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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning how we learn

I began to research about learning several years ago, thinking that I might explain from the neurocognitive point of view the mechanism of learning.

I am not going to deny it, finding a model universally applicable ran through my mind, at least during the first months of exploration, finally this is the goal that I learned at college, create universal models validated and standardized; but eventually, the research has led me for other directions, and I’m at a point that has allowed me to re develop my concept of learning.

 I have talked about this at multiple forums, and this blog was specially created to analyze different aspects of learning. When processes are separated, it seems easy to explain how they relate to learning, but as explained Sebastian Seung (2010) and McGilchrist (2011), the complexity of the brain is such  that it works as an whole integrated and adapts to the circumstances of the day by day. 

Some months ago, in two different spaces, my idea about learning staggers drastically. First of all, I had always thought that learning allowed adaptation to the environment. When a person learns the cultural needs, that person adapts to his or her own proceed and becomes part of that environment. 

This idea was an essential part of my proposal about the learning and it  came observing babies, they under different environments, manage to coordinate abilities that allow them to function and find the way to learning more complex things beyond those genetically programmed. The brains of infants sometimes have even go against itself, pushing neural networks that have been inactive either by a syndrome or some perinatal factor that has affected them. 

In some cases, it’s possible to note delays in development that fits with a little help, while sometimes the environment is unfavorable and disorders don’t let grow more than few skills. 

Of course, there are many theorists who supported my idea of the adaptation to the environment as a reflection of learning, and personally looked for examples that would enable me to explain the process.
The example that I like the most came from junior students at any educational level. The first days they are trying to discover all the features of the new site and need some weeks more to adapt their language to the cultural background that have decided to undertake and they take even more time to feel part of the environment. 

But in other circumstances it’s also possible to see the adaptation, in patients who suffer from some sort of accident or illness which forces them to re learn how to manage their own body, facing the adversity. The adaptation to the environment seemed the logical response to the learning and understanding of the environment.

But I had to remove my own head from psychology when I discovered that other species carried out the process. Anyone who has a garden and takes care of it has noticed two plagues: slugs and snails that are terrestrial mollusks and the weeds that grow as soon as someone pulls them by mechanical means. Both species, not as well developed as the mammalian brain, adapt to survive, as well as viruses that mutate to avoid the effect of antiviral drugs, the same way that coacervates gave rise to life on the Earth. There are many examples in nature, but in a discussion another example caught my attention.

Prions and its capacity of adaptation to the environment

A prion is a pathogenic protein which has altered its structure, although it has been shown they have an active role in normal neural development, because it occurs in oxireduction and the signal transduction, cell adhesion, processes as well as the regulation and distribution of acetylcholine receptors (Zou, Zheng, Gray, Gambetti and Chen, 2004).

However, as pathogen protein is capable of caused diseases that occur both in humans and animals, and create a family of rare disorders and neurodegenerative diseases that are distinguished by long incubation periods, but once the symptoms are progressive and fatal.

Diseases caused by prions include disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob and its variant, Gerstmann-Straussker - fatal familial insomnia, fatal syndrome, family spongiform encephalopathy and Kuru (Zou, an Capellari, Parchi, Sy, Gambetti, Chen and 2003).

While at animals are associated with mad cow disease, lumbar itching and feline spongiform encephalopathy.
A prion is basically a glycoprotein of 27-30 kD has the same primary structure as a normal protein, but presents a structural not genetic modification due to a post-production process. 

Due to a wrong fold what should be a Prpc which has a propeller and 4 regions of globular, protein structure becomes a PrpSc has a structure sheet which is a flat protein, that allows you to create irreversible neurological damage in whom is carried, due to its ability to adapt to survive in the environment (Li, Browning, Mahal, Oelschlegel and Weissmann, 2010; Castellani, Colucci, Xie, Zou, Li, Parchi Capellari, Pastore, Rahbar, Chen and Gambetti, 2004).

It is thus that the adaptation to the environment is not a mechanism created from a flexible brain that learns, but an evolutionary inheritance created so the species can develop and survived.

At a conference someone asked me if he should delete the adaptation to the environment of the equation of the learning process, but I think that if well learning not creates the process, if you benefit from the same. 

Because students who come from different contexts are capable of creating various skills and learning benefits can be based on socialization and at the same time, those differences help to explain individual differences as variables to consider in any investigation on learning.

There is another aspect which explains the ability of adaptation, and it’s the fact we are not talking only about a brain adapting on an individual basis, but at the species level. I find very interesting all debates that claim that technology modifies the brain of children with a  constant flow of information, saying that this prevents children from responding to everything that happens in the environment. But the cerebral flexibility plays an important role in responding to those influences. So there is no danger of diseases of fashion such as attention-deficit or autism syndrome disorders. 

