A Brain Based Explanation of Learning

A Brain Based Explanation of Learning

(Based on the work of Elkhonon Goldberg. The Executive Brain—Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind)

Although the signal generated within a neuron is electric, the communication between neurons takes a chemical form the signal called an action potential is generated within the body of a neuron when it becomes stimulated.

The electrical impulse travels along an axon until it reaches the terminal, the point of contact with a dendrite, which is a pathway leading to another neuron. At the point of contact there is a gap called a synapse.

The arrival of the action potential (electrical impulse) releases a small quality of chemical substances (neurotransmitters), which travel across the synapse and attach themselves to the receptors, highly specialized molecules on the other side of the gap. The neurotransmitters are then broken down in the synapse with the help of special enzymes (or reabsorbed in some cases) and the process continues—

Through this process the brain can produce a virtually infinite array of different activation patterns, corresponding to the virtually infinite states of the outside world.

When an organism (a learner) is exposed to a new pattern of signals from the outside world, the strengths of synaptic contacts (the ease of signal passage between neurons) and local biochemical and electric properties gradually change in complex distributed constellations. This represents learning, as we understand it today.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon believes that learning involves the accumulation of easy to recognize patterns of all kinds.

Novelty and familiarity are the defining characteristics in mental life of any creature capable of learning. It is now believed that the right hemisphere of the brain deals with novel information while the left hemisphere deals with routinized, and familiar information.

It is possible, that the existence of two separate but interconnected systems, one for novelty and the other for routines, facilitates learning. The roles of the two hemispheres in cognition are dynamic, relative and individualized. What is routine for one person is novel for another. In reality each cerebral hemisphere is involved in all cognitive processes.

The Frontal Lobes

Dealing with inherent ambiguity is among the foremost functions of the frontal lobes.

In a sense whether you are decisive or wishy-washy depends on how well your frontal lobes work.

Experiments show that the frontal lobes are critical in a free-choice situation, when it is up to the subject to decide how to interpret an ambiguous situation.

Once a task has been disambiguated for the subject and the task has been reduced to the computation of the only correct response possible, the input of the frontal lobes is no longer critical, even though all other aspects of the task remain the same.

The process of actor-centered, adaptive decision making (dealing with ambiguity for example) has been ignored by educators.

Our whole educational system is based on vertical decision making. Strategies for actor-centered, adaptive decision making are simply not taught. Instead,  they are acquired by each individual idiosyncratically, as a personal cognitive discovery, through trial and error.

Gender Differences in Cognitive Style

In Goldberg’s own research he found that there were two general decision making styles, context-independent strategies and context dependent strategies.

Context Independent

Context independent can be thought of as “universal default strategies.”

The limitation of this style is that life is quite unpredictable and using a general approach may not fit many situations, however, this “default strategy” may be your best bet when faced with a totally novel experience in which you have no specific experience or knowledge.

Context Dependent

Context dependent style tries to capture the unique, or at least specific, properties of the situation at hand and to custom tailor your response—the person tries to recognize familiar patterns “known quantities.”

However, when the situation is totally new and no recognizable pattern is available this system will fail causing a “bouncy” behavior with precipitous changes at every transition in a new situation.

Very few people adhere to only one or the other of these systems, and most are able to switch between them at will.

Having said all of this Goldberg’s research showed females gravitated toward context independent and males toward context dependent styles

Neither strategy is better—the styles effectiveness will depend on how stable the environment one lives in is.

The scientific consensus among psychologist and neuroscientist who conduct these studies is that whatever gender differences exist may have interesting consequences for the scientific study of the brain but they have no practical or instructional consequence. (John T. Bruer In Search of Brain Based Education, Phi Delta Kappan May 1999)


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