Neuroscience the scientific study of the brain. Neuroscience is a new science. Previously the brain was studied by neurologists who are basically doctors of medicine who specialize in the brain. When non medical scientists started to study the brain to understand how it functions, instead of how to treat people who have brain disorders, neuroscience and neuroscientists came into being.

Brain Rules. Brain rules are a way of simplifying some the complex functioning of our brains.  This way of attempting to distill what we know about the brain and how it relates to learning was inspired by By John Medina's idea of brain rules as presented in his book of the same name. Here, this site attempts to cover a similar range of information. In doing this, this site tries to answer two slightly different but connected questions. "What can be done to optimize the brain's functioning?" & "How do various parts of the brain function when optimized for learning and what conditions have positive and negative value for that functioning?"

  Brain wiring and learning. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina tells us that Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for figuring out a lot of what happens in the brain when learning takes place. He says:

"Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brain changes. he demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. the brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself."

Given that this rewiring is taking place all the time it seems unlikely that any of this wiring would turn out to be close to being the same in any two brains and this has in fact proved to be the case even with identical twins who experience the same environment. Medina says:

"Even identical twins do not have identical brain wiring. Consider this thought experiment: Suppose two adult male twins rent the Halle Berry movie Catwoman... Even though they are in the same room sitting on the same couch, the twins see the movie from slightly different angles. We find that their brains are encoding visual memories of the video differently, in part because it is impossible to to observe the video from the same spot.

...One of the twins earlier in the day read a magazine story about panned action movies, a picture of Berry figuring prominently on the cover. While watching the video, this twin's brain is simultaneously accessing memories of the magazine. We observe that his brain is busy comparing and contrasting comments from the text with the movie and is accessing whether he agrees with them. The other twin has not seen the magazine so his brain is not doing this. Even though the difference may seem subtle, the two brain are creating different memories of the same movie.

...Not even identical twins having identical experiences possess brains that wire themselves exactly the same way. And you can trace the whole thing to experience.

...Given these data, does it make any sense to have school systems that expect every brain to learn like every other?

The multiple intelligences movement. Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education and has a theory of multiple types of intelligence. But following from the idea that every brain being wired differently any neuroscientist would insist that there not just nine categories of intelligence but are probably billions of types of intelligence. Be that as it may Gardner's influence in education has to be seen as a positive force in making some allowances for students to learn in different ways.

Evolve & survive. Like every other part of us, our brains have evolved over time. Our brain can in fact be divided into three structures corresponding with different periods in our evolution.

The lizard brain. Our ancestors, before we were humans, once had only what is called a "lizard brain". This brain pretty much only deals with automatic or housekeeping functions like breathing, keeping us balanced, keeping our heart beating at the rate needed for whatever we are doing, reacting to stimuli and refining our movement. This is basically what is called the brain stem which includes the small brain like structure at the back of the brain, the cerebellum. Any fairly complex creatures including lizards have a brain similar to this. We humans also have this lizard type brain, but on top of it is perched a far more complex structure.

The mammalian brain. As we evolved into more intelligent creatures, more brain features were added giving us the brain of a mammal like a cat's. These new features of the brain deal with long term memory, emotions, refined processing of sensory information and more complicated understanding. Creatures with this type of brain are far more intelligent, better informed, have better memories and are guided by emotions. Humans have this collection of structures as well as the lizard brain, but unlike most mammals they have something extra on top of this. 

The human brain. Above the mammalian brain there is a thin layer of jell-o known as the cortex, the third and most powerful, "human" brain. This brain is concerned with even better long term memory and even more complex processing. And a special new section expanded in the front of the brain called the prefrontal lobes is concerned with inhibiting emotional responses so a more logical processing can override. This logical processing called symbolic reasoning is a uniquely human talent.

The problem with these three brains is that they developed to do one thing, and are now being used to do something else. Not only that, but what one is trying to accomplish, the others are often at odds with, and are trying to accomplish something else. Far from being a finely tuned instrument designed to do exactly what it should, the human brain is a massive kludge at cross purposes with its own other parts. Thus symbolic reasoning may direct us to go one way but our emotions may be directing us to do something else. Sometimes our senses tell us one thing but reasoning tells us something else. It would be nice to have conscious control over the primitive brain's housekeeping functions, but we do not.

Despite the fact that our brain is faulty and misfires it still gave us a huge advantage that was not available to any other creature on earth. After we were forced from the trees to the Savannah when climate swings disrupted our food supply, radically new skills were required in order for us to survive. There were many new problems to solve. Many creature could not solve such problems and died off. Fortunately for us, going from four legs to two to walk on the Savannah freed up energy for us to develop complex brains. These newly evolved brains were better able to solve new problems as they arose, and those with the more primitive brains couldn't compete. Humans became the most adept creatures at surviving by developing a brain that could adapt to change itself.

Brain fitness, novel learning & the prevention of brain deterioration. In his book "The Brain that Changes Itself" Norman Doidge tells us how Fred 'Rusty' Gage, of the Salk Institute at La Jolla California performed an experiment with rats that showed that the ones that were put in a novel environment that required new learning responded with the activation of neurogenesis in their hippocampus which he found to have a 15 percent increase in volume. Doidge explains about tests then conducted on older mice:

"When the team tested older mice raised in the enriched environment for ten months in the second half of their lives, there was a five fold increase in the the number of neurons in the hippocampus. These mice were better at tests of learning, exploration movement and other measures of mouse intelligence than those raised in unenriched conditions. They developed new neurons, though not quite as quickly as younger mice, proving that long-term enrichment had an immense effect on promoting neurogenesis in an aging brain."

Many people picked up on the fact the most effective contributor to increased proliferation of new neurons was the running wheel. They pointed out that this was exercise and that perhaps exercise was the factor that induced the neuron proliferation. But n his book "The Brain that Changes Itself" Doidge explains that Gage himself had other ideas:      

"Gage's theory is that in a natural setting, long-term fast walking would take the animal into a new and different environment that would require new learning, sparking what he calls 'anticipatory proliferation.'

'If we lived in this room only,' he told me, 'and this was our entire experience, we would not need neurogenesis. We would know everything about this environment and could function with all the basic knowledge we have.'

This theory that novel environments may trigger neurogenesis, is consistent with Merzenich's discovery that in order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new, rather than simply replaying already mastered skills.

But as we have said, there is a second way to increase the number of neurons in the hippocampus: by extending the life of neurons that are already there. Studying mice the team found that learning how to use the other toys, balls, and tubes didn't make new neurons, but it did but it did cause the new neurons in the area to live longer. Elizabeth Gould also found that learning, even in a nonenriched environment, enhances survival of stem cells. thus physical exercise and learning work in complementary ways: the first to make new stem cells, the second to prolong their survival."       

In his book "The Brain that Changes Itself" Norman Doidge has the following to say about Merzenich:

"Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate and control plasticity to waist away."

Learning was found to have an application for helping people avoid Alzheimer's disease. For instance, studying a musical instrument or learning a new dance, (activities that require concentration) appeared to be to be particularly effective in warding off Alzheimer's disease. It was found that the most effective method of improving brain function was learning new things and particularly new skills. This approach has been shown to be successful in the work of Michael Merzenich and others. Doidge continues:

"As Merzenich's work has shown, however, a condition often confused with Alzheimer's disease, and much more common - age related memory loss, a typical decline in memory that occurs in advanced years - seems almost certainly reversible with the right mental exercises." [These are mental exercises involving learning new skills that Merzenich provides through his work at Fast Forward.]

In her book "Train Your Mind Change Your Brain" Sharon Begley also speaks about Merzenich's work as follows:

"In a study Merzenich presented in late 2005, he had elderly volunteers, sixty-one to ninety-four years old, undergo eight weeks of computer based training to improve the brains ability to discern the sounds of speech. ...'The majority improved ten or more years of neurocognitive status.' says Merzenich.

...He foresees a day when the discoveries of neuroplasticity will usher in 'a brain-fitness culture,' reflecting 'an understanding that you need to exercise your brain as you exercise your body.

...Older adults are frequently told that, to keep their mind sharp, they need to to stimulate it with activities such as crossword puzzles and reading. But such activities done repeatedly become second nature, demanding less attention than new skills do.

As Merzenich and colleagues point out, animal studies have shown 'that under optimal environmental conditions, almost every physical aspect of the brain can recover from age related losses.' New neurons can bloom; gray matter can become thicker. Neuroplasticity makes it possible." 

There have been many studies in related areas such as those related below in the new scientist. Please note that all the conditions mentioned below, as helping prevent mental deterioration in old age, are all conditions that are likely to involve continuing extensive new learning.

