The Integrative Biology of Teaching and Learning
(adapted from Chapter 2, The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning
Katherine Greenberg, Brian Sohn, Neil Greenberg,
Howard R Pollio, Sandra Thomas, John Smith
Routledge (2019)[i] (pp 27-49)
references are at the end of the book)
The whole of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science
to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at an assessment of its actual meaning and scope, we must begin by
reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression.
(Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962, p. viii)
We believe that all teaching can profit from a better understanding of the processes that enable learning, and this involves adopting a phenomenological attitude while remaining open to the biological factors that underlie teaching and learning. The biologist amongst our authors is confident the shared values of phenomenology and science is the opening through which fruitful collaboration will flow. This is, in part, because the meaning of his subject matter and what he learns about it is deeply enriched by first order insights, as is true of many scientists.
Description, pursued as deeply as possible without bias, and particularly connections with more or less related topics, contributes significantly to this meaning. And as a teacher he is highly motivated to make comparable experiences available to students. An examination of these processes is, however, a vast task, so in this chapter, we shall focus only on a few key examples of how biological considerations can speak to the phenomenologically inclined teacher. In particular, we focus on the ideas of the transformative learning experience and the teachable moment. Taken together, they also represent an eloquent expression of the reciprocity of internal and external phenomena, an idea valued in both phenomenology and ethology. We turn next to those ideas.
We begin with transformative learning, which is an internal phenomenon that can be understood in a variety of ways (Taylor, Cranton, & Associates, 2012). The meaning to which we subscribe was included in an article concerning some of our case study findings (Sohn et al., 2016, and see K Greenberg et al 2019. Chapter 7)
While thoughtful teachers in higher education strive to help their students master course content, for many, a further goal is to help them transcend it—to help them go beyond transfer of content skills and knowledge—to a transformative understanding of the world and their place within it. . . . This transformation is manifest in students realizing the relevance of course content in their personal and professional lives—in the aesthetic sense of gratification that imparts confidence in one’s understanding or insight—an intuitive sense of its truth and worth. (p. 179)
Learning [a form of adaptive behavior] goes on at every level of organization all the time. Cells learn, tissues and organs learn, connections within and between tissues and organs change as result of experience—we learn. It is an expression of the everyday ongoing processes of change and growth, but in its extreme expression, learning which imparts a distinctive sense that “everything is different” [because of this new information] is transformative. Of course, connections are always being created, reconfigured, weakened, and strengthened, as we experience the world and ideas, but in its extremity, the transformative learning experience enables more clarity in our thinking about the circumstances that encourage and enable it. It shares attributes with epiphany (“an experience of sudden and striking realization”) and resembles Piagetian “accommodation,” the changing of a mental schema under the influence of new information (Piaget, 1947/2003). [Learning is energized by more-or-less stress evoked by “a need to know” and a relentless urge to mitigate cognitive dissonance (a mismatch between the world as perceived and as it is represented in mind).]
In our view and in phenomenological terms, this is exemplified by students experiencing a paradigm shift from merely knowing course content to realizing its relevance in their personal and professional lives. This shift from knowing to realizing (Greenberg et al., 2015) can be compared to an act of creation (or discovery) that gives course content privileged personal meaning. This “bridge” from disciplinary generalities to an individual’s particulars may have be gradually constructed, but often appears suddenly in a student’s mind when there is a conscious awareness of energizing connections to other information or to intuitive and affective depths that are not usually available for connecting. [expressed by the surge of pleasure evoked by successful problem solving; see “infovore”]
The transformation is often (but not only) experienced as a cascade of ideas that has been “triggered” by an ecphoric thought or idea—a stimulus that acts as a trigger for a cascade of memories that can be organized into a coherent whole. The metaphoric implications are interesting: very small adjustments in this cascade can have massive consequences. The phenomenologically informed classroom can make the reservoir of a student’s personal resources available for such connections. Students themselves may be unaware of the depth and richness of this reservoir. If we are going to put it in the service of learning, the best the teacher can do is create an enabling environment—potentially teachable moments—in which students feel ownership of canonical content that can create meaning and make the content available to other domains of life, often in highly creative ways.
The Teachable Moment
The environment in which transformative learning occurs emerges from the convergence of internal and external
circumstances—biological, phenomenological, and environmental. It has been called the perfect storm of
circumstances in which external factors in the moment converge with memory, awareness, and expectations,
making a creative, transformative experience much more likely—this is the teachable moment (Greenberg et al.,
Like the transformative learning experience, the teachable moment is at the end of a continuum of experiences
and evokes unmistakable signs of phenomenological meaning. Teachable moments often appear unpredictable
because the circumstances that converge to create them are not—probably cannot—be fully understood. It is,
however, possible for teachers to reflect upon these circumstances as they plan learning activities. This is not a
new insight; according to Plato, Socrates appreciated that one could learn the skill of delivering an appropriate
comment at precisely the right moment.
Of course, such moments can occur spontaneously, but some (implicit or explicit) understanding of them—
the phenomenological attitude—can enable the professor to maximize the possibilities for them. Our case study
professor has done just that: with insight about each student’s personal history, an expectation that in a specific
place at a specific time they all have a measure of shared beliefs and values; in an environment he made “safe”
for spontaneous discussion, he could guide students toward the moment. In his intuitive deployment of DEEP
thinking (see DEEP ethology, below) in a phenomenologically inclined classroom, his understanding of
development and environment could guide students toward a teachable moment, much like “the pedagogical
moment” of van Manen (1991), in which a teacher must act (or withhold acting) at a time that manifests both
great sensitivity to the context and the life story and circumstances of the student (see Chapter 4).
Phenomenology emphasizes the perceptions of the individual and the description rather than the explanation of
experience. This view, complemented by existentialism, informs the thinking of the authors of this volume, some
of whom have implemented it in their qualitative research, some of which is summarized or reported here (see
Chapter 1). It is helpful to distinguish this school of thought, with its emphasis on uniquely individual sources
of authority and meaning, from its predecessors such as transcendental phenomenology, concerned principally
with essences. This is an important distinction because the implicit points of view that inform transcendental
philosophy still haunt teacher education and the classroom.
