication table—he argues that
external aids or historically formed devices are essential elements in the establishment of functional connections between individual parts of the brain, and that by their aid, areas of the brain which previously were independent become the components of a single functional system. This can be expressed more vividly by saying that historically formed measures for the organization of human behavior tie new knots in the activity of main's brain and it is the presence of these functional knots, or as some people call them, 'new functional organs' (Leontiev, 1959), that is one of the most important features distinguishing the functional organization of the human brain from an animal's brain. (p.31).
And he cites Vygotsky in claiming that "all types of human conscious activity are always formed with the support of external auxiliary tools or aids" (p.31).

He adds that higher mental processes are not statically localized; they move around during development and training (p.31). That's because it eventually becomes automatic. His example is writing, which begins with the memorization of letters' graphic forms, then eventually becomes a "kinetic melody" (see also The Man with a Shattered World).

So these functional systems develop over time. But—as Luria demonstrated graphically in The Man with a Shattered World—a brain lesion could unravel an entire functional system; the loss of the system itself (say, the ability to write) doesn't tell us where the lesion is, because the higher mental function isn't localized in a single part of the brain (p.35). Fortunately, this means that the functional system can be reconfigured—one can regain some ability by drawing on strategies that use different, uninjured parts of the brain.

Luria distinguishes action from operations: "Every action consists of a chain of consecutive movements" and "in the formation of a motor skill, this chain of isolated impulses is reduced and the complex movements begin to be performed as a single 'kinetic melody'" (p.36).

Moving on. Luria, in perhaps his most Soviet statement, claims that right-handedness is "associated with work, and ... evidently relates to a very early stage in man's history" (p.77); it has resulted in the left hemisphere of the brain becoming dominant (p.77).

I found Luria's focus on words and speech to be useful, particularly for tying his work to Vygotsky's. Luria echoes (and cites) Vygotsky in declaring that "higher mental processes are formed and take place on the basis of speech activity, which is expanded in the early stages of development, but later becomes increasingly contracted" (pp.93-94). Later, he obliquely addresses Vygotsky's focus on word meaning as a unit of analysis, saying that "we now conceive a word as a complex multi-dimensional matrix of different cues and connections (acoustic, morphological, lexical and semantic) and we know that in different states one of these connections is predominant" (p.306). And "Speech, based on the word, the basic unit of language, and on the sentence (or syntagmata, or combination of words)" becomes "a method of analysis and generalization of incoming information", then "a method of formulating decisions and drawing conclusions" (p.307). Later, he adds, "In the 1930s, the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky first demonstrated that the process of analysis and generalization, which is the basis of the intellectual act, depends on the logical structure of speech, and that word-meaning, the basis of ideas, develops in childhood" (p.325).

There's much more to this book, particularly in terms of brain structure and functions, but I'll leave that for others. For me, the most important and interesting part of the book was in seeing how Luria takes up Vygotsky's concepts and approach, grounding his neuropsychological work in great part in the cultural-historical school. If you're interested in that aspect, you ought to consider reading this book.

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