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The Mind, the Brain, and God
  1. The Mind, The Brain, and God - Dr. Rick Hanson
  2. Make informed decisions with the FT.
  4. From Genius to Madness
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This process is probably not the only way that information is stored in the brain, but it is a very important way that provides insight into how people learn. Alterations in the brain that occur during learning seem to make the nerve cells more efficient or powerful. Animals raised in complex environments have a greater volume of capillaries per nerve cell—and therefore a greater supply of blood to the brain—than the caged animals, regardless of whether the caged animal lived alone or with companions Black et al.

Capillaries are the tiny blood vessels that supply oxygen and other nutrients to the brain. In this way experience increases the overall quality.

The Mind, The Brain, and God - Dr. Rick Hanson

Using astrocytes cells that support neuron functioning by providing nutrients and removing waste as the index, there are higher amounts of astrocyte per neuron in the complex-environment animals than in the caged groups. Overall, these studies depict an orchestrated pattern of increased capacity in the brain that depends on experience.

Other studies of animals show other changes in the brain through learning; see Box 5. The weight and thickness of the cerebral cortex can be measurably altered in rats that are reared from weaning, or placed as adults, in a large cage enriched by the presence both of a changing set of objects for play and exploration and of other rats to induce play and exploration Rosenzweig and Bennett, These animals also perform better on a variety of problem-solving tasks than rats reared in standard laboratory cages. Interestingly, both the interactive presence of a social group and direct physical contact with the environment are important factors: animals placed in the enriched environment alone showed relatively little benefit; neither did animals placed in small cages within the larger environment Ferchmin et al.

Thus, the gross structure of the cerebral cortex was altered both by exposure to opportunities for learning and by learning in a social context. Are the changes in the brain due to actual learning or to variations in aggregate levels of neural activity? Animals in a complex environment not only learn from experiences, but they also run, play, and exercise, which activates the brain.

The question is whether activation alone can produce brain changes without the subjects actually learning anything, just as activation of muscles by exercise can cause them to grow. To answer this question, a group of animals that learned challenging motor skills but had relatively little brain activity was compared with groups that had high levels of brain activity but did relatively little learning Black et al. There were four groups in all. What happened to the volume of blood vessels and number of synapses per neuron in the rats?

Both the mandatory exercisers and the voluntary exercisers showed higher densities of blood vessels than either the cage potato rats or the acrobats, who learned skills that did not involve significant. How do rats learn? The objects are changed and rearranged each day, and during the changing time, the animals are put in yet another environment with another set of objects.

These two settings can help determine how experience affects the development of the normal brain and normal cognitive structures, and one can also see what happens when animals are deprived of critical experiences. After living in the complex or impoverished environments for a period from weaning to rat adolescence, the two groups of animals were subjected to a learning experience.

The rats that had grown up in the complex environment made fewer errors at the outset than the other rats; they also learned more quickly not to make any errors at all. In this sense, they were smarter than their more deprived counterparts. And with positive rewards, they performed better on complex tasks than the animals raised in individual cages. It is clear that when animals learn, they add new connections to the wiring of their brains—a phenomenon not limited to early development see, e.

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But when the number of synapses per nerve cell was measured, the acrobats were the standout group. Learning adds synapses; exercise does not. Thus, different kinds of experience condition the brain in different ways. Synapse formation and blood vessel formation vascularization are two important forms of brain adaptation, but they are driven by different physiological mechanisms and by different behavioral events. Learning specific tasks brings about localized changes in the areas of the brain appropriate to the task.

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For example, when young adult animals were. When they learned the maze with one eye blocked with an opaque contact lens, only the brain regions connected to the open eye were altered Chang and Greenough, When they learned a set of complex motor skills, structural changes occurred in the motor region of the cerebral cortex and in the cerebellum, a hindbrain structure that coordinates motor activity Black et al.

These changes in brain structure underlie changes in the functional organization of the brain. That is, learning imposes new patterns of organization on the brain, and this phenomenon has been confirmed by electro-physiological recordings of the activity of nerve cells Beaulieu and Cynader, Studies of brain development provide a model of the learning process at a cellular level: the changes first observed in rats have also proved to be true in mice, cats, monkeys, and birds, and they almost certainly occur in humans.

Clearly, the brain can store information, but what kinds of information? The neuroscientist does not address these questions. Answering them is the job of cognitive scientists, education researchers, and others who study the effects of experiences on human behavior and human potential. Several examples illustrate how instruction in specific kinds of information can influence natural development processes. This section discusses a case involving language development. Brain development is often timed to take advantage of particular experiences, such that information from the environment helps to organize the brain.

The development of language in humans is an example of a natural process that is guided by a timetable with certain limiting conditions. A phoneme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit of speech sound. Very young children discriminate many more phonemic boundaries than adults, but they lose their discriminatory powers when certain boundaries are not supported by experience with spoken language Kuhl, Native Japa-.