This is the problem Jean-Paul Sartre (1943/1956) sought to solve: the “existence” of his existentialism was
ventured to contrast with the essence of his philosophical predecessors (the motto became, l’existence précède
l’essence)—in other words, the real takes priority over the ideal, restoring authority (and responsibility) to the
individual by emphasizing how things are rather than how they should be. This is most acutely manifest at times
when, for example, a student experiences a transformative learning experience—for it is the learner’s experience,
not anyone else’s.
The distances between philosophy and science are significant and often contentious. For example, the claim in
phenomenology that every experience is irreducible is difficult to reconcile with the scientific paradigm.
Fortunately, there are significant efforts to naturalize phenomenology (Petitot, Varela, Pachoud, & Roy, 1999).
Merleau-Ponty was stretching towards such an optimistic state in his emphasis on the “embodied mind” (Levin,
2016), a key topic we shall return to when discussing cognition. Naturalizing mental traits reflects efforts to
increase confidence in an intuitive belief that there is a continuity between philosophy and science, and as such,
it is an important step in avoiding the sterility of the ancient biases regarding dualism, epitomized for our era
by Cartesian dualism. In Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) view, philosophy…
is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being. . . . We witness every minute the miracle of related experience, and yet nobody knows better than we do how this miracle is worked, for we are ourselves [emphasis added] this network of relationships. (p. xx)
Naturalizing the phenomenological perspectives makes them accessible to science at the same time as it
infuses science with an appreciation for and implementation of the phenomenological attitude. Our view accepts
that in teaching and learning, biological corollaries of consciousness (and in many cases its prerequisites) occur
at all levels, from simply the evoking of attention to an internal or external stimulus to what it feels like to be
one’s self. This is a view encouraged by Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and the waves of
subsequent works in philosophy and science (see Marconi, 2012), confirming and extending its insights (Carel & Meacham, 2013; cited in Petitot et al., 1999). The ways of thinking encouraged by these views involves an understanding of the forms of consciousness and cognition by means of which, and in which, all dimensions of the lifeworld are integrated (see Chapter 1).
The idea of the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt) has been influential since introduced in the 1930s by Edmund Husserl,
who conceptualized it as pre-reflective—that is, our focus is on what we are perceiving rather than how we are
perceiving it (Brooks, 2015). As discussed in Chapter 1, the lifeworld is “the world of lived experience inhabited
by us as conscious beings and incorporating the way in which phenomena (events, objects, emotions) appear to
us in our conscious experience or everyday life” (Brooks 2015, p. 642). As such, “It is a social, historical, and
cultural world [that] includes individual, social, perceptual, and practical experiences” (from Alan Parsons’s
course notes on Lebenswelt, 2016). We can compare it to the umwelt proposed earlier by Jakob von Uexküll
(1982) to describe the fact that each kind of organism lives in its own perceptual world and will interpret the
same information in different ways. For example, the sensory world is a combination of
information from all senses, internal and external, and each has a unique trajectory through the nervous system,
extracting different kinds of information from the aspect of the environment to which it is responsive. And it is
the intertwining, integrative aspects that compose the lifeworld that leads us to consider existential
phenomenology in relation to integrative biology.
Existential Phenomenology and Integrative Biology
Deploying all the study and scholarship resources of the several key biological disciplines that converge on
behavior, we find an often neglected dynamic comes to the foreground: every aspect of an individual’s cognitive
processing is manifest as an outcome of the interactions that are part of the very definition of life. Arguably,
these processes are not things that happen to people, they are people.
It is the unity of action which emerges from this multiplicity that encourages the holistic impulse. And a
familiar theme in holistic thought is emergence, the idea that no whole can be defined by only its components
(Humphreys, 2018). In this, phenomenology has an aesthetic quality, another aspect that is often neglected
(Levin, 2016), but deeply appreciated by Merleau-Ponty (Crowther, 1982). Something unspecified (or
unspecifiable) about the elements of which any distinctive entity is constituted enables the existence of that
particular whole. We can take some philosophical heart, however, from Yoshimi’s (2011) juxtaposition of two
Every entity that is valid for me [is] . . . an index of its systematic multiplicities. Each one indicates an ideal
general set of actual and possible experiential manners of givenness . . . every actual concrete experience brings out, from this total multiplicity, a harmonious flow. (Husserl, 1970, p. 166)
human cognition involves . . . many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of internal cognitive “spaces,” each
of which provides a proprietary canvas on which some aspect of human cognition is continually unfolding.
Yoshimi juxtaposes Husserl (the “transcendental idealist”) and Churchland (the “reductive physicalist”) to
comfort us. Their thoughts enjoy a resonance that is also a tenet of aesthetics: “unity in multiplicity” (see
As mentioned earlier, the first task of the phenomenologist (and, as we will see, the ethologist) is to describe.
Ethologists often begin by describing as much of their subject’s repertoire as possible (creating an “ethogram”)
and then tend to emphasize a behavioral pattern of interest that might range from a muscle twitch to an entire
constellation of closely related patterns (Greenberg 1978). The ultimate goal is further insight about the likely
causes and consequences of what they are able to observe about the way individuals and groups (not least,
teachers and students) acquire, organize, and act upon information. These phenomena are inevitable in the
architecture of life—that is, the aggregate of traits that enable individuals to meet their biological needs in
changing environments—both the environment within (physiological) and that outside the organism
(environmental). This, in the spirit of true science, is a hypothesis, not an indubitable truth. Time has mitigated
the rigidity attributed to science by researchers, who were persuaded by positivism and the seeking of a “true
truth.” Science has become progressively and more frequently viewed as a human endeavor (Greenberg 1986).
Science, echoing the function of everyday thinking, must remain open to revision as new information is received
and old information is reinterpreted or disqualified.
There is an empowering ambiguity [that] the egalitarian attitude Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) espouses, not the
least of which is creativity (see Chapter 1). Hence, phenomenologists describe, but in a different fashion. For
they are looking for what stands out to the individual, in an unreflected manner, related to a particular
phenomenon—in an effort to find the meaning held by the individual. Ethologists, on the other hand, assume
(and this may be bias) that non-humans are necessarily unreflective and that meaning resides in the pursuit of
evolutionary fitness. It is further assumed that in humans as well as non-humans, the deepest biases, those that
are constitutional parts of the brain’s organization, have been selected by evolution because of their adaptive
contribution to fitness. Certainly, meeting that essential need also motivates humans, when meaning, reflected
upon, may contribute to the integration of an individual’s self.
