Learning Sciences of Change

Learning Change Project: 8 Blogs, +7300 Readings

Ethics and the Ethical Brain

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I’ve suggested that traditional ethical convictions in our culture have been grounded in a belief (often tacit) in an immaterial soul that somehow uses the brain, but reserves for itself the powers of moral reasoning, decision making, and an appreciation of meaning and purpose. The cognitive neuroscience revolution challenges that belief, and increasingly forces us to recognize that all mental life is a product of the evolved, genetically influenced structure of the brain. This challenge has also been seen to threaten sacred moral values, but I would argue (and like to think that Gazzaniga agrees) that in fact that is not a logical consequence. On the contrary, I think a better understanding of what makes us tick, and of our place in nature, can clarify those values. This understanding shows that political equality does not require sameness, but rather policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress does not require that the mind is free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility does not require that behavior is uncaused, only that it responds to contingencies of credit and blame; and that finding meaning in life does not require that the process that shaped the brain have a purpose, only that the brain itself have a purpose.

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Read also: The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas

Written by Giorgio Bertini

July 1, 2015 at 11:37 am

Building a Social Brain

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Because we are a social species, humans have evolved a fundamental need to belong that encourages behaviors reflective of being good group members. From this perspective, the need for interpersonal attachments is a fundamental motive that has evolved for adaptive purposes. Effective groups shared food, provided mates, and helped care for offspring. As such, human survival has long depended on living within groups; banishment from the group was effectively a death sentence. Thus, the human brain is social at its core. What do you need to make a social brain? Or what does the brain need to do to allow it to be social? Given the fundamental need to belong, there needs to be a social brain system that monitors for signs of social inclusion or exclusion and alters behavior to forestall rejection or  resolve other social problems. In this chapter I have proposed that building a social brain requires four components, each of which involves distinct functional brain regions. First, people need self-awareness — to be aware of their behaviors so as to gauge them against societal or group norms. Second, people need to have a theory of mind — to understand how others are reacting to their behavior so as to predict how others will respond to them. Third, they need to be able to detect threats. Threat detection involves at least the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, although the precise nature of their roles in threat detection remains somewhat unclear. The fourth component is the ability to self-regulate.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Development of the Adolescent Brain and Social Cognition

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Adolescence is a time of considerable development at the level of behaviour, cognition and the brain. This article reviews histological and brain imaging studies that have demonstrated specific changes in neural architecture during puberty and adolescence, outlining trajectories of grey and white matter development. The implications of brain development for executive functions and social cognition during puberty and adolescence are discussed. Changes at the level of the brain and cognition may map onto behaviours commonly associated with adolescence. Finally, possible applications for education and social policy are briefly considered.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2015 at 12:12 pm

The Social Brain in Adolescence

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Social cognition is the collection of cognitive processes required to understand and interact with others. The term ‘social brain’ refers to the network of brain regions that underlies these processes. Recent evidence suggests that a number of social cognitive functions continue to develop during adolescence, resulting in age differences in tasks that assess cognitive domains including face processing, mental state inference and responding to peer influence and social evaluation. Concurrently, functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies show differences between adolescent and adult groups within parts of the social brain. Understanding the relationship between these neural and behavioural observations is a challenge. This review discusses current research findings on adolescent social cognitive development and its functional MRI correlates, then integrates and interprets these findings in the context of hypothesised developmental neurocognitive and neurophysiological mechanisms.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2015 at 11:45 am

The Biology of Adolescence

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Adolescence is a time of transformation that is characterized by discrete changes in behavior, cognition and the brain – some of which are likely pubertal dependent, and others which are not. Although set within cultural contexts, these transformations appear to have biological roots that are deeply embedded in our evolutionary past. Starting from an evolutionary perspective, this paper provides an overview of the neurobiological and hormonal changes of adolescence and the implications of this biology for adolescent risk-taking and other behaviors. So, what impact does consideration of the biology of adolescence have for understanding adolescent risk-taking? Basic neurobehavioral characteristics of adolescents have biological roots that are deeply imbedded in our evolutionary past. Adolescents view rewarding and aversive stimuli differently than do adults. The adolescent brain does not seem to merely reflect a series of regions attaining maturity at different times, but in some sense can be characterized as a brain that reacts differently to stimuli than does the mature brain.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2015 at 11:25 am

