We are endlessly adaptable but, it seems, only up to a point. Driven to live in ways which are utterly uncongenial to our inherited traits simply drives people mad. That is why the breakdown in intergenerational support is so dangerous.

3 New Understandings about the Brain

Medical and cognitive sciences, new technologies and a vast array of pedagogic research is helping us to appreciate far more how the brain works. The brain is, literally, the most complex living organism in the Universe (“The Cathedral of Complexity”). Although it weighs only about three pounds it is made up of roughly one million million cells. The total length of the “wiring” between the neurons is roughly one hundred thousand kilometers. The number of connections between the neurons is about one thousand million million. The number of neurons is over one hundred thousand million. The possible number of synaptic connections is more than all the leaves on all the trees on the face of the earth. Hard as it may be to fathom, every human has just such a brain!”

“The brain is the last and greatest biological frontier; it is the most complex thing we have discovered in the Universe.”

Newsweek 1992

A wealth of research is showing the breathtaking complexity of the brain, both biological and functional. When the brain is subject to a rich sensory environment there is an increase in the number, strength and speed of synaptic connections. This results, literally, in the physical growth of the brain – it gets bigger and heavier. Most growth in neural tracts occur in childhood, but it can be restarted at any stage of life and in brains that have received very little earlier stimulation. There are, of course, negative factors: dietary deficiencies limit neural development; certain drugs severely restrict synaptic activity; and certain chemicals added to food are thought to overstimulate or suppress the brain’s indexing capabilities.

There is increasing concern that the lack of proper stimulation may indeed be damaging brains of children from birth on. The same may be true of too much exposure to the wrong kind of stimulation, such as violence. Indeed, in the last 25-years there has been a doubling of the rates of crimes of violence, of suicide, and of drug and alcohol abuse. The culprit, many neurologists now fear, may well be brain cells that do not learn what they are supposed to do because they have been deprived of normal stimulation on the one hand, and over exposure to violence and stressful events on the other. For millions of children in America, and in other industrialized countries, the world they encounter is relentlessly menacing and hostile. So, with astounding speed and efficiency, their brains adapt in an effort to protect them by preparing for battle. Cells rewire trillions of connections that create the chemical pathways of aggression.

“Every mind/brain is unique. We all have the same set of systems, and yet are different. That is why choice, variety, and multi-sensory processes are essential.”

Renata and Geoffrey Caine 1996

While it is essential for scientists to understand the molecular details of brain chemistry, for all practical purposes it is the science of complexity that enables us to make greater sense of the numerous layers of organization within the brain that act together, apparently miraculously, to handle not only memory, but also vision, learning, emotion and consciousness. This is the ultimate in self-organization as the brain seeks the best possible response to a particular environment.

The human brain, in all its structures and processes, is a direct response to the complexity of the interaction of all those factors in the environment that man has had “to know what to do about” since the beginning of time. The human brain and the interconnectivity of the natural environment have evolved together. We are, as it were, made by and for each other. It’s a marriage. That is why we go mad if the disconnect between our actual lives and our inherited expectations and predispositions becomes too great.

Contrary to the limited perception of only a generation ago, the brain is characterized by potential growth, not inevitable decay. While the brain is economic in its use of resources and, therefore, continually rids itself of excess neurons before and after birth, its prime characteristic is its ever increasing ability to self-organize and create ever more novel and denser networks of neuronal connections. If the brain is active it even gets heavier. It is essentially organic not mechanistic.

The brain is adept at handling a variety of situations simultaneously. This makes it possible for each of us to react, moment by moment, to our imillcdiate environment whilst also thinking about a number of abstract matters, while concurrently keeping ourselves alert to peripheral activity. The brain handles this complexity through several layers of self-organization whereby vast interconnecting networks are established; it is as if the brain is interconnected and full of living qualities constantly “re-tooling itself” to work effectively in new and emerging situations. Once established, traces of these networks appear to survive almost indefinitely, and are frequently used as solutions to new problems. It is these earlier traces that give the brain its ability to build new ideas.

Neurologists are now beginning to see some forms of memory in operation. (i.e., they can literally watch specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen as a result of functional MRI or CAT scans). To the researchers’ surprise memory does not exist in just one, but throughout the brain. Rather memory traces seem to follow those neural-networks which the individual – at the time of original thought – found most to his advantage. The neural-network might have been activated for only a short time, and been designed for a specific purpose which is no longer applicable, and may well cross many “domains,” but even when that route is no longer needed a trace of its past activity is still present. If part of the network is later activated, it may well “question” why it is not being asked to complete the set of original connections.

“What we know (about the brain) is growing at a phenomenal pace., yet all this does is to increase my amazement at its almost unimaginable complexity.”