"Study after study has shown that intelligence, good education, literacy and high status jobs all seem to protect people from mental ravages of old age and provide some some resistance to the symptoms, if not the brain shrinkage, of dementia." New Scientist, 03/06/06

Exercise and brain fitness. Neuroscientists have also discovered the brain was also capable of being helped by any kind of intense activity such as exercise. Good exercise, it was found, sent more oxygen to the brain and stimulated the sensory and motor cortexes. John Medina, in his book "Brain Rules" explains some of this:

"When you exercise, you increase blood flow across the tissues of your body. This is because exercise stimulates the blood  vessels to create a powerful, flow regulating molecule called nitric oxide. As the flow improves, the body makes new blood vessels, which penetrate deeper and deeper into the tissues of the body. This allows more access to the bloodstream's goods and services, which include food distribution and waste disposal. [The main function of oxygen in the blood is to act like an efficient electron-absorbing sponge.] [The oxygen rich air you inhale keeps the food you eat from killing you.] The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove. this happens all over the body. this is why exercise improves the performance of most human functions... 

The same happens in the human brain. Imaging studies have shown that exercise literally increases blood volume in a region of the brain called the dentate gyrus. That's a big deal. The dentate gyrus is a vital constituent of the hippocampus, a region deeply involved in memory formation This blood-flow increase, which may be the result of new capillaries, allows more brain cells greater access to the blood's food and haz-mat teams.

Another brain-specific effect of exercise is recently has become clear... At the molecular level, early studies indicate that exercise also stimulates one of the brain's most powerful growth factors, BDNF. this stands for Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor, and it aids in the development of healthy tissue. BDNF exerts a a fertilizer-like growth effect on certain neurons in the brain. The protein keeps existing neurons young and healthy, rendering them much more willing to connect with another. It also encourages neurogenesis, the formation of new cells in the brain. The cells most sensitive to this are in the hippocampus, inside the very regions deeply involved in human cognition.

Attention. Neuroscience and social psychology have shown that what goes into both short-term memory and long-term memory, and our ability to recall it, is completely dependent on our attending to it. These sciences have established that very little in the way of information gets through to our brains if we do not pay attention to it. John Medina, in his book "Brain Rules" explains that there are many way in which our attention cane be engaged or hijacked:

"Thirty years ago, a scientist by the name of Michael Posner derive a theory of attention that remains popular today. ...Posner hypothesized that we pay attention to things because of the existence of three separable but fully integrated systems in the brain. ...In Posner's model, the brains first system functions much like the two-part job of a museum security officer: surveillance and alert. He called it the Alerting  or Arousal Network. It monitors the sensory environment for any unusual activities. This is the general level of attention our brains are paying to the world, a condition termed Intrinsic Alertness.

After the alarm, we orient ourselves to the attending stimulus, activating a second network. We may turn our heads toward the stimulus, perk up our ears, perhaps move toward (or away) from something. ...The purpose is to gain more information about the stimulus, allowing the brain to decide what to do. Posner termed this the Orienting Network.

The third system, the Executive Network, controls the 'oh my gosh what should I do now' behaviors. These include setting priorities, planning on the fly, controlling impulses, weighing the consequences of our actions, or shifting attention."

Our emotions can hijack our attention. When strong emotions are involved we do not have control of our attention. We involuntarily attend to the stimulus or the event. Learning is made easier by emotional content because we automatically attend to it.

When we are in a learning situation we may wish to maintain our attention on what ever is being presented in the lesson. We can force our attention on some event in this way but research has found our ability to do this tends to quickly fade after about ten minutes. This can be brought back if some emotional element is injected into the lesson such as a surprise or humor making available another ten minutes.

Interest is inextricably linked to attention and can help us maintain our attention beyond the usual ten minutes. Interest and importance can cause the initial attention to be stronger and last longer.

We are continually taking in masses of information through our senses but most of it we are never aware of because we are not paying attention to it. We rely on Posner's alerting network to uncover anything interesting or important so we can be aware of it.

Sleep. The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake. The longer you sleep the more likely these cells and chemicals will swing toward making you wake up. On the other hand the longer you stay awake the more these cells and chemicals will get stronger in trying to put you to sleep.

People vary in how much sleep they need and when they prefer to get it, but the biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal and can improve learning and all brain functions quite a bit.

From an evolutionary point of view sleep seems to have so many disadvantages that it seems unlikely that any advantage it may provide could be so great. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina puts it like this:

"Sleep makes us exquisitely vulnerable to predators. Indeed, deliberately going off to dreamland unprotected in the middle of a bunch of hostile hunters (such as leopards, our evolutionary roommates in eastern Africa) seems like a behavior dreamed up by our worst enemies. There must be something terribly important we need to accomplish during sleep if we are willing to take such risks in order to get it. Exactly what is so darned important?" 

After much scientific investigation over many years the most likely explanation of the importance of sleep is not that it provides rest for the brain, which is amazingly active during most of our sleep cycle, but rather that it is somehow essential to learning. It is initially rather counter intuitive to be told that sleep is essential for learning, but there is some strong circumstantial evidence. However, at the same time we are all well aware that lack of sleep impairs all kinds of human abilities. Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity. Thus we should not be surprised to learn that lack of sleep impairs the ability to learn, which it indeed does. Studies show that lack of sleep impairs cognitive skill. The loss of a single night's sleep can cause a 30 percent loss in overall cognitive skill, with a subsequent drop in performance. If this loss of sleep is increased to two nights and impairment of 60 percent of cognitive skill can result. But the question is what is all that brain activity, that happens while we sleep? What are our brains doing that is so important? John Medina tells a funny story that provides a clue:

"Consider the following true story of a successfully married, incredibly detail-oriented accountant. Even though dead asleep, he regularly gives financial reports to his wife all night long. Many of these reports come from the day's activities. (Incidentally, if his wife wakes him up - which is often, because his financial broadcasts are loud - the accountant becomes amorous and wants to have sex.) Are we all organizing our previous experiences while we sleep? Could this not also explain all the other data we have been discussing, but also finally give us a reason why we sleep?"

John Medina then goes on to explain about what happened to a rat that had been learning how to navigate mazes with 500 electrodes implanted in its brain. The rat fell asleep. This provided a unique opportunity for researchers to discover what goes on in a rat brain when it goes to sleep after just learning a new maze route. What they recorded was a pattern very similar to the pattern they recorded while the rat was was awake and running through the maze. John Medina tells the story:

"When the rat goes to sleep, it begins to replay the maze pattern sequence. The animal's brain replays what it learned while it slumbers, reminiscent of our accountant. Always executing the pattern in a specific stage of sleep, the rat repeats it over and over again - and much faster than during the day. The rate is so furious, the sequence is replayed thousands of times. If a nasty graduate student decides to wake up the rat during this stage, called slow wave sleep, something equally extraordinary is observed. The rat has trouble remembering the maze the next day. Quite literally, the rat seems to be consolidating the day's learning the night after that learning occurred, and an interruption of that sleep disrupts the learning cycle.

This naturally caused researchers to ask whether the same was true for humans. The answer? Not only do we do such processing, but we appear to do it in a far more complex fashion. Like the rat, humans appear to replay certain daily learning experiences at night, during the slow-wave phase. But unlike the rat, more emotionally charged memories appear to replay at a different stage of the sleep cycle. These findings represent a bombshell of an idea. Is it possible that the reason we need to sleep is simply to shut off the exterior world for a while, allowing us to divert more attentional resources to our cognitive interiors? Is it possible that the reason we need to sleep is so that we can learn?"

It is now fairly well confirmed that replaying of memories of the previous day occurs during the slow wave period of sleep and that we experience them as dreams.

This sounds all well and good but unfortunately brain damaged people who lack the ability to sleep in the slow-wave phase nonetheless have normal and even improved memories as do people who have REM sleep suppressed by antidepressant medication.
 
Dreams.
Everybody is familiar with the idea that dreams happen during REM sleep. However, dreams actually happen in all stages of sleep, but different types of dreams happen at different stages of sleep. 

Slow wave dreams. Sleep research has discovered that during slow wave sleep we have dreams that seem very much like the replaying of memories that were imprinted from events that occurred the previous day. The evidence gathered about this process seems to point toward it having two possible functions. One possible function seems to be the strengthening of some memories (by replaying them). At the same time during this phase of sleep a pruning of synapses takes place. So it is likely that the memories of the previous day that are not replayed, or at least parts of them, are simply deleted. Thus during this period of sleep memories could be said to accessed by the brain and divided into two groups important memories and unimportant memories. The important memories are then replayed while the unimportant memories are deleted. 

Other synapses than the ones from the previous day may also be pruned away during this process. As we know memories that are recalled become flexible and labile. It may well be that past memories become labile and flexible when new memories are replayed if they contain elements occurring in the old memories. Or only those elements occurring in both the old memories and the new may be replayed at all. Both the old memories and the new memory may have synapses striped away leaving only those elements that were common to both memories. 

