That our X, Y, or Z is the same ≠ We’re all the same

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

We, among other scientists, often claim that our cognitive architecture is quite simple and that this applies to each and every one of us (apart from very few specific exceptions). Simply stated, we all have a sensory memory that perceives/handles incoming information (stimuli), a working memory that does something with the information perceived (maintains and rehearses it), and a long-term memory that stores the processed information (encodes it/adds it to relevant cognitive schemata thus broadening and deepening them) and makes it available to us (retrieval). Here’s a schematic representation of this cognitive architecture:

Simplified image of our cognitive architecture

The claim that we all have the same cognitive architecture isn’t always appreciated, to put it mildly. The people who vehemently oppose the idea that our brains are ‘built’ the same, generally use the same arguments to express their discontent. They say things like:

“So you think everyone is the same!”
“So you say everyone learns the same way!” and/or
“So you mean everyone should be taught the same way!”

We could use many words to contradict all of this and explain that that’s not what we say, let alone what we mean when we say we’re all built the same way. Instead, we use a simple analogy: Our anatomy.

Our anatomy as humans applies to everyone (again – as with cognitive architecture – apart from very few special exceptions). Our circulatory system (heart to lungs, to heart, to arteries, to capillaries, to veins, to heart) is the same for all of us. Our skeleton (types of bones, joints, and cartilage) and the types of muscles we have (striated skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, and heart muscle – and where they are located in our body) are no different. We all have brains, spleens, lungs, hearts, kidneys, appendixes, stomachs, intestines, and so on. Also, we all have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a neck, a torso, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, and toes. Ok, you get the point. Of course, women and men (as in biological sex and not gender) have a few organs and so on that are different from each other. Maybe we’re wrong, but we dare to say that no one would argue against the idea that the anatomy (and for that matter also the physiology) of all human beings is basically the same.

Simplified image of our circulatory system & simplified image of our skeleton

When we agree that the anatomy is the same for all people, do we then also mean that everyone is the same, that people aren’t different in all kinds of ways? Does having the same anatomy mean that we all function in the same way, are equally strong, can walk or run at the same speed, are equally healthy, should follow the same diets, or do the same exercises? Of course not. By the way, we could just as easily do the same for our physiology for example how we digest, utilise, and excrete food or how our blood carries oxygen, carbon dioxide, platelets, nutrients, etcetera.

Hopefully, everyone sees that it’s nonsense to think that the fact that the physical architecture for all of us is essentially the same equals that we’re all the same and that people shouldn’t be treated differently, eat differently, exercise differently…

Why, then, is making the claim that the cognitive architecture of all people is essentially the same so different and is even an anathema to some people? Why do some people suddenly get emotional, kicking and screaming that this is absolutely not the case and that we’re all unique in our own way, with the aforementioned straw man arguments to make their point?

Are their arguments based on beliefs, philosophy, ideology…? Very probably. Are they based on scientific evidence? Definitely not.

2 thoughts on “That our X, Y, or Z is the same ≠ We’re all the same

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