How Concepts Develop in the Brain

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Thanks to Carnegie Mellon University advances in brain imaging technology, we now know how specific concrete objects are coded in the brain, to the point where we can identify which object, such as a house or a banana, someone is thinking about from its brain activation signature. Now, CMU scientists are applying this knowledge about the neural representations of familiar concepts by teaching people new concepts and watching the new neural representations develop. ‘Each time we learn something, we permanently change our brains in a systematic way,’ said Bauer, the study’s lead author. The results from this study also indicate that it may be possible to use a similar approach to understand the ‘loss’ of knowledge in various brain disorders, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or due to brain injuries. The loss of a concept in the brain may be the reverse of the process that the study observed.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 19, 2015 at 2:35 am

What Science Knows: And How It Knows It

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To scientists, the tsunami of relativism, scepticism, and postmodernism that washed through the humanities in the twentieth century was all water off a duck’s back. Science remained committed to objectivity and continued to deliver remarkable discoveries and improvements in technology. In What Science Knows, the Australian philosopher and mathematician James Franklin explains in captivating and straightforward prose how science works its magic. He begins with an account of the nature of evidence, where science imitates but extends commonsense and legal reasoning in basing conclusions solidly on inductive reasoning from facts. After a brief survey of the furniture of the world as science sees it—including causes, laws, dispositions and force fields as well as material things—Franklin describes colorful examples of discoveries in the natural, mathematical, and social sciences and the reasons for believing them. He examines the limits of science, giving special attention both to mysteries that may be solved by science, such as the origin of life, and those that may in principle be beyond the reach of science, such as the meaning of ethics. What Science Knows will appeal to anyone who wants a sound, readable, and well-paced introduction to the intellectual edifice that is science. On the other hand it will not please the enemies of science, whose willful misunderstandings of scientific method and the relation of evidence to conclusions Franklin mercilessly exposes.

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Read also: The Cognitive Science of Science: Explanation, Discovery, and Conceptual Change

Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 18, 2015 at 12:29 pm

How Curiosity drives Learning

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People find it easier to learn about topics that interest them, but little is known about the mechanisms by which intrinsic motivational states affect learning. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how curiosity (intrinsic motivation to learn) influences memory. In both immediate and one-day-delayed memory tests, participants showed improved memory for information that they were curious about and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging results revealed that activity in the midbrain and the nucleus accumbens was enhanced during states of high curiosity. Importantly, individual variability in curiosity-driven memory benefits for incidental material was supported by anticipatory activity in the midbrain and hippocampus and by functional connectivity between these regions. These findings suggest a link between the mechanisms supporting extrinsic reward motivation and intrinsic curiosity and highlight the importance of stimulating curiosity to create more effective learning experiences.

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Read also: What’s Going on Inside the Brain Of A Curious Child?

How the Power of Interest Drives Learning

How to Stimulate Curiosity

Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 16, 2015 at 12:00 pm

The Neuroscience of Social Decision-Making

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Given that we live in highly complex social environments, many of our most important decisions are made in the context of social interactions. Simple but sophisticated tasks from a branch of experimental economics known as game theory have been used to study social decision-making in the laboratory setting, and a variety of neuroscience methods have been used to probe the underlying neural systems. This approach is informing our knowledge of the neural mechanisms that support decisions about trust, reciprocity, altruism, fairness, revenge, social punishment, social norm conformity, social learning, and competition. Neural systems involved in reward and reinforcement, pain and punishment, mentalizing, delaying gratification, and emotion regulation are commonly recruited for social decisions. This review also highlights the role of the prefrontal cortex in prudent social decision-making, at least when social environments are relatively stable. In addition, recent progress has been made in understanding the neural bases of individual variation in social decision-making.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 7, 2015 at 12:04 am

Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions

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Current research on culture focuses on independence and interdependence and documents numerous East-West psychological differences, with an increasing emphasis placed on cognitive mediating mechanisms. Lost in this literature is a time-honored idea of culture as a collective process composed of cross-generationally transmitted values and associated behavioral patterns (i.e., practices). A new model of neuro-culture interaction proposed here addresses this conceptual gap by hypothesizing that the brain serves as a crucial site that accumulates effects of cultural experience, insofar as neural connectivity is likely modified through sustained engagement in cultural practices. Thus, culture is “embrained,” and moreover, this process requires no cognitive mediation. The model is supported in a review of empirical evidence regarding (a) collective-level factors involved in both production and adoption of cultural values and practices and (b) neural changes that result from engagement in cultural practices. Future directions of research on culture, mind, and the brain are discussed.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 6, 2015 at 11:44 pm

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