Penelope Lewis and Simon Durant developed a model as a possible explanation of how replaying memories during slow wave sleep, in combination with downscaling of synapses could function in unison. In her book "The Secret World of Sleep" Lewis presents it as follows:

"If more than one memory is replayed at the same time, the neurons associated with areas of shared replay or "overlap," will be more strongly activated than the other neurons... This means, for instance, if you replay memories of two or three different birthday partys, all of which involved cake, presents and balloons, but each of which was held at a different place and with a different set of guests, then responses in the neurons which code for cake, presents, and balloons will be stronger than responses associated with locations of individual parties or the people who attended them. Furthermore, based on the general principle that neurons which fire together wire together..., the linkages between neural representations of cake, presents and balloons will also become stronger than other linkages associated with these memories, such as between a specific birthday and her presents or other people who were at her party... All this strengthening is important because it means that when synapses are subsequently downscaled these representations of overlap may be the only thing that is retained. In fact, as multiple memories are replayed across a night, the more often a specific representation (say a birthday cake) or pair of representations (say, both cake and presents) is triggered, the more likely that specific aspect of a memory is to be retained."

This process above may well be an explanation for the formation of concepts. Concepts would be formed by the elimination of information in memory that is not specific to the concept. In the case above it would gradually form the concept of a birthday party. It also would as Penalope Lewis believes explain the formation of new semantic knowledge. She continues:

"The realization that birthday parties are associated with cake, presents, and balloons is an example of the development of new semantic knowledge. Semantic knowledge is the general knowledge about the world and how things in it relate to each other. Classic examples of semantic knowledge are knowledge that the sky is blue, that Paris is the capital of France, and for that matter that birthday parties normally include cake, presents, and balloons."

During this phase of sleep what we measure as slow waves is actually slow increases and decreases in potential occurring throughout the brain. It is likely that these slow changes ensure that complete memory patterns fire and not just bits of those patterns. This rise and fall of potential may also explain how memories are chosen to be replayed. Memories that have already been rehearsed or replayed while we were awake would require less potential to be activated while we are asleep. Likewise memories that have greater emotion attached would also require less potential to be activated. Thus the potential may simply never get high enough to activate some memories.

In his book  "The Chemistry of Conscious States" J. Allen Hobson calls the above type of possible dream function 'consolidation' as in consolidating memories and consolidating knowledge out of data or information.  

Rapid eye movement dreams. The father of dream research was want to say: "Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives." He said this of course because the main dreams that we remember, although they sometimes seem to be logical while we are experiencing them, are actually very illogical, with transitions and connections that appear to be completely random. This site holds to the idea that perhaps we need to be crazy every night. If repetition is so important, why do we spend so much time dreaming illogical dreams while we are asleep? As expressed elsewhere this site is unconvinced that repetition alone is the way in which memories are consolidated.

Paralysis. Another feature of REM dreams is the fact that during such dreams we become paralyzed. While in other stages of sleep we can toss and turn and move about. But during REM sleep we are paralyzed, and for good reason. We are in a highly emotional state (intense emotions, especially of fear, rise and fall chaotically), we are hallucinating (in that we are seeing hearing things that are not in the real world) and we are just plain crazy. On top of that during this sleep stage all the schemas or action programs become available to run. If we were not paralyzed we would be running, jumping, dancing, fighting and doing god knows what. In his book  "The Chemistry of Conscious States" J. Allen Hobson explain it like this:

"The motor programs in the brain are never more active than during REM sleep! As our dreams make clear, REM sleep entails a frenzy of action - we run, we drive, we fly, we swim. There is no rest in REM sleep for the central programs that move us about by day. On the contrary, they are souped up and we assume for good reason: to prevent their decay from disuse, to rehearse for their future actions when called on during waking, and to embed themselves in a rich matrix of meaning.

It seems likely that one function of this type of dreaming might be the the strengthening of these action programs by running many of them without any movement taking place, spinning our wheels (so to speak) while we sleep. Think about it. Many of our dreams concern the fight or flight response. Keeping programs concerned with fight or flight in good working order would have important evolutionary consequences.   

Early stage REM dreams. During the early stages of REM sleep we also appear to replay experiences or memories from the previous day and other fairly recent memories. These replays or dreams tend, however, to be longer in duration than slow wave dreams, and include many other elements. This site holds that these dreams occurring early REM sleep may be a better type of memory consolidation. This site has always held that the main way in which memories are consolidated is through elaboration. In other words it is not the repetition itself that enables consolidation of memories, but rather the new connections that are included during the repetition, that makes the difference.

While we are awake we imprint sensory information as memories but we are not immediately able to comprehend or understand such information completely. Initially the information connects with only a limited amount of the other data stored already in our minds. The dreams that occur in this early stage of REM sleep may be our brains consolidating memories in a manner that is far superior to mere replay. We may be making connections to the memory from all the other similar or logically connectible information in our brains. These numerous extra connections would make memories both more understandable and more easily accessed. In this way we may be building a mental map of what we need to understand or learn and indeed solve problems. While we sleep and during the early stages of REM sleep our brains may well be integrating new information with the old information building a structure that fits it all together. What research has shown clearly is that after sleep information is not only better remembered but better understood or comprehended and more able to be put to use solving our trickiest problems. This is consistent with our brains constructing mental maps or maps of reality. In her book "The Secret World of Sleep" sleep researcher Penelope Lewis puts it like this:

"The answer appears to be that sleep does a lot more than strengthen individual memories. It is also involved in the complex process of integrating new information with old and abstracting out general principals or rules which describe a corpus of events and help us to make informed predictions about the future."

"Taken together these studies demonstrate that sleep is important for combining information from multiple sources. It helps us to extract statistical regularities, pull out general principles, integrate new information with older knowledge structures and piece together a larger picture from a set of interrelated fragments."

In his book "The Chemistry of Conscious States" J. Allen Hobson suggests that there may be three different ways in which this early stage of REM sleep may use dreaming to integrate new information with older information in our minds, and in doing so turn it into knowledge:

"The representation of the memory in neuronal networks could be made more secure by its simultaneous distribution to other networks. It could be made more versatile by linking it in hyperassociative fashion to every network with which it shares formal features (such as axles with long things, hard thing strong things). It could be made more useful if it were linked to procedures that it served (such as weight bearing, prying). I call these additional memory processes distribution, hyperassociation and proceduralization.

Dreaming has several features that could enhance all...of these functions... For the memory redistribution function, REM sleep provides a massive, widespread activation with intense reiterative stimulation of all the cortical circuits of the brain. For the hyperassociative function, REM sleep provides the coactivation of newly sensitized circuits and all those circuits previously endowed with the multiple interconnections necessary for category overinclusiveness. For the proceduralization function, REM sleep provides automatic running of motor programs that give the data access to existing action files."

J. Allen Hobson goes on to speculate as to how this might all fit together as follows:  

"When we find ourselves in a new place, we at once begin to develop orientational schemas. We build up our brain-mind maps by incorporating the results of exploring the environment and moving through it, while at the same time sniffing it, hearing it, and feeling its textures. This lead us to an important question that is tougher than it looks: How can we most efficiently and effectively assure the orientational experience we perceive gets built into our system? In addition, how can we be sure that if a built in procedure isn't used, it doesn't get lost?

One way would be to have a state (waking) in which we are exposed to new information and another state (REM sleep) in which the new data is integrated with the whole set of existing programs in the system. For that to happen, we would need to run the system automatically for a considerable length of time each day (say one and a half hours, the usual grand total of REM sleep for a night); we would want to run it fast (say six procedure a second, the usual rate of PGO wave signals); we would want to run it with the clutch disengaged (so the system does not have to output); and we would want to run it in an altered chemical climate (to favor a set of molecular operations that differs from that in waking, to encode long-term memory). That's a tall order. But it's all done reliably, efficiently and unconsciously in REM sleep, mother of all procedures. We are performing mental gymnastics, using motor programs to train our brain each time we dream...

These startling dream enactments...are so full of meanings... that REM sleep must be preparing us for almost any possible waking eventuality. The programs are all there. Life's event call them forth. And most of the time, they otherwise stay put."

Latter stage REM dreams. However, we may also require completely illogical connections to memories, or in other words random connections. Penelope Lewis says: "Dreams occur at all stages of sleep, but they seem to become increasingly fragmented as the night progresses. ...REM dreams that occur late in the night are typically much more bizarre and disjointed." This sort of illogical elaboration, like logical elaboration, would provide more pathways though which each memory could be accessed.

If a need for random connections could be established it would explain illogical dreams, it would explain their illogical nature and it would be consistent with the above research on the replaying of previous experiences for the purpose of consolidating learning. It is possible we have both kinds of nightly experiences. It would be possible to have nightly replays of waking experiences with perhaps random connections thrown in, or the waking experiences could be chopped up and reconnected randomly to produce chaotic dream like experiences. In this way recent waking experiences could be activated in concert with other random waking experiences to form new connections between clumps of knowledge at random.

