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Learning pathways in the brain: getting even brainier

This post on learning pathways in the brain was written by Naomi Norman and first appeared on the Epic blog, before it combined with LINE to form LEO Learning, on 28th May 2009.

At a recent Deep Learning Symposium hosted by Becta, I met an academic doing some ground-breaking scientific research into what happens in the brain when engaging in game-based learning. This trend in bringing together neuroscience and the study of learning is surely going to lead to exciting breakthroughs for those involved in teaching and training. At last, it will allow us to support the means we employ to instigate learning (currently based on evidence and experience) with some scientific proof.

Of course, despite the brain being the most complex organ and somewhat mysterious (even to scientists), we already have a little knowledge about how it functions. For example, we know that a large part of the brain is essential to elearning – right at the back of the brain is the visual area where we recognise what we are seeing.

Then there are the small parts of the temporal lobes which are involved in our perception of sound, and the frontal lobe that determines human behaviours such as motivation and engagement. And I haven’t even mentioned memory, the motor cortex that allows us to operate the technology, or the parts of the brain that relate to elearning content, such as that part of the left hemisphere which is involved in numerical calculation!

A diagram showing learning pathways in the brain and the brain on learning

Learning pathways in the brain

Recently, as part of an entry for an internal competition, I learnt about the hypothetical grandmother neurons in the brain too. The competition was open to all staff with a prize of the opportunity to join senior instructional designers for a seminar, specially hosted for us by Oxford University.

The competition task was as follows:

When examined for a place at Oxford University, it is rumoured that creativity used to be tested with the challenge to write about life inside a tennis ball! Your challenge is to write in no more than 300 words about life inside a brain cell when engaging in elearning.

The winning entrant came from Charlotte Hills, one of our instructional designers, who submitted the text below about Fred:

Meet Fred. Although he’s just one of the one hundred billion neurons (brain cells) in the brain, Fred is special… and lets the other neurons know about it. Fred is a ‘visual neuron’, but not just any visual neuron… Whilst others around him can only recognise simple lines and shapes, Fred gets really excited by faces – a pretty complex business he’ll have you agree. But for all his pride and bravado, Fred has not always been so happy on the inside.

Legend has it that certain neurons are able to become ‘Grandmother cells’ – neurons that dedicate themselves entirely to recognising individual people, like your grandmother for example. Fred wanted nothing more than to devote himself to one special face. Then, one afternoon, the most extraordinary thing happened to Fred. He was minding his own business when suddenly he received more nerve impulses than ever before. The impulses had travelled from the cells in the eyes, through the visual pathway in the brain and had brought him the message he’d been waiting for. Fred had found the face that he was to devote himself to forever, the face of Huseyin Seis. Fred had finally become a Grandmother cell!

On that fateful afternoon, Fred had been exposed to an elearning programme. Huseyin (a graphic artist) had been playing the role of Ahmed and, to Fred’s delight, had appeared on several screens. Over the years, Fred saw his beloved many more times, in every elearning programme that he came across in fact. Huseyin appeared in many guises, but that didn’t fool Fred – he fired every time he saw him! Fred will be eternally grateful to Epic for introducing him to Huseyin, the only face to whom he will ever truly belong.

(Further reading: Connor, C. (2005), Friends and Grandmothers, Nature, 435, 1036-1037)

This competition entry surely begs a question about the link between brain function and creativity. Now there’s another piece of scientific research that undoubtedly would be of interest to instructional designers.

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