Bruce Wexler, Our Brain, and Learning

October 28, 2011

Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture, Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, like Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, literally opens our minds. A highly detailed research-based view of how our brain works, Wexler’s book is essential reading for those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning.

“People selectively perceive and more highly value sensory input that is consistent with their internal values and organizing schemata,” he tells us early in his wonderful research-based book (p. 4). “People selectively affiliate with like-minded individuals, and forget and discredit views and information inconsistent with their existing beliefs”—an idea that goes a long way in helping us understand why we sometimes encounter intense resistance while trying to produce training-teaching-learning experiences that have long-term positive results.

It’s as much about how we’re wired as anything else, Wexler and Doidge seem to agree. And there’s nothing simple about any of this. Wexler’s experiments suggest that our emotional reactions can change the physical connections within our brains—an idea that reminds us of the importance of fostering emotional reactions within our learning opportunities instead of relying solely on a rational fill-‘em-with-information approach. An experiment involving subjects’ reactions to videotapes of “an actress smiling and talking about happy things” not only made the subjects happy, but created “functional links among regions in their brains” that were “very different than when they watched videotapes of an actress crying and talking about sad things and felt sad themselves,” Wexler reports  (p. 34).

And there’s more. His comments about the importance of providing environments that are stimulating rather than sterile, documented through what he calls “enriched-environment experiments,” tell us that animals “raised in relatively impoverished environments have smaller brains, with the reduction greatest in the cerebral cortex and unrelated to differences in body weight. There is less protein synthesis in multiple regions of the cortex, decreased area of synaptic contact among neurons, and decreased numbers of the axonal and dendritic branches that functionally connect neurons” (p. 51). What this might suggest is that we’re on the wrong track with many of sterile learning labs and drab workshop settings that remain prevalent in training-teaching-learning today. It also makes some of us long for those wonderfully colorful kindergarten classrooms where we were surrounded by images and displays of our classmates’—as well as our own—work. Creating more of the interactive media labs where so much innovative learning seems to be taking place today may help us prove in visceral terms what Wexler describes in his book.

He further builds a case for paying more attention to our actual learning environments when he reports that studies “in both cats and monkeys have found that animals raised in enriched environments perform much better on tests of frontal lobe function than animals raised in less stimulating environments”  (p. 52).

Those still relying on lectures as a primary way to help learners acquire knowledge might want to reconsider their approach in light of Wexler’s comments on how imitation (suggesting interactivity as opposed to passive intake of information) “has such great developmental impact because it is consistently operative throughout the moment-to-moment unfolding of everyday life” (p. 115). “Imitation is a primary developmental process, and is evident when children imitate animals during play as well as when they imitate and acquire silly idiosyncrasies of those near to them…” (p. 117).

Play, he continues, “appears to affect cognitive development, even in rats and even when the play is primarily motoric. The role of play in human cognitive development may be greater because it lasts for years rather than days, is highly varied in nature, and includes activities that are primarily cognitive and essentially social. Here then is another avenue for social and cultural influence on important aspects of brain development” (pp. 132-133).  None of which is news to successful workplace learning and performance (staff training) professionals. But it does help us to better understand the physiological underpinnings for what our guts have been telling us for so long in our roles as trainer-teacher-learners. In biological terms, he suggests, “the whole of formal education is perhaps most appropriately seen as a human extension of play” (p. 66). And I suspect our learners will be grateful and more successful than they already are if this is a reminder that we take to heart.


Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


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