The question then would be why would the brain need random connections? The answer might be quite simple. One possibility is, that for every part of the brain to be connected, it may require that some of the connections are illogical. Another more likely possibility is that all creative activity, including problem solving, hunches and incite, need random or chaotic connections to function. Without dreams it may be impossible to be original and creative. In his book "Where Good Ideas Come From" Steven Johnson puts it like this:

"There is nothing mystical about the role of dreams in scientific discovery. While dream activity remains a fertile domain for research, we know that during REM sleep acetylcholine-releasing cells in the brain stem fire indiscriminately, sending surges of electricity billowing across the brain. Memories and associations are triggered in a chaotic, semirandom fashion, creating the hallucinatory quality of dreams. Most of those new neuronal connections are meaningless, but every now and then the dreaming brain stumbles across a valuable link that has escaped waking consciousness. In this sense, Freud had it backward with his notion of dreamwork: the dream is not somehow unveiling a repressed truth. Instead, it is exploring, trying to find new truths by experimenting with novel combinations of neurons."

In her book "The Secret World of Sleep" sleep researcher Penelope Lewis shows that random brain stem firings cannot fully explain dreams because most dreams, especially those occurring earlier in the night, tend to have logical threads running through them, and are sometimes persistent in reoccurring. Nevertheless, it may well be, that random brain stem firing is responsible for the chaotic nature of REM dreams occurring later in the night. In any case Lewis agrees that the chaotic structure of latter dreaming may well determine creativity. She explains it this way:

"Although we don't quite understand how dreams achieve this type of innovative recombination of material, it seems clear that the sleeping brain is somehow freed of constraints and can thus create whole sequences of free associations. This is not only useful for creativity, it is also thought to facilitate incite and problem solving. It may even be critical for the integration of newly acquired memories with more remote ones... In fact, this facilitated lateral thinking could, in itself, be the true purpose of dreams. It is certainly valuable enough to have evolved through natural selection."

These random connections could be understood to produce occasional errors in thought that in turn produce crazy ideas from which we can mine useful novel ideas. Without dreams thoughts may get stuck in ruts with no escape route.

Stress. Like sleep, stress seems to be deeply tangled in the learning experience. Firstly we know that any experience that is associated with a highly emotional state will make that experience more memorable. We have strong persistent memories of things that make us angry and afraid. At school teachers try to take advantage of this by making students afraid so they will remember. As will become clear from the research results explained below this strategy if continued for any length of time will become highly counter productive. These strong emotions like anger and fear activate the fight or flight orienting system which floods the body and brain with strong chemicals. Initially the body is flooded with adrenaline which causes your pulse to race and your blood pressure to rise and releases energy to muscles ready to perform any action quickly. Your body prepares to go into overdrive, it is stressed. There is however another hormone at work in this situation. This chemical is called cortisol. This hormone's function is to return the body to a normal state lowering the pulse, restoring blood pressure to normal and calming and relaxing the muscles. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina explains:

"Why do our bodies need to go through all this trouble? The answer is very simple. Without a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response, we would die. Remember, the brain is the world's most sophisticated survival organ. All of its many complexities are built toward a mildly erotic singularly selfish goal: to live long enough to thrust our genes on the next generation. Our reactions of stress serve the live-long-enough part of that goal. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.

...Most survival issues we faced in our first few million years did not take hours or even a minute, to settle. The saber-toothed tiger either ate us or we ran away from it - or a lucky few might stab it, but the whole thing was over in under a minute. Consequently, our stress responses were shaped to solve problems ha lasted not for years, but for seconds. They were primarily designed to get our muscles moving us as quickly as possible, usually of harms way. You can see the importance of this immediate action by observing people who cannot mount a thorough and sudden stress response. If you had Addison's disease, for example you would be unable to to raise your blood pressure  in response to severe stress, such as being attacked by a mountain lion. Your blood pressure would drop catastrophically, probably putting you into a state of debilitating shock. You would become limp, then you would become lunch.

These days, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but with hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers and money problems. And when moderate amounts of of hormone build up to large amounts, or when moderate of hormone hang around too long, they become quite harmful."

Scientists call the state, that animals and humans reach when confronted with severe stress from which there is no escape, learned helplessness. All animals including humans if stressed for long periods without release tend to lose heart and learn that the only strategy worth attempting is to do nothing. They literally learn to be helpless. Once a person has learned to be helpless it becomes nearly impossible to learn anything else. In order to learn a person must first feel that he can learn. For more about this see Learning key 9 on choices. Chronic stress also has other unfortunate consequences all of which impair human ability to learn. John Medina continues: 

"Over the long term,...too much adrenaline stops regulating surges in your blood pressure. These unregulated surges create sandpaper like rough spots on the inside of your blood vessels. The spots turn into scars, which allow sticky substances in the blood to build up there, clogging your arteries. If it happens in the blood vessels in your heart you get a heart attack; in your brain, you get a stroke. Not surprisingly people who experience chronic stress have elevated risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Stress also affects our immune response. At first, the stress response helps equip your white blood cells, sending them off to fight on the body's most vulnerable fronts, such as the skin. Acute stress can even make you respond better to a flu shot. But chronic stress reverses these effects, decreasing your number of heroic white-blood cell soldiers, stripping them of their weapons, even killing them outright.

...The hippocampus, that fortress of human memory, is studded with cortisol receptors like cloves in a ham. This makes it very responsive to stress signals. If stress is not too severe, the brain performs better. Its owner can solve problems more effectively and is more likely to retain information. There is an evolutionary reason for this. Life-threatening events are some of the most important experiences we can remember. they happen with lightening speed in the Savannah, and those who could commit those experiences to memory the fastest (and recall them accurately with equal speed) were more apt to survive than those that couldn't. Indeed research shows that memories of stressful experiences are formed almost instantaneously in the human brain, and they are recalled very quickly during times of crises.

If stress is too severe or too prolonged, however, stress begins to harm learning. The influence can be devastating. You can see the effects of stress on learning in everyday life. Stressed people don't do math very well. They don't process language very efficiently. They have poorer memories, both short and long forms. Stressed people do not generalize or or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios as well as non stressed individuals. They can't concentrate. In almost every way it can be tested chronic stress hurts our ability to learn. ...Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem solving). Those of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business."     

Vision.  We do not see with our eyes we see with our brains.  Because vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain's resources what we see often influences what is perceived through any of the other senses. We tend to taste what we see, smell what we see, hear what we see and even feel what we see. Even our balance organs will provide misinformation if we see the world the wrong way. Food tends to taste better when it looks appetizing. Wine smells sweeter when it is a beautiful deep rich red color. We are used to thinking of what we see as being completely reliable as though our eyes work like a camera recording exactly what is there. We say, "Seeing is believing." Unfortunately this is quite wrong and our eyes are simply not 100 percent trustworthy. The reason why this is so, is that the visual analysis our brains perform has many steps. The retina assembles photons into little movie-like streams of information. These streams on entering the brain are analyzed and information is broken up into various discrete types of conceptual data and sent to various brain areas for various types of processing. For instance motion is perceived quire separately from color and outlines, shadows and depth are all processed separately and then recombined.

We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words. John Medina in his book "Brain Rules" has this to say:

"When it comes to memory, researchers have known for more than 100 years that pictures and text follow very different rules. Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized - and recalled. The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.

Human PSE is truly Olympian. Test performed years ago showed that people could remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90 percent accuracy several days post exposure. even though subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63 percent. In one paper - adorably titled 'Remember Dick and Jane?' - picture recognition information was reliably retrieved several decades later.

Sprinkled throughout these experiments were comparisons with other forms of communication. The favorite target was usually text or oral presentations, and the result was 'picture demolishes them both.' It still does. Text and oral presentations are not just less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.

The inefficiency of text has received particular attention. One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. Data clearly show that a word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letters. Instead of words we see complex little art-museum masterpieces, with hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters. Like an art junkie, we linger at each feature, rigorously and independently verifying it before moving to the next...

Perhaps, with hindsight, we could have predicted such inefficiency. Our evolutionary history was never dominated by text-filled billboards of Microsoft Word. It was dominated by leaf-filled trees and saber-toothed tigers. The reason vision means so much to us may be as simple as the fact that most of the major threats to our lives in the Savannah were apprehended visually. Ditto with most of our food supplies. Ditto with our perceptions of reproductive opportunity."       

Unfortunately most teaching is composed of presenting information through lecturing, writing on a board, or through reading assignments. John Medina continues:

"Teachers should learn why pictures grab attention. Educators should know how pictures transfer information. There are things we know about how pictures grab attention that are rock solid. We pay lots of attention to color. We pay lots of attention to to orientation. We pay lots of attention to size. And we pay special attention if the object is in motion. Indeed most of the things that threatened in the Serengeti moved, and the brain has evolved unbelievably sophisticated trip-wires to detect it. We even have specialized regions to distinguish when our eyes are moving versus when the world is moving. These regions routinely shut down perceptions of eye movement in favor of the environmental movement.

Teachers should use computer animations. Animation captures the importance not only of color and placement but also motion. With the advent of web-based graphics, the days when this knowledge was optional for educators are probably over. Fortunately, the basics are not hard to learn. With today's software, simple animations can be created by anybody who knows how to draw a square and a circle. Simple two-dimensional pictures are quite adequate; studies show that if the drawings are too complex or lifelike, they can distract from the transfer of information."              

