Monday, September 22, 2014

Learning through readings on neuroscience and neuropsychology

As prefaced in a blog last year, I would be devoting most of this year to working towards a better understanding of how recent studies in neuroscience and neuropsychology may contribute to my work on studying trades-based learning.

I must say the readings have been slightly disorganised as I meandered from one topic area to another. My self-directed route through the discursive field of philosophy and empirical studies of neuroscience show how there is still much to learn about the brain, mind and soul. Each field pushes a ‘preferred’ way of looking at the world and there are only a few researchers who seem to push through the boundaries. Examples include the Churchland’s neurophilosophy.  The siloing of discipline areas is starting to dissolve as articles on sites like example. So we are still at the very early stages of understanding how the brain works and working out how what happens in the brain, contributes to what makes us who we are.

Books like Owen Flanagan’s "The problem of the soul"’ , Ramachandran's "Tell-tale brain", Precht's "Who am I and if so, how many" and Humphrey's "Soul dust", go some way to explaining to a lay audience, the contributions of science and the historical Western tradition of theology and humanism towards our present understanding of "how I am and who I am". 

So what have I gleaned from just over a year’s worth of reading?

·       - The brain is incredible, it is the foundation of who we are and provides the mechanisms to learn how to become who we are. Hence, guard it well. I now have a new swish-bang cycle helmet to replace my almost a decade old one, in a bid to ensure the brain box is accorded the protection it deserves.

·        - We still do not really know much about how the mechanics of the brain works. One needs to be careful about the hype around fMRI and similar towards explaining how we think.

·       - Some of what the brain does is innate or hardwired but much of what eventually ends up as ‘me’ has to be learnt. The brain’s biological construction is accomplished both through genetic evolutionary legacies  (nature) and through contributions from our social environment (nurture) (the birth of the mind)- Hence, there is great plasticity in the brain (see guitar zero).

·        Which leads to – we need to want to learn otherwise, things become challenging (Hatties science of how welearn). So intrinsic motivation always beats extrinsic.

·        - There are limitations to the brain (kluge) we need to be aware of and work through. Things like memory, decision making (see neuroeconomics), our propensity for addiction to substances offering pleasure etc. all need to be borne in mind.

·        - We learn better when we can relate new learning to pass experiences and things we already know (Hattie - visible learning for teachers)

·        - We ‘chunk’ concepts and remember things multi modally. The sounds, smells and visuals are retrieved when we bring up memories. The brain does not ‘record’ experiences like a video recorder but brings experiences in a multisensory / multi modal way into our existing neural networks. therefore, each person’s memory / perspectives of an occurrence are idiosyncratic.

·        - Narratives, analogies, metaphors are ways we use to make sense of unfamiliar ideas and incorporate into our repertoire.  However, this method of making sense of our world means narratives, analogies and metaphors are personalised to our ontological leanings. 

·        - The brain does not come with a ‘how to best use’ manual. Individually we need to work things out. So acquiring metacognition (Hattie - visible learning for teachers) is an one important approach to improving learning.

·        - Learning is hard work, takes time, dedication and resilience (expertise, deliberate practice); there is no quick fix.

·        - When we manage to learn something new, we find it motivates us to learn more. Learning is maybe something our brain craves (books on evolutionary psychology)

·        - Our brains have a propensity to learn from others. We are a social animal (Sterelny - evolved apprentice, Vygotsky). What we are and who we are is lodged in the grey stuff and white matter in our skull, there has not been any empirical evidence to date that there is a soul – the brain is the mind is the soul (Churchland, Flanagan).

·        - When we die, that’s it L, which seriously challenges my Christian belief system.
·        However, knowing that ourselves (or soul) cease to exist when our physical part dies means we need to contribute NOW. So carpe diem!!

·       - Humans are the only animal on earth that can think through a way to remedy the mess our species have made of the only known planet inhabited by sentient beings – see pale blue dot to be reminded about how insignificant we are in the really BIG picture.

·       -  Some other animals may also be sentient so beware of what you eat.

So, a few epiphanies plus confirmation of lots already known and applied. New learning and skills attained from wading through some interesting (and some not so interesting) books and articles including familiarity with the work of some of the leading researchers in neuroscience, neuropsychology and neurophilosophy.