In other words, importantly and in great service to efforts to mitigate Cartesian dualism, all the discriminable
components and processes of an organism have evolved over generations and developed over a lifetime as
elements in each individual’s environment:
Parts and wholes evolve in consequence of their relationship, and the relationship itself evolves. These are
the properties of things that we call dialectical: that one thing cannot exist without the other, that one
acquires its properties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a consequence of
their interpenetration. (Levins & Lewontin, 1985, p. 3)
Gadamer’s observation about the process of interpretation is significant for our view of interpretation within
ethology and phenomenology:
The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts
that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole. . . . The movement of understanding
is constantly from the whole to the part and back to the whole. (cited by Robinson & Robinson, 2013, p. 291)
In this sense, and in agreement with Merleau-Ponty’s view, the “phenomenological method is a process of
reconciliation rather than an instrument for restricted descriptive-analytic purposes. What needs reconciling are,
at first approximation, the objective world and its subjective interpretation” (Natanson 1973, p. 28).
Both these ideas evoke concern about the tension between holism and reductionism, both enshrined in implicit
bias as well as scholarly tradition. Gadamer (1960/2013) may have a satisfying solution, however: the
hermeneutic circle, in which one treats a whole with reference to its parts, while simultaneously mindful that
each part exists in the context of the whole. Gadamer envisioned the circle as a dynamic and progressive
“conversation” with data that builds consensus and is more accessible to practical application. This process is at
the heart of the research methodology utilized by most of our authors. But we briefly introduce now the field of
ethology and its contributions to our understanding of individual behavior as it relates to the lifeworld of the
We believe that efforts to create such an empowering lifeworld in the classroom are facilitated by an
understanding of ethology, an approach to the biology of behavior that integrates several key sibling disciplines
within biology. These are developmental biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and physiology, represented by
the acronym DEEP. We will return to these after commenting on our understanding of embodiment and
cognition/consciousness, key ideas in phenomenology that are also our best bridge from the philosophical views
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) states that “There is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the
world does he know himself” (p. xi). But knowledge, from the perspective of behavioral biology, involves
cognition, and being in the world involves it in the context of that cognition. Embodiment refers to giving
concrete form to an abstraction, to making an idea or feeling tangible. In phenomenology, as Merleau-Ponty
(1945/1962) frames it, “a nexus of living meanings” (p. 151). Our engagement with the internal as well as the
external world is fundamental to who we are as human-beings-in-the-world. Our feelings, imaginings, intuition,
and many psychological and environmental influences are a part of us and, of course, influence teaching and
Embodied cognition is the term adopted by scholars and researchers seeking to emphasize the extent to which
cognitive processes in particular are intimately interwoven with the fabric of the body—a body that influences
and is influenced by the environment into which it is born and hopefully prospers. This idea, derived from
existential phenomenology, informs and energizes our reports of the experiences discussed in this volume (see
Chapter 1). It refers to the always present involvement of every cognitive function, and every level of
consciousness, from intuition to epiphany, with the state and functions of the body. These are communicated by
a large array of internal sensory receptors (interceptors and proprioceptors), as well as countless specific
chemicals that have more or less access to the brain where they participated in organizing and initiating (or
suppressing) specific actions, including learning (e.g., Laureys & Tononi, 2008; Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962) and
the expression of what is learned, even by means of intuition, which involves access to cognitive resources of
which an individual is unaware and typically precedes conscious reasoning (Haidt, 2012).
Whatever we know depends on our body that enables life and also builds on its constituent elements. Merleau-
Ponty (1945/1962), from whom we have taken much direction, states that “The body is our general medium for
having a world” (p. 146). The functions of body he includes in his conception of embodiment are those
“necessary for the conservation of life,” those that “elaborate upon primary actions” and those that “build itself
an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world” (p. 146).
We use the term embodied in the sense that cognition depends upon the “kinds of experience that come from
having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities
are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context” (Varela,
Thompson, & Rosch, 1991/2016, p. 173). Further, as Brown (2017, p. 871, citing Greeno, 1998) observes, “if
we are embodied selves then we are also always somewhere embedded in some situational context. Thus, the
theory of embodied cognition can also entail what is known as situated cognition.” This is a position that regards
the social and cultural context both as formative and as a resource (Cobb, 2001). As in ethology, situated context
is concerned with authenticity—real-life contexts, a point emphasized in teachers who find inspiration in this
idea for their instructional design. Cognition is one of the most striking elements of embodiment, and we turn
next to that.
Cognition and Consciousness
Cognition is sometimes thought of as everything that happens in the brain between input of sensory information
and output of actions. But this neglects the extent to which these processes are affected by perception and action.
A more useful view is that cognition refers to “the mechanisms by which animals acquire, process, store, and act
on information from the environment. These include perception, learning, memory, and decision making”
(Shettlesworth, 1998, p. 5). These are the processes that enable us to cope with vagaries and exigencies of the
world from the most subtle to the most challenging. It is how we meet our needs as an organism. Perception is
included as a participant in cognition because the processing of stimuli—its suppression or enhancement and the
extraction of various kinds of information—begins at the instant of detection by a sensory receptor and also at
every successive processing module along the path to awareness. Processing and the constructing,
deconstructing, and reconstructing of connections is especially affected by past experience and contributes to
future perceptions and their perceived meanings. The structures and processes of cognition, while almost
impenetrably complex, manifest layers of organization of relative complexity, mostly by virtue of the more or
less interconnected nature of its constituent elements. For example, cells, aggregates of functionally related cells,
and interconnected systems of varying complexity, are each distinguishable components whose actions alone or
in concert affect the state of mind.
Cognition is also wholly dependent on the processes of perception, in the foreground of phenomenological
thinking. When a sense organ is stimulated, and information enters the nervous system, a percept is created.