Gender. Male and female brains are different, but the question is why? What appears to be significant statistical differences between male and female brains may not be inevitably determined, but rather may be well within our ability to control. The X chromosome that males have one of and females have two of - though one acts as a backup - is a cognitive "hot spot," carrying an unusually large percentage of genes involved in brain manufacture. Woman are genetically more complex, because the active X chromosomes in their cells are a mix of Mom's and Dad's. Men's X chromosomes all come from Mom, and their Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes compared with about 1,500 for the X chromosome. Men's and women's brains are different structurally and biochemically - men have a bigger amygdala and produce serotonin faster, for example -  but we don't know if those differences  have significance. Men and women respond differently to acute stress: Women activate the left hemisphere's amygdala and remember the emotional details. Men use the right amygdala and get the gist. Men tend to be more hierarchically competitive, to establish a pecking order, while women tend to fall into the me too type of competition to establish inclusion.

Now while there may actually be different genetic predispositions in men and women that may play a part in whether male or female brains turn out different or not, it is now known that this is not a full analysis of what happens. We now know that genes, far from being a template that will determine our qualities and abilities is far more like a control board that is operated by environmental influences. Genes have to be switched on, switched off, turned up, or turned down. Thus the differences between males and females like any kind of human difference may be diminished or exaggerated by environmental conditions. This is possible especially through the actions of other people and through our own actions in choosing those environmental conditions and placing ourselves in them.

There are two social forces at work here widening or shrinking these differences between men and women. Firstly, there is imitation and conformity where we tend to act like our role models and we tend to want to be like others we see around us in order to fit in. Secondly, we tend to become what is expected of us. This is what sociologist Robert Merton calls a self fulfilling prophecy. People believe that men act this way and women act that way so that is how we act. Thus boys tend to try and act like men and girls tend to try and act like women. We are drawn to act more and more like our stereotype. We see the path through our lives as being easier and more enjoyable if we will just embrace our stereotype. So we do. In this way society and ourselves become complicit in deciding whether the brain differences of men and women are large or small, exist or do not exist.

For instance, it has been shown in many often repeated experiments that women are significantly better at languages than men, but this may be because they practice speaking more. The more women practice talking the better their verbal skills become and the more the areas in their brains concerned with language tend to grow. Our brains are so plastic that it may be possible for men and women to develop very similar brains, given the right environment, despite staring off to have genetic predispositions to produce very different brains. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina tells how his son's teacher managed to forestall a widening gender gap in his son's class:

"My son's third-grade teacher began seeing a stereotype that worsened as the year progressed. The girls were excelling in the language arts and the boys were pulling ahead in math and science. This was only the third grade! The language-arts differences made some sense to her. But she knew there was no statistical support for the contention that men have a better aptitude for math and science than women. Why for heaven's sake was she presiding over a stereotype?

The teacher guessed that part of the answer lay in the student's social participation during class. When the teacher asked a question of the class, who answered first turned out to be unbelievably important. In the language arts, the girls inevitably answered first. Other girls reacted with that participatory, 'me too' instinct. The reaction on the part of the boys  was hierarchical. The girls usually knew the answers, the boys usually did not, and the males responded by doing what low-status males tend to do: They withdrew. A performance gap quickly emerged. In math and science, boys and girls were equally likely to answer a question first. But the boys used their familiar 'top each other' conversational styles when they participated, attempting to establish a hierarchy based on knowledge aptitude. This included drubbing anyone who didn't make the top, including the girls. Bewildered, the girls began withdrawing from participating in the subjects. Once again a performance gap emerged.

The teacher called a of the girls and verified her observations. She then asked for a consensus about what they should do. The girls decided that they wanted to learn math and science separately from the boys. Previously a strong advocate for mixed gender classes, the teacher wondered aloud if that made any sense. yet if the girls started losing the math-and-science battle in the third grade, the teacher reasoned they were not likely to excel in the coming years. She obliged. It took only two weeks to close the performance gap."

One experiment does not provide much in the way of good science. It does however, point out a direction to be investigated. It may well be that we can do much to prevent the widening of mental differences between males and females if we so wish.               

Exploration as a way of being prepared. The human brain is large with cognitive abilities that give humans tremendous advantage over all the other animals. What are those advantages and how do they develop? The main way humans have an advantage over other animals is by being prepared in advance for any situation that might come up. Our large brains have both a capacity to hold vast amounts of information and an amazing capacity to process that information quickly into solutions to any problem that might occur.

The pleasure mechanism. Learning and the pleasure mechanisms in the brain are deeply entangled. We now know that the neurotransmitter dopamine seems to be the main source of what we call pleasure. But dopamine does not act in the simple manner that it was once thought it. Dopamine does not simply flood the system in response to a reward or the achievement of a goal. If it did the amount of dopamine would be proportional to the reward or the achievement of that goal each time it was obtained. This is not the case. Dopamine is far greater in our system when we are learning something and greatest when we are just beginning to learn something. Dopamine is greatest in our systems when we first notice the possibility of a pattern emerging where we might get a reward or we might achieve a goal.

The pleasure is greatest when the likelihood of getting a reward or achieving a goal is most shaky. It is now thought that this means that the pleasure is not the result of a reward or achievement but rather the result of a learning possibility. It is now thought that the function of pleasure is to focus attention on such possibilities so that learning takes place. Pleasure then occurs not in response to a reward or an achievement, but in response to weak anticipation of a reward or achievement. Why weak anticipation and not strong anticipation? It is simple. When anticipation is strong learning has already taken place, we know something will happen. As soon as we know something in this way the brain no longer has to draw our attention to it. We already know it. When we are not sure, we only have a hunch or a weak conjecture, so our brain lets us know we have to take notice of what happens so we can learn. In his paper " Dopamine Neurons Respond" Wolfram Schultz put it like this:

"Dopamine neurons respond to primary rewards only when the reward occurs unpredictably. ...By contrast, a fully predicted reward does not elicit a response in dopamine neurons."

The reason for our brains to focus our attention like this is so that we will have a predisposition to learn acting in our brains continually throughout our lives. Unfortunately this mechanism can malfunction in several ways. The most obvious way it can malfunction is drugs. Certain drugs can cause the system to flood with dopamine. When this happens our brain is tricked. A part of the brain has the illusion it is learning something, when it is not. It tries to correct this malfunction by reducing the amount of dopamine in response to the drug. This response is what we know as addiction where ever increasing amounts of the drug are needed to get the same pleasure.

Gamboling also fools this pleasure mechanism. The gambler sees endless possible patterns which he uses to anticipate a reward, and the uncertainty of the reward causes the brain to flood itself with dopamine to focus attention. Unfortunately the patterns in gambling are an illusion where we are fooled by randomness. Again we learn nothing, and we lose money while we do it, but we do get the pleasure of uncertainty or hope.          

When the pleasure mechanism works well. When the pleasure mechanism is working well, it enables us to have a predisposition to know things, not just when they are needed to get us out of a jam like when a saber tooth is running us down, but in advance. Having a large store of knowledge allows two very important brain functions to effectively give us this advantage. We can preprocess the knowledge into plans and scenarios for dealing with possible problems before the occur, and we can also process the knowledge on the fly more easily solving problems as they occur. In this way we may avoid the saber tooth all together, or deal with him quickly and effectively when he appears.

Curiosity and the aggressive desire to explore. Our brains manage this tremendous feat of collecting information in advance of the need for it, by means of curiosity and the predisposition to explore our environment and learn about it. This is a direct outcome of the brain's pleasure mechanism. We are not the only animals that are curious, but our bigger more efficient brains allow us to make better use of it. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina tells us he considers this accumulation of masses of information as being the fueling of the brain which keeps our intellect running. He says:

"This fuel consists of a clear, high octane, unquenchable need to know. Babies are born with a deep desire to understand the world around them and an incessant curiosity that compels them to aggressively explore it. This need for explanation is so powerfully stitched into their experience that some scientists describe it as a drive just as hunger and thirst and sex are drives.

Babies seem preoccupied by the physical properties of objects. babies younger than a year old will systematically analyze an object with every sensory weapon at their disposal. they will feel it, kick it, try to tear it apart, stick it in their ear, stick it in their mouth, give it to you so you can stick it in your mouth. They appear to be intensely gathering information about the properties of the object. Babies methodically do experiments on the objects to see what else they will do.

...Hypothesis testing like that is the way all babies gather information. They use a series of increasingly self-corrected ides to figure out how the world works. They actively test their environment, much as a scientist would: Make sensory observation, form a hypothesis about what is going on, design an experiment capable of testing the hypothesis, and then draw conclusions from the findings.

For little ones, discovery brings joy. Like an addictive drug, exploration creates the need for more discovery so more joy can be experienced. it is a straight-up reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue into the school years. As children get older, they find that learning not only brings them joy, but it also brings them mastery. Expertise in specific subjects breeds confidence to take intellectual risks [sometimes with the right mindset]. If these kids don't end up in the emergency room, they may end up with a Nobel Prize.