On the other hand, adaptive capacity allows recognizing that children with developmental disorders will seek their own development and goals, adults around only need to understand those children won’t develop skills at the same rate as any other brain.

Different environments, genetic dice, different learning rules

My argument that every brain is different, although it complies with the same structures and functions is not new. Caffeine that someone has consumed today will affect differently than the chocolate that someone else had at breakfast. The brain works with infinite strategies, predicts, makes decisions, draws, dreams, creates the future and seeks to understand the past.

In addition to differences, as I explained earlier, it is flexible. In the field of Metacognition for some years researchers talked about flexible thought and educators began to work on skills attempting to develop it from the educational perspective. But there are authors like Ionescu (2011) who explains that cognitive flexibility is a cognitive system property and not a skill. It makes sense if the goal is to adapt at a specie level.

The best example I can think of is something that is going to sound very badly, but if someone has travelled in a highway, then there will be noticed butterflies, mammals, and insects that literally crash against the windshield and leave their ideas on it. A few days ago I asked my husband why there was a not mechanism that allow animals and insects to avoid crossing the road, since many animals die every day and they have not a small chance against a car that moves at high speed. My husband and I thought that learning and adaptation had no reason and it was just a personal issue to keep my brain busy.

We started playing with ideas which made us laugh, one was that the best: those creatures that in another life were killed that way, smashed against a car, had learned to not cross the road, and which not, therefore not avoided it. The conclusion was that more intelligent people already had previous experiences, while the less gifted begin to look at the world.

We did laugh so much with the idea. Intelligence has always been part of the equation, but do intelligent people really avoid dangerous situations?. 

Psychologists have spent lot of time measuring intelligence and subdividing it, and telling people what they can do and what not, they focus more on what people cannot do. But there are always examples of people who play against any forecast and show how much capable they are to do extraordinary things, when the environment is conducive (Dzib Goodin, 2011).

The intelligence

It’s a concept sought in the brain so badly that researchers have made sure that it´s in different areas depending on the ability to seek. It has been seen in brains of persons who have extraordinary abilities, but if the question is if a baby can develop this or that intelligence, the answer is: that will depends on the environment in which this baby will grow. A newborn baby can be an extraordinary dancer if someday has the opportunity to try.

There are people that find a special talent and start to develop it from very young, and their brains specialize so much. In the brain everything not dealing with it is discarded, this is explained by Weber (2012), the brain as well as other natural forms adheres to the idea of energy conservation (Costandi, 2012). 

For that reason, along with the intelligence, motivation is developed to create those abilities, which erroneously we believe everyone should have at the same level and all the same, but brain refuses to be exactly than another, like clones, each must develop their talent. Those who are more fortunate will find it from very young, and it will take to the perfection point. Others never will find it. Fortunately the range of possibilities is wide, and there will be always some area to achieve a highlight. We also know that only some functions have critical periods.

The role of motivation of course goes hand in hand with the memory. Deep in the hippocampus, it seems that the mechanism is part of many higher functions, which still cannot be clarified at all, because it embodies citoarchitecture aspects, cellular bases and the way in which those networks neural encode memories and the way in which recovering it (Mennes, Kelly, Colcombe, Castellanos and Milham, 2012).

Along with the intelligence and motivation it’s important to considerate  the role of reasoning ability and decision-making and how is necessary to direct actions and learning in order to maximize the rewards, when there is no success in something, it reformulates the action and the plan of action, from what is in the store of long or medium-term memory analyze the possibilities and the probability of success, however explain Collins and Koechlin (2012) the human executive function has a monitoring capacity limited to three or four strategies of behaviors. This limitation is offset by the binary structure of executive control in ambiguous and unknown situations promotes the exploration and creation of new strategies of behaviors. The results support a model of human frontal function that integrates skills of reasoning, learning and creative in the service of the behavior of decision-making in order to achieve the adaptation.

Elements of learning

There are some other elements that interact in learning as senso perception, because without entry of environmental stimuli the cognitive system offsets are greater. Such is the case of deaf blind people, who are able to learn but under specific sensory contexts. 

The role of memory is undeniable as well to store, retrieve information, and interact with other superior processes, such as language or thought.

Motivation is an aspect that cannot be overlooked, because it promotes skills or blocking activities under the socially constructed idea that there are good people for some activities and others who should not try them.
Like other authors, it is clear that they must not be side adaptive processes and the role of evolution (Nolfi and Parisi, 1996), cerebral flexibility, the role of culture and mind.