Before there is any conscious awareness, the information is analyzed, information extracted, and reconstructed
within the brain. It is the active deconstruction and restructuring of percepts that allows us to regard perceptual
experience as a cognitive process. In William James’s (1911) view the supervenient phenomenon is a concept;
as he put it,
The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the
perceptual order in which his experience originally comes. . . . Percepts and concepts interpenetrate and
melt together, impregnate and fertilize each other. Neither, taken alone, knows reality in its
completeness. . . . The world we practically live in is one in which it is impossible (except by theoretic
retrospection) to disentangle the contributions of intellect from those of sense. (pp. 51–52)
Maintaining that “the perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all
existence” (p. 13), Merleau-Ponty (1964) sought to develop a descriptive philosophy of perception, our
kinesthetic, prescientific, lived-bodily experience and cognition of the world—the unification. And as James
(1911) reminds us,
The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience. Here alone do we acquaint ourselves with continuity, or the immersion of one thing in another, here alone with the self, with substance, with qualities, with activities in its various modes, with time, with cause, with change, with novelty, with tendency, and with freedom. (p. 97)
Perception, the critical bridge between the cognizing individual and their environment, includes other
individuals in one’s environment, indispensable to our ability to navigate and meet our needs in the world.
Amongst the many crucial processes that cognition entails, two of particular interest are memory and foresight.
In one sense this is exactly what learning is about, but in our species, it goes much further. It is interesting that
much of the neural basis of both memory and foresight—past and future—is shared in the brain (Schacter &
Addis, 2007). Awareness of such a connection, played out in practice, could guide a teacher seeking student
engagement with content. For example, both memory and creativity would be engaged when asking students
where knowledge of some aspect of course content could lead in the future.
Consciousness is sometimes viewed as the inevitable consequences of our complexity or an unexpected
irreducible emergent quality that could never have been predicted on the basis of a perfect knowledge of its
subordinate processes. There is an abundance of reasonable paths within cognition which can compete as well
as cooperate with each other to evoke an optimal response. Although at its best all processes function well
together, there are nevertheless multiple functions, which, like all other traits described earlier, have each their
own developmental and evolutionary histories. This is a principal contribution to our uniqueness.
The expressions of consciousness at different levels—from coma to the fullest measure of attention and
thought—are tuned by intimate relations with the environment. Consciousness is often regarded as the most
complex of human attributes, possibly emergent from cognition at its most complex. It is the embodiment of
these processes that occupies many phenomenologists, and past and anticipated work of several highly
productive research groups in cognitive neuroscience is gradually leading to a rapprochement between the fields.
Traditional scientific methods integrating brain and behavior studies (neuroscience, cognitive science) have
made remarkable progress but are at present stymied by a problem that would resonate with phenomenologists.
This is the “hard problem” of consciousness: how is subjective state derived from objective entities? How are
feelings related to survival needs? Although a question that has deep roots in history, just the naming and framing
of this problem by the distinguished philosopher of mind, David Chalmers (1995), has been the catalyst for an
abundance of diverse studies. The richness of the methods developed and the analyses of consciousness in the
last few generations of phenomenology would seem an invaluable resource for those approaching consciousness
from a scientific viewpoint. Indeed, collaboration would, in Zahavi’ s (2003) view, be highly beneficial to both.
The study of these processes is plagued by an array of congenital and acquired biases, ranging from our
competence to perceive and process selected aspects of our environment through those attributable to cultural
traditions such as education and language. But, however they are viewed, their dependence on the environment
throughout development and subsequent sensitivity to bodily functions energizes our confidence in embodiment.
And it is helpful to consider embodiment and the teachable moment in relation to levels of organization.
Levels of Organization
Cultivating an appreciation for embodiment is highly desirable for the phenomenologically inclined teacher
(Stolz, 2015). Placing a mental phenomenon within the brain, body, and environment also underscores the utility
of thinking in terms of levels of organization, where the elements at given levels (for example, systems that serve
receptivity, attention, integration of information, and action) communicate with levels both above and below
them in complexity. A few examples: access to information from the sensory world of the classroom or from
memory, and acting on that information, may be at different levels of organization within an individual. Similarly,
a raw stimulus and its meaning are at different levels of organization, achieved as its information is extracted
and then integrated with other cognitive processes at more complex areas of the brain. And in a classroom, a
student having an idea to express and actually articulating it, involves different levels of organization: First, she
must retrieve and hold the thought in memory, but then when expressing that idea, she must move to a more
complex level of controlling muscles involved in speaking while thinking. Also, an individual student’s attention
in the classroom could be affected by a subordinate level (say, the student is too cold or hungry) or a superordinate
level (say, the classroom climate feels safe, or the teacher is particularly compelling).
The connections within and between these levels can easily be bewilderingly complex, but two general
principles that appear to govern this complexity are deceptively simple. We accept easily that traits are the result
of the actions of genes, activated or suppressed by their immediate environment. But most of these traits are
affected by multiple genes—they are polygenic. In concert with a complementary phenomenon: most genes have
multiple functions—they are pleiotropic. Taken together these attributes of traits and genes create an inseparable
fabric of structures and functions that is deeply appealing: unimaginable complexity reduced to simple rules. As
an analogy in the classroom, an idea or concept in mind may take its specific form from a multitude of variables,
many unique to the student; the idea may then influence a multitude of other thoughts and ideas by a process
recalling ecphory, the retrieval of a constellation of memories evoked by a new fragment of information. In some
cases, this is highly creative if the memories recovered were not previously related but now present themselves
to consciousness as a coherent whole.
We appreciate that there are layers above and beneath every specific phenomenological observation. Not least,
how the environment and body collaborate with cognition and the cognitive processes that then interact with the
body and through it, the environment. Of course, there are always more layers, and so the endpoint of our
inquiries—where we choose to stop—involves a judgment about the usefulness of the layers of organization we
emphasize versus the cost of looking further, either down to more fundamental, possibly enabling levels, or up
to supervenient layers. The levels of organization we are mostly concerned with in the classroom emphasize
perception and cognition at the center, and the immediate aspects of body just beneath (embodied cognition) and
the immediate aspects of the environment just above—including intersubjectivity and sociocultural
embeddedness (socially situated cognition)—all are incorporated in the lifeworld.
