Efficient Human Learning
Do just 6,000 DNA patterns determine the humungous development of the human brain?
Intertwined evolution over millions of years has resulted in the complex phenomenon that we humans exhibit, which differentiates us from other, lower forms of life – reasoning. This advanced capability is possible due to the huge number of information processors – neurons – and their intricate alignments in a vast in the human brain. A child is born with 100 billion neurons: however, only 10 percent of its neuronal connections – synapses – are present at that time. As the child evolves into an adult, these 100 billion neurons are connected using 1 million billion synapses, averaging 10,000 synapses per neuron. What is astounding is that only 6,000 genes are involved in the development of the human brain’s synapses – which we know cannot be entirely true, as the development of millions of billions of synapses would require other forces, or influence, to create such complex diversity. This influence is called ‘experience’.
Experience not only includesexperiences of learning and emotion, but also familial and environmental influences, and individual choices. Thus, while the brain does not persist in creating new neurons beyond a certain age, it constantly realigns existing neural networks into new arrangements to reflect the new experiences and learning throughout the life of the individual. This ability of the brain to constantly adapt to new circumstances and new environments is called ‘brain plasticity’.
Operative Brain Lobe
Different functions are performed by different parts – or lobes – of the brain. For instance, the Frontal lobe controls and coordinates motor movements, higher cognitive skills, such as problem solving, thinking, planning, and organizing, and personality and emotional aspects. The Parietal lobe controls sensory processes such as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, and attention and linguistic skills. The right side of the Parietal lobe is responsible for spatial intelligence, while the left side is responsible for the ability to understand spoken and written languages. The Occipital lobe is responsible for the processing of visual information, such as the recognition of shapes and colours. The Temporal lobe is responsible for processing and integrating sensory data, including auditory information. Through its hippocampal formation, it is also believed to be responsible for short-term memory, and through the amygdala, it produces learned emotional responses.1
Together with the 6,000 DNA patterns and the 100 billion neurons, the information processed in the four brain lobes forms the basis of perception and cognition in the human brain.
As with almost any activity, we need some stimuli to pursue learning. These stimuli could be internal, spontaneously or willfully generated; or they could be external, in the form of mechanical, chemical or thermal stimuli. These work at both physiological and psychological levels. Physiological level stimuli could include heat or cold, pain, hunger, fatigue, survival instinct, and so on. At the psychological level, we could learn to satisfy emotional needs, or from fear or need (examinations), rewards and so on. These stimuli also stimulate our thinking and native intelligence – assets that are part of our genetic inheritance.
Learning ability is the capacity to gainful insight from experiences or knowledge. It is governed by several factors, such as an individual’s existing knowledge, native intelligence, linguistic ability, aptitude towards a particular subject, assimilative capacity, processing speed, biological factors, environmental and social conditions and so on.
Learning Ability = Sum(Native Intelligence, Linguistic Ability, Learning Aptitude, Assimilative Capacity, Biological factors, Environmental Conditions, Social Compulsions …)
Almost all living beings are born with some level of fundamental – or native – intelligence, such as the ability of a new born of any animal to find the mammary apparatus of its mother, a knowledge or intelligence essential for the infant’s survival.Intelligence may be defined as the ability to process information both qualitatively and quantitatively, and use the acquired knowledge and other resources to further the process of understanding and mastering one’s environment.
For instance, let’s assume someone finds themselves faced with a body of water they have to cross, and not knowing how to swim, looks around for any resource. Finding a log of wood stout enough to be able to sit upon, the person, who possesses prior knowledge that logs float upon water, will be able to use to log to cross the body of water. This ability to use knowledge and resources to perform gainful activity is called intelligence.
