Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Notes from Educause: Ramachandran

I am interested in Ramachandran and neurology lately because of claims made by George Siemens and others that there is a direct correlation between how the brain physically functions and how we learn (neurons connecting = learning). I think that there is a lot of psychology that happens between someone firing a neuron and writing an email. There are things that are happening in the brain (including neurons firing) but things like memories are distributed through out the brain. George sent out an interesting article on this called "Memories Are Made of This."

There are 100 billion neurons in the brain and there are ten thousand connections per neuron. The different possible states based on these connections out number the elementary particles in the entire universe. Despite that complexity, we can isolate particular parts of the brain by function based on what we learn from people who have had accidents that slightly damage the brain (strokes or accidents).

Different areas of the brain have different functions but that is different than making a judgement about what is happening at the level of the neuron.

Ramachandran studied the phantom limb syndrome. This happens because the brain maps out the nervous system in a particular part of the brain. The brain remaps the hand into the another portion of the brain. A physical event like amputation doesn't just change the body but rewires the brain. Learned paralysis carries over into the phantom limb. He had shown the connection between visual feedback and relieving pain and paralysis in phantom limbs. Used a mirror in his experiments - having patients move their functioning limb in a mirror and the patients are able to remap the state of their phantom limb with the illusion.

There are things called "mirror neurons" "empathy neurons" - they fire when we reach out and grab something but they also fire when we watch someone grab something. There is a malleability of connections. There is someting in the brain that tells us not to feel pain when someone else is poked but that goes away when we have phantom limbs.

He also studied "synesthesia." Theorie about why people see colors is that they are crazy, on drugs, or something that someone has done in childhood, or that they are being metaphorical. He says that it is a concrete phenomena in the brain - one in 50 are synesthetic. Color and number synesthesia is the most common and the areas are right next to one another in the brain. There is increased "white matter" between the areas. It is genetic, why? Our genes are involved in pruning excess connections in the brain in fetal brain development. In higher sysesthetes days and weeks are colored.

Poets, novelists, and artists are good at creating metaphors - making connections - linking concepts in the brain. Artists are 8 times more likely to be synesthetes. Not everyone has this.

The metaphorical allows us to engage in abstraction. Vision, hearing and touch section of the brain are involved in creating metaphors and abstraction.

Are there unique brain structures from other animals? We do have specialized brain structions the are of the brain that engages in cross modal abstraction. He called personality a neural phenomena.

My sense from this presentation is that we are still a long way off from making generalized statements about teaching and learning from brain imaging studies.

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