Memories, feelings, and learning: entering Ch. 5 of Changing the Brain

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Orange bike on Windansea Beach in La Jolla, CA. Overexposed and then photoshopped to make it slightly psychedelic. Somehow it felt fitting for this article, mixing reason and emotion.

Apologies if you saw a draft published- I was sitting on a very long graduation ceremony and was making notes on my smartphone, and then clicked on an icon I thought was “save” but it was “publish.” Some scrambling ensued. I am writing now from my laptop.

As I advance deeper into the book, I feel myself more and more engaged.  It reads almost like a detective novel, slowly and steadily unraveling the mechanics of the brain, easily combining biological descriptions of anatomical structures with personal stories of students and colleagues, as well as reflections about teaching and learning.
Chapter 5, titled  A feeling of this business, starts with a personal story about a biology professor who insisted in incorporating math into his biology classes, something very logical that did not earn him popularity among students. That hit home-much has been said how the lack of math and physics in biology education has damaged the future experts of the discipline. But what really hit home was a comment of this professor: that when asked by a student how did he know what to do to solve an equation, he couldn’t answer. “I cannot really explain…I just feel it.” And this is something I often feel: a sense of what is the right way of doing something. Often it becomes almost artistic- a sense of balance or something aesthetically pleasing. When designing an experiment, for instance, positive and negative controls line up with the samples in a matrix that is not only scientifically sound, but also complete in the artistic sense. There are no overhangs or holes.

Zull goes on explaining how emotions and feelings, although similarly sounding, are not the same. Basically, emotions become feelings when we become conscious of them. He cites William James’ example of meeting a bear: emotions transmitted by the amygdala make you run like hell, but it is only later when we feel the fear. Which makes perfect sense. The few times in my life when I have been in direct danger I acted coolly, and fear came only later.

After this there is a section dedicated to the hypothalamus- the center of homeostasis in our brain, but also a center of control, which, upon receiving signals from the limbic system (fear, particularly) is able to release hormones and other cellular mediators to act in our body. Typical example is the adrenalin rush, the classic flight or fight response of the sympathetic nervous system.

What I really like is how Zull’s book jumps from the descriptions of brain structures back to teaching scenarios. How do we know if a certain fact is true? In a way, it is a feeling– and if that feeling if certainty is challenged, we feel fear, so we try to prove we are right- and the more we do it the more confident we feel. And so we learn.

I hope you realize that I am reading this book slowly, because I am writing about it, so I need to be able to paraphrase and summarize it. Along the way, associations pop up, ideas blossom, and I get distracted in the good way, but then find my way back to the book. It is a great intellectual experience, which I am able to do because I am on a week vacation away from home. I will stop now, as this requires some processing before moving on.

As for the Gettysburg address memorization project, I just hit sentence #6. “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” I am absolutely blown away by the usage of words in this speech. It plows forward, inexorably, with s sense of purpose and no distractions. Amazing writing.

Be back tomorrow.

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The Art of Changing the Brain: Ch.4 we are lifetime learners if motivated

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Skiing has been one of my latest sports to try, in spite of my fear of heights and my dislike of cold. Pure intrinsic motivation from my part 🙂

I took a day break after finishing chapter 3 of the Changing the Brain book, with the idea of a balance between the different parts of the brain that need to be stimulated for effective learning. This morning, as I started reading chapter 4, I had to smile as it delved into several topics I have been reading about recently. One had to do with the primitive survival mechanisms of the brain based on fear and pleasure. The example for the second was sugar, of which I learned recently a lot from the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody interested in healthy eating and the role of big food corporations in contributing to the epidemic of obesity. The other topic was about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, which was much discussed as part of the Gamification MOOC I took some months ago. My positive view of the MOOCs is very much due to the excellent experience of taking that course.

But I am digressing. Zull winds his way in this chapter from the structures of the brain “in charge” of survival mechanisms, such as the limbic system for pleasure/fear, and the neocortex for more advanced mechanisms involving understanding and control. After describing the structures of the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, the site of “fear,” and the ‘septum,” of pleasure, he discusses how emotions can affect learning (positively or negatively). Note: Zull simplifies (on purpose) the description of brain areas and their associated functions, and I am not focusing too much on it either, so for a better description of these structures it is better to use a more detailed source. It all connects with the feeling of being in control of the learning process, which is more pronounced when the motivation is intrinsic (true interest, emotional connection) than extrinsic (rewards such as a high GPA). Movement (even anticipated or imaginary) bring pleasure to the learning process, leading to the idea that active learning is more engaging than passive learning. The chapter closes where it started, the idea that learning is a continuous process modulated by wants, needs, and emotions. and therefore it is our trade and art…paraphrasing de Montaigne, my trade and my art is living.

