If you have taken my ED 242 class in the past, you will find some of this to be familiar. But a review is always a good thing 🙂
Let us devote this lecture to Donald Hebb and his insightful theory “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Last class I tried to get you thinking about the importance of the body in our ability to learn. We only understand the world around us as meaningful if we have had bodily experiences. The neuronal patterns created by our bodily experiences in the world are then used when we learn something new. What follows here is a very simplified version of the importance of our bodies when learning.
Did you know there were some researchers in Sweden who suggested children were becoming finger blind because of their decreased use of their hands and fingers in exploring the natural world around them? In other words, children were thought to be overly engaged in technology-barren environments (environments that did not sufficiently develop bodily neuronal cell assemblies). Did these researchers recognize the importance of touch in the formation of neuronal cell assemblies? Perhaps.
Do you recall that last day we looked at the Colin Blakemore kitten experience and noticed that the brain needs experience to wire neurons together? And do you recall the evidence that the brain doesn’t develop when it is prevented from having bodily experience?
What is a neuronal cell assembly? A web, or assembly, of neurons. Neurons form webs as a result of bodily experience. These webs are distributed throughout the brain.
What is learning?
Here is a SciShow explanation.
And here is a simple explanation of memory.
Neuron time lapse video Learning in action.
Here we see neurons wiring together. We call these webs of neurons Neuronal Cell Assemblies–assemblies of neurons.
What we learn, and the memories we have, are not localized representations in our brains but rather an assembly of neurons woven throughout our brains that re-fire experiences we have previously had that encompass a multitude of physical perturbations.
The experiences we have with our bodies helps create our neuronal cell assemblies (knowledge, or that web of neurons that we use to make sense of the world around us)
I remember being taught how the brain moves the body. Signals move from the brain to move the legs, the hands, the arms, etc. There almost seemed to be an emphasis on the brain controlling the body. Everything started in the brain, and then moved out to the body. It is as if the body was of secondary importance. I don’t remember much emphasis on how the body movements helped create the wiring in the brain. I don’t remember much discussion as to the importance of how movement of the limbs, or touch, or taste or smell strengthened the neuronal cell assemblies in the brain so that the brain could then move the body more adeptly or perceive more thoroughly. It is almost as if the peripheral motor system took second place to the central nervous system. It is almost as if the assumption is made that we don’t really need the body to weave together the cell assemblies that will, in turn, help us make sense of the world around us.
Has our schooling discourse somehow lost sight of the fact that our bodies and brains are connected. Our teaching methods often inadvertently obscured the fact that our body is instrumental in the development of our neuronal cell assemblies.
Learning happens with the body, and because of the body, and not just in the brain. For our educational purposes we would be better off thinking of this entire web of neurons–from head to toe, as the brain. If not the brain, then at least our learning system.
Our body is covered with neurons (our nervous system) that sends signals to the neurons in our brain. These signals are instrumental in the formation of our neuronal cell assemblies.
We must think of the entire body experiencing it’s surroundings so that the brain can develop neuronal cell assemblies. Perhaps a bit more time outdoors is important. It might alleviate some of that “finger blindness.”
We seem to have lost the realization that learning happens with the body.
Our body is covered with neurons (our nervous system) that sends signals to the neurons in our brain.
We should be asking, how are we using the peripheral nervous system to develop neuronal cell assemblies?
Here we see neurons wiring together. We call these webs of neurons Neuronal Cell Assemblies–assemblies of neurons.
What we learn, and the memories we have, are not localized representations in our brains but rather an assembly of neurons woven throughout our brains that re-fire experiences we have previously had that encompass a multitude of physical perturbations. (I will address this more later).
The Glorious Cinnamon Bun
You probably have some memory of the cinnamon bun. As soon as you read the words “cinnamon bun” your brain is firing neuronal cell assemblies that allow you to re-experience some of what you know about cinnamon buns. Your brain does that quite naturally. Cinnamon-bun-sight-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-taste-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-touch-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-kitchen-neurons etc. etc.. (These, by the way, are not the scientific terms:) As soon as these neurons are firing you are ready to learn something new as long as we can fire neurons that will connect to your already established cinnamon bun neurons. So when you read this:
The first cinnamon bun was created in the 1920’s just after the First World War. Because Sweden was a neutral territory during the war, there were heavy restrictions on the import of goods including sugar, eggs and butter. By the time the 1950’s rolled around, the average Swedish household was pulling in more money, meaning they were able to purchase the pricey ingredients necessary to make a cinnamon bun. It was around this time that the pastry began to really become more popular.