At the highest level of organization are the connections we can discover between knowledge and its place in
our lifeworld—ability to meet our needs—that provides meaning: and, in Mark Johnson’s (2007) incisive terms,
“Meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts” (p. 1). The central thesis of Johnson’s book is consistent
with our operating assumptions about cognition. And they bring another dimension to this idea: not only is “what
we call ‘mind’ and what we call ‘body’ not two things, but rather aspects of one organic process.” Johnson (2007)
goes on to emphasize that all our meaning, thought, and language emerge from the aesthetic [emphasis added] dimensions of this embodied activity. Chief among those aesthetic dimensions are qualities, images, patterns of sensorimotor processes, and emotions. . . . Coming to grips with your embodiment is one of the most profound philosophical tasks you will ever face. (p. 1)
And in pursuit of meaning we are presented with another optimality—cost versus benefit—problem, familiar
to ecologists and economists (see below). But given the pleasures of participating in this book, the price is not
so high. Eager for insights and pleased by surprise, we have observed (with Wilson & Foglia, 2017) that
“Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected and suggests new ways
of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing” (paragraph 2, online).
All connectedness at every level of biological organization exists by virtue of its communications within and
between levels. Ultimately communication between organisms (as in the cultivation of intersubjectivity) occurs
where the quality of communications is arguably more precise when organisms share aspects of their lifeworlds.
And while never complete, we might expect that the quality of communications is precise to that extent. A
phenomenological investigation that builds on first-person reports is only possible to the extent that we can
describe another person’s subjective state while rigorously avoiding our acquired biases, a process emphasized
in phenomenology as “epoché” or “bracketing” (Hut, 2001). Is this, as Churchill (2012) inquires, asking for
empathy? Feeling what the subject feels about what they say? Or as one of our authors puts it, “walking in their
shoes” (see Chapter 1). Learning is generally understood to represent adaptive change. That this change can
occur at all levels of organization, each in their own way, is suggested by the observation that it is a property of
all organisms, and even those without organized nervous systems (Tennenhouse, 2017).
To “walk in another’s shoes” is the beginning of understanding of shared worlds (see Chapter 1 for a
description of the experience of one of our authors who walked in the shoes of students and changed her
teaching). In 1974, Nagel asked the question that still energizes consciousness studies:
“What is it like to be a bat?” He spoke of a host of related issues about how much we can share with the selfcentered world of another organism. This is comparable to the lifeworld of Husserl, which we discuss below
in relation to ecology. Another dimension that helps coordinate levels of organization and ramifies through the disciplines integrated in ethology, as we shall see, is the meeting of biological needs, to which we now turn.
A hierarchy reflecting relative priorities in meeting needs was designed originally by humanist psychologist
Abraham Maslow (1943) as a theory of motivation. It effectively connects disciplines at different levels of
organization. Needs must be met for organisms to survive and thrive in any given environment, and the body is
finely attuned to (a) detect which biological needs at a given moment are not being met, and (b) their priorities
for survival and self-actualization. At every point, mindfulness of a particular component of DEEP ethology
must include at least an intuition of the biological need(s) of the individual. Needs are often understood as a
linear hierarchy of biological urgency, but generally proceed also in parallel, sometimes competing: it is a
familiar idea to sacrifice health or safety to more firmly secure self-actualization.
Meeting these needs—whether real or perceived—is the primary conscious or nonconscious aim of all
individuals. It is important to note that real or perceived threats to being able to meet a need evoke more or less
of a physiological stress response that is able to reconfigure one’s conscious or nonconscious activities to better
meet that need. The phenomenologically understood first-person experiences of students with unmet needs is a
first step in enhancing the effectiveness of teaching (see Chapters 1 and 4 and studies we report in Chapter 8 that
support this contention).
The most basic level is that of life itself. In Maslow’s (1943) original hierarchy, this is best represented by the
maintenance of a dynamic balance (homeostasis) of functions that enables health and welfare. The healthy
individual next aims for safety, as in protection from elements or predators or competitors. But this is also
manifest in a classroom where students feel personally safe to express themselves. We are a social species and
require sociality for mutual safety and for reproduction. It is frequently argued that our remarkable progress as
a species is attributable to our sociality (Henrich, 2017, citing Laland, 2017). For security within a social group
and to identify and recruit a reproductive partner, esteem is sought, usually by excelling in a particular trait that
might provide a recognizable reproductive advantage.
Finally, self-actualization is an expression of what the US Army called “being all you can be.” Manifesting
your most adaptive traits and transmitting as much as possible in genes or memes to future generations roughly
approximates maximizing your biological fitness (see Greenberg, 2016).
With a sense of biological needs and their role in structuring behavior at every level, we can turn to integrative
biology of behavior as expressed in ethology. In the spirit of “unity in diversity”—a kind of behavioral e pluribus
unum—we undertake a focused survey of several principles in ethology that stand out to us by virtue of their
heuristic potential in the phenomenologically informed classroom. Where ethological values are brought to bear
in phenomenology, and phenomenological values contribute to ethology, the interdisciplinary synergy is
manifest in ways that stand out by being applied to meeting fundamental human needs, and in this we could say
they have meaning. So we turn now to DEEP ethology.
The first explicit appeal for integrating biology in the service of more fully understanding behavior was that of
one of the founders of ethology, Nico Tinbergen (1963), who identified four aims, each corresponding to a
traditional discipline. Taken together, our contemporary restatement of Tinbergen’s aims—development,
ecology, evolutionary biology, and physiology—can characterize any behavioral pattern at any level of
organization and in all contexts. As mentioned above, the coordinated consideration of these four disciplines
applied to a question of behavior is called DEEP Ethology (Greenberg, 2018a). By history and ethos, ethology
is the discipline that best organizes the abundance of variables embraced by the sibling disciplines and which
also most fully appreciates the fact that the exclusion of inconvenient variables from a research model often
leads to significant error (Greenberg, 1994). Movement toward embracing a phenomenological attitude has been
suggested by Burghardt (1997).