Where to next? Well, next year will be focused on how to apply some of the above to vocational learning and a catch up on readings pertinent to the topic. I need to touch base again with some of the seminal works on apprenticeship learning and workplace learning to sieve through what is still pertinent and what is now already dated, in light of the learnings from this year's readings. So the journey continues.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Neuro- The new brain sciences and the management of the mind – book overview

Checked this 2013 book out - authored by N. Rose and J.M. Abi-Rached and published by Princeton University Press.

I worked through the ebook available through CPIT library. The book is a good overview of the state of play with regards to neuroscience, neuropsychology and brings in perspectives and concepts already summarised in other books – for instance, as overviewed on this blog recently, by P. Churchland, Ramachandran and Broks

The book has 9 chapters, an introduction and conclusion and 7 chapters with each chapter overviewing the ‘functional’ aspects of the brain, implications.

The introduction (available frompublisher’s site) provides a good overview of the book and worth a read through before diving into the book itself. 

Chapter 1 covers the ‘neuromolecular brain’ is the historical overview of how we progressed through the last 100 years or so in our understanding of how the brain is structured and how it works. A summary of 8 points in page 43 sums up is presently known. The brain is an organ like other, evolved like other mammals, can be anatomised at the molecular level as being chemical transmissions partially dependent on neurotransmitters and a whole complex of other entities – enzymes, ion channels receptors, transporters etc. Different parts of the brain have different evolutionary histories. Mental processes reside in the brain, so mental states and processes can be potentially observable through the organic function of the brain.

The second chapter is on how the brain sees the world – ‘the invisible gaze’ summarise the long journey taken to the present in how to try to unlock what happens in the brain as it functions. From crude images to present brain scanners and the coloured pictures available through fMRI.

Chapter 3 is a call to heed research on humans rather than mice in ‘what’s wrong with mice’ maintains the argument that study of human brains cannot be completed through making assumptions from animal studies. For instance, page 84 has 6 points which include difficulties in assuming  animals and human behaviour are the same, although mechanics may be the same, biochemical may defer, difficulties with phenotypes, modelling human stressors in animals, weakness of current tests used in animals (mazes) and inferred to human responses, and many trials are not properly blinded or randomised. Hence, the specificity of humans needs to be accounted for.

The fourth chapter is a good discussion on how the brain goes wrong – ‘all in the brain’ covers mental illness and how brain function / malfunction?. How neuropsychiatry is still a work in progress and how although we have made many positive discoveries and applied to treatment, we have only scratched the surface in understanding why and how mental illness occurs.

Chapter 5 concentrates on the ‘social brain’ and summarises the work of social neuroscience, trying to understand why primates are ‘social animals’ and the role of the brain. The specialised area of social neuroscience is presented and discussed. Includes a thoughtful critique for and against the role of mirror neurons, their presence and function and theorised connection to our social nature.

Chapter 6 presents the other side of the coin ‘the antisocial brain’ and tries to unpack how criminality occurs. A historical overview of criminality and its associations with psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience is provided. A slight hiatus after the second world war due to Nazi research in the area followed by revival of interest from the 1980s with accessibility to CT scans. Cautions are discussed with regards to neurolaw – using brain science to try to explain (and sometimes provide defence) criminal behaviour.

Chapter 7 come together with ‘personhood in the neurobiological age’ with the perennial challenge of where the self comes from – the soul or the brain? As per previous chapters, the historical journey towards understanding who we are and the role of the brain is summarised.

The conclusion ‘managing brains, minds and selves’ brings in the challenge into the future. A glimpse of where to next.

I would not recommend this book as the first port of call on things neurobiological. It is written with an academic although, in general, readable style. The function of the book is to update the thousands of studies in the last two decades on brain function and the media hype around conclusions that may be drawn from ‘brain scanning’ . Therefore, the book is a more academic version of  'need for caution in using neuroscience findings', reminding one in drawing conclusions from limited, exploratory studies, many conducted on rats or small ‘building block’ studies which are sensationalised by the media.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Tec-Variety - book overview

Via Derek Wenmoth’s blog, book launched at DEANZ conference a couple of months ago.
eBook by Professor Curtis Bonk and Dr. Elaine Khoo (Waikato University) called "Adding some Tec-Variety - 100 + activities for motivating and retaining learners online".

