Element 24:

Associative Learning – the Power of Simultaneous Neural Firing

“Many brain-based educators fear that our conveyer belt model of classroom education, …. will breed a brain that is inhibited from fully developing its capacity to quickly and easily make neural associations. The concern is that by limiting simultaneous neural firing, the brain’s capacity to develop the associative learning, creativity, and intuitive powers that we so desperately need to succeed in the real world, will be retarded.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

puzzlepieces[1]Virtually every scientist and philosopher who has considered how the brain works, from Aristotle and John Stuart Mill to modern day cognitive researchers, has looked at the role association plays in the learning process. In 1879, Darwin’s cousin and founder of the infamous eugenics movement (the effort to breed a super race), Sir Francis Galton, became one of the first modern scientists to systematically study the impact of association on mental processing when he took a 450-yard walk down the famous Pall Mall in London. Three hundred different objects attracted Galton’s attention, and when he recorded the associations that these simple observations created in his mind, he was astonished. “Samples of my whole life passed before me… Many bygone incidents, which I have never suspected to have formed part of my stock of thoughts, had been glanced at as objects too familiar to awaken the attention. I saw at once that the brain was vastly more active than I previously believed it to be, and I was perfectly amazed at the unexpected width of the field of an everyday operation.”

In those bygone days science had little understanding of how the numerous associations Galton experienced in his brain were formed. Since the late 1800s, a great body of research has been produced that clarifies this question. In this element, future newsletters, and the book Cracking the Learning Code we will use this research to look at how the firing of many neurons at one time, which we refer to as simultaneous neural firing, produces associative learning, new concept formation, creativity, intuition, metaphor construction, and traumatic reactions.

Associations, Not Isolation

grandmother[1]The brain provides the perfect environment for associations to prosper. Close your eyes and take 15 seconds to try visualizing only the nose on your mother’s face. Nothing else, just her nose. Now take 15 seconds and try to visualize only the stove in your kitchen. Nothing else just the stove. You can’t do it, because as soon as you try to imagine your mom’s nose, up comes her eyes, cheeks, and chin. And, as soon as you try to think of only your stove, up pops the countertops and cupboards that surround it.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of the power of associative learning

There are three major reasons why your brain has difficulty thinking of things in isolation and why it has a powerful tendency to make associations even when you don’t want it to:

  1. A memory is not held in a single cell, as the grandmother theory of learning once proposed (see “What Is Learning“), but instead in widely distributed groups of interconnected neurons.
  2. One neuron in a network that holds a single memory has the capacity to be part of hundreds if not thousands of other memory networks (see “The Power of Concepts Over Details“).
  3. Neurons that “wire together fire together.” This phrase means that, when a neuron that is part of one memory network is activated, it will automatically fire up all other neurons in other memory networks with which it has been previously linked.

xrayorangebrain[1]In this wet, gooey, highly interconnected, and complex system, where each of our 100 billion neurons are directly or indirectly connected to every other neuron, and where firing up one neuron in a memory network automatically fires up neurons in other memory networks, associations become the rule, not the exception. This is why firing neurons in the memory network that holds your mother’s nose will also automatically stimulate neurons in the networks that hold the memory of her whole face and body, as well as your feelings about her.

Concepts Formed Through Association

Concepts are themselves made up of associations. To get an idea of how a single concept is composed of many different associations in the brain, think of something simple like a lemon. It may fascinate you to know that the conceptual memory you hold of a lemon is not held in one isolated place in your brain but, instead, as a survival advantage (so that damage to one brain area will not wipe out complete memories), is represented by the associations between millions upon millions of neurons that are widely distributed throughout your brain. When you think of a lemon, neurons that hold the round shape and the yellow color are activated in your visual cortex at the back of your brain at the same time sour taste neurons are fired in the gustatory area of the somatosensory cortex in the upper middle of your cortex, while lemon smell neurons are stimulated in the olfactory bulbs, one on either side of the bottom surface of the brain. While all this sensory associating is going on, neurons in your amygdala in the limbic system of your brain and neurons in your prefrontal lobe are processing your emotional feelings about whether you love or hate lemons.

As science writers Peter Coveny and Roger Highfield write in Frontiers of Complexity, “Every neuronal map, every part of the brain is dynamically … connected with every other, involving and integrating itself in continuous crosstalk. Thus, the brain actively represents and maps the world, and compares these mappings with one another.” The key to efficient concept association activation is the simultaneous firing of neurons. When we think of a lemon, if all the neurons in visual cortex, somatosensory cortex, olfactory bulbs, amygdala, and prefrontal lobe do not fire simultaneously, we will fail to access the complete conceptual memory of a lemon. It is important to understand that we build memories through the simultaneous firing of diverse neural groups and we access memories the same way.

