My first homework assignments for Human Learning and Cognition

1. Read a 400+ page book and write an essay about it that answers the professor’s five questions (this was assigned before class began)

2. Answer five more questions based on reading two other chapters from other authors.

The good news is that my Teaching Writing class is a lot less work (so far… it’s only Week 2).

Here’s #1:

Winter Reading Project: A User’s Guide to the Brain

Despite medical and technological advances that have greatly advanced the study of the brain in recent decades, what we know about how it functions still pales in comparison to what is unknown. To attempt to understand an organ that has “more possible ways to connect…neurons than there are atoms in the universe” (Ratey, 2001, p. 26) is a tall order indeed, and attempting to explain brain function in lay terms, as Ratey has done in A User’s Guide to the Brain, could arguably be viewed as an equally herculean task.

As the human brain is “the most complex system known to science” (Ratey, 2001, p. 397), Ratey chooses to frame its function and development within two core metaphors, the first being that, “like a set of muscles, it responds to use and disuse by either growing and remaining vital or decaying” (p. 11). Ratey applies this metaphor to the brain in several ways; he begins by explaining that the very structure of our brains can be changed through experiences, thoughts, actions, and emotions, and that “by viewing the brain as a muscle that can be weakened or strengthened” we can take an active role in choosing who we become (p. 24). He goes on to support his “use it or lose it” (p. 56) view of brain development in the story of Martha Curtis, the musical virtuoso who maintained her mastery of the violin even after surrendering 20 percent of her right temporal lobe to surgeries aimed at putting a stop to her severe epileptic seizures. Ratey concludes this story of triumph by asserting that our memories, like Martha’s memory of her violin skills, can be strengthened with exercise, “just as weight-training strengthens our muscles” (p. 213).

Ratey (2001) also compares the brain to “a dynamic ecosystem” where neurons and networks compete for incoming stimuli (p. 65). Whereas the muscle metaphor explains how the brain develops and maintains its “ability to rewire” (p. 45) according to needs, the ecosystem metaphor seems to do more to explain the different components and regions of the brain that work together to function as a cohesive, interconnected unit. Ratey employs this very apt metaphor to show why “there is no single center for vision, language, emotion” and other brain functions including memory (p. 208), and again to illustrate the basis of his four theaters approach to treating patients which will be discussed in detail later in this paper.

Further reinforcing Ratey’s (2001) view of brain function as an ecosystem where individual regions compete and interact with each other, there is now “mounting evidence (showing) that movement is crucial to every other brain function, including memory, emotion, language, and learning” (p. 167). In short, the responsibilities of the motor cortex go far beyond simply controlling physical activity. Ratey points out that some of that evidence has been uncovered by neurologists who have found that the cerebellum, which directs physical movement, also “plays a role in the sequence of thoughts needed to visualize the kitchen, make an argument, or think up a tune”

(p. 167). He also notes that the motor cortex, which consists of the prefrontal and frontal cortexes, not only times physical acts but mental ones as well (p. 168). In other words, the act of thinking about a course of action involves the same part of the brain that directs muscles to carry those actions out physically. Ratey even goes on to link motor function with self-awareness, “the highest order of mental function” (p. 198). Based on the evidence presented, it would appear that the motor cortex is truly deserving of Ratey’s nickname for it: “the CEO of the brain” (p. 176).

Out of everything Ratey (2001) wrote about in A User’s Guide to the Brain, four words in particular stood out: practice makes new brain (p. 71). It is widely believed, even among those who have never read a word about neurological research findings, that when certain senses are dulled others may sharpen in response, e.g. the blind person who develops superior hearing abilities. Unlike many popular but uninformed beliefs, this one appears to be true and is illustrated by Ratey’s example of how blind people can determine the layout of a room by tapping a cane and listening to the auditory cues (p. 71). What makes this interesting is that we can, in theory, choose to “make new brain” in areas that hold significance to us, just as Albert Einstein worked on his creative side by playing violin (p. 44) and Temple Grandin “(rewired) her faulty brain circuits” (p. 23) by training herself to approach supermarket doors. Because our brain’s “amazing plasticity enables it to continually rewire and learn” (p. 55) it would seem that we are only limited by our own motivation and discipline (or lack thereof) in terms of making gains in the areas of our choosing. As both a teacher and a language learner, it is inspiring to know that our brains are designed to grow and respond to whatever we focus our energies on, and that this very idea can be applied each time we walk into a classroom as either teacher or student.
Ratey (2001) describes the “four theaters” approach to psychiatry as a metaphorical construct intended to approach patients’ struggles from a holistic perspective that “(tracks) experience from perception to identity” (p. 376). Rather than following the traditional diagnostic technique of focusing directly on the patient’s feelings which, according to Ratey, “are not the cause of the problems but the result” (p. 373), the four theaters follow the flow of sensory input down a “neurophysiological river of the mind” (p. 378) and it is along the theoretical banks of this river of grey matter that each of the theaters is situated. The first theater to receive the sensory input is perception, and downstream from the theater of perception is the input’s next stop, attention, consciousness, and cognition; from there, sensory input continues to flow downstream to brain function which includes language and social skills and, finally, to the fourth theater of identity and behavior, or “who the perceiver has become” (p. 378).

