Monday, September 22, 2014

Learning through readings on neuroscience and neuropsychology

As prefaced in a blog last year, I would be devoting most of this year to working towards a better understanding of how recent studies in neuroscience and neuropsychology may contribute to my work on studying trades-based learning.

I must say the readings have been slightly disorganised as I meandered from one topic area to another. My self-directed route through the discursive field of philosophy and empirical studies of neuroscience show how there is still much to learn about the brain, mind and soul. Each field pushes a ‘preferred’ way of looking at the world and there are only a few researchers who seem to push through the boundaries. Examples include the Churchland’s neurophilosophy.  The siloing of discipline areas is starting to dissolve as articles on sites like example. So we are still at the very early stages of understanding how the brain works and working out how what happens in the brain, contributes to what makes us who we are.

Books like Owen Flanagan’s "The problem of the soul"’ , Ramachandran's "Tell-tale brain", Precht's "Who am I and if so, how many" and Humphrey's "Soul dust", go some way to explaining to a lay audience, the contributions of science and the historical Western tradition of theology and humanism towards our present understanding of "how I am and who I am". 

So what have I gleaned from just over a year’s worth of reading?

·       - The brain is incredible, it is the foundation of who we are and provides the mechanisms to learn how to become who we are. Hence, guard it well. I now have a new swish-bang cycle helmet to replace my almost a decade old one, in a bid to ensure the brain box is accorded the protection it deserves.

·        - We still do not really know much about how the mechanics of the brain works. One needs to be careful about the hype around fMRI and similar towards explaining how we think.

·       - Some of what the brain does is innate or hardwired but much of what eventually ends up as ‘me’ has to be learnt. The brain’s biological construction is accomplished both through genetic evolutionary legacies  (nature) and through contributions from our social environment (nurture) (the birth of the mind)- Hence, there is great plasticity in the brain (see guitar zero).

·        Which leads to – we need to want to learn otherwise, things become challenging (Hatties science of how welearn). So intrinsic motivation always beats extrinsic.

·        - There are limitations to the brain (kluge) we need to be aware of and work through. Things like memory, decision making (see neuroeconomics), our propensity for addiction to substances offering pleasure etc. all need to be borne in mind.

·        - We learn better when we can relate new learning to pass experiences and things we already know (Hattie - visible learning for teachers)

·        - We ‘chunk’ concepts and remember things multi modally. The sounds, smells and visuals are retrieved when we bring up memories. The brain does not ‘record’ experiences like a video recorder but brings experiences in a multisensory / multi modal way into our existing neural networks. therefore, each person’s memory / perspectives of an occurrence are idiosyncratic.

·        - Narratives, analogies, metaphors are ways we use to make sense of unfamiliar ideas and incorporate into our repertoire.  However, this method of making sense of our world means narratives, analogies and metaphors are personalised to our ontological leanings. 

·        - The brain does not come with a ‘how to best use’ manual. Individually we need to work things out. So acquiring metacognition (Hattie - visible learning for teachers) is an one important approach to improving learning.

·        - Learning is hard work, takes time, dedication and resilience (expertise, deliberate practice); there is no quick fix.

·        - When we manage to learn something new, we find it motivates us to learn more. Learning is maybe something our brain craves (books on evolutionary psychology)

·        - Our brains have a propensity to learn from others. We are a social animal (Sterelny - evolved apprentice, Vygotsky). What we are and who we are is lodged in the grey stuff and white matter in our skull, there has not been any empirical evidence to date that there is a soul – the brain is the mind is the soul (Churchland, Flanagan).

·        - When we die, that’s it L, which seriously challenges my Christian belief system.
·        However, knowing that ourselves (or soul) cease to exist when our physical part dies means we need to contribute NOW. So carpe diem!!

·       - Humans are the only animal on earth that can think through a way to remedy the mess our species have made of the only known planet inhabited by sentient beings – see pale blue dot to be reminded about how insignificant we are in the really BIG picture.

·       -  Some other animals may also be sentient so beware of what you eat.

So, a few epiphanies plus confirmation of lots already known and applied. New learning and skills attained from wading through some interesting (and some not so interesting) books and articles including familiarity with the work of some of the leading researchers in neuroscience, neuropsychology and neurophilosophy.

Where to next? Well, next year will be focused on how to apply some of the above to vocational learning and a catch up on readings pertinent to the topic. I need to touch base again with some of the seminal works on apprenticeship learning and workplace learning to sieve through what is still pertinent and what is now already dated, in light of the learnings from this year's readings. So the journey continues.

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