“Do not be confined to your parents learning, for you were born of a different time.”
Because of the lack of success that many of us have experienced in established academic settings, some of us have developed a sense of shame around anything that has to do with learning, memory or intelligence. Others of us have experienced tremendous success within the academic setting only to be thwarted in our efforts to gain the level of joy, happiness and success we desire in the real work-a-day world. One educational expert estimates that 90 percent of all of us are dissatisfied with our learning speed and capacity.
It is important to understand that before we can create personal or institutional learning systems that produce profound memory formation and personal success, we must get a firm hold on what learning is from the scientific perspective. From this view, we find that learning can only occur when there is biological change within the individual. What this means is that before you can experience learning, long-term memory formation or lasting behavioral change, you must experience change at the level of your genes and neural tissue.
Without an understanding of what specifically creates learning, we have little hope of developing learning systems that effectively enhance our intelligence or our ability to adapt. As we grasp this more scientific view of learning, it frees us from the rigid confines of the lecture-memorization-test based classroom and allows us to adopt more creative, joyful and meaningful methods, which can dramatically accelerate the speed and efficiency of the learning process.
Below you will find a brief overview of the changes that must take place inside your brain before you can adapt to and increase your intelligence in the real world, what I refer to as the Adaptability/Intelligence Factor (in Element “What Is Intelligence?“). This information is so vital because it allows us to look inside the brain and get a visual representation of what the ultimate goal of any personal or institutional learning system must be.
Read on to get a deeper understanding of what causes learning to take place in your brain.
Grandmother Cell Theory of Learning
Over 50 years ago, in what has become known as the “grandmother” cell theory of learning, scientists theorized that a single isolated neuron in your brain held a single isolated memory. That is, one neuron held the memory of your grandmother, another of your pet, another of your house, another the date Columbus sailed the ocean blue and so forth. Brain cells were believed to be like tiny empty cups, each waiting to be filled with a specific bit of information. Under this theory, not much change needs to happen in the brain for learning and memory to take place, only that a preexisting neuron be empty.
The grandmother cell theory of learning helped fortify the belief, first put forth by John Locke in the 1600s and re-energized by the behaviorist school of psychology in the 1950s, that the brain was an empty vessel which could be filled through the memorization of thousands of isolated details. Unfortunately, our memorization-dominant scholastic and corporate educational systems have unconsciously embraced this outdated grandmother theory of learning.
Today, we know that learning and long-term memory do not take place at the level of a single cell. In 1949, in his immensely influential book Organization of Behavior, a neuropsychological theory, the beloved Canadian scientist Donald O. Hebb put forth his view of brain organization that led to the demise of the single cell theory of learning. His theory, now called the Hebbian Learning Rule, has become the basis for the 21st century neuroscientific view of how learning takes place in the brain. Hebb’s theory said that, in order for learning and memory to occur, large diverse numbers of neurons in the brain must be activated at the same time, and that this simultaneous activation produced changes in neurons, which create long-term memory. As discoverer of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, says, “An individual neuron is in fact rather dumb. It is in the intricate interaction of the many of them together that can do such marvelous things.”
Biological Change Creates Learning
Neuroscience now knows that the simultaneous activation of large groups of neurons, which Hebb called cell assemblies, creates an electro-chemical process which produces change in the existing architecture of
An electro-chemical process produces true learning.
your brain. It is this change that increases your individual Adaptability / Intelligence Factor and indicates that learning and memory have taken place. Eminent Harvard neuroscientist Allen Hopson puts it nicely: “Memory itself is not a thing; it is a process of neural network activation.”
The biological changes in your brain that lead to long-term memory formation are an intricate and complex process. But this process is so important in understanding what must happen in order to successfully increase your Adaptability/Intelligence Factor that it must be addressed in some detail.
At its simplest level, the process of learning and long-term memory formation can be described as events that cause the simultaneous firing of large groups of neurons in your brain, which cause magnesium plugs in special receptor sites to be blown out of individual neurons, which in turn produces physical changes in a neuron’s strength and shape. This change signifies that learning and long-term memory formation have taken place in your brain. What follows is a very abbreviated overview of this process.
Meaningful Environmental Stimuli Start the Process
Long-term memory is created when meaningful environmental stimulus (see “Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning”) causes large groups of neurons to simultaneously fire. When this happens, the brain’s most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter, called glutamate, floods the brain and binds to a very special receptor on neurons, called the NMDA receptor. Normally, an NMDA receptor on an individual neuron is blocked by a magnesium plug. But if glutamate attaches to the NMDA receptor at the same time the neuron is being simultaneously stimulated by other neurons at other receptor sites, glutamate is able to blow the magnesium cork out of its NMDA socket. With magnesium no longer blocking the NMDA receptor, calcium, which has been waiting outside the cell, is able to rush into the neuron. This sets off a complex neurochemical process, which prompts the release of the CREB molecule, which, in turn, initiates genes to express the proteins and enzymes necessary to cause the growth and strengthening of the synaptual receptor buds, which are the physical foundations of long-term memory.