Professor Marion Diamond 1994

The Western World is only slowly coming to recognize what earlier cultures knew intuitively; for instance, Asian people have known for a long time that it will improve the brain of the developing fetus if the mother is relaxed by fine music, and stimulated by rich conversation. Too much stimulation, however, at any stage in life, turns a challenge into a threat The brain deals with this easily. It just “turns off.” To effectively work at challenging tasks, research is now suggesting, requires significant amounts of reflective time. Learning is very much a reflective activity. “I need to go away and think that over” is a critical part of brain functioning.” It is not a practical strategy to apply in a normal classroom!

All this is done spontaneously in response to challenge. The brain does not have to be taught to learn. Learning is what it does – automatically. To thrive it needs plenty of stimulation, and it needs suitable feedback systems. Effective learning is dependent upon emotional energy. We are driven (the ancestral urges of long ago) as much by emotion as by logic. Children who learn because they simply want to work something out because it matters to them, are far more resilient and determined when they face problems than children who seek external rewards. The same goes for adults. Intrinsic motivation is far more significant’ than extrinsic. When in trouble the first group searches for novel solutions, while the latter looks for external causes to blame for their failure. The brain is essentially a survival system; it takes seriously those things which matter to it. Emotional well-being may well be more essential – to the brain – for survival than intellectual.

Since no two brains are exactly alike, no enriched environment will completely satisfy any two individuals for an extended period of time. No matter what form the enrichment takes it is the challenge that matters; passive observation is not enough, it is interactivity that is so essential. “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do and I understand,” says the ancient Chinese proverb.

The brain learns best, and learns to grow more, when it is exercised in highly challenging but low-threat environments. Learning and emotion cannot be separated.”

With these new understandings of the brain, and the reinforcement these give to earlier theories about learning that grew out of cognitive science, we are now in a far better position to fuse formal learning structures onto natural learning predispositions that extend them “beyond what comes naturally.” Simply put, we now know how to make it possible for people to become better learners. The implications of this for society and the economy are massive. This will change everything. It is both exciting, and possibly terrifying. Remember, all of this is interconnected; someone once commented, “if we are to have criminals in society, pray God they be not too intelligent.”

4 Evolving Ideas about Learning

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

Einstein

The human brain is so large that, unlike other species, most of its growth has to take place after birth…otherwise the child’s head would never get down the mother’s birth canal. The human baby, therefore, remains dependent on its mother for longer than any other species while the mother remains dependent on others to support her during a long period of succor. However, in modern societies more and more parents leave their infants in the care of “nurseries” several weeks after delivery in order to return to the workplace. Unfortunately, “there is an increasing number of reports demonstrating that extensive non-maternal and non-paternal care in the first two years of life is a risk factor for the increased development of insecure patterns of attachment and elevated levels of aggression” later in childhood and adulthood.

“Learning is an immensely complex business that we seek to simplify and cofify at our peril. To put faith in a highly directive, prescriptive curriculum is to so ‘go against the grain of the brain’ that it will inhibit creativity and enterprise…the very skills needed in the complex, diverse knowledge society that we need to prepare our children for.”

Education 2000 1994

As the human race has evolved so social bonds have become increasingly essential. Neurologists suspect that there is a direct relationship between big brains and speech. Speech has given humans the unique ability to share ideas, and from this we have evolved to become the planet’s preeminent learning species. “I don’t know what I think until I speak,” said another perceptive ll-year old.

The process of learning is as old as life itself. It has passed from simple self- organization to a collaborative, social, problem-solving activity much dependent on talk, practical involvement and experimentation. Formal schooling, dependent as it is on instruction based around simulated reality, is so recent (five or six generation in most places) that it is unlikely to have had any impact on our inherited predisposition to learn in ways that our ancestors found so useful. Adults assume that learning and schooling are synonymous. Young children certainly don’t. To them the world is open to endless investigation – as far as Mars and astro-physics for the ll-year old, while also including poetry and music, a familyÑand ultimate questions.

Good as they are, our natural predispositions to learn are no longer adequate to the needs of our present world. Ways have to be found of extending them so that we can “go beyond what comes naturally” if we are to respond effectively to the 17-year old’s plea: “How can you help us to so understand how we learn that we can deal with novel situations when there is no one around to tell us what to do?”

This is the central issue. It is called meta-cognition; the ability to think about your own thinking, and the development of skills that are genuinely transferable and not tied to a single body of knowledge, and so can be applied in different settings. It is linked to a form of intelligence that is becoming known as reflective intelligence. In a world of continuous change this has to be the fundamental factor, so fundamental that it all too easily gets taken for granted.

Natural systems of learning culminated in every known culture in some form of apprenticeship – be it among Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Europeans or within the Brazilian jungle. Apprenticeship incorporated two aspects of our evolutionary inheritance – the “predisposition” to learn such things as language, calculation, social skills, and the less well understood nature of adolescence. Adolescence is currently seen as a “problem” in Western Society; that excess of hormones leaves the rapidly maturing child unaware of its new physical strength, and confused as how to direct it While modem parents and teachers find adolescence disruptive, earlier cultures directed this energy in ways that developed those key skills on which the community was dependent for its ongoing survival. In doing so it also ensured that young people learned, and practiced, what was seen as appropriate social behavior.