The Mechanics of Learning

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In the 1990s there was a lot of excitement in areas such as neurology and psychology with the discovery of mirror neurons.  Essentially this was where research showed that the same groups of neurons fired when someone was observing a particular activity, as when that person was doing the same activity themselves.  The initial research was done with monkeys and I’ll skip the details, but this was a compelling idea to explain how we learn things.  Whether its a young animal or a child, we’ve all seen  curious observation and mimicry being used in the learning process.


As with anything relating to consciousness, our understanding of how such a process would actually work as a mechanism is extremely primitive.  It did nonetheless provide a narrative of a framework for the development of consciousness.   In the most primitive creatures it could be some kind of happy combination of genes that enabled a selective attention.  The organism is doing this and not that.  This provides natural benefits that would be heavily selected for by natural selection.  At some point along the way, mirror neurons develop.  When combined with the sensory inputs developing at the same time, they would exponentially increase the value of that original selective attention.   Not only can the creature choose where to focus its efforts to surive, it can now learn ways of doing so from others.


Since then, the excitement around mirror neurons has been tempered by research showing that there are limits to the types of scenarios where they play any part.  Its become clear that they are a small part of a much bigger picture.   In their place, the excitement of the last few years has been in the area of “predictive errors”.  There have been theories in neurology around “predictive coding” going back a long way.  These were based on the way the brain quite obviously has a built in modelling process that unconsciously fills in bits of information that are missing.  Based on past experiences it predicts or infers things onto what comes in from the senses.  There are many classic experiments which demostrate this process, but we all experience this every day (whether consciously or not).


More recent research has shown that our dopamine system is deeply embeded into this predictive modelling, and it has been shown that we are heavily influenced by this process going on in the background.   We model what we expect to happen, and dopamine reinforces the feedback loop from that prediction.  We get a sense of well being with a positive result versus prediction, and a sense of dissatisfaction when our prediction was more positive than the reality.   This whole system has become more complex through evolution, being intricately linked with sex for example.  Differences in the dopamine system as we age can be correlated with the level of risk we take, which I guess could be seen as a kind of fine tuning of this reward system as we age.


The fundamental link between predictive errors and dopamine can be powerful at explaining how we learn – from successes as well as mistakes.  The fact its such a key system in our mental development goes some way to explain all kinds of disfunctional behaviour.  From people who are shopaholics to gamblers, or indeed to drug addiction where the dopamine reward system is directly hijacked.


I’m absolutely convinced that we are nowhere near understanding the fundamental nature of consciousness, the screen of self awareness from which thought itself rises and onto which its projected (leaving thought itself a bit like the ancient symbol of the snake eating its tail).   The only way to understand consciousness itself is surely to percieve it directly.  You cannot really understand what it means to be “wet” without having ever experienced a liquid.  However I’m also convinced that a better understanding of this functional side of the brain around predictive coding and the dopamine connection can help us to understand ourselves better.


The physical body is programmed for us to feel good about certain results, and disapointed about others – and it pushes us to keep trying again even if we failed last time.  This is at its heart a very powerful process.  Its generally harmless when its captured into a loop of following, say, a football team.  But it can also lead to us seeking happiness in all kinds of ways, from shopping and sex to drugs (including nicotine and alcohol) which mimic the built in reward part of the learning process.   Its a bit like the blue pill and the red pill in the matrix.  We can either close our eyes and continue on the journeys our reward systems take us on.  Or we can try to be more mindful day to day and minute to minute, to watch ourselves being drawn to things, and be more conscious about what really does brings us happiness and peace.  The latter requires more effort and needs a level of discipline I certainly find difficult, but its surely much closer to the ancient advise to “know thyself”.

If you write down the things you are drawn to or hope for during the average day, how many of those are ultimately ways of affecting the level of dopamine in your brain ?

Categories: Science

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