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It is not known whether synapse overproduction and elimination underlies this process, but it certainly seems plausible. The process of synapse elimination occurs relatively slowly in the cerebral cortical regions that are involved in aspects of language and other higher cognitive functions Huttenlocher and Dabholkar, Different brain systems appear to develop according to different time frames, driven in part by experience and in part by intrinsic forces.


But, as noted above, learning continues to affect the structure of the brain long after synapse overproduction and loss are completed. There may be other changes in the brain involved in the encoding of learning, but most scientists agree that synapse addition and modification are the ones that are most certain. Detailed knowledge of the brain processes that underlie language has emerged in recent years.

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For example, there appear to be separate brain areas that specialize in subtasks such as hearing words spoken language of others , seeing words reading , speaking words speech , and generating words thinking with language. Whether these patterns of brain organization for oral, written, and listening skills require separate exercises to promote the component skills of language and literacy remains to be determined.

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If these closely related skills have somewhat independent brain representation, then coordinated practice of skills may be a better way to encourage learners to move seamlessly among speaking, writing, and listening. Language provides a particularly striking example of how instructional processes may contribute to organizing brain functions.

The example is interesting because language processes are usually more closely associated with the left side of the brain. As the following discussion points out, specific kinds of experiences can contribute to other areas of the brain taking over some of the language functions.

For example, deaf people who learn a sign language are learning to communicate using the visual system in place of the auditory system. Manual sign languages have grammatical structures, with affixes and morphology, but they are not translations of spoken languages.

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  • Each particular sign language such as American Sign Language. The perception of sign language depends on parallel visual perception of shape, relative spatial location, and movement of the hands—a very different type of perception than the auditory perception of spoken language Bellugi, In the nervous system of a hearing person, auditory system pathways appear to be closely connected to the brain regions that process the features of spoken language, while visual pathways appear to go through several stages of processing before features of written language are extracted Blakemore, ; Friedman and Cocking, When a deaf individual learns to communicate with manual signs, different nervous system processes have replaced the ones normally used for language—a significant achievement.

    Neuroscientists have investigated how the visual-spatial and language processing areas each come together in a different hemisphere of the brain, while developing certain new functions as a result of the visual language experiences. In the brains of all deaf people, some cortical areas that normally process auditory information become organized to process visual information.

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    Yet there are also demonstrable differences among the brains of deaf people who use sign language and deaf people who do not use sign language, presumably because they have had different language experiences Neville, , Among other things, major differences exist in the electrical activities of the brains of deaf individuals who use sign language and those who do not know sign language Friedman and Cocking, ; Neville, Also, there are similarities between sign language users with normal hearing and sign language users who are deaf that result from their common experiences of engaging in language activities.

    In other words, specific types of instruction can modify the brain, enabling it to use alternative sensory input to accomplish adaptive functions, in this case, communication. Another demonstration that the human brain can be functionally reorganized by instruction comes from research on individuals who have suffered strokes or had portions of the brain removed Bach-y-Rita, , ; Crill and Raichle, Since spontaneous recovery is generally unlikely, the best way to help these individuals regain their lost functions is to provide them with instruction and long periods of practice.

    Although this kind of learning typically takes a long time, it can lead to partial or total recovery of functions when based on sound principles of instruction.

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    Studies of animals with similar impairments have clearly shown the formation of new brain connections and other adjustments, not unlike those that occur when adults learn e. Thus, guided learning and learning from individual experiences both play important roles in the functional reorganization of the brain. Research into memory processes has progressed in recent years through the combined efforts of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, aided by positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging Schacter, Most of the research advances in memory that help scientists understand learning come from two major groups of studies: studies that show that memory is not a unitary construct and studies that relate features of learning to later effectiveness in recall.

    Memory is neither a single entity nor a phenomenon that occurs in a single area of the brain. There are two basic memory processes: declarative memory, or memory for facts and events which occurs primarily in brain systems involving the hippocampus; and procedural or nondeclarative memory, which is memory for skills and other cognitive operations, or memory that cannot be represented in declarative sentences, which occurs principally in the brain systems involving the neostriatum Squire, Different features of learning contribute to the durability or fragility of memory.

    The superiority effect of pictures is also true if words and pictures are combined during learning Roediger, This gadget can receive any neural signals produced by the tissue, and transmit two identical copies of the stream of signals along the two cables. It can thus act as a signal duplicator. In addition, it can store the signals for a length of time before forwarding them.

    On the top of this black box is a dial by which the delay can be set at anything from zero to sixty minutes. When it is set to zero, signals pass straight through the box without being slowed down. The surgeon now takes a cable that leads into the front of this box, and attaches it to the excised tissue in the test tube. At the back of the device, there are two cables: one cable she connects to my brain and the other cable to the brain of the other person — who underwent the same operation.

    In each brain, the wires are hooked up to all the normal points of connection that a pricked-finger corpus should have. Having set up her apparatus, the surgeon begins. Using an electrode, she stimulates the nerve cells in the test tube as before. The cells emit their usual electrical signals and these are captured and stored by the black box.

    In whose mind will the sensation occur?