If you happen to be Swedish, or you have Sweden neuronal cell assemblies already created, or if you have First World War neuronal cell assemblies, or if you have sugar-eggs-butter neuronal cell assemblies already wired, you will quite likely fire these along with the cinnamon bun neurons. And, given adequate time and strength of neuronal firing, your neurons will wire together. It is something that happens quite naturally. Your brain does it without you even having to work at it. But if you have no experiences with sugar, eggs, and butter, you have not had the opportunity to learn about the First World War and have no neuronal cell assemblies developed, and you haven’t even seen a cinnamon bun, you won’t be wiring together any neuronal cell assemblies.Furthermore, it is unlikely you will remember, or have any interest in, the history of the cinnamon bun.
Whenever I see cinnamon buns like this I have neuronal cell assemblies fire that have me re-live my childhood experiences of laying on my back on the floor with my feet pressed up against the window of the oven door while my mom baked cinnamon buns. You see, growing up in Canada, we would play outside in the winter cold until it felt like our feet were frozen. So it was common to warm up any way possible.
The cinnamon bun doesn’t exist as an object. It exists within a social setting, with multiple bodily experiences being reactivated. I learned this effortlessly, without any testing, without memorizing. My understanding couldn’t have been as rich as it is if I had only experienced cinnamon buns in a technologically-barren environment.
That which you experience is not discrete information that can be acquired by sight alone, or by being told. Even if you learned about cinnamon buns in a classroom using flash cards, you will have that classroom-flashcard-experience wired to your understanding of cinnamon bun and not a real cinnamon bun.
Is it possible that some of our teaching models are wrong? Isn’t part of our teaching narrative suggesting that we can simply tell students something new and they will be able to learn it? Does our teaching narrative suggest that communication is linear–passing ‘information’ back and forth as if through a pipeline? What if that is all wrong? And, does this suggest that there is something right with outdoor schools and adventure playgrounds?
What if we believed children could learn about cinnamon buns on an iPad? No, we wouldn’t believe that, would we? How could then wire all those wonderful neurons together that would let them know how cinnamon buns taste, smell, feel? They would have a sort of blindness toward cinnamon buns. No taste, smell, or feel.
Here we have a child developing finger blindness because he is no longer allowed to play outside. The institutional requirement is that all children should be able to connect two shapes. And while this tablet might give a simple two dimensional representation of the task, what does the child lose by learning about shapes and connections by learning this on a two dimensional screen.
But the technology is amazing we are told. It is the wave of the future. And those who do not recognize the importance of the whole body when learning nod their heads in agreement.
Did you know the typewriter was once thought of as a great learning tool. Oh, I should remember that some of you might be too young to really remember the typewriter. I remember it well. I even took a typing class in high school. “Fingers on the home row. Feet on the floor. F. F. F. D. D. D.” my teacher would shout over the clacking sounds of the keys.
Ever hear about the typewriter study? Did you know that research showed that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods? That’s true. The research said it was true. And yes, I am talking about a typewriter. You know:
From 1929 to 1931 Wood and Freeman (1932) conducted an extensive investigation on the “educational effects of the use of typewriters in schools.” The main purpose of the investigation, which was funded by four manufacturers of portable typewriters, was to study the nature and extent of the educational influences of the portable typewriter when used as a part of the regular classroom equipment in the kindergarten and elementary school grades. The magnitude of the investigation can be estimated from the fact that during the first year nearly fifteen thousand children and over four hundred teachers were involved in the study. The findings indicated that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods. The conclusion was that the typewriter was a valuable educational tool that could be used effectively in most subjects.
The contemporary reader of this report is likely to be struck by at least two things: first, by the high expectations associated with the use of the portable typewriter in schools in the early thirties, particularly when we consider that fifty-eight years later, the typewriter is used primarily in experimental classrooms in the early grades; and secondly, by the striking similarities between these early expectations and contemporary expectations surrounding the use of computer technology in schools. In fact, the similarities are much stronger than the previous account suggests. In the Wood and Freeman study the reader is shown pictures of children working in small groups on the typewriter, “drawing” pictures with “X”s , and pictures of poems composed by children directly on the typewriter, strikingly similar to what we find today in books on the use of computers in schools. It seems that if we exchange the word “computer” for “typewriter” in this fifty-eight year old study, we would have a credible research study on the “educational effects of the use of microcomputers in schools.”
