Neural Demand Functions and Montessori Concentration
David Fleischacker, Ph.D.
I take the term “neural demand functions” from Bernard Lonergan’s book on insight (Insight: A Study of Human Understanding). Lonergan was reworking Freud’s psychic censor into a more explanatory framework within intentionality analysis. Neural demands are those neural activities that break into motor-sensory-affective consciousness. Both higher animals and human beings share this function. It is called a function because a neural demand arises within a sequence of functions activated within motor-sensate schemes of recurrence built upon the lower aggregates of neural and biochemical processes. One has many potential such functions but most do not emerge into consciousness (thankfully because this would be massive sensory overload). Some neural demands are more potent for breaking in, such as pain receptors. Others one really has to turn one’s attention to these, like the feeling one has right now on the bottom of one’s big toe. The same is true for all the senses not just touch.
Montessori materials are designed to help shape and refined neural demand functions and a key in this is concentration. When one is concentrating, only relevant neural demands arise within motor-sensory consciousness, and it is those that pertain to the realization of the concentration. Sometimes of course, too much or too little is being filtered while concentration is in a state of exploration. If one is seeking a prey or seeking shelter for example, the ranges of neural demands will fluctuated quite a bit. But if one fails to notice the right clues, the discoveries will be much harder to find. Say that one is given too much attention to certain sounds for the prey, but it could be that the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, and really eyesight would be better. The same is true with higher level intellectual, rational, and volitional quests. When one is seeking a solution to a math problem or a solution to a practical life need, human wonder plays around in the imagination, which in turn then plays around in neural demand functions until the right patterns emerge or a breakthrough at any of these three levels. Concentration at this point is in a wonderous mode.
Once a break through takes place, such as one has found the prey or shelter, or one has discovered the math solution, or one has verified a hypothesis, or one has found the right thing to be doing, then concentration shifts from this exploratory mode into a kind of rest and silence upon that which has been found. Now, that which has been found may trigger entire new ranges of exploratory modes, such as how to get the prey or is my math solution true, or if this is true, then is that also true, or if this is the thing to do, how do I accomplish it. There is a massive dynamism to human consciousness and children are just entering into it. Most of waking consciousness is never at rest but always on the move and children are the paragon of this dynamism.
This is why the carefully setup environment is so important for children. It increases the probabilities of them being able to enter the dynamism of human consciousness so that they can grow into real actors and players in the universe of being and goodness.