Integrating the biological perspectives makes us mindful that every definable behavioral event or pattern occurs
at the intersection of development, ecology, evolution, and physiology. A crossroads of time and space in which,
for the purposes of study, phenomena, dynamic as they are, are necessarily seen as though static, frozen like a
photograph. Like time and space, while intuitively obvious, these phenomena are at best inferred from patterns
of perception of phenomena (Buzsáki & Llinás, 2017). In resonance with our intersection metaphor is Friesen,
Henriksson, and Saevi’s (2012) suggestion for conceptualizing the critical shared experience aspect of phenomenological research. It is to “understand the life-world experience as extending or unfolding along four axes, dimensions or ‘existentials’”: lived space, lived time, lived body, lived relation (p. 43).
If we can visualize our biological traditions as four objective lenses on our microscope, each reveals something
about the individual at a different level of organization and with differing degrees of resolution. At each
magnification, fine focus can be sought by means of the process akin to the phenomenologist’s collaborative
After briefly characterizing the DEEP disciplines and identifying phenomenological constructs that resonate
with them, we will also identify several themes at traverse levels of organization. These themes include the
importance of pure description, the integration of “inner” and “outer” influences on behavior, and constraints on
Development refers to both programs of change encoded in the genes inherited from the previous generation(s)
as well as those attributable to individual experiences within one’s lifespan. In recent years the field of genetics
has given rise to epigenetics, providing dramatic new insights into how the environment can activate or suppress
genetic activity, often in ways that can be transmitted across generations(Allis & Jenuwein, 2016). Thus, genes
that unfold their program in a relatively fixed manner are complemented by changes that occur in a relatively
environmentally sensitive manner. [Mayr’s “open- and closed- genetic programs]
In other words, a core of evolutionarily ancient genetic programs guide the earliest stages of development. In
response to their immediate intracellular environment, genes are activated (or suppressed) in the processes of
tissue growth and organ formation. But also, the growing individual affects its environment establishing an
intimate reciprocity that endures a lifetime. Throughout development both the organism and its environment are
in constant change. They are partly fixed but also exquisitely sensitive to change attributable to the vagaries of
the environment. Development is, of course, continuous from conception to demise with dramatic surges of
responsiveness to the environment, particularly the social environment. We are thus socioculturally embedded—
situated in the context of other people, from family to social media and involving countless linguistic and societal
experiences to create a personal worldview (Bakewell, 2016; see Chapter 1).
With respect to learning, a once common view led many to believe that development is little influenced after
early childhood, but Vygotsky and his followers demonstrated that mediated learning actually leads to further
development. A large body of literature supports the idea that opportunities to learn how to learn in concert with
high quality mediation are potent at any age (Feuerstein, 1985; Sternberg, 1997). While it may be difficult if not
impossible for teachers to become knowledgeable about each student’s development, higher education students
reported transformational learning occurred when they were engaged in personal reflection (Franklin et al., 2014;
Taylor et al., 2012). In other words, students, once they appreciate the role of private experiences in the learning
process, can supply that variable on their own (see Owen-Smith, 2018; see Chapter 7). Further, research
demonstrates the feasibility of providing students with a repertoire of metastrategic knowledge from which they
can develop and adapt personal learning strategies to overcome challenges in learning (Greenberg, 2014).
Habit is built into all organisms and certainly into perception. After the experiences of discriminating and
categorizing our perceptions we can conserve or reallocate our energy and operate intuitively. All conditions of
growth and change, such as the classroom, require us, however, to attend to new stimuli. An environment in
which growth is sought—in line with basic ideas of optimality—trusts that the current cost is worth the future
Another important dimension of growth is creativity, enabled by ways of thinking that can be lost over time,
but in an appropriately safe classroom, students are emboldened to shake off the previously mentioned “lethargy
of custom.” Considering even familiar ideas in new contexts, the opportunity for a teachable moment is more
likely. Here, the uniqueness of the individual can manifest itself in creative insights and expression. As
mentioned earlier, very small variations can have very large consequences in the complex cognitive working of
problem solving. As Thoreau (1855) put it, under such circumstances, “It is only necessary to behold the least
fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to
be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance. . . . To perceive freshly, with fresh senses, is to be
inspired” (p. 44).
At every level of organization, every distinguishable element of life—from the multiplicity of organelles within
a cell through the outermost boundaries of an organism—is embraced—embedded—in protean concentric
spheres of the matrix of the world. The emphasis on any particular level of organization or the phenomena within
it becomes interesting only when direct effects on us—such as health—are discovered. For example, in recent
decades, ecology at its most vast has been found relevant to our thinking about ourselves (exobiology; NASA,
2018) as much as at its most minute (microbes). The familiar dimensions of our ecology with which we occupy
ourselves is that which is most obviously relevant to our meeting of biological needs.
The environment includes the temporal and spatial physical and biotic contexts in which organisms must survive
and thrive. It is also the source of all perceptions that organisms use to create their reality. In that regard, research
indicates that the social environment is a particularly powerful variable, influencing our perception of
interpersonal safety. This can be seen in the classroom as trust amongst students and with the teacher (Holley &
Steiner, 2005). While it appears that most teachers in higher education pay attention to these factors, this is not
always the case. We were amazed at the lack of safety and trust reported by African American students at a
predominantly white university (Davis et al., 2004). In this study, for example, the student participants often felt
hyper-visible or invisible—both of which stood out to them and reduced the availability of teachable moments.
(see Chapter 8)
The lifeworld is the phenomenologically relevant dimension of ecology. The collaboration of multiple senses is
highly adaptive, but also, it “can create unique experiences that emerge when signals from different sensory
channels are bound together” (Stein, Stanford, & Rowland, 2014). Thus, the vast possibilities of the elements
of our environment that we are able to perceive contributes in unpredictable ways to our lifeworld. The
implication is that even at a basic level of processing this sensory synergy can fuel individual uniqueness. A
shared lifeworld fosters intersubjectivity, and it is this uniqueness, once appreciated, that can enable particularly
effective learning communities (see especially Chapter 6).
For the ecologically informed, phenomenologically inclined teacher, with respect to conspecifics, the
intersubjectivity aspect stands out. The crucial nature of sociality to being “fully human” has been recognized
since Aristotle, and other individuals in one’s environment have long been recognized by phenomenologists as
a critical element in fostering insight and cognition (Pollio, Henley, & Thompson, 1997; see Chapter 6).