What does this tell us? Are we to conclude that educators in the early thirties were naïve and even blinded by this new machine and that they uncritically interpreted technical possibilities as educational possibilities? Or are we to conclude that the fate of typewriters in the curriculum reveals how educators have failed to take advantage of the pedagogic potential of the typewriter in areas such as reading, writing, visual arts, social studies, and even mathematics? Or should we perhaps take this story as an illustration of educators’ quests for patent solutions to educational problems. This story should draw our attention to the similarities between the plans of implementing typewriters into the curriculum in the early forties and plans of implementing computers into the curriculum today. In both cases educational theorists respond by applying scientific knowledge and research methods to measure the effectiveness of the new instrument compared to traditional instructional methods. (Author unknown).
You see, if you ask the right questions you will get the answers you want–just like the typewriter company.
But wait, we have to keep in mind how the peripheral nervous system contributes to neuronal cell assembly development. If I only have a certain amount of time in the day, how much time should ensure the body is living?
Beware of the questions
Of course putting a child on an iPad is a good instructional practice if we are trying to see how many dots the child can connect in a certain amount of time. “I am very proud of your child Mrs. Smith. His dot connecting ability increased four fold over the span of two weeks.” It is silly questions like this that have people believe that their child should spend time using an iPad rather than playing in a sandbox.
But of course, I can quantify time and dot connecting (quantify means to measure and to apply a number to my findings). “Yes indeed, 4 dots in 20 seconds. That’s up 2 dots from last week. I will write that up and tell everyone I am a great teacher and my student is making great learning gains.”
Easy to research, easy to count, easy to observe, and easy to relate to district, state, and parents. But isn’t this a big part of the problem? If we are always asking questions and developing instruction around things we can quantify (which of course I know that we are not, but we do a lot of it), are we actually doing our students a disservice? It is not easy to know exactly what students are learning in the forest or in the junkyard playground. So just eliminate it. In fact, good schools are eliminating recess altogether I have been told.
Motor neurons (efferent neurons): impulse moves from the central nervous system to the rest of the body.
Our sensory neurons (afferent neurons) transmit impulses from the sensory receptors toward the central nervous system.
We might ask
Has the organization of schooling deemed the central nervous system to be more important to the peripheral nervous system?
Have we forgotten that learning new things is highly dependent on the sensory receptors? Has an emphasis on cognitive tasks obscured the importance of sensory neurons when learning?
Have the early representations theories of knowledge, theories that privilege the idea of visual representations (remember Locke and the camera obscura), obscured the importance of sensory understanding? There is enough evidence now to convince us that we can’t understand something through sight alone (Think of the blind man given sight. Sight wasn’t enough to make complete sense of the world around him).
The Corporeality of learning, knowledge, memory.
If you will, please look at each of the following photographs. Look at each one, individually. After a couple of seconds, move on to the next image.
You have an understanding of each image. You have a familiarity with each object. But, you don’t simply have a picture of the image in your brain. Your understanding of the object is woven throughout your brain. In very simple terms, when you look at each object, shape neurons fire, color neurons fire, texture neurons fire, and (the topic for the beginning part of this lecture) grasping neurons fire.
When you looked at each image there were grasping neurons in your brain that fired. As soon as we see the mug we have neurons fire that trigger our previous experiences of grasping mugs of this shape. Our wrist neurons fire to indicate a particular twist of the wrist, our finger neurons fire in such a way as to indicate wrapping around the handle, and our arm neurons fire so that we recognize the weigh of the object. All of this, just by looking. It is as if our brain fires the same neurons that previously experienced objects like this.
As soon as we see the tea cup our finger neurons trigger in a very different way from when we look at the mug. Our finger neurons recognize the different grasp. The use of the forefinger and thumb. A slightly different wrist action. We experience the object in a very different way than when we look at the mug.
When we see other objects, our neurons fire as if reaching for a hammer, a tennis ball, or a pencil even though we just look at the object on the screen. To see the object meaningfully, all sorts of different neurons all fire together to bring meaning to the object.
But what about this next object. ( I picked an object that you likely have not experienced before. If you have, your observation will be just as rich as the former images. If you haven’t experienced this next object, your experience will be shallow in comparison).
Your experience is different. When you look at this object you don’t feel the rich sensations that you feel with the other objects. Not knowing the size or weight, how do we pick this up? Is it heavy? Our arm muscle neurons don’t fire. We have not established neuronal cell assemblies to give this meaning.
