Neurons That Learn

  |  , The Science Behind Learning  |  Neurons That Learn

Your brain is not a computer. It may perform computations, but it’s nothing like the device that carries out spreadsheet calculations. Here’s a way to be completely sure of that contention: Imagine a friend shows you a picture of Abraham Lincoln and asks you to identify the person in the photo. Assuming you are an American, within a half second you have the answer. Because the neurons of the brain transmit signals rather slowly, we can calculate that you came up with Abe in about 100 discrete steps.

Give a super-computer that same problem and it will move thousands of times faster, yet it will take trillions of steps to search it’s database and finally return the answer (if it can). If we next cover up half of Abe’s face and ask you who it is, your response is faster still. Retrieving that information was quick and effortless. The computer, on the other hand, is now in big trouble. Nowhere in it’s prodigious database is there a half-picture of Abe Lincoln. Even at trillions of calculations a second, it can’t find a match. Somehow your brain can find Abe in 100 steps or less, and the computer can’t do it with trillions. Brains are not computers. They don’t need programming. They learn by themselves through exposure to the world.

Although both are capable of performing simultaneous operations (parallel processing), brains operate using an interconnected patterns of neurons—the cells that make up the brain—and they transmit, store, and fetch information using patterns that are formed through an electrical and chemical connection—the junction between neurons called the synapse. This paper focuses on the neuron as the fundamental unit of leaning and memory. As Joseph LeeDoux asserts in “The Synaptic Self”: “The particular patterns of synaptic connections in an individual’s brain, and the information encoded by these connections, are the keys to who that person is.”

The particular patterns of synaptic connections in an individual’s brain, and the information encoded by these connections, are the keys to who that person is.


In 1998, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson wrote “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” in which he argued that, eventually, the sciences would link up to form a rather beautiful and coherent description of reality. Wilson demonstrated that this vision had already taken shape in three areas of science— physics, chemistry, and biology. In physics, the interior descriptions of atoms and the fundamental forces of nature link one level up with the descriptions of electrons that form atomic bonds and give us chemistry. Chemistry then hands off to biology in the discipline of molecular biology. Biology heads further upwards with descriptions of reality at many consilient and interdependent levels: genes > cells > organs > organisms > species > ecosystems, and all those levels within biology are consiliently held together by Darwinian evolution. Wilson went on to show that the topmost levels of biology should someday smartly and smoothly hook up with sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, the humanities, art, culture, and religion—a chain of description and explanation.

Sociology and the study of human social dynamics is also impacted by the study of the brain. We now know that many of the human social instincts are genetically wired into the brain at birth and form a kind of implicit memory of how to behave during interpersonal circumstances ranging from dinner with friends to negotiating a lease or buying a car.

Clearly though, not everything is wired into the structures of the mind. While there may be hard coded rules of syntax embodied in human brain structure, no one is born with english or swahili in a ready-made package of wired-together neurons. Learning and memory are needed so that people can deal effectively with the speci cs of their circumstances—the correct usage of nouns and verbs, along with the particular rules and expectations of family, friends, and culture. All this activity takes place in brains so it’s perhaps not surprising that a growing understanding of the mind’s inner workings should help unify our understanding of social phenomenon once thought irreconcilable. The tribal behaviors of New Guinean highlanders and the activity of Wall Street investment bankers can now be seen in much the same light. They both share essentially the same structural components of a brain at birth, but the environment that those brains occupy and perceive will exert a profound influence that will form specific implicit and explicit knowledge about their worlds. They will become far different people, yet remain enigmatically the same.

Lastly, an unexpected area now informed by neuroscience is ethics. Perhaps the images that made the Apollo moon missions so memorable were less the shots of the approaching moon and more the photographs of receding planet Earth. Similarly, images of the brain, its connectivity and complexity, and its universality among human beings is helping philosophers to imagine new ways to conceive of morality—the ways in which we treat our fellow human beings, and even creatures that have similar nervous systems. We can now begin to describe the mental processes that allow nervous systems to feel joy and sorrow when wired up properly and feel nothing whatsoever when the internal connections are missing or damaged. A new breed of philosopher is beginning to apply these discoveries to the problems of morality and ethics, a province that has heretofore been walled off from science—what Steven Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria.” Neuroscience is helping those magisteria to finally overlap a bit.

Complete the form below to read more about synaptic connections that help us learn.

2018-06-27T22:34:12+00:00 Articles, The Science Behind Learning|