The Art of Changing the Brain, Ch.3. Holding a just balance.

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Original digital artwork created by Soundwaves Studio signed by Thin Lizzy bassist Scott Gorham and inscribed with the lyric "The boys are back in town." The image is a digital representation of "The Boys Are Back In Town" put to canvas.

Digital representation of “The Boys Are Back In Town” of Thin Lizzy put to canvas by Soundwaves Studio. Reminds me of brain waves.

Chapter 3. was the first that made me reflect critically on my teaching. The main message of the chapter is how effective teaching requires a balance between activities addressing each step of the learning cycle. The chapter starts with a case and a generic description of the so-called “passive students,” those who only memorize, never ask questions, and struggle to put things in their own words.

When information in the brain is changed to understanding, several processes tak place:

  1. Transformation from past to future: the information of the past becomes the basis of actions and plans for the future.
  2. Transformation of the source of knowledge from outside ourselves  to inside ourselves: we change from receivers to producers, able to create new knowledge.
  3. Transformation of power: we take responsibility for our own further learning.

Going back to the previous chapter and the structures of the cortex associated to the different phases of the learning cycle, one can say that the receiving and remembering part of the brain is in the back of the cerebrum, and the front is in charge of the generation of ideas and actions. In more detail, these are the functions associated with the cortexes:

Back integrative cortex: memory of stories and places, understanding language, flashbacks, emotions related to experiences, long-term memory.

Front integrative cortex: Choice, decisions to act, inhibition, emotions associated with actions, responsibility, mental energy, consequence, predicting, creating.

So the idea is to stimulate and connect both parts- and they are indeed connected, through nerve bundles called fasciculi.

Studies have already tried the combination of the traditional didactic approach and the discovery approach. They seem to corroborate that only a combination of both will provide both understanding both quick and deep.

The part that made me reflect on my teaching was the following paragraph: “Balance is a matter of justice. If we do not teach to both the back and the frotn cortex, it is unjust for students.Keeping a just balance is our duty.

Probably most educators struggle with this dilemma: how can we deliver information to provide both the content and the opportunity to practice and apply that information? Zull talks about what are the pressures toward imbalance, and some ideas to work toward it. From my own experience, I know how easy it is to go from one extreme to the other, with variable success. So I am looking forward the rest of the chapter, which I will finish for the next posting.

Until next time!

The Art of Changing the Brain: Ch.2. Where we ought to be

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I am afraid I may get off topic with this chapter. It is just too much fun reading it, and it brings associations and ideas. For instance, one of the quotes starting  chapter 2, is from none other that James Watson: “It was so pretty it had to be true,” referring to the double helix of DNA. That brought to memory the following endearing video:

For Zull, becoming the director of a teaching center meant he could dedicate time to learn about learning, as he had never had the time before (the norm for the publish or perish research academics). He read about the sequence of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing; necessary for deep learning. His initial skepticism changed one spring afternoon, when everything came together (a bit like for Watson in the video): the structure of the brain and the functions associated to learning. Eureka!

The next few pages relate to the structure of the brain and how the nervous system works. It is nicely done, summarizing in lay language the regions of the cerebral cortex, and what they do: sensory, integration/association, and motor areas.

Back to the giants of the science of learning (Dewey, Piaget, Kolb) and the sequence of learning (see below- please note that the wording changes slightly between the internet figure & the current book), Zull talks about the importance of experiential learning, meaning knowledge comes from experience, but it requires the other components.

For Zull, the eureka moment came from juxtaposing the areas of the brain with the phases of the cycle:

Sensory/postsensory cortex=> Concrete experience

Temporal/integrative cortex=> Reflective observation

Frontal/integrative cortex=> Abstract hypotheses

Premotor/motor cortex=> Active testing

The next thing is to consider is: what is the difference of teaching and learning? And based on this model, because all starts with experience, all teaching does result in learning…but it may not be what the teacher intended for the student to learn.

The rest of the chapter expands on the hypothesis that we can map different aspects of the learning process to specific areas and functions of the brain, and illustrates it with examples (for example, seeing/hearing a new word, mapping it to earlier memories, analyzing it, and then testing if the hypothesis is correct).  Brain imaging studies have shown that this kind of sequential activation of different regions do occur, although Zull clarifies  that the cycle sometimes may go back and forth, and often several cycles may be occurring simultaneously.