We have neurons that fire that help us understand the shape and possibly the texture. But is it made of plastic, metal, ceramic? Does it feel smooth, rough? Is it flexible, stiff?
We might say, “Objects move us.” In other words, when we see an object, we are moved (even though our bodies don’t actually move) to re-experience the way we are with the objects. Visual objects–that are familiar–move us.
Do you know the story about grasping neurons?
In 2005 Giacomo Rizzolatti (2006) and some of his graduate students were working in a laboratory in Italy. In their midst was a Macaque monkey, strapped to a chair with fMRI electrodes glued to its head. The researchers were looking for specific neurons that would fire when the monkey performed a specific task. After some time the researchers were able to pinpoint neurons that would fire when the monkey grasped an object. While this was an interesting discovery, a more notable phenomenon occurred when one of the graduate students reached for, and grabbed, an item from a table within the monkey’s sight. The monkey’s grasping neurons fired again even though this time the monkey had not moved. This set off a series of experiments that have suggested that understanding is, in part, related to having action neurons re-fire when witnessing other’s actions. In addition, further research has found that hearing words will trigger the firing of action neurons. If this is the case, we might well be convinced that not only do the sight of objects move us, but words speak us as well.
We learn more about grasping neurons here. You will notice that the talk is about mirror neurons. I should mention that there is dispute whether or not “mirror” neurons exist. “Mirror” may be the wrong term. Perhaps we should stick to thinking about re-firing established neurons that were assembled during past experiences.
NOVA scienceNOW : 1 – Mirror Neurons
Giacomo Rizzolatti on the discovery of canonical motor neurons
Giacomo Rizzolatti – Mirror neurons: from monkey to human
Understanding words need neuronal cell assemblies too.
Language / words speak us
Words fire neuronal cell assemblies. When we hear someone say a word, neuronal cell assemblies in our brains are fired so that we feel the words. If I say, “warm sandy beach” to you, you will feel something very different that if I say, “frozen ice cube.”
We learned something very interesting from Giacommo Rizzolatti and the research he did with grasping neurons. We understand what we see objects by re-firing neurons that have already been established from previous experience. If I see you pick up a coffee cup I understand the action because my grasping neurons re-fire when I see you grasp something.
This has us recognize that learning isn’t simply something that is done in the head. It is a re-living of bodily experience.
Do we encounter difficulties when we begin to talk as if learning takes place here in the head alone?
We know that we don’t put representations into our head from only one of our senses.
And we know that we can’t simply tell someone something and expect that they will understand it the way we do. We create our reality from bits of previous experience.
Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was thought to be one of the greatest physics teachers. He had a wonderful way of explaining difficult conceptual concepts to undergrad students. As you listen to him here, consider how he connects familiar bodily experiences to weave together ideas.
Moving through content too fast will do little good. Neurons that fire together wire together. But, if there is nothing firing, there is no wiring. To simply move on to the next topic just because it is Wednesday is a waste of time.
Maybe you have heard of something like this: “I studied four years of Spanish but I have difficulty conversing or thinking in Spanish outside of the classroom.” When we come to understand that neuronal cell assemblies have slowly, over the last four years, been wiring together in the context of the classroom, then when we get outside of the classroom nothing is firing those neurons. We have no restaurant neurons, for example, wired up to our classroom-driven learning.
A math example:
Over the last few years I have asked close to 300 undergraduate students what the mathematical term pi means. I ask them where it comes from, how it is used, what it means to us. All but just a few can tell me more than the fact that pi is 3.14. So those 3.14 neurons are pretty well established. But without any other neurons firing, it is a bit difficult thinking in ways that we might use pi.
A science example:
Last year I asked 90 undergraduate students to define a number of science terms that are covered in grades five and six. I found that students know 15% of the terms asked. So, even though the students have been taught the terms at one point in their schooling, there don’t seem to be any significant neuronal cell assemblies woven together so that the terms have any meaning. Imaging listening to a weather meteorologist talking about the weather on television and you only know about 15% of the terms she is using.
Today’s Response Question — Fifth Question Set
Response Question 3: How can we help students learn by ensuring we are taking their peripheral nervous system into account?
Response Question 4: You previously talked about the importance of background knowledge and discussed how knowing more helps you learn more and remember more. Please speak to the way that more physical experiences could actually be beneficial when these physical experiences help make up your background knowledge.
That’s all for today. I hope you feel as though you have a much better understanding why physical/ bodily experiences are so important in our development.
Until next time.