One way to look at this process is that the magnesium plugs are like boosters holding their power in reserve until an extraordinary response is required to emphasize special, important, and meaningful occasions that need to be remembered. The reason we have a hard time remembering meaningless or boring information is that it lacks the power to create the simultaneous neural firing. One of the main goals of any learning system then is to create a meaningful environment that causes magnesium plugs to be blown out of NMDA receptors, so that neurological change, which is the basis of increasing your Adaptability/Intelligence Factor, can more easily take place (see “What Is Intelligence?”). In the end, any learning system that does not blow these magnesium corks out of their secure plugs will fail to create learning in your brain.
Massive Neural Firing Creates Behavior Change
It is worthwhile to understand that learning is not the only thing that occurs when large numbers of neurons are simultaneously fired and magnesium plugs are blown out of receptor sties. Our behaviors also change.
It is enlightening to grasp that our behaviors are dictated by the existing structure of our neural tissue. We act the way we do in life because the configuration of our neural tissue prompts us to do so.
Change the existing structure of your neural tissue and your behaviors change. The only way to change the way we manage, play golf, make love, lose weight, or communicate with our boss, spouse, and kids is to change the existing configuration of our neural tissue. While Gandhi had little understanding of neuroscience, he was right on when he said, “Those people who want to change the world must first change themselves.” Any learning system that wants individuals to change their behaviors must first cause change at the neurological level.
Learning Systems Based on Ancient Learning Theory Fire Limited Numbers of Neurons
Unfortunately, systems that try to effect learning and behavioral change through the traditional linguistic-based classroom devoid of personal meaning have limited impact on creating biological change in the brain, because these methods fail to create the massive neural firing necessary for the biochemical learning process. Estimates are that ancient learning systems fire only 5 percent of our neural structures, mainly in the linguistic areas of our brains, not nearly enough to ensure efficient long-term memory formation. As discussed in greater detail in other Elements of this site, ancient learning systems are built on theories that lack a scientific basis. In general, all the traditional learning systems in use today rely on non-scientific Ancient Learning Theories. (See other areas of this site for more in-depth explanations: “What Is Intelligence?,” “Reasons for Learning Failure in the 21st Century,” and in the bonus section, “The Problems With Academic Performance.”)
In his groundbreaking book, Using Both Sides of Your Brain, accelerated learning pioneer Tony Buzan equates our ancient learning methods with the old custom in the Orient of binding women’s feet in bandages from birth to keep them “dainty.” To Buzan, an educational system that only focuses on limited circuitry of the brain damages the brain’s ability to develop naturally. He writes, “Our mind, like the women’s feet, have been ‘bound’ by the way we have misjudged and mistreated them and they are therefore not naturally developed.” Educators Renate and Geoffrey Caine point out, in their book Making Connections, “Many educators, for example, have assumed that learning takes place primarily through memorization. This is like looking at the moon and believing we have understood the solar system.”
When trying to create learning, long-term memory and behavioral change, it is important to visualize that our ultimate goal is not about getting people to pass tests. Instead, it’s about how to stimulate the firing of large numbers of neurons, which blow magnesium plugs out of NMDA receptors so that long-lasting neurological change can take place. It is my hope that understanding the scientific perspective of what must happen in the brain before learning occurs will allow us to develop more creative, joyful, meaningful, and experiential learning systems that are more flexible and effective at helping us increase our individual Adaptability/Intelligence Factor, so we may feel and be more successful and powerful in the world. (See “Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning” and “Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time.”)
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
How you can accelerate your speed of learning by increasing the activation of specialized “memory molecules,” called CREB.
Why the brain’s NMDA receptors are called Doogie receptors, after child genius and TV character Doogie Howser, M.D.
How your memory capacity can be increased and new neurons created by causing the simultaneous firing of neurons in your brain.
How personally meaningful stimuli can generate the massive neural firing that is the basis of all long-term memory formation.
How, in order to alter your behaviors, you must first induce the massive simultaneous firing of neurons in your brain.
To help you understand more about learning, click on other Elements:
What Is Intelligence?
What Is the Learning Code?
The Drawbacks of Species Learning: Why Organisms Need Faster Ways to Learn
What Is Species Learning?
Reasons for Learning Failure in the 21st Century
We Learn Through Selection Not Instruction
Six and a Half Billion Intelligences – Not One
The 11 Biological Intelligences
The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor
Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning
Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time