I believe it is possible to break this cycle, anesthetizing both the process and the child. By first grade, for example children learn that education means an A. They begin to understand that they can acquire knowledge not because it is interesting, but because it can get them something. Fascination can become secondary to 'What do I need to know to get the grade?' But I also believe the curiosity instinct is so powerful that some people overcome society's message to go to sleep intellectually and they flourish anyway.

My grandfather was one of those people. He was born in 1892 and lived to be 101 years old. He spoke eight languages, went through several fortunes, and remained in his own house (mowing his own lawn) until the age of 100, lively as a firecracker to the end. At a party celebrating his centenary, he took me aside. 'You know Juanito,' he said clearing his throat, 'sixty-six years separate the Wright brothers' airplane from Neil Armstrong and the moon.' He shook his head, marveling. 'I was born with the horse and buggy. I die with the space shuttle. What kind of thing is that?' His eyes twinkled. 'I live the good life!' He died a year later.

John Medina also explains that the human brain of an adult is capable of experiencing the same joy that young children get from learning and thus humans can experience this joy throughout their lives. Humans can do this because our brains, while not being as plastic as a baby's, are nevertheless capable of massive new growth throughout the human lifetime. John Medina says: "Researchers have now shown that some regions of the adult brain stay as malleable as a baby's brain, so we can grow new connections, strengthen existing connections, and even create new neurons, allowing all of us to be lifelong learners." The proof of this was brought home to Medina when he worked as a post-doc at the University of Washington. He explains as follows:

In 1992, Edmond Fischer shared with Edwin Krebs he Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I had the good fortune to be familiar with both their work and their offices. They were just down the hall from mine. By the time I arrived, they were already in their mid-70. The first thing I noticed upon meeting them was that they were not retired. Not physically an no mentally. Long after thy had earned the right to be put out to scientific pasture, both had powerful, productive laboratories in full swing. Every day I would see them walking down the hall, oblivious to others, chatting about some new finding, swapping each other's journals, listening intently to each other's ideas. Sometimes they would have someone else along, grilling them and in turn being grilled about some experimental result. They were creative like artists, wise as Solomon, lively as children They had lost nothing."

The right stuff learning environment. It is plain that we all start out with this motivating joy of learning and that some of us seem to retain it into old age. Most of us however seem to lose this joy of learning and it seems likely that the environment in which we dwell could be improved so this does not happen. There are many ways people could go about improving the environment so that this joy could be kept alive. Most of these ways involve others providing time and resources to encourage interest when it occurs and exposing young people to new ideas and in a ways that make it interesting. John Medina's description of his early learning environment is a perfect example of what can be done. He says:

"I remember when I was 3 years old, obtaining a sudden interest in dinosaurs. I had no idea that my mother had been waiting for it. That very day, the house began its transformation into all things Jurassic. And Triassic. And Cretaceous. Pictures of dinosaurs would go up on the wall. I would begin to find books about dinosaurs strewn on the floor and sofas. Mom would even couch dinner as 'dinosaur food,' and we would spend hours laughing our heads off trying to make dinosaur sounds. And then suddenly, I would lose interest in dinosaurs, because some friend at school acquired an interest in spaceships and rockets and galaxies. Extraordinarily, my mother was waiting. Just as quickly as my whim changed, the house would begin its transformation from big dinosaurs to Big Bang. The reptilian poster came down, and in their places, planets would begin to hang from the walls. I would find little pictures of satellites in the bathroom. Mom even got 'space coins' from bags of potato chips, and I eventually gathered all of them in a collectors book.

This happened over and over again in my childhood. I got an interest in Greek mythology, and she transformed the house into Mount Olympus. My interests careened into geometry, and the house became Euclidean, then cubist. Rocks, airplanes. By the time I was 8 or 9 I was creating my own house transformations.

One day, around age 14, I declared to my mother that I was an atheist. She was a devoutly religious person, and I thought this announcement would would crush her. Instead, she said something like 'That's nice, dear,' as if I had just declared I no longer liked nachos. The next day, she sat me down by the kitchen table, a wrapped package in her lap. She said calmly, 'So I hear you are now an atheist. Is that true?' I nodded yes, and she smiled. She placed the package in my hands. 'The man's name is Friedrich Nietzsche, and the book is called "Twilight of the Idols," she said. 'If you are going to be an atheist, be the best one out there. Bon appetit!' I was stunned. But I understood the message. Curiosity itself was the most important thing. And what I was interested in mattered. I have never been able to turn of this fire hose of curiosity."                          

Mirror neurons. Another way in which we have an advantage over other animals is our ability to cooperate. One way this cooperation is accomplished is by out brains capacity to communicate, which in turn depends on our ability to develop a complex verbal language that makes such communication possible. Complex language in turn depends on our brain's great ability for both object recognition and its ability for symbol recognition and manipulation.

Another way this cooperation is made possible is by our facility for mind reading or being able to put ourselves in the bodies of others and feel what they feel. Our brains have a much larger capacity than other animals for both, empathy and predicting the actions of others.

Yet another way humans have an advantage over other creatures is our large brain's ability to prepare motor plans in advance which can be used instantly to solve problems and get us out of trouble as it occurs. 

Scientists are discovering new things about the changeability of the brain all the time, and one of the newest and most exciting discoveries to emerge recently is the discovery of mirror neurons. Giacomo Rizzolatti working with his team of neuroscientists in Parma Italy were first to notice these unusual neurons. Basically mirror neurons are neurons that become electrically active both when a subject is performing an action and when the subject is seeing the same action performed. Rizzolatti and his team were experimenting with macaque monkeys. They had implanted electrodes into the motor areas of they monkey's brains and connected these to computers so the could see and hear the discharge of motor neurons during grasping exercises. Between these exercises while the monkey was still, one of the team, Vittorio Gallese, was moving about the room. He reached out to grasp something and heard a burst of activity from the computer as if the monkey was grasping something. But the monkey, when he looked, was quite still.

Mirroring People. In his book "Mirroring People" Marco Iacoboni lays out the investigation of these neurons. Although this work is recent and still needs some checking, a picture is emerging as to just what the functions of these mirror neurons might be. One of the first experiments to be performed in this investigation was the checking of the firing patterns of neurons in a monkey's brain, when it was picking up fruit and eating it and picking it up and putting it in a bowl. This was then checked against the same monkey simply watching a human perform the same actions. The results were conclusive. When watching or performing an action most of the same neurons fired yet they fired differently for the two different actions.

The functions of mirror neurons. It seems likely from the experiments done on mirror neurons so far, and as reported by Marco Iacoboni, that mirror neurons have several functions:

  1. Motor plans. Mirror neurons seem to represent what Piaget would have called schemas. These are sort of motor plans for specific actions, that are simulated in the mind ready to put into action. The motor plan is active, and a readiness exists for the action to be performed. We see somebody picking up an apple and eating it, and those motor plans are activated in our own mind preparing us to pick up an apple and eat it our self. This happens instantaneously. There is no intervening thought. Thought comes after this, in deciding whether or not to perform the action.

  2. Object recognition. Mirror neurons also fire in response to seeing objects, especially ones that could be involved in an action. It is likely, that objects gain part of their meaning from the actions they could be involved with. The sight of the object would therefore activate the motor plans likely to be involved with that object. We see the apple and the motor plans for picking it up and eating it are automatically simulated in our minds, as part of what we understand an apple to be. 

  3. Symbolic recognition. Images, words and other symbols used in communication readily invoke the activation of mirror neurons. Visual representation of an action activates the mirror neurons for that action. But so do auditory representations of the action, or verbal descriptions of the action. Mirror neurons are probably activated just by thinking about some action. Thus we are not surprised to find that a drawing of a ball being kicked, the sound of a ball being kicked, hearing somebody say kick, or thinking about kicking all activate the mirror neurons that would be used in the action of kicking a ball.

  4. Predicting the actions of others. Mirror neurons also appear to be involved in predicting the intentions of others. Reaching for a certain object by one person, by virtue of the activation of mirror neurons, begins the process in another person of simulating motor plans. Obviously, an object could have more than one motor plan as part of its meaning. To be effective in activating the correct motor plan, clearly other factors had to be accessed in observing the other person, to invoke the correct motor plan. It was found that mirror neurons were sensitive to contextual situations, facial expressions and other cues to a person's emotional state.

  5. Empathy. Mirror neurons were also found to enable people to feel what other people were feeling. When mirror neurons were activated though observation of another person's face etc. it was found that this also activated the emotional firing pattern of neurons in the limbic system. This firing pattern of neurons closely matched the emotional state in the other person's limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with emotion. These two areas of the brain, the facial recognition mirror neurons and the limbic system, were found to be directly linked together through an area of the brain called the insula. The extent and strength of these mirror neuron firings were found to correlate nicely with empathic ability. Also the ability to recognize the facial expressions of others correlates with general social competence. It was also found that a week or damaged mirror neuron system was a good indicator of autism.