The final reflection of the chapter is: how can be use this knowledge for teaching? How can be design activities that encourage reflection? How can we make students develop abstract ideas? In what ways can students demonstrate their ideas and test their validity?

The Art of Changing the Brain: Ch.1. The Sweet Edge

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“If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces…”

I love books with quotes, and the fact that this book has one for each chapter makes me like it a lot before even starting to read it in earnest. Chapter 1, The Sweet Edge, has a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and you will feel its sweet edge dividing you through your heart and marrow. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” This is from Walden, a classic I confess I have not been able to finish reading yet. But Thoreau is one of my heroes, and this particular quote is part of a longer passage where he says: “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake…” Indeed, this first chapter of Zull’s book establishes where is he coming from: a scientist who became involved with education, and decided to explore learning from a physical perspective, the science of the brain. And as a scientist, he started from his field of expertise (cell signaling in neuroscience), and went on “prying” open new doors. As he advanced in his exploration, he tried to find a practical application of each finding to teaching. And he states: “Teaching is the art of changing the brain.” Not by controlling it, but by “creating conditions that lead to change in the learner’s brain.”

He goes on elaborating on the physical nature of learning, which is based on a physical nature of meaning. He touches on the physical metaphors of learning, such as the student being a blank slate, or learners constructing their understanding. Thus, the need for metaphors in the future of teaching, which can be framed as tools for changing the brain.

One section is dedicated to the inevitable conclusion that placing the workings of the mind on a solid physical foundation is equivalent to a philosophy. He refers to the book Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson, and their statement: “The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly conscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

Personally, I thought that little section was masterfully written. I mean, the phrase, “these claims have not pleased all the philosophers of the world,” is a vast understatement. Lots of people, philosophers or not, do not believe that our mind’s workings are physical. However, in a few paragraphs, Zull states his philosophy, arguments for it, mentions that it may be a controversial view, and then moves on quickly to the description of the structure of the book. Part I is dedicated to the foundations for learning, basically the structures and wirings of the brain; Part II is dedicated to how teachers can use the existing networks of the brain to enhance learning, and Part III connects the regions of the cerebral cortex to different aspects of learning, plus an Appendix called enrichments.

As I finished reading the chapter, I noticed a note regarding genes that I have missed before. It goes with the statement of the physical nature of the brain, and adds that we can even go as far as saying that our brains come from the information coded in our genes (which is a result of the structure of DNA). Considering the recent results of how the environment is able to alter the way the information coded in the DNA is actually expressed, that adds an extra layer of complexity to the statement that learning is changing the brain.

The beginning of the chapter touches on the feelings of many educators that teaching is a mysterious process, and can sometimes be almost a religious experience. And the final paragraph states: “I do not deny the mystery. I only want to solve it.

Next chapter, the second, deals with the natural relationship between brain structure and learning. Until then!

Reading project: The Art of Changing the Brain. Introduction

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My next reading project

This week I finally decided that I had to sit down and write a paper. For the past years, I transitioned from science to science education, and while I still have my little pet projects involving little cells in the lab, the truth is that most of my time is spent teaching. And education is a different beast, where there are learning theories and approaches and assessments and complex ideas (of which I do not know a lot about). I happen to reside in a small campus where most of the faculty are Ed faculty, and by osmosis I have learned a lot about the science of education, together with a list of readings.

So my plan is (hope it will work,) is to share the progress of reading. I am starting with a classic, The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull.

“Life is learning, life is teaching.”

Ok so James Zull is a biologist, something that he will say again and again: his purpose is to discuss how the knowledge of the brain can influence teaching.

In the Introduction, Zull starts saying how his book is intended to fill a gap: to interpret neuroscience from an education perspective. Then he clarifies that he does not want to discard existing practices acquired through cognitive science or education research. But he hopes to make us understand that real learning takes place in the brain and the body of the learner.

Then he discusses some challenges about the book in general: for example, his reluctance to define learning (except maybe that learning is change). And his refusal to be classified according to a learning theory (constructivist etc). He states that he goes where biology takes him, and prefers to be “sloppy” when talking “brain science” instead of neuroscience, cognitive science etc: “definitions may imply divisions and differences that don’t really exist.”

And that’s it for today: next installment is about The Sweet Edge. Stay tuned!

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