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Learning and the Brain
By: Dan Bobinski

In reviewing literature on the human brain with respect to its formation and function, one can quickly determine that much is yet to be learned about the "central processing unit" of a human being. However, as research is being conducted in many places by many people, the puzzle pieces of the bigger picture are beginning to be identified. Studying brain structure and function from the time of conception to death, scientists and educational researchers are discovering much about the human brain and its role in human learning. These findings on brain formation and function are building a bridge that links the medical and education professions.

Genetic or Environmental Determinisms?

One common finding is the blend of genetic and environmental factors on brain development. The former Director of the Brain Research Institute in Los Angeles, California says that during gestation and for a short time after birth, the growth and development of the brain is largely based on genetic determinism. In addition, this same doctor also says that environmental factors play an increasingly important role, and that environmental factors affect brain development even near the point of conception (Arnold B. Scheibel, 1997).

More Than A Machine

Adding to the study of the impact of environment on the brain, Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine, in their paper, What "Whole Brain" Means: Why Wholeness Matters, state that "a mind/brain does not function like a machine. It is a complex adaptive system, a key property of which is self-organization" (as cited in Caine & Caine, 1997). They go on to say that core beliefs, values, and purposes are proving to be the main ingredients of self-organization, and that life experience continually impacts the formation or reformation of mental models (Caine & Caine, 1997).

Biologist-turned-educator Robert Sylwester says that a global brain theory will have to be developed that incorporates the biological discoveries about the brain (Dee Dickinson, 1997). Sylwester believes that eventually the biological understandings of function, consciousness, and memory will be converted to an integrative, cooperative learning theory (Dickinson, 1997).

The Brain Grows ...

From the medical perspective, the adult human brain "is believed to consist of at least one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells) and probably five to ten times as many neuroglial (functional support) cells" (as cited in Scheibel, 1997). The neurons, which hold the power of communication in the composition of the brain, make connections through cell extensions called dendritic branches and axons. As these extensions grow and multiply, more cognitive activity can occur (Scheibel, 1997). Although it was once believed that the number of neurons in any given human being was fully realized by birth, new evidence is surfacing to the contrary. Researchers at the Salk Institute have discovered newly generated cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain used for learning and memory. Researchers are cautious to confirm that the new cells function in learning and memory processes, but do believe that the possibility is quite plausible (June Kinoshita, 1999).

... and Shrinks

Interestingly, in similar research, it has been discovered that neurogenesis seems to slow down as people experience either of two extremes: a) stress, or b) a lack of stimulation. Certain hormones released during periods of stress appear to block new neuron production. In this scenario, the brain simply stops producing new neurons due to the presence of stress-related hormones. At the opposite end of the spectrum it has been discovered that as a person experiences minimal or no mental stimulation the brain responds by losing some of the neurons it already had (Kinoshita, 1999). In other words, not only does the brain stop producing new neurons, lack of stimulation causes some existing neurons to disappear.

The Protein Factor

In addition to the known function of neurons, dendrites, and axons, researchers are also discovering a link between certain proteins and memory. Several independent studies indicate that a protein known by its acronym CREB plays a significant role in memory development in mice, fruit flies, and sea snails. This protein not only affects the speed at which learning takes place, but also the long-term memory functions (Elizabeth Lasley, 1997). The implication is that this same protein performs the same function in humans.

While the medical profession conducts brain research focusing on the mechanical functions of observable matter such as chemicals and cell structure, research is also being conducted in the areas of the so-called intangibles. These include the study of learning and teaching styles, and understanding the roles of belief systems and values in the learning process.

Teaching Styles Do Matter!

Other research indicates that a student's self-organization of thoughts plays a large role in learning. A student's self-organization depends on several key factors: core beliefs, values, and purposes. If a teacher's facilitation methods are synergized effectively with these key factors, a student's worldview expands through "felt meaning." According to Caine & Caine (1997), this "leads to an expansion of perceptual knowledge and a change in mental models."

The fact that both the medical and educational fields are focusing on how the brain functions is encouraging to those seeking to advance the process of human learning. By analyzing and synthesizing the research conducted by both professions, educators are building a better understanding of how to maximize the human learning process.

Caine, Geoffrey, & Caine, Renate Nummela (1997).
What "whole brain" means: why wholeness matters.
Dickinson, Dee (1997).
An interview with Robert Sylwester.
Kinoshita, June (1999).
Replenishing the brains neurons.
Lasley, Elizabeth (1997).
How the brain learns and remembers.
Scheibel, Arnold B., M.D. (1997).
Embryological development of the human brain.
2000 Leadership Development
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