The development of mirror neurons. Some ability to mimic rudimentary manual and facial gestures were shown by Andrew Meltzoff to exist in newborn babies just after birth and thus could be said to be inborn or instinctual. Clearly then some mirror neurons must exist for this function at birth. However experimentation has shown that most mirror neurons come into existence through seeing some action performed and trying to imitate it. Mutual imitation of parent and child, it would seem, is what enables mirror neurons to form. When the action has been learned new mirror neurons have been formed. These mirror neurons are the ones that simulate the new action. Thus clearly learning any skills must involve the forming of new mirror neurons. In all probability, the formation of new mirror neurons may be a part of any kind of learning. The functions of mirror neurons confirm that the actions people perform have much more to do with what we perceive others doing, than what we are told or told to do. Our brains simply function that way.

Myelin wrap. Another line of research in neuroscience concerns the study of white matter in the brain. In the brain, white matter is composed of bundles of myelinated nerve cell processes (or axons). These connect various gray matter areas (the locations of nerve cell bodies) of the brain to each other, and carry nerve impulses between neurons. These connecting nerve fibers or axons are wrapped in a dense fat called myelin which prevents the electrical impulses leaking out of those axons. This wrapping takes place in two different ways. In the brain and the spinal cord this wrapping is carried out by cells called oligodendrocytes that extend tentacle like arms to wrap several axons and give those axons a bumpy unsmooth appearance. In the nerve fibers that spread out to every part of our bodies whole cells called schwann cells wrap themselves completely around the axons in sections that give the appearance of sausages. Although the study of myelin is in its infancy some of the new theories about the function of myelin are very much concerned with learning and tend to corroborate and explain much of the work sited above.

Faster clearer more accurate. For instance it is now fairly well accepted that the wrapping of nerve fibers in myelin speeds up the electrical impulses traveling along them and by as much as 100 times. The more myelin that wraps around the fiber the faster it goes. Myelin also decreases the wait between nerve impulses by a factor of 30. These two improvements in processing result in an increase in processing power by as much as 3000 times. Dr. Douglas Fields of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda Maryland uncovered the mechanism that causes myelin to wrap around nerve fibers which he describes in a 2006 paper in the journal Neuron. It appears that the supporter cells (oligodendrocytes and schwann cells) sense nerve firing and respond by wrapping myelin around the fiber that fires. The more neurons or nerve fibers fire, the more myelin wraps around it, the faster the signal travels.

Many studies such as those by Fredric Ullen, Torkel Klingberg and jesus Pujol have shown an unmistakable increase in in white matter in response to the learning of any complex skill. It would appear that not only does myelin wrap, make a nerve impulse much less susceptible to distortion and faster, but also allows for a much finer control.

Impulse speed is skill. A single action may involve many neurons and nerve fibers that need to fire at just the right time, in the right sequence. Two impulses from different fibers for instance, may need to reach a particular neuron at approximately the same time for it to fire in turn and thus set up a sequence. By varying the amount of myelin that wraps around each fiber control of how fast an impulse may travel and thus determine when it will arrive at another neuron. In this way a correct sequence my be obtained by varying the amount of myelin wrapping each fiber. Also an action in a skill may be varied until you get it right and thereafter only occasionally practiced and always with an eye to improving it. Varying actions in this way causes minute changes in the amount of myelin wrapping various fibers, which likewise is a response to those fibers firing. This in turn causes the fibers to fire more correctly at the right time in the right sequence. Thus the action gradually moves toward being performed perfectly or correctly. Nerve firings grow myelin, myelin controls impulse speed, and impulse speed is skill.

However, myelin wraps it does not unwrap. Thus actions as determined by nerve impulses can be adjusted a little as more and more myelin wraps around but you are always building on what is already there. Piaget and Maslow were right. Wiping an action out and relearning it from the beginning is very difficult to try and do. Old habits die hard.

Age matters for myelin. Myelin grows more extensively at particular periods in a person's life. As child development progresses myelin wrapping seems to come in waves and appears in particular parts of the brain. This may be in response to genetic triggers or it may be simply in response to to new types of learning which would not have been possible without other learning having taken place first. For instance a baby cannot learn to walk until it can stand up. Also morality cannot even be conceived of until the idea of cause and effect is understood. In average adults, from the age of about 50, myelin begins to deteriorate faster than it is created. This of course depends on the amount of learning being done by persons over the age of 50. Keeping the mind sufficiently active may enable the brain to replace myelin as fast or faster than it deteriorates.

Brain Rules. John Medina, at the end of each chapter in his book, tries to compress the information in that chapter into a few clear statements or rules. Below this site has included all those statements of Medina's 12 rules and included a few others that may be equally as important. Not all the the information relating to those rules is featured above on this page but all such information may be reached by clicking on the heading for each rule.

  1. Learning. Learning is not one of Medina's rules but it is perhaps the most important condition for healthy and optimized brain functioning. The brain's main function is to learn.

    As is the case with every other body part, if you don't use it you lose it. The brain is no different in this regard. If parts of it are left unused they deteriorate or are taken over by competing functions. If the whole brain is used little it is likely to atrophy as a whole.  

    It seems likely that as we get older and learning becomes harder, that we neglect intensive learning which leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate and control plasticity to waist away.

    Learning, especially the learning of physical skills or learning by doing, has been shown to protect people from mental ravages of old age and provide some some resistance to the symptoms, if not the brain shrinkage, of dementia.

    Learning should therefore be a life long activity. 

  2. Exercise. [This is a Medina rule. Our brains are optimized for learning when we have just moved, when we are moving and when we are preparing to move.] John Medina says: Exercise boosts brain power.

    Our brains are built for walking - 12 miles a day.

    To improve you thinking skills move. [Imagine treadmills in the classroom where students exercise in as preparation for absorbing information or who walk on the treadmill at 1 to 2 miles per hour while taking their lesson.]

    Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.

    Aerobic exercise just twice a week halves your risk of general dementia. It cuts your risk of Alzheimer's by 60 percent.

    [If we were trying to design a system that prevented learning, or made it as difficult as possible we could hardly have done better than to create schools where children are prevented from moving for hours and hours per day.] 

  3. Survival. [This is a Medina rule. The brain is not perfect it's a kludge. We evolved out of creatures that did not need sophisticated brains and our brains are still similar to theirs in many ways. Most of the sophistication of the brain is additional and compensatory.] John Medina says:

    We don't have one brain in our heads; we have three. We started with a "lizard brain" to keep us breathing, then added a brain like a cat's, and then toped those with a thin layer of jell-o known as the cortex - the third and powerful, "human" brain.

    We took over the earth by adapting to change itself, after we were forced from the trees to the Savannah when climate swings disrupted our food supply.

    Going from four legs to two to walk on the Savannah freed up energy to develop a complex brain.

    Symbolic reasoning is a uniquely human talent. It may have arisen from our need to understand one another's intentions and motivations, allowing us to coordinate within a group.

  4. Wiring. [This is a Medina rule. Each brain is unique. It's content, structure and connection are all unique.] John Medina says: Every brain is wired differently.

    What you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like - it literally rewires it.

    The various regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people.

    No two people's brains store the same information in the same way in the same place.

    We have a great number of ways of being intelligent, many of which don't show up on IQ tests.

    [For children to learn easily their brain's need information structured specifically for each one of their individual needs. Both the stating point, the content interest and challenge, and the method of presentation, should ideally be designed with a specific student in mind.] 

  5. Attention. [This is a Medina rule. Quite a lot of work has been done in social psychology and neuroscience on the subject of attention. These sciences have established that very little in the way of information gets through to our brains if we do not pay attention to it.] John Medina Says: People don't pay attention to  boring things.

    The brain's attention "spotlight" can focus on only one thing at a time: no multitasking. (Perhaps we should mention that the more people try to multitask the better they will get at switching from one task to another.)

    We are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of events than we are at recording detail. [To access details you normally have to, in fact, reconstruct it from the pattern.]

    Emotional arousal helps the brain learn. (Emotions can pin down details in memory.)

    Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion.

  6. Short-term-memory. [This is a Medina rule. Short term memory requires elaboration to keep it connected and repetition to keep it active.] John Medina says: Repeat to remember.

    The brain has many types of memory systems. One type follows four stages of processing: encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting.

    Information coming into your brain is immediately split into fragments that are sent to different regions of the cortex for storage.

    Most of the events that predict whether something is learned will also be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.

    You can improve your chances of remembering something if you reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain.

  7. Long-term-memory. [This is a Medina rule. Long term memory requires the information should be elaborated as extensively as possible. Medina says repetition helps us store long term memories. But repetition never truly occurs exactly the same way each time we go over information. It is most probably the elaboration that occurs while we are going over information, that fixes it in out memories, rather than the repetition itself.] John Medina says:

    Most memories disappear within minutes, but those that survive the fragile period strengthen with time.

    You can improve your chances of remembering something if you reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain.

    Long-term memories are formed in a two-way conversation between the hippocampus and the cortex, until the hippocampus breaks the connection and the memory is fixed in the cortex - which can take years.

    Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.

    The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it [with additional elaboration] in timed intervals.