The four theaters model is unique in that it takes into account the cascading effects that each theater has on the others, and it supports Ratey’s (2001) view that we must “think of the brain as a self-organizing ecosystem” that is so complex and delicate that “almost any aspect of a patient’s life may be relevant to a diagnosis or essential to treatment” (p. 392). Although the conceptual intricacies of each stage would certainly require more than a single book chapter to fully comprehend, it is easy to see how distortion of sensory input at any stage could have a significant impact on the other theaters of the mind, and ultimately, on the patient’s (or student’s) persona.

The four theaters view of the brain is described by Ratey (2001) as the “unification of many small parts and pieces that…acting in concert give form and shape and creation to something”
(p. 378). In short, no single component of our brain acts alone; it is part of a larger whole that, when working in unison, can produce meaningful results. Within the context of education, this would seem to reinforce the idea that learning isn’t just a function of memory, nor is it simply understanding a sentence or demonstrating the ability to make a successful utterance. Each of these tasks, in isolation, is insufficient on its own to lead to language fluency. It is also important to consider that problems in one area of language may be indicative of a problem in other areas, just as Ratey’s subject, Theresa, encountered a problem with reading that had roots in her visual perception of words rather than her understanding of them (p. 385). For instance, if a student appears to be unable to grasp the correct use of a grammar point, it could be that she fully understands the syntax but has misunderstood, or misperceived, the context in which it is used or possibly the meanings of certain words. As teachers, we have to be aware that all phases of language learning have the potential to affect each other and, therefore, we must use care in how we guide students to true understanding.


Ratey, J. J. (2001). A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain [Apple iBooks, iOS8.1]. New York: Pantheon Ebooks.

Here’s #2:

1. What is learning?

According to Terry (2006), learning is defined as “a relatively permanent change in behavior, or behavioral repertoire, that occurs as a result of experience” (p. 5). The change in behavior that he refers to should be observable in some way, whether through monitoring physiological changes or watching for an external response. Does this mean that a student hasn’t learned a new word until a neurologist sticks electrodes on her head for verification of the learning? Thankfully, no. Behavioral repertoire includes “the stock of behaviors that might be performed”
(p. 7) and this idea encompasses the potential for the student to respond correctly in a test or other scenario where the learned material must be recalled. The caveat that learning must come from experience is just a way of excluding non-experiential forces that cause what might appear to be “learning” such as when a child physically matures to the point where walking becomes possible. The “relatively permanent” clause exists to exclude changes that have been affected by something other than learning, such as when a rat is hungry and anxious to reach the goal box at the end of the maze (p. 8).

2. How are learning and performance related and why do we need to be aware of this?
Tolman and Honzik’s 1930 study of rats (as cited in Terry, 2008, p. 10) illustrated how learning and performance do not always correspond to each other equally. While their test results with rats’ performance in a maze was interesting, the real significance is in Terry’s example of well-prepared students doing poorly on a test due to anxiety as well as Cameron’s 1963 study of nursing home residents (as cited on p. 11) who appeared to improve their memory after infusions of RNA but, most likely, gave the appearance of improving due to other factors such as test repetition and getting extra attention as a result of the experiment. The takeaway is that performance, good or bad, isn’t always the product of what has or hasn’t been learned (p. 10-11).

It is important to keep this in mind as teachers because students can be subject to all kinds of variables that may affect their performance in school. A student who is a chronic underperformer could easily be just as capable as the next, but external influences such as health or family problems could be the culprit. It could also be that the student is simply bored and needs new challenges.

Conversely, few teachers would complain when a student suddenly aces a test, but in this case it would be important not to suddenly declare that he or she has made a quantum leap in understanding or should be placed in a higher level class. The spike in performance isn’t necessarily permanent and some careful monitoring might be in order here.

