learning is change


plasticity of the nervous system

We used to believe that a child was born with a complement of brain cells and that these simply created more and more links as the individual grew and learned.  What has more recently been found is that new nerve cells are generated and added throughout our lifetimes. 

Furthermore, the extent to which the nervous system restructures itself in an ongoing fashion has been surprising to many.  Yet, all of it follows from the basic understanding that the nervous system is indeed a dynamic systemic happening in continuous structural coupling with the organism that “hosts” it, and thus with the medium of that organism. 

mirror neurons

Recently there has been a lot of talk, and many research papers reported on the notion of "mirror neurons" as having to do both with how living beings learn, and with claims of empathy.   I do not doubt the existence of pathways that are triggered by circumstances that are somehow similar but I find the explanations to be rather limiting, rather reductionist.  The notion that there should be a simple, almost linear logical explanation, for what we observe appears to me as a denial of systemic processes.   I  have found it difficult speak properly about this with those who enthuse about it.   (optional link below for rest of  Pille’s 2 pp “blog” on this topic)

P.B. notes on Mirror Neurons.pdf

Scientific American 2009 “The Mind is a Mirror”

BBC News, August 10, 2010

vastly interconnected

In the previous Unit I presented some material concerning our cultural tendency to localize competencies the brain as if each piece had its own job and purpose.  I do not wish to imply that all neurons are the same, or all regions of the brain do the same thing.  There is localization in the sense that not all neurons are needed for all happenings, and that no neuron has to participate in every happening.  Further, neurons that operate together as a local network cluster together. 

Yet, that does not speak to how the network as a whole is an integrated system.  BBC News, August  2010 had an article that remarked “The brain appears to be a vastly interconnected network much like the Internet, according to new research. That runs counter to the 19th-Century "top-down" view of brain structure.”

Dr. Norman Doige, has written a popular book “The Brain that Changes Itself” about nervous system plasticity.   Click on his face to access to a series of 4 you-tubes based on a 2008 CBC documentary from the “Nature of Things.” 

Dr. Michael Merzenich, now a Professor Emeritus, has worked also in this field.  Click on the image for a TED talk on how the brain changes through childhood.  You may find his tone at the beginning, where he speaks of babies as “stupid” a bit irritating (I did), and he works as a traditional scientist on the path of discovering what really IS, yet his presentation is extremely illuminating about how connections form and change.  I was particularly fascinated by the notion of the extreme sensitivity of what an infant encounters to what abilities are later determined by that. 

(though I’m an editor for the journal Constructivist Foundations, I don’t really like the term “constructivism” as it implies to me a much more intentional activity than the epigenic process of one thing leads to another, in a matrix.  I prefer to speak of how we are constituted, not “constructed”.)