Modularity of Mind


Domain-Specific Learning
Functional Specialization
Localization of (Brain) Function


Interpreting human learning in terms of specialized brain regions

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … appropriate coordination of brain modules
  • Learner is … brain
  • Learning is … exercising of brain modules
  • Teaching is … module-targeted activities




Modularity of Mind is a principle embraced across a number of theories of learning, asserting that the brain has a modular structure. Opinions vary on the extent of its modularity, but they tend to converge around the commitments that (1) those modules are rooted in the evolution of the species (i.e., they are mainly biologically determined) and (2) each module has a distinct function (which is useful for accounting for differences in aptitudes and abilities across individuals). Discourses that cover similar territory include:
  • Faculty Psychology (Mental Faculties) both a theory and domain of study, grounded on the assumption that the mind is parsed into discrete, innate “faculties,” each of which is assigned specific tasks – such as perception, attention, judgment, intelligence, empathy, and memory.
  • Phrenology – a pseudoscience that regards the shape of, the size of, and bumps on the skull are indicators of mental competencies and personality traits – all oriented by the assumption that the brain has localized, specific functions.


The most condemning criticism of the notion of Modularity of Mind is its tendency to conflate “mind” and “brain.” Of course, human minds are entirely dependent on human brains, but they cannot be reduced to nervous systems. Minds arise in and give rise to social and cultural systems, and so represent at least on major leap in complexity. Regarding the specific assertion on brain modularity, Neuroscience has demonstrated the brain areas do specialize, but it is also apparent that there are variations from one person to the next and from one culture to the next. Other discourses (e.g., Neuroconstructivism) offer different accounts on the origins and roles of emergent module-like structures.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jerry Fodor

Status as a Theory of Learning

Modularity of Mind is a theory of brain structure, but it can be (and has been) positioned as a theory of learning. In particular, toward the end of the 20th century, it was frequently cited as an explanatory principle in discourses devoted to learning disabilities and intelligence.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Modularity of Mind is not a theory of teaching, but it figures prominently in discussions of

Status as a Scientific Theory

Proponents of Modularity of Mind tend to adopt – uncritically – Cognitivism’s grounding metaphor of “brain as computer.” As well, while there is ample evidence to support the assumption of specialization of brain regions, it would appear that proponents of Modularity of Mind tend to dramatically over-estimate the role of biology and under-estimate the role of situation, resulting in assertions that are out of line with the evidence. 


  • Faculty Psychology (Mental Faculties)
  • Phrenology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Modularity of Mind” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List