3. What is the relationship between learning and memory?
Learning is about “acquiring knowledge or behavior” while memory is about “retaining and recalling the knowledge or behavior” (Terry, 2008, p. 11). Although Keppel’s (1964, as cited on p. 12) study of college students who were given either massed or spaced-practice trials illustrated a distinct difference between learning and retention, Terry concedes that the study itself was perhaps flawed because learning also tests memory and vice versa, and he defers to Schmidt and Bjork’s (1992, as cited on p. 15) view that “the effectiveness of learning is revealed by…the level of retention shown.” In other words, rather than separating learning and memory, it makes more sense to gauge the
effectiveness of learning by the level of retention (p. 11-15).

4. How can we conceive of behavior and why is this important?
Lieberman (2004) describes behavior as being “lawful” because it is predictable (p. 5). As humans, we tend to lean on the belief that we have free will when, in reality, much of what we do is controlled by our circumstances and environment. Lieberman’s example of determinism, where a child chooses not to fight a bully (p. 5), illustrates the concept well; most victims of bullying, despite a burning desire to punch the bully in the face, will avoid a physical confrontation in an environment where they are likely to be injured. In such a case, this behavior would be fairly easy to predict. He further notes that, even in more common everyday situations, “we are less aware of the forces that are affecting us” (p. 9) yet we are still being influenced. Examples of this influence have been documented in various experiments including Smith and Engel’s (1968, as cited on p. 9) test of men rating a car’s desirability and Dutton and Aron’s (1974, as cited on p. 9) studies of the relationship between arousal levels and men’s inclination to ask a woman on a date. Behavior does, indeed, seem to be very susceptible to influences that contradict the notion of free will.

As teachers, the importance of realizing that behavior is influenced easily and often relates directly to how our students behave and how we interact with them. Teachers not only have the power to shape the learning environment but we also have the opportunity to influence learning by adjusting our own behavior and attitudes. Just as Oscar Pfungst (1965) discovered that people questioning Clever Hans were unintentionally giving subtle cues that the horse picked up on (p. 19), we teachers could certainly be doing similar things in the classroom that may be of detriment to student learning.

5. What are some of the main approaches to studying learning and which seems to be the most promising?

Lieberman (2004) redefines learning as “a change in our capacity for behavior, as a result of particular kinds of experience” (p. 34). Two approaches that deal with this issue are B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism which demands that we “study the relationship between environmental conditions and behavior directly” (p. 23), and the cognitive approach which argues that a more complete understanding of how the mind works will “inevitably increase our ability to help people” (p. 24).

Because cognitive psychologists agree that “our ability to observe the mind’s activities is seriously limited” (Lieberman, 2004, p. 24), Lieberman seems to favor the behaviorist approach of ignoring what’s happening in the mind and focusing on the environmental conditions that result in behavior. This seems logical since behavior is predictable or, as Lieberman puts it, “lawful” (p. 5). The predictability of behavior, in turn, places significance on the environmental factors that precipitated such predictability. Still, as is often the case with opposing points of view, both behaviorism and the cognitive approach do have some merit and this is acknowledged in Lieberman’s own approach of accepting the inclusion of cognitive processes on the condition that they “lead to testable predictions” (p. 24). This measured approach seems to make the most sense as it would be negligent to ignore the merits of either camp entirely.



Cameron, N. (1963). Personality Development and Psychopathology: A Dynamic Approach / Norman Cameron.

Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510.

Keppel, G. (April 01, 1964). Facilitation in Short- and Long-Term Retention of Paired Associates Following Distributed Practice in Learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 3, 2, 91-111.

Lieberman, D. A. (2004). Learning and memory: An integrated approach. Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Pfungst, O., & Rosenthal, R. (1965). Clever Hans, the Horse of Mr. Von Osten. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Schmidt, R., & Bjork, R. (July 01, 1992). New Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training. Psychological Science, 3, 4, 207-217.

Smith, G. H., & Engel, R. (1968). Influence of a Female Model on Perceived Characteristics of an Automobile. In Proceedings of the 76th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (Vol. 3, pp. 681-682).

Terry, W. S. (2006). Learning and memory: Basic principles, process, and procedures (3rd Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Tolman, E. C., & Honzik, C. H. (1930). “Insight” in Rats. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

posted by Michael in Back to School on 3/12/2015 | No Comments