The book is available via Amazon but the authors have also generously provided access to a free download of a pdf version of the book. 15 chapters with 10 chapters devoted to the “tec- tools” framed by 3 introductory and 2 closing / consolidating chapters.

The first chapter introduces the rationale and values for writing the book. The R2D2 (read, reflect, display, do) components used in an earlier (2006) book (empowering online learning:100+ activities for reading, reflecting, displaying and doing by Bonk and Zhang) is also introduced and discussed. The framework for tec-variety (tone / climate, encouragement, curiosity, variety, autonomy, relevance, interactivity, engagement, tension and yielding) also presented and substantiated. Chapter 2 covers the various literature on on-line learning attrition and retention, leading to the focuses of the book on setting up the right background for helping learners retain motivation in an online learning environment. Chapter 3 summaries the key learning theories’ stance on motivation – behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, social culturalism.

Each of the principles for assisting online learners to succeed then covered. Each principle recommends 10 learning activities, backed by examples, exemplars and resources. Principle one is to set up a tone or climate to ensure learners’ are psychologically safe, comfortable and have a sense of belonging to the course; Principle 2 covers the encouragements aspects of learning with feedback, responsiveness, praise and supports. Principle on curiosity has activities to provide for surprise, intrigue and exploration of the unknowns. Variety is principle 4 to provide novelty, fun and fantasy. In the principle on learner autonomy, activities to encourage learner choice, control, flexibility and opportunities are presented. Relevance is covered to provide activities for accessing meaningful, authentic and interesting learning. Interactivity recommends online activities for collaboration, team-based and community learning. Engagement is assisted by activities to bring about greater effort, involvement and investment (buy-in). The critical thinking aspect is addressed in principle 9 on tension with activities that challenge learners and provide opportunities to work with dissonance and controversy. The last principle discusses outputs in the form of goal driven, purposefully visioned and learner-owned evidence production.

Recommended activities cover a range of traditional (variants of discussion forums) to web-based, multimedia / multimodal type items. The emphasis is on learning centred activities with the learner contributing and producing content, either individually or with others, for discussion, critique and consolidation.

The penultimate chapter covers the important task of motivating instructors. The last chapter summarises the approaches and offers tables listing all the various activities and the risks, time, costs, learner-centredness and activity duration as a ‘selection’ tool.

Overall, a good overview of the possibilities for using a range of online learning activities, anchored by sound pedagogical rationales.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Neuroeconomics – via Coursera MOOC

Over the last month and a half, I have been working through a MOOC offered through Coursera. This is part of my professional development for this year, to augment readings (summarised through this blog this year) in the areas of neuroscience and neuropsychology.

The MOOC is offered through the Higher School of Economics which is part of the National Research University  located in Moscow. The presenter is Professor Vasily Klucharev. The course has a traditional structure. Videos each week as lectures – usually 3 – 5 broken up into 5 -6 minutes to 20 minutes. Each video has one set of multiple choice questions embedded. At the end of each week, a short multiple choice test is completed. There is a time limit on the quiz and 3 attempts are allowed. The exam at the end of the course is made up of 20 multiple choice questions.

The above supplemented with a short collection of suggested ‘readings’ in the form of book chapters and journal articles. There is also an active discussion forum which I have not had time to delve into but will try to catch up on at some stage.

Part one introduces the topic. Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary discipline to introduce aspects of psychology and neuroscience into rationalist economics. The foundation and rationale of neuroeconomics are introduced.

Week 2 goes through the neuroscience aspects required to understand how neuroeconomics itself works. Various means of accessing brain activity as decisions are made are also covered in week 2. Importantly, fMRIprocess is explained so that future graphs and explanations can be understood. FMRI images are statistical combinations of structural (what is activated) and functional (how often activated) brain activity. Brain activity is captured through magnetic resonance of blood flow through the brain as laboratory tests are completed by test subjects.

Week 3 begins the work on understanding how the brain goes about making decisions. The concept of a diffusion model for decision making is introduced and discussed in some depth.