One of the essential tensions of human development involves the continuing processes of individuation and
socialization—whereby individuals learn the appropriate norms, values, behaviors, and interpersonal
communicative skills. To the extent this tension is resolved, individuals can retain a sense of their own
uniqueness while intersubjectivity is achieved. But in fact, it can never be fully resolved; there remains what is
arguably a productive residue of ambiguity. Mutual understanding enables, more or less, unity of actions and
can help the mutually involved individuals meet their individual biological needs. The pressure for sociality,
presumably to pool our cognitive resources, is manifest in the extraordinary growth of areas of the brain and
their connections that form the “social brain,” which is uniquely enlarged compared to other social species
(summarized by Adolphs, 2009).
But as in every other domain of intersubjective interaction, the meaning of shared understanding depends on the
interaction of both internal, implicit variables and those that are external and relatively explicit, in all parties to
the interaction—teacher as well as taught. In other words, to echo a familiar mantra of behavioral science, what
we study and the meaning of what we learn is the outcome of the interaction of internal and external processes.
Together, these processes engender “the best story we can tell given our beliefs.” But beliefs can change, and
that is a key theme in our book.
Language is important but does not stand alone in interpersonal communications. While it involves the most
advanced cognitive processing, other less clear modes of communication that are typically prereflective can be
crucial: body language, touch, eyes meeting (his mouth says “yes” but his eyes say “no”). So lifeworlds are
shared to a point, but there are important gaps creating another aspect of phenomenological thought: ambiguity
(see Chapter 1).
What is shared and what is not or cannot be shared, “intersubjectivity and ambiguity,” resonates with
individuation and socialization. These processes are related to idiography and nomothetics in an older tradition.
Because we appear to share more with each other than with other species, the importance of these differences
between us is often lost. On the continuum from idiographic (individual, specific) to nomothetic (shared, general)
traits, often seen in tension with each other, the particulars and uniqueness of individuals grades into the
generalities and universally shared qualities of our species (Silverstein, 1988). Because these are often related to
the antagonism of scientific worldview and that of the humanities, they are worth referencing because study of
this tension can flush out implicit bias (Robinson, 2012).
Evolutionary biology is concerned with the change in traits and organisms and societies across generations, from
ancestors to the present moment, and forward to our direct and indirect descendants. Traits are understood to
have their present form because of their preservation through the processes of natural selection of variations that
are found adaptive—that is, able to compensate for environmental forces (often called “selection pressure”) that
impair their ability to meet needs. Adaptations are at the center of concern. There are several definitions of the
term and all are unified by the idea of compensation for change, either short-term (such as a stimulus or life
experience) or long-term adaptations (such as climate change).
Only recently has the expression of emotion, possibly the most ancient of these variables, been implicated in
the circumstances of a teachable moment (van de Goor, Sools, Westerhof, & Bohlmeijer, 2017). There is a
possible connection in that amongst the adaptive traits that have evolved in humans is a sometimes insatiable
pursuit of information. Interestingly, when threads of information converge in specific areas of the brain they act
to evoke a distinctively pleasurable response (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). It is likely that this response
contributes to their coherence in narratives that enable them to be explored mindfully. This points to adaptive
behavioral traits that engage and integrate the perceptual skills of experience and the conceptual skills of
argument to establish the most coherent narrative possible with the facts at hand. The world we experience is
one in which it is impossible (except by theoretic retrospection) to disentangle the contributions of intellect from
those of sense, as described by William James (1911). Thus, in order to enable profound learning experiences,
the teacher needs to allow space for shared descriptions of relevant information prior to any explanation of course
content (Greenberg, Greenberg, Patterson, & Pollio, 2015). These can be guided by a sense of constraints—that
is, the constitutional limits of competence for any definable trait, to be discussed below.
Physiology, the fourth domain of DEEP, also provides insight into the teachable moment. Certainly, physiology
provides the means by which acquisition of content and insight at a particular moment in time is framed and
formed in conjunction with everything else the organism experiences (or may have experienced in the past). The
processes within and between organ systems, including the many functionally specialized components of the
brain, are dynamic and in continual pursuit of balance (homeostasis) which, because of constant change, can
never really be attained. These processes are especially tightly integrated with memory as well as anticipated
outcomes of actions. Most of our actions are directly or indirectly necessary to enable these processes necessary
to life to have the resources essential to meet their needs—from nutrients to energy. Many actions are, however,
by constitution or custom, collateral and incidental to the main function. These actions, and the structures they
utilize, contribute to confusion when we try to impute causal relationships. But they are also available for natural
selection to utilize them in serving other, often unexpected functions if they contribute to fitness. This is
complicated as well by the fact that these structures and functions evolved in environments very unlike anything
we might feel familiar with today. As a result, there is often a mismatch between past utility and contemporary
Stress, as commented earlier, is evoked by a real or perceived challenge to our ability to meet our real or
perceived needs. The physiology of stress and its capacity to balance or reconfigure the cognitive processes
associated with motivation can be discussed in conjunction with a biological interpretation of Maslovian needs.
The awareness of a mismatch between circumstances and the prospect of meeting needs creates a dissonance
that echoes what occurs at deeper levels of organization: in systems of neurons, detection of mismatches—
errors—is absolutely essential to behavior. Most adjustments of posture, micromovements of muscle, and
homeostasis are compensated with little or no conscious awareness. But there are important nonconscious signals
detected by neurophysiologists,. For example, “error detection” is a compelling and growing field within
behavioral neuroscience (Bach & Dolan, 2012). At another level of organization, error detection is important
for teachers as they make intuitive decisions about what to say and do in a given moment in the classroom (see
Although originally a generalized response to protect the body, stress, as mentioned above, can selectively
energize motivational systems to meet needs. This is connected to Festinger’s (1957) idea of cognitive
dissonance—a tension evoked by a mismatch, however slight, between an internal working model of the world
and the world as it is perceived, resulting in competing cognitive processes (Boring, 1964). The resulting
motivation to restore consonance can range from unreflected through intense and preoccupying and is driven at
least in part by the effects of stress on cognitive processes.
