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Neurobiology Learning Society of Honolulu: learning, mirror neurons, and dreams.

Posted Apr 06 2009 6:35am

In April, the Neurobiology Learning Society met in Honolulu at 1601 Kapiolani Ave (Intercultural Communication College offices). Argosy University student Janalle Kaloi-Chen (see summarized the meeting. I reproduce parts of her summary and add my comments about the meeting, which I attended as well. (The group meets on the first Wednesday of every month at the above location).

The first speaker (Joli Malone) presented on Stress and Learning.  She
spoke about the structures of the limbic system that are involved in
learning including the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and
hippocampus. The hippocampus helps to encode important information
from short-term memory into long-term memory. The hippocampus is
connected to the amygdale in such a way that hypervigilence leaves little energy or
attention for learning. In keeping with Dan Janik's writing, it appears that the fear-based learning environments that are all too common in North American and Hawai'ian education from grade 1 through graduate school actually interferes with learning. Perception of the learning event affects what gets remembered and
with how much detail. Threat triggers a survival instinct and may
prevent or hinder learning. Joli spoke about the kinds of stress that
a student has including: bullying, negative-evaluations from the
teacher, poor peer interactions, lack of support or nurturing
environment, fear for personal safety, not speaking the dominant
school language, and prejudice or discrimination. She concluded by
going over various ways we can decrease stress of our students
including: providing a safe school environment and providing supports
to children and families.  And finally, having children exercise, play
music, and engage in positive social interactions increase endorphin
levels which tend to off-set the negative effects of cortisol.

The second speaker (Marissa Moon) spoke about how the Mirror Neurons
Systems help us diagnose autism. She explained that it mirror neurons allow us to
directly match actions of others and to generate explanations for their behavior based on what our motivations would be if we were engaging in those same behaviors. They were discovered in the brains of adult
primates.  The quote she used to describe them was, "When the
observation of an action performed by another individual evokes a
neural activity that corresponds to that which, when internally
generated, represents a certain action, the meaning of it should be
recognized, because of the similarity between two representations.
Mirror Neurons (MNS) appear to be important to many areas of human
development such as language acquisition, imitation of actions,
empathy, and theory of mind.  Thus impairments in the MNS may play a
role in psychopathologies, especially those with Autism spectrum
disorders, who appear to lack empathy.

The last speaker, Leslie Kunimura spoke about dreams and
schizophrenia.  The ability to generate rational thoughts is greatly
weakened in dreaming.  She spoke about the similarities between schizophrenia and
normal dreaming since both involve hallucinations, delusions,
cognitive abnormalities, heightened emotionality and a loss of
reality.  Her topic seemed to resound with many of us who have worked
with individuals with schizophrenia.

These were great topics for discussion because they allow us to see how our social relationships, social context, and social environment affect our brains. It gave me pause for thought. I notice that some students at Argosy, where I teach, are more comfortable with the fear-based learning system in which the teacher passes out information, the students learn it, and regurgitate it back on exams for a grade. My wish is for us to be less fear based – for us to, in essence, contract for grades in a system in which the students sees what the work needs to be for obtaining a particular grade and has the opportunity to get the grade he or she desires. Of course, this means that we become less "regurgitating information" based and more "process based" in which we learn how to learn about the particular subject matter and not necessarily learn all the same facts, but do all learn where to find those facts and what the controversies are in the field, and where the cutting edges might lie. I'm going to modify my approach next term, to have more small, frequently rewarded, creative learning tasks instead of asking students to pace themselves to turn in material (since they always turn it in at the end and then can't work together with me to boost their grade to what they want).

Regarding the last discussion, Argosy student Laura Epstein, posted a quote on our class discussion from Oliver Sacks that I want to share. In "The Last Hippie", he described someone who was stuck in the 60's due to a large tumor that had been removed, causing considerable brain. He then wrote,"Dreaming and waking, for us, are usually distinct-dreaming is enclosed in sleep and enjoys a special license because it is cut off from external perception and action; while waking perception is constrained by reality.  But in Greg the boundary between waking and sleep seemed to break down, and what emerged was a sort of waking or public dream, in which dreamlike fancies and associations and symbols would proliferate and weave themselves into the waking perceptions of the mind.  These associations were often startling and sometimes surrealistic in quality.  They showed the power of fancy at play and, specifically, the … characteristic of dreams."

A number of us at the meeting remarked at how our schizophrenic patients seemed to be living within a dream, and I speculated that schizophrenia (or whatever it is) would have to be some exaggeration or inappropriate expression of something we all already do rather than a qualitatively different brain phenomenon. I think living partially or fully within a dream sums up many of our experiences with schizophrenia-like symptoms. Also, it helps us to explain the lack of narrative coherence and ability often found among the schizophrenically diagnosed – they cannot tell stories about their experience because, to tell a story, one has to step out of the experience and reflect upon it and edit it and restructure and shape it. If one is lost in the experience that won't happen.


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