Week 4 introduces the parts of the brain – the nucleusaccumbus (anticipates gain / reward), orbital frontal cortex (compares and integrates information regarding reward outcomes) and the dorsolateralprefrontal cortex (does the control and planning). Examples are provided of how each operates and then how all the brain sectors work in tandem to make value judgements and decisions.

Week 5 brings in the important contributions of emotion into how decisions are made. Emotions contribute either as innate or learnt responses. The theory of emotion states we appraise, evaluate, take action, make physiological changes or express through action. Emotional stimuli is thus assigned a form of ‘value’ albeit, subjective values. Emotions are also the product of brain activity and add a subjective dimension to how we make decisions as how each person comes to a ‘conclusion’ is coloured by the context, historical-social factors, ontology etc. etc. So, we hope to be rational thinkers but perhaps we are nowhere near as rational as we would like to be!

In week 6, the ways in which the brain makes decision either as option 1 (intuitive, heuristic, automatic) or option 2 (reflective, analytic, consciously monitored) are introduced. The role of the dorsallateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is brought in to explain how people modulate their needs through self-control. Fairness and temporal discounting (delayed rewards) also plays a role. Therefore, decisions not necessarily rational but impacted on by emotions and the way various parts of the brain evaluate choices.

Week 7 brings in the contribution of ‘risk’, how does the brain assess ‘risk’? Is there a difference between risk and uncertainty? The ways in which we make decisions with an element of inherent risks is predicated by how the options are framed. We tend to be risk adverse if we see a gain but risk seeking when faced with a loss! Small probabilities are overweighted and large probabilities under weighted. Therefore, we will gamble on an outcome when faced with a losing proposition whereas if we perceive a sure win, we are conservative.
The last two weeks of the course discusses ‘society and brains’.

Week 8 discusses the ‘social brain’. Firstly, a video of ‘game theory’, the economics decision making model is presented. Revised the levels of complexity in neuroeconomics – neuron – brain – cognitions and emotions – society and biosphere. Social influences seen to be an evolutionary factor (selection between genes, between individuals within a group and between groups within a population). Correlation between social complexity and neo-cortex volume in primates. Game theory used to try to understand situations where decision-makers interact. Game consists of a set of actions and a payoff function. Uses ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ to illustrate cooperation. The neurological fundamentals of social cooperation are summarised with the role of mirror neurons highlighted.

The last week of the course, brings in the dimensions of evolution and the concept of humans as ‘economic animals’. The concept of cooperation as being innate in humans and to a slightly less extend in primates / apes is used as example of neuro-based pre-disposal to certain traits. Biological market theory is used to find out if there are natural examples of the existence of market type scenarios in nature. For instance ‘cleaners’ / groomers and ‘clients’ between animals – reef fish or anemones with small schools of ‘cleaner’ fish. Clients allow cleaners to enter their mouths without eating them. Monkeys have complex arrangements for grooming, with hierarchical and supply based systems. Market systems impact on how services are interchanged. Capuchin monkey experiments can be trained to trade coins for tools to perform tasks – usually leading to a food reward. Capuchin monkeys also learn value of coins, trading for ‘bargains’ and ‘gamble’ when loses are framed as wins (i.e. loss aversion). Both capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees reject unfair exchanges, indicating the perception of equality to be present in primates.

Overall, a very traditionally structured course with content delivered via weekly readings, video lectures, in lecture quizzes usually at the end of the lecture, multiple choice quizzes at the end of each week that count towards assessment and discussion forums. Took a couple of lectures to get used to the professor’s accent but the explanations were clear and powerpoint visuals usually helpful. The end of week quizzes were of variable quality, with many written poorly but the standard of multi-choice question construction did improve, so the lecturer was learning by doing and responding to student suggestions.

I am now enrolled in a few more courses to the end of this year to improve my understanding of neurobiology. These courses meet my individualised learning needs and are useful for professional development but you need to be committed to watching the hour or so of videos each week, taking notes, thinking through the information before attempting the quizzes. I would say I did learn lots of interesting facts and a couple of items I can apply to current projects. Of note is the opportunity to be introduced to up to date thinking on brain function, albeit, from a specialised point of view.