PSYCHOBIOLOGY: THE MOLECULAR BIOLOGY OF LEARNING
"A reconceptualization of the teaching and learning process is being formed on the basis of the knowledge of brain functioning. Attention of educators is being shifted towards the biological basis of the human potential for learning and thinking. The science of the brain, neurobiology, and the science of the mind, cognitive psychology, have merged over the past several decades giving rise to the new field of 'psychobiology.' (Eric Kandel and Robert Hawkins, "The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality", Scientific American, 267: 3 Sept 1992, 79. )
theme: For children growing up in the complex world of the 'global village', an effective educational paradigm is one based on the knowledge of learning as a natural process... Insights into the physiological mechanisms of learning - psychobiology - lend a new paradigm for educational theory.
PARADIGM SHIFT A fundamental shift is taking place in the philosophical framework or 'paradigm' of education and learning theory. As a result of recent findings in brain research...'neuroscience'... educators are shifting their attention to the biological basis of the human potential for learning and thinking. The attention of educators is being drawn away from the paradigm of the behavioural sciences or 'behaviourism' and towards the new paradigm of systems theoryof the science of interconnectedness or wholeness i.e. 'holistic science'. From the perspective of systems theory, it is possible to view the complexity of the learning process as a natural product of brain functioning. It becomes possible to conceptualize a teaching methodology which is appropriate for growth and development in the modern world.
Over the past several decades, the science of the brain - 'neurobiology' or 'neurology' - with the science of the 'mind' - 'cognitive psychology' - have merged to give rise to the new field of 'psychobiology'.... also known as 'physiological psychology'
THE MIND TRIES TO UNDERSTAND ITSELF....brain as the physical basis of the mind. As the combination of neurobiology with cognitive psychology, the science of psychobiology represents the attempt of the human mind to understand itself. As the study of the biology of the 'mind' provides a new paradigm for the understanding of the learning process in terms of the biological substrates which underlie the mental functions of the brain... 'brain functions'.
The basic problem of psychobiology is to describe the neural mechanisms which underlie learning and memory. The aim of research in psychobiology... psychobiological research... is to find an explanation of the biological basis of mental phenomena such as subconscious forms of learning, emotions and affect as well as conscious thought, imagination, creativity as well as the mental functions of learning or 'cognition' and the process of acquiring and retaining new knowledge i.e. 'memory'. The functions of learning and memory are analysed in terms of cellular and molecular mechanisms... physiological mechanisms or 'neural mechanisms' involving the 'nerve cells' or 'neurons' and their interconnections - the 'synapses'... 'neural information.' The most useful strategy for analysis has been the so-called 'cellular connection approach.' This approach is based on the assumption that both the transmission... transformation of neural information and its storage as memory involve only neurons and synapses.
The synapse is considered as the focal point of learning.
LEARNING AND MEMORY ARE A FUNCTION OF SYNAPTIC ACTIVITY OR 'SYNAPTIC MODIFICATION' Learning is a physiological process... a natural brain function associated with the search for meaning in the complexity of the social environment... Learning is a function of the brain which involves the transmission of signals along neurons and across the synapses.
Learning and memory are a function of synaptic activity. Through a process of 'synapse modification' learning and experience change the structure of the 'neural networks'. Learning occurs as a result of changing the effectiveness of synapses so that their influence on other neurons also changes. Learning is a function of stimuli strong enough to influence the effectiveness of synapses in the transmission of signals from one neuron to another across the synaptic clefts. It is a function of the effectiveness of synapses to propagate nerve impulses or signals and initiate or 'fire' new signals along neighboring neurons.
"It is now essential to develop educational systems that are truly appropriate for our times." (Gerald Karnow. "Educating the Whole Person for the Whole of Life". Holistic Education Review vol. 5 no. 1 Spring, 1992. 59-64)
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT LEARNING? Learning is the natural function... Complex environmental stimuli include those in the field of focused attention and those which are peripheral to it. The brain processes environmental stimuli which are in the field of focused attention and at the same time it processes those stimuli which are peripheral to it. In processing information from the environment, the brain consciously focuses on specific stimuli and responds to it on the conscious level of awareness (according to its subconscious interpretation of peripheral stimuli). Many environmental stimuli are perceivd unconsciouly and are processed at the subconscious level of awareness. The brain responds to peripheral stimuli at the subconscious level of awareness. The brain's 'holistic perception' of reality is the basis for its behaviour which is 'adaptive' or non-adaptive' depending on its interpretation and evaluation of the environment. Evaluation is correct or incorrect depending on the individual's level of development i.e. 'sociocognitive stage'.
IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATION The findings of neuroscientists, neurobiologists and psychobiologists - the insights into the neural mechanisms of learning - have significant implications for education. They lead to new theories of learning. From brain research and the neurosciences it is known that the brain has a natural capacity to make connections and to process information as a functioning whole. Thus effective learning results from the wholistic response of the whole brain to incoming stimuli... 'holistic perception'. The brain-based wholistic perception of reality forms the basis for adaptive behavior. Behavioural adaptation depends on an effective thinking process which involves the combined functioning of intellectual, affective and creative states of the mind. As the manifestation of the natural thinking function of the brain, the mind perceives reality - social and cultural reality - according to the individual's level of consciousness or awareness.
Intelligence and all the other properties of the 'mind' result from the patterns of neurons and their connections - the neural pathways and networks. The teaching and learning methods which inhibit learning inhibit the formation of new connections or 'synapses' i.e. 'synaptic connections'. Methods based on the natural funtioning of the brain enhance learning because they enhance the formation of new synaptic connections.
Research findings provide a rational basis for pedagogical methodologies which will promote natural brain-based learning for natural knowledge... they provide a rationale for the implementation of an integrative teaching and learning model. They provide the foundation for meaningful education through which learners can make connections between different areas of knowledge.
Today it is generally known that the physical basis of the mind is the brain.
As a whole, the thinking skills together constitute the most significant skill of all :'learning to learn'.
Overall, the findings of brain research lend validity to a rational basis for 'wholistic education' - an education that is more appropriate for learning and living in the complexities of a fast-changing social environment of the 'global village'.
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Scientific psychology as the universal human psychology:Freud's 'scientific psychology' was incomplete because there was insufficient knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the apparent 'continuity of information' in the brain.
Scientific psychology is based on scientific principles of biology and social sciences such as sociology, anthropology etc.
Outline of progress in psychobiology: Seahare 'Aphasia' - very primitive invertebrate with a few giant neurons which can be identified and studied individually. To find possible neuronal mechanisms of behavioural habituation a simple form of learning.
As processes of acquiring and retaining new knowledge, the mental functions of learning and memory are analysed in terms of mechanisms invloving the neurons and their connections.
Insights into the cellular and molecular mechanisms of learning constitute the beginning of the bridge being formed between cognitive psychology and molecular biology.