For the first time in human history, there is a theory of the mind that is based on the real biology of the brain rather than on philosophical speculations. Neuroscience is developing a new view of the mind that is in sharp contrast to the information-processing view with which most of us are familiar.
This new mind both provides a very different focus to training development, and specifies different characteristics for training programs to produce needed learning. These characteristics will unfold as you read on, and they are listed briefly in the last section.
The most fully developed brain theory is Gerald Edelman's neural darwinism. Edelman is a Nobel Laureate for earlier work he did on the immune system. Now he is applying the same kind of Darwinian thinking to the brain. The thinking of a number of other eminent scientists, philosophers, and linguists support or supplement Edelman's approach.
What the brain does
Neurons. Whatever the brain does, it does it with neurons. This is the essence of the neuron doctrine - a long-standing principle in neurological research. The brain is composed of a hundred billion or so neurons, with a fourth of them in just the cerebral cortex, where the principal action takes place.
Neurons are the active cells that make up the circuits that produce all that we experience and do in life. Transmissions among neurons, however, do not convey meaning from one to the other. Neurons do not signal, do not talk, and do not communicate. Neurons just facilitate or inhibit the activation of other neurons.
Think of a neuron as a relay switch that transmits activating energies from upstream neurons to downstream neurons. Each neuron in the brain connects with several hundred to several thousand other neurons. Whatever the brain does, it does it by connecting thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of relatively simple relay switches to each other. The brain is a massive, intricate switching system rather than a computer. Furthermore, the connections among neurons are different from one person to another, and they change often.
The inputs to our brains come from our sensory organs as they respond to conditions around us and to conditions in our bodies. The outputs from our brains go to muscles and glands in our bodies.
The act of recognition. Suppose you meet a friend at one of your favorite haunts. As your eyes scan her face, energies from your eyes are transmitted to your cortex. These energies map her face point by point on the primary visual area. From there, they are relayed to perhaps as many as 30 feature areas that deal separately with color, form, movement, texture, and so on. These, in turn, are connected to form one of many discrimination circuits of her face.
As her face turns from profile to full face to look at you, other discrimination circuits are activated. Some features in these discrimination circuits change, and others remain the same. All of the variations in the discrimination circuits connect to the same higher-level circuits that identify your friend and your recollections of past interactions.
The higher-level circuits form in the large association areas of your cortex and connect different sensory modalities together. For instance, if your friend speaks to you, the energies from your ears map point by point on the primary auditory areas of your cortex and are then shredded to the various auditory feature areas that deal with sound characteristics. There, circuits developed in the past respond to combinations of auditory features to discriminate your friend's voice and the words she speaks.
It all comes together in your higher-level circuits - discrimination of your friend's face, voice, and the words she says. These circuits in turn activate other circuits that produce her name, the meanings of her words, your friendly feelings toward her, and your recollections of her. Some of these circuits are located in the secondary motor areas of your cortex.
Motor transmissions move in the opposite direction from sensory transmissions; that is, they go from higher level circuits to movement circuits in the secondary motor area to specific nerves in the primary motor area that connect to particular muscles in the body to produce patterns of coordinated muscle movements.
The sensory feedback from the muscles involved in thinking or speaking her name also connects into the higher-level circuits. The words she speaks activate sensory feelings in association areas of your cortex that give meaning to her words. These meanings are not dictionary definitions. Rather they are sensory "feelings" that aggregate across the many experiences in which you have heard or used a word or phrase in similar situations.
How do you actually recognize your friend's face? Conventional thinking suggests that different neural circuits represent different kinds of noses, ears, mouths, head shapes, skin tones, and so on. But that is not what the researchers find in computer simulations of how neural circuits learn to recognize faces.
Holons. Each neural circuit responds most strongly to a whole face - a very ghostly looking face with no details. There are many more ghostly faces than real faces. The recognition of any real face is based on the activation of a number of ghostly faces, and each ghostly face is used in the recognition of many different real faces. It is as though the brain puts a number of transparent ghostly images in a stack until the combined images approach the real image being perceived at the moment.
These kinds of neural circuits have been called holons; that is, whole patterns that are also parts of other whole patterns. In facial recognition studies, a holon is a visual abstraction common to a number of real faces.
How do holons develop? Let's trace how a new baby learns to recognize the faces around it. He sees his mother's face and his brain builds a set of similar holons for recognizing her from various angles and in various lights. Then the baby's father shows up. The baby uses the holons developed in experiences with his mother in responding to his father's face. It is all he has at the moment, but it is not a good fit, so his brain builds new holons to fill out the differences between his father's face and his mother's face.
