James Zull’s book The Art of Changing the Brain contends that neuroscience can guide our teaching practice by revealing to us how our brains actually learn. I think his insight is reliable, and I’m particularly satisfied that he views the brain as a complex, multi-scale network and learning as changing, extending, and strengthening the connections within those networks. This fits quite nicely with connectivism, which defines learning in similar networking terms.
This definition of learning puts the student/learner at the center of the learning process, unlike traditional education, which puts the teacher/authority at the center of the learning process. Why? Because if learning is the development of new connections within existing neuronal networks, then learning depends overwhelmingly on the engagement of the student. No teacher can directly touch a student’s brain. Development of neuronal networks absolutely depends on the student exercising her own brain, and her teachers cannot do it for her, any more than a fitness trainer can exercise her muscles for her. The student must sweat and exert herself and must want to sweat and exert.
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Neuroscience tells us that the products of the mind — thought, emotions, artistic creation — are the result of the interactions of the biological brain with our senses and the physical world: in short, that thinking and learning are the products of a biological process. This realization, that learning actually alters the brain by changing the number and strength of synapses, offers a powerful foundation for rethinking teaching practice and one’s philosophy of teaching.
James Zull invites teachers in higher education or any other setting to accompany him in his exploration of what scientists can tell us about the brain and to discover how this knowledge can influence the practice of teaching. He describes the brain in clear non-technical language and an engaging conversational tone, highlighting its functions and parts and how they interact, and always relating them to the real world of the classroom and his own evolution as a teacher. “The Art of Changing the Brain” is grounded in the practicalities and challenges of creating effective opportunities for deep and lasting learning, and of dealing with students as unique learners.
The last decades of neuroscience research have produced immense progress in the methods available to understand brain structure and function. Social, cognitive, clinical, affective, economic, communication, and developmental neurosciences have begun to map the relationships between neuro-psychological processes and behavioral outcomes, yielding a new understanding of human behavior and promising interventions. However, a limitation of this fast moving research is that most findings are based on small samples of convenience. Furthermore, our understanding of individual differences may be distorted by unrepresentative samples, undermining findings regarding brain–behavior mechanisms. These limitations are issues that social demographers, epidemiologists, and other population scientists have tackled, with solutions that can be applied to neuroscience. By contrast, nearly all social science disciplines, including social demography, sociology, political science, economics, communication science, and psychology, make assumptions about processes that involve the brain, but have incorporated neural measures to differing, and often limited, degrees; many still treat the brain as a black box. In this article, we describe and promote a perspective — population neuroscience — that leverages interdisciplinary expertise to (i) emphasize the importance of sampling to more clearly define the relevant populations and sampling strategies needed when using neuroscience methods to address such questions; and (ii) deepen understanding of mechanisms within population science by providing insight regarding underlying neural mechanisms. Doing so will increase our confidence in the generalizability of the findings. We provide examples to illustrate the population neuroscience approach for specific types of research questions and discuss the potential for theoretical and applied advances from this approach across areas.
What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—trailblazing neuro-philosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life. Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others?
Churchland appreciates that the brain-based understanding of the mind can unnerve even our greatest thinkers. Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion.
Learning, the foundation of adaptive and intelligent behavior, is based on plastic changes in neural assemblies, reflected by the modulation of electric brain responses. In infancy, auditory learning implicates the formation and strengthening of neural long-term memory traces, improving discrimination skills, in particular those forming the prerequisites for speech perception and understanding. Although previous behavioral observations show that newborns react differentially to unfamiliar sounds vs. familiar sound material that they were exposed to as fetuses, the neural basis of fetal learning has not thus far been investigated. Here we demonstrate direct neural correlates of human fetal learning of speech-like auditory stimuli. We presented variants of words to fetuses; unlike infants with no exposure to these stimuli, the exposed fetuses showed enhanced brain activity (mismatch responses) in response to pitch changes for the trained variants after birth. Furthermore, a significant correlation existed between the amount of prenatal exposure and brain activity, with greater activity being associated with a higher amount of prenatal speech exposure. Moreover, the learning effect was generalized to other types of similar speech sounds not included in the training material. Consequently, our results indicate neural commitment specifically tuned to the speech features heard before birth and their memory representations.
We investigated the neural correlates induced by prenatal exposure to melodies using brains’ event-related potentials (ERPs). During the last trimester of pregnancy, the mothers in the learning group played the ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ – melody 5 times per week. After birth and again at the age of 4 months, we played the infants a modified melody in which some of the notes were changed while ERPs to unchanged and changed notes were recorded. The ERPs were also recorded from a control group, who received no prenatal stimulation. Both at birth and at the age of 4 months, infants in the learning group had stronger ERPs to the unchanged notes than the control group. Furthermore, the ERP amplitudes to the changed and unchanged notes at birth were correlated with the amount of prenatal exposure. Our results show that extensive prenatal exposure to a melody induces neural representations that last for several months.
The ability to learn a language is a human trait. In adults and children, brain imaging studies have shown that auditory language activates a bilateral fronto-temporal network with a left hemispheric dominance. It is an open question whether these activations represent the complete neural basis for language present at birth. Here we demonstrate that in 2-d-old infants, the language-related neural substrate is fully active in both hemispheres with a preponderance in the right auditory cortex. Functional and structural connectivities within this neural network, however, are immature, with strong connectivities only between the two hemispheres, contrasting with the adult pattern of prevalent intrahemispheric connectivities. Thus, although the brain responds to spoken language already at birth, thereby providing a strong biological basis to acquire language, progressive maturation of intrahemispheric functional connectivity is yet to be established with language exposure as the brain develops.
Anthropologists have become increasingly interested in embodiment—that is, the ways that socio-cultural factors influence the form, behavior and subjective experience of human bodies. At the same time, social cognitive neuroscience has begun to reveal the mechanisms of embodiment by investigating the neural underpinnings and consequences of social experience. Despite this overlap, the two fields have barely engaged one another. We suggest three interconnected domains of inquiry in which the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology can productively inform our understanding of the relationship between human brains and their socio-cultural contexts. These are: the social construction of emotion, cultural psychiatry, and the embodiment of ritual. We build on both current research findings in cultural neuroscience and ethnographic data on cultural differences in thought and behavior, to generate novel, ecologically informed hypotheses for future study. In addition, we lay out a specific suggestion for operationalizing insights from anthropology in the context of cultural neuroscience research. Specifically, we advocate the development of field studies that use portable measurement technologies to connect individual patterns of biological response with socio-cultural processes. We illustrate the potential of such an approach with data from a study of psychophysiology and religious devotion in Northeastern Brazil.
The brain and the nervous system are our most cultural organs. Our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and open to cultural sculpting at multiple levels. Recognizing this, the new field of neuroanthropology places the brain at the center of discussions about human nature and culture. Anthropology offers brain science more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable difference in brain function; neuroscience offers anthropology evidence of neuroplasticity’s role in social and cultural dynamics. This book provides a foundational text for neuroanthropology, offering basic concepts and case studies at the intersection of brain and culture. After an overview of the field and background information on recent research in biology, a series of case studies demonstrate neuroanthropology in practice. Contributors first focus on capabilities and skills — including memory in medical practice, skill acquisition in martial arts, and the role of humor in coping with breast cancer treatment and recovery — then report on problems and pathologies that range from post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans to smoking as a part of college social life.
The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.