Understanding Simultaneous Firing

neuralnetwork[1]In the 1940s, soon after he recognized that a memory was held not in a single cell but in groups of “cell assemblies,” the beloved neuroscientist Donald O. Hebb realized that associative learning can only be created when large groups of neural networks are fired simultaneously. In his now famous Essay on Mind, he wrote, “These self-re-exciting systems (cell assemblies) could not consist of one circuit of two or three neurons, but must have a number of circuits… I could assume that when a number of neurons in the cortex are excited… they tend to become inner connected, some of them at least forming a multi-circuit closed system… The idea then (1945) was that a precept consists of assemblies… a concept of assemblies excited centrally by other assemblies.”

Modern research has confirmed Hebb’s findings, and today the idea that associations are made, learning created, and memory cemented when large groups of neurons fire simultaneously is often called the “Hebbian synaptual learning rule.” When neurons fire in unison, memory is enhanced because the possibility is increased that a neuron will be stimulated at more than one location. As we discovered in the “What Is Learning?,” the memory process is commenced when a receiving neuron is provoked by other neurons at more than one location. When a neuron is stimulated in this manner, magnesium plugs are blown from NMDA receptors, which in turn leads to the neurochemical-genetic conditions that produce long-term memory. The Hebbian learning rule is considered one of the most important findings in the field of learning neuroscience and, for simplicity’s sake, is often reduced to the most repeated phrases in learning neuroscience: neurons that wire together fire together or, the converse, neurons that fire together wire together.

How We Learned to Fear Bumble Bees

Grasping the above concept helps us understand how new memories can be easily formed by the simultaneous firing of concept networks that have not been previously linked. According to the Hebbian rule, when previously independent or weakly connected concept networks are simultaneously fired, they will be linked in phase sequence. Simultaneous firing is how a child learns how to fear a bumble bee. When a child is stung by a bee, his pain, fear, and bee networks all fire in synchronicity. The synchronized firing of previously unlinked neural groups is the foundation of the conditioned response, which has fascinated behaviorists for decades. Pavlov’s dogs learned how to salivate at something that had no food value, that is, the ringing of a bell, because he caused the dogs’ previously unconnected neural networks for bells and food to fire in synchronicity. Therefore, once these networks were linked by simultaneous firing, every time Pavlov rang a bell, his dogs would salivate. Without knowing it, Pavlov proved the modern neuroscientific adage, “neurons that wire together do indeed fire together.”

Simultaneous Neural Firing and Learning Institutions

No corporate, scholastic, or government learning institution should ever develop a learning program without first taking into account how to most effectively create the simultaneous neural firing that is the basis of efficient association formation, creativity, intuition, learning, and memory. The reason that experiential learning is so much more of a powerful promoter of associations and long-term memory formation than classroom learning is that real world experience naturally and automatically creates massive simultaneous neural firing (see “Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time“).

In the book, Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How you can easily form new memories by creating the simultaneous firing of concept networks that have not been previously linked.

How your emotions like love, anger, fear and jealously act as a super chargers, promoting powerful memories through the strengthening of the bonds between previously unconnected concept networks.

That the stronger your emotions the more powerful your mental links with the events and things that created those emotions.

How mnemonic tricks, like acronyms, do not elicit profound emotional firing and therefore you end up remembering so little of the information that you used them for to pass tests.

How the simultaneous firing of neural networks can also cause great pain by linking a victim’s trauma to otherwise mundane details of his or her attacks.

How experiencing incest in childhood causes fear, love and humiliation networks to become intertwined in adulthood.

How somatic feedback therapy endeavors to reduce the links between negative emotions and the traumatic events that caused them.

How the simultaneous firing of previously unconnected concept networks is the wellspring from which your creativity and intuition flow.

How relaxed mental states create the best environment for the simultaneous firing of previously unconnected concept networks.

How the inventor of the printing press, Gutenberg, took three existing concepts, went into a relaxed state, and then associated them in new ways to create the invention that changed the world forever.

How metaphors accelerate the speed of learning by quickly integrating new details with previously acquired concept networks.

How metaphoric teaching programs have been shown to produce increases of over 360 percent in comprehension and knowledge.

Why Harvard’s Howard Gardner considered making metaphoric capacity one of his multiple intelligences.

Why “mind mapping” is so much more effective than traditional note taking.

How traditional scholastic and corporate learning institutions fail to create the effective simultaneous firing of neurons.

How Waldorf Schools create the simultaneous firing of diverse concept networks to the advantage of their young students.

Why real world learning promotes so much more simultaneous firing of diverse concept networks than classroom learning.

That, in order to create profound memory formation, learning programs must be orchestrated so that rich associations between diverse subjects are continually being made.

To help you understand more about associative learning through the simultaneous firing of neurons, click on other Elements:

What is Learning?

What Is Intelligence?

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

The Power of Concepts over Details

Why Humans Are Such Copycats

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time