  8. Sleep. [This is a Medina rule. The brain does not need rest but it does need sleep.] John Medina says: Sleep well think well.

    The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake.

    The neurons of your brain show vigorous rhythmical activity when you're asleep - perhaps replaying what you learned during the day. [More likely our brains are elaborating what we learned during the day by connecting it to random memories already stored in our brains.]

    People vary in how much sleep they need and when they prefer to get it, but the biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal.

    Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.

  9. Stress. [This is a Medina rule. Stress is a response to threat. While helpful to learning if it occurs very occasionally is actually damaging to learning if it is maintained for long periods of time or every time something is learned.] John Medina says: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.

    Your body's defense system - the release of adrenaline and cortisol - is built for an immediate response to to a serious but passing danger, such as a saber-toothed tiger. Chronic stress, such as hostility at home, dangerously deregulates a system built only to deal with short-term responses. [Constant threat of punishment at school is obviously very stressful as is exclusion from peer groups.]

    under chronic stress, adrenaline creates scars in your blood vessels that cause heart attack or stroke, and cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling your ability to learn and remember.

    Individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the problem - you are helpless. [In school students are are made to feel helpless in many ways such as being bullied, or made to feel they are too stupid to succeed.]

    Emotional stress has huge impacts across society, on children's ability to learn in school and on employees' productivity at work.

  10. Sensory Integration. [This is a Medina rule. If we wish to learn more effectively we should,] John Medina says: Stimulate more of the senses at the same time.

    We absorb information about an event through our senses, translate it into electrical signals (some for sight, others from sound etc.), disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the even as a whole.

    The brain seems to rely partly on past experience in deciding how to combine these signals, so two people can perceive the same event very differently.

    Our senses evolved to work together - vision influencing hearing , for example - which means that we learn best if we simulate several senses at once.

    Smells have an unusual power to bring back memories, maybe because smell signals bypass the thalamus and head straight to their destinations, which include that supervisor of emotions known as the amygdala.

  11. Vision. [This is a Medina rule. They say 'seeing is believing' and even though that is not always true] John Medina says: Vision trumps all other senses.

    Vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain's resources.

    What we see is is only what our brain tells tells us we see, and it's not 100 percent accurate.

    The visual analysis we do has many steps. The retina assembles photons into little movie-like streams of information. The visual cortex processes these streams some areas registering motion others registering color, etc. Finally we combine that information back together so we can see.

    We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words. [Unfortunately most teaching is composed of presenting information through lecturing, writing on a board, or through reading assignments.] 

  12. Gender. [This is a Medina rule.] John Medina says: Male and female brains are different but the question is why. What appears to be significant statistical differences between male and female brains may not be inevitably determined, but rather may be well within our ability to control.

    The X chromosome that males have one of and females have two of - though one acts as a backup - is a cognitive "hot spot," carrying an unusually large percentage of genes involved in brain manufacture.

    Woman are genetically more complex, because the active X chromosomes in their cells are a mix of Mom's and Dad's. Men's X chromosomes all come from Mom, and their Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes compared with about 1,500 for the X chromosome.

    Men's and women's brains are different structurally and biochemically - men have a bigger amygdala and produce serotonin faster, for example -  but we don't know if those differences  have significance.

    Men and women respond differently to acute stress: Women activate the left hemisphere's amygdala and remember the emotional details. Men use the right amygdala and get the gist.   

  13. Exploration. [This is a Medina rule. Wanting to know why, how, where, when, and who is the news and also the way we question, investigate and explore knowledge.] John Medina says: We are powerful and natural explorers.

    Babies are the model of how we learn - not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

    Specific parts of the brain allow this scientific approach. the right prefrontal cortex looks for errors in our hypothesis ("The saber-toothed tiger is not harmless"), and an adjoining region tells us to change behavior ("Run").

    We can recognize and imitate behavior because of "mirror neurons" scattered across the brain.

    Some parts of our adult brains stay as malleable as a baby's, so we can create neurons and learn new things throughout our lives.

  14. Hard wiring. Hard wiring is not one of Medina's rules. While we are developing inside our mothers bodies, wiring is being laid down in our brains. This is done partly in response to our genetic predispositions and partly due to environmental conditions. This process continues after birth and throughout our childhoods. The earlier this wiring is laid down the more difficult it is to change later. 

    Habits and compulsions are collections of actions and those elements associated with those actions. With a habit associated actions and elements can be overcome, altered or improved, but with compulsions the associated actions and elements are hard to overcome and seem almost automatic.

    With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it. It is not what you feel while applying the technique that counts, it is what you do.

    Neurons that fire together wire together. The more you do something the more that action tends to become automatic and all the actions and elements associated with it also tend to become part of that automatic response.

    Neurons that fire apart wire apart. The less you do something the less that action tends to be automatic and all the actions and elements associated with that action also tend to become less automatic.

  15. Imitation. Mirror neurons seem to lay down first attempts at creating motor plans for observed actions so those actions can be imitated. These are not perfect representations, but rather have to be developed to a more perfect form through trial and error. However, once formed they can be simulated in the mind ready to put into action.

    Mirror neurons also fire in response to observing objects, especially ones that could be involved in an action. It is likely, that objects gain part of their meaning from the motor plan created by these mirror neurons.

    Images, words and other symbols used in communication readily invoke the activation of mirror neurons. Symbolic representation of an action in the form of a motor plan is probably part of the meaning of any symbol such as an image or a word.

    Mirror neurons also appear to be how the brain is able to predict the intentions of others. Reaching for a certain object by one person, by virtue of the activation of mirror neurons, begins the process in another person of simulating motor plans. This process gains accuracy by mirror neurons being sensitive to the context in which the actions are performed.

    When mirror neurons were activated though observation of another person's face etc. it was found that this also activated the emotional firing pattern of neurons in the limbic system allowing the person to feel what the other person is feeling. This is also part of how we can predict the intentions of others.

  16. Plasticity. Although neuron growth is strongest during our youth up to about 17 or 18 years of age, the brain nevertheless continues to grow throughout our lives. 

    It has been shown that neurons continue to appear throughout our lives and that this occurs in response to learning. Learning new things is how the brain grows.

    Our brains can recover from massive damage but his requires that a different part of the brain is cooped to perform the task that was performed by the area of the brain that was destroyed.

    Some functions like the executive functions in the prefrontal lobes and the memory functions in the hippocampus seem to be too specific to be duplicated in other parts of the brain. But brain functions relating to language and the movement of limbs seem have alternate possibilities, although everything has to be relearned, and is not relearned easily.

    Brains have four different ways in which they can compensate for damage. These are map expansion, sensory reassignment, compensatory masquerade, and mirror region takeover.

    Map expansion. The boundaries of brain map areas for various functions are constantly changing. The more we use some function the more it grows and encroaches on nearby areas. More control over a single brain area means the nearby area that is encroached upon loses some control.

    Sensory reassignment. This is where, if one sense is blocked, as in the blind, the area assigned to that perception, (in this case the visual cortex) is commandeered by the other senses such as touch.

    Compensatory masquerade. This is like the brain's redundancy system. There is often more than one way for a brain to approach a task. Some people use visual landmarks to get from place to place, while others have a good sense of direction. If one of these brain areas is lost to injury the brain can resort to the other.

    Mirror region takeover. If part of one hemisphere fails, the mirror region in the opposite hemisphere adapts, taking over its mental functions as best it can. This is also a kind of redundancy system. This can of course cause problems in whatever that part of the brain was previously being used for.

Life long flexibility, learning, the brain and a better world. So what does all this new knowledge about the brain tell us? It tells us that a lot of people's guesses about human nature and learning were correct. Freud was right when he guessed that what happens to us in childhood is important. Montessori was right when she guessed the environment of the child was the key to effective development. The optimists were right when the guessed that we can overcome disabilities by hard work and belief. It shows that the people who think we are prisoners or hostages of fate or of our genes were wrong. Our brains are ours to command and shape. It tells us that we are masters of our own destinies. It tells us that we can become stronger, more intelligent and that we can overcome our own disabilities, but only if we are willing make a great effort. We should not be surprised that this does not come easily. It also tells us not to be lazy. The first rule of life is that 'what you don't use you will lose' and it follows that what you use well will improve. Life is meant to be lived and our miraculous brains are meant to be used.

It may be fortuitous that we are now living in a world, that through 'the world wide web', provides more challenge for mental activity than ever before. While we are still living in a world where there are still many temptations of the 'read only' world of one way (passive) entertainment, we are learning there is now hope. The internet has ushered in a new form of 'read and write', two way (interactive) entertainment and learning. Clearly our brains are better fitted for this form of entertainment and learning. This will make us more intelligent, intelligent longer, healthier, happier, better and more fulfilled people. We should be warned, however, that the human brain thrives best on a lot of oxygen, which it can only obtain through the exercise of our bodies, and this should not be neglected while we sit in front of our monitors.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Karl Popper Self Control Body Control Knowing Maria Montessori Brain Plasticity Memory