Now the brain has two sets of holons that it can use in responding to other faces. As it does so, it builds new holons to account for the differences. Each of these holons is also modified as it is used, including the original one. In this way, a dynamic population of holons is developed to respond to a population of faces. The more variation there is among the faces, the more holons will be needed in the holon population. This arrangement provides the brain with an incredible potential to improvise well enough in new situations.
Holons are developed in all sensory modalities and in all combinations of modalities. They are used in new combinations as we have new experiences. They are modified as a result of being used in new ways. A person's holons are always in a state of flux - some entering as others fade away.
We experience holons as feelings, often exceedingly subtle feelings. Hence, we say things like, "Yeah, this feels right," about something we are doing or thinking. It is indeed a feeling rather than a logical deduction or coded information.
Learning, remembering, and thinking
Learning is a process of improvisation. In a new situation, the brain improvises with whatever holons it has developed in past situations that fit the present situation. It combines existing holons in new ways to deal with a new situation. If it works, the connections among the underlying neural circuits are strengthened. If it does not work, then the ongoing state in the cortex changes and a different set of holons are activated. This is trial-and-error learning. Some call it discovery learning.
Other things need to happen to strengthen new arrangements among holons. First, there have to be many repetitions of the new arrangements in the same or similar situations. The fundamental principle of learning and remembering is Hebb's Law, popularly stated as, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Repetition strengthens the connections between neurons.
Second, the new arrangement must result in some desirable value to the learner. Edelman's theory specifies a value system initially consisting of inborn primary emotions and bodily states such as hunger, thirst, pain, and so on. Secondary values are learned as associations to the primary ones. A bootstrapping mechanism arising from the value centers of the brain strengthens the connections among the recently activated holons and strengthens the connections with related holons in the holarchies of the mind while the learner sleeps.
The act of remembering an event uses many of the same holons that were used in the course of the event. During an event, incoming sensory energies activate lower holons at the sensory input areas to the cortex. These lower holons, in turn, activate higher holons that guide performance through the event.
It is largely a bottom-up process through the activated holarchies. The act of remembering the event later on proceeds in a top-down manner, beginning with higher holons and working down toward smaller holons.
Remembering is not an act of retrieval from memory: It is an act of reconstruction. We figure things out when we remember rather than retrieve a fixed record of a past event. What we figure out is very much determined by what we are thinking and feeling at the time we do our remembering.
If I am trying to remember who was present and what was said at a business meeting two years ago at a fine restaurant, but right now I am exceedingly hungry, I may have trouble getting past the food that was served at the restaurant. I may figure out who was there by first recalling what was ordered and then who ordered it.
Suppose I have attended several such meetings at the same restaurant involving somewhat the same people. Hungry or not, I will have a difficult time figuring out exactly who was there and what was said at any one of those meetings, because doing so involves many of the same overlapping holarchies.
Remembering knowledge items, such as facts, theories, and concepts, presents similar problems. Consequently, final practice in learning knowledge items needs to occur in similar situations to those in which the items will need to be remembered later on. Learners need to practice remembering (that is, reconstructing) knowledge items in the same situations in which they will apply them, or at least very similar ones.
Words are linked to the sensory experiences produced by the situations in which they are used. The holons for these sensory experiences provide both the meanings for our words and the syntax for using them. There is no dictionary in our mind containing formal definitions of our words, and no list of syntax rules governing how we use those words.
When we imagine something, we activate many of the same imagery holons that we use when we experience that thing, but in the opposite direction. Imagining is very similar to remembering.
When we think, we describe our mental imagery with words, and the words, in turn, elicit more imagery. We feel our thoughts first and put them into words later. We talk and think to ourselves about what we are doing and how we are doing it.
The new mindset
The new focus in training development is on identifying and designing learner practice. Everything else in training development follows from that. Realizing the full learning potential in a developing training program rests on doing these things:
1| Identify and describe the mental and physical capabilities generated by the holons already possessed by our learners before training. This is the baseline for training analysis and development.
2| Design practice that activates the neural circuits in each learner needed to generate the mental and physical activities required to perform effectively on the job. This is the only way to fire the relevant neurons together so that they will wire together. To provide sufficient repetitions in a practical and efficient manner, the activities must be broken into chunks that can be readily practiced and progressively assembled into larger chunks. Learners need to practice talking themselves through the job activities they are learning.
3| Provide practice in the varied contexts in which the activities are performed on the job. This is how we produce replications with variation and strengthen remembering on the job.
4| Provide practice under conditions that lead the learner to experience positive values for improving. This helps the new learning to develop into long-term learning and to integrate it into existing holarchies.
5| Provide sufficient practice opportunities to allow each learner to practice until the new learning is effective and stable. t+D