Even lower forms of life possess some form of native intelligence – animals and birds, for instance, will not venture near fire because it is ingrained into them genetically that fire will ‘burn’ them. A kitten or a child who is scalded by hot milk will henceforth ensure that their milk is not too hot before they attempt to drink it. The lessons learned from the scalding experience will stay in their long term memory for their entire lifetime, and will be brought to their short term, or working memory each time they are confronted with hot milk, the latter being the stimulus for their thinking, which leads to use of their intelligence. This, then, is the way in which memory or knowledge, intelligence and thinking work.
Knowledge may be defined as the sum total of the information that a human being possesses at any point in time, be it in short term or long term memory, or in the action buffer memory. In this way, knowledge, when stored in the STM or ABM is termed short term knowledge, and that which is sent to be stored in the LTM is long term knowledge. For example, information about ourselves, our parents, our personal details such as social security number, street name, credit card number or our fiancé’s birthday are all stored in our LTM. However, more immediate details, such as the number of the bus that we traveled in to the office, or the color of the dress of the person who was sitting next to us on the bus, may seem or even be important at the time of occurrence, but are immediately discarded once this information is deemed by the brain as not important or meaningful enough to be retained in our LTM. This is the way our brain manages our memory status, periodically discarding information that it deems ‘unworthy’ either to the background or right out of the storage area.
On a broader perspective, the knowledge that we possess are of three kinds: experiential, acquired, and processed. Experiential knowledge is usually the longest lasting, as we actually go through the pain or pleasure while receiving that knowledge. For instance, having a slice of ripe mango is a pleasurable experience, and every time we see a slice of, or even a whole mango, our tongue twitches for a taste of our previous experience. This information is stored in our LTM. However, this same knowledge, that a ripe mango is sweet tasting and heavenly, may be acquired – without undergoing the actual experience – from an external source, such as a friend or a book. A third way is to create an analogous experience – tasting a slice of papaya, for instance – and to extrapolate that experience on to tasting ripe mangoes. This is processed information, and although does not equate to the actual experience, is a fair approximation of the original.
Whenever we receive a stimulus that triggers an association with some knowledge that we have in our LTM – through its metadata – our brain rapidly shuffles through the mass of randomly arranged knowledge in our memory and retrieves all associated data, some of which may not be relevant to the current situation. However, once more parameters or conditions are added, the number of associations is reduced, and the brain is able to find a direct association in the shortest possible time. In much the same way as retrieval, knowledge assimilation, or learning, happens faster and more efficiently when the number of parameters or handles – essentially metadata about the data – increases. For example, we may not remember the name of a book when it is mentioned by someone. But if that person also mentions the author’s name, the publisher, and the storyline of the book, then recall happens much more efficiently, and we may be able to recall the name of the book without further prompting.
Wisdom, Consciousness and Metaphysical States
Once a certain level of knowledge about the material world is reached, seemingly more important questions, such as the reason for our birth and existence, what happens when someone or something dies, and critical questions such as the meaning of life and the existence of a supernatural phenomenon begin to dog us. We often find ourselves frustrated and at a loss to explain such phenomena – and might end up seeking more knowledge from someone – a spiritual guru – who might help us find the answers to these age-old questions. However, we also understand that we most likely will never find satisfactory answers to these questions. This, then, is the stage when we attain worldly wisdom – that we are here for a purpose, and that that purpose may be defined by us for ourselves, or may be dictated by someone else, including our environment and other factors, for us.
Consciousness happens when we begin to introspect, and see our inner selves in our own perspective, rather than what the world perceives us to be. Consciousness is a step closer to discovering our true selves.
Once we are able to get a fairly clear picture of our true selves, we begin to see ourselves superimposed on a larger fabric that we might not be able to comprehend initially, but either on our own, or through the guidance of a guru, might get to discover what we are through ‘out of the body’ experiences, when we cease to be mere physical entities and enter a transcendental stage where we are able to perceive ourselves outside of the material world we usually inhabit. This can be described as a metaphysical state.
The human mind is very much capable of attaining these, and other higher states through spiritual learning and experience. However, our learning as far as this paper is concerned is restricted to our understanding of how our brain works in terms of learning, knowledge and intelligence.