This latter element still not know well how to put in the puzzle, I am not referring to the idea of mind boxed in the brain, as all neuroscientist I thought that he was there, but I'm still building the idea of something much more flexible, with own energy, that certainly keeps the hand when it comes to teaching with ideas such as: keep in mind, or he made a mental map with a concept more related with the memory more than an energy capable to expand. The child mind is much more than a receptacle of ideas that adults are trying to impose, and brilliant minds are more than a collection of extraordinary capabilities. At times, the mental interface fails to make contact and it takes a while to be able to communicate through language. So the mind is a theme which I will later work, but that is part of the equation, without doubt.
The element that has caused more noise in the cultural sphere is of course, the topic of education. While learning is an evolutionary quality given way per se to the species, education is a human invention, institutionalized, which believed to have the power to make everyone think, do and say the same, that it has forgotten its central object of the everyday work, which is the student and has focused on the contents, assuming all student should know that. I’m using the word Know, and not understand. Sometimes I think I must say: what every student must remember or have in mind. Not necessarily to analyze and make it significant. 

I am saying as clear as I can: YES, I think that education should include the brain, because ultimately it is who shapes with its pounding of ideas that serve only to respond an exorbitant amount of validated and standardized tests.

The difference between an A and an F is a slap on the back of a student with A or the confirmation of little intelligence and the judgment that will never Excel in life for a student with a F. There is no bigger lie. Several studies show that brighter students are not necessarily successful adults and no doubt we can laugh when examples of great minds have emerged from people who do not conclude the school either, or they never felt comfortable in the school environment. They broke the mold, they were themselves (Dzib Goodin, 2012).

In the space of the black list of colors I have been exploring the various elements to be considered in learning to educational level, if anyone is interested in that aspect.

I hope one day I can conclude my proposal of learning, and hopefully you continue visiting this space.

Alma Dzib Goodin

If you would like to know more about my writing you can visit my web site:


Castellani, RJ., Colucci, M., Xie, Z., Zou, W., Li, C., Parchi, P., Capellari, S., Pastore, M., Rahbar, MH., Chen, SG., Gambetti, P. (2004) Sensitivity of 14-3-3 Protein Test Varies in Subtypes of Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Neurology. 63(3) 436-42.

Collins, A., Koechlin, E. (2012) Reasoning, learning, and creativity: Frontal lobe function and human decision –making. Plos Biology. 10(3): e1001293. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001293

Costandi, M. (2012) Probing the workings of the human cells.  The Dana Foundation.Available at:

Dzib Goodin, A. (2011) The search for talent: The holy grail. Available at:

Dzib Goodin, A. (2012) Black list of colors. Available at:

Dzib Goodin, A. (2012) Creativity, when a+b is equal to innovation. Available at:

Ionescu, T. (2011) Exploring the nature of cognitive flexibility. New Ideas in Psychology. 30 (2) 190-200.

Kong, Q., Goldfarb, L., Gabizon, R., Montagna, P., Lugaresi, E., Piccardo, P., Petersen, RB., Parchi, P., Chen, SG., Capellari, S., Ghetti, B. (2004) Inherited Prion Diseases. In Prion Biology and Diseases. Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Press. 

Li, J., Browning, S., Mahal, SP., Oelschlegel, AM., Weissmannm, C. (2010) Darwinian evolution of prions in cell culture. Science. 327 (5967) 869-872.

McGilchrist, I. (2011) The divided brain. RSA Animated. Available at:

Mennes, M., Kelly, C., Colcombe, S., Castellanos, FX., y Milham, MP. (2012) The extrinsic and intrinsic functional architectures of the human brain are not equivalent. Cerebral Cortex. Available at:

Nolfi, S., y Parisi, D. (1996) Learning to adapt to changing enviroments in evolving neural networks. Adaptative Behavior. 5 (1)  75-88.

Seung, S. (2010) Sebastian Seung: I am connectome. TED Talks. Available at :

Weber, M. (2012) Microglia eliminate unnecessary synapses during brain development. Available at:

Zou, W., Capellari, S., Parchi, P., Sy, MS., Gambetti, P., Chen, SG. (2003) Identification of Novel Proteinase K-resistant C-terminal Fragments of PrP in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 278(42) 40429-40436. 

Zou, W., Zheng, J., Gray, DM., Gambetti, P., Chen, SG. (2004) Antibody to DNA Detects Scrapie but not Normal Prion Protein. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 101(5) 1380-1385.


  1. It was so interesting to follow all the logic with easy language and all the examples. It seems your blog in Education 5-0 is letting you to explain every element. How do you apply this in a classroom?

  2. Hi Carla!
    Thanks for take a minute and read me:) The application I do is having on mind every person learn through different ways and being creative. Solving problems and decision making is a very important part of the puzzle, because students can use metacognitive strategies to understand their own process. I do believe in competences model, as I wrote on my previous post. But you need a flexible education. If you search sucessful examples, you find thousands in specializated magazines all over the world. I don't think I'm discovering the treasure, but if we can understand all the elements, maybe we could teach better. It's what I think:)

  3. I want to leave a brief note to thank you for the conference. I'm gladly surprise with your explanation and level of knowledge about learning. This post is only a tiny example. I hope to meet you again soon.