While stress energizes motivational systems associated with specific needs, for the most part, the vast detail
of life is met by automatic, intuitive, unreflected responses of the body to changes in its environment. For
example, when cold, our muscle tension might increase, the circulation of blood might be adjusted, or we might
adjust our postures—all very effective and not very expensive. When these responses are insufficient, the failure
to cope comfortably may emerge in consciousness, and the highest cognitive resources may be put into the
service of solving the problem. Employing these resources may involve significant expense in time and energy
and interfere with ongoing activities. A student in a classroom growing chill might even, after some thought, ask
the instructor to adjust the thermostat. We are largely on “automatic pilot” until something out of the ordinary
gets our attention. Something must, in Coleridge’s (1817) now familiar poetic phrase, “awaken the mind’s
attention from the lethargy of custom.”
For our purposes, the effect of stress on cognition is the most salient. Cognition is a complex protean concept
as it has developed in scholarship over the generations, but its irreducible core has traditionally consisted of the
processes of the nervous system involved in acquiring information from the environment (by means of senses
and perception), storing it (several forms of memory), and acting as influenced by this information. Coping with
change includes an extraordinary ability for error detection, mentioned earlier. This trait enables a crucial self correcting mechanism for action that occurs in slightly different form at every level of organization.
The processes of cognition act in exquisite balance to address our real or perceived biological needs. That
balance is highly sensitive to stress and can be reconfigured to help one cope. The expression of this response is
evoked in modest or dramatic degree—by experiences ranging from an unexpected threat to life through a raised
eyebrow, flushed cheek, or awareness that someone is staring at you. Any of these can reconfigure cognitive
processes almost instantly (McEwen & Sapolsky, 1995; Greenberg, Carr, & Summers, 2002). Extreme or
sustained stress can diminish the quality of life and be life-threatening. But in relation to our focus in this book,
all aspects of DEEP ethology emphasize its relations to the existential phenomenological perspective on teaching
All Moments Are Teachable and All Experiences Are Transformative
We are perpetually challenged to look both above and below whatever level of organization occupies us—the
ancient impulse to understand all causes and consequences, the congenital need to find connections, the search
for simplicity we intuit lies beneath the complexity we experience. And we look for boundaries, the extremes of
the everyday continua we experience. The transformative learning experience is such an extreme, but not really
out of reach. And we look for uniqueness that we find in the teachable moment. But to study these we must be
mindful of the integrative impulse.
Internal and External Integration
An implicit understanding of the unity of the organism and its environment is manifest in the ethologist’s
aversion to the study of organisms separated from the environments in which they naturally occur (Greenberg,
1994). Phenomenologists and other qualitative researchers often speak of the lack of focus in pedagogical studies
on the lived experience of teacher and learner (see Chapter 1). When we explore how teachers can best create
teachable moments and facilitate transformative learning, it makes no sense to look solely at teacher or student
behaviors without also exploring their lived experience—the meaning they find in context.
Further, paths and processes are adaptive traits as much as morphology or behavioral patterns and, importantly,
each path has its own evolutionary and developmental history. In ethology, an alternative path to an apparently
identical behavior pattern may very well have followed a different evolutionary or developmental trajectory and
have different relationships with all the systems with which it needs to be balanced in order to function. And this
is no less true for teachers and students in the classroom than it is for mice or monkeys. In this spirit, perhaps,
Merleau-Ponty, (1945/1962) famously stated that although always tethered to perception “there are several ways
for consciousness to be conscious” (p. 124).
In pursuit of transformative learning, we should appreciate that these two processes of individuation and
socialization, mentioned earlier, are often competitive with each other. At such times we may be acutely aware
of our limits, the boundaries of our abilities, and the constraints on our behavior.
The biological boundaries of an organism—anatomical, physiological, cognitive—are commonly detected
only when they are confronted or compromised, as they may be in the classroom. And in this, expectations are
important. Our perceptions of the boundaries of specific traits are typically set by extraordinary individuals under
extraordinary circumstances and are constantly being extended such that the most extreme capacity manifested
by any one individual, no matter how extraordinary, represents the possibilities of all individuals, no matter how
ordinary. An inventory of many specific constraints on behavior, such as those on stimuli and responses or the
reinforcing effects of stimuli, have been tentatively identified by Hinde (1973).
Arguably, our lives are devoted to transcending our constraints. They are also a fact of life that haunts us. Even
the most hardened logical positivist or existential phenomenologist might pause to ask with Dorothy as she
entered the land of Oz, or with Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole (2010) as he sang, “Birds fly over the rainbow/Why
then, oh why can’t I?” This, of course, is sentimental, romantic, and an arrow to the heart of what it means to be
human. Such questions, when aesthetically framed, highlight the profound influence, if not priority, of
prereflective thought on more conscious cognition.
In summary, we hope you will consider the case we make in this chapter: that biology, particularly the
integrative biology of ethology, is a valuable complement to phenomenology that can be brought to bear in
understanding teaching and learning in the classroom. We characterized our general philosophy as existential
phenomenology because in the shared emphasis on the world as we live it, and in the importance of rigorous
description of our experience and reflections on its meaning, we find a deep resonance with our personal
experiences in the classroom.
The teachable moment and its goal of transformative learning represent the crucial insight that behavior is the
result of internal as well as external structures and processes. In traditional teaching we are too often and too
easily satisfied by metrics of successful teaching. At such times, we may neglect the higher calling of our
profession: to engender meaning. In this way, course content that is realized beyond mere knowing is owned by
the student in ways that enable its creative applicability in other contexts. The difficulty is in the fact that meaning
for us and for each individual student are never exactly the same. But as teachers we can launch students into
the world where they can grab hold of the abstract knowledge we want them to realize by finding, in their own
depths, the ties that bind content to life and foster a life of creative connections. Enabling students to do this is
our self-actualization; this is our greatest legacy.
[i] Greenberg, K., B. Sohn, Neil Greenberg, Howard Pollio, Sandra Thomas, John Smith (2018/e-book 2019) The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice in Higher Education. New York: Routledge. 222 pages DOI https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351245906 eBook ISBN 9781351245906 Chapter 2 “Getting DEEP” (pp 27-49)