Thursday, March 06, 2008

Professor John Stein - The Brain, Memory, Learning and the Future

My chosen parallel session this afternoon is by John Stein, Prof of Physiology, Chair of the Dyslexia Research Trust.

"People who know nothing always have strong opinions".
What do we know about learning?
This feels like it's going to be one of those sessions you couldn't get anywhere else. Food for the brain (which sums up two of Professor Stein's areas of interest - oh, and he's Rick's brother, or so says the conference programme).
He talks about Pavlovian classical conditioning, Operant Conditioning (shocking rates after a light is switched on) - making associations between disparate things.
JS focuses on different parts of the brain - the cerebellum, the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.
The brain contains 1012 nerve cells which make 1018 connections between them - more potential connections than there are particles in the known universe.
There's lots of detail about how receptors and nerve cells work and how different cells can be amplified or turned down in different ways. There's an amazing picture of someone with a carving knife between the two lobes of her brain - she showed full recovery within a few days due to the plasticity of the brain - which changes throughout life. The number of dendrites (and hence connections) peaks at age 20 and decreases to an embryonic level in something like dementia. There's a peak in connectivity at age 2 in the visual context, which tails off as this matures, and a peak in the frontal cortex at age 15, where morality and decision making are established. There's a demonstration of the Kanitza illusion and its perception by the 40Hz gamma waves in working memory.
Demonstration of the Active and Passive Kittens experiment - the kitten allowed to learn and move was far more developed then the one in the same environment and how this led to the Head start programme in America. Active play in preschool for severely deprived 4 year olds - for every $1 spent, $10 was save over the next 40 years. Rats allowed to explore and play were far more capable (twice as much) of running a maze than those in a non-stimulated environment - children need to be able to run, play, explore which will develop their brains more.
In London, cab drivers who pass The Knowledge have a hippocampus which grows larger than in others, shown by structural scans (see a BBC news story on this or a Scientific American article). Navigation through virtual reality screens activate the right hippocampus and left caudate. Brain plasticity - practising 5 finger exercises increase the area of brain cells which control the fingers. Simply imagining doing an exercise has the same effect and gaming consoles and texting have made modern boys' thumbs more dexterous than it was. Sleep consolidates the learning process - of things learned when awake - also for motor activities and that sleep deprivation decreases the effectiveness of this. During sleep the parts of the brain involved in learning things are reactivated. Good diet is also crucial - without omega-3 DHA nerve cells fail to grow proper axons. DHA is needed to form the membranes which allow the axons to go. Breast milk is best as it contains more omega-3 DHA - lack of this leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes etc. Breastfed children have an average 7 point higher IQ than those fed on formula milk with no omega-3s.
Information about dyslexia - brain scans of those with dyslexia, different scans from different languages, some of which are transparent, some are not (yacht). Dyslexics have decreased activation in cerebellum during motor learning. Dyslexics have very unstable vergeance control - eyes have to converge for near vision when reading, control essential to stop words on a page moving around.
Alzheimer's disease created by tangles - cerebral atrophy in the temporal, frontal and parietal lobes. Those who eat two or more portions of oily fish per week are less likely to get Alzheimer's even if they have a genetic disposition towards it.
SWOT analysis of the brain
  • Strength - human brain's adaptability
  • Weakness - dependence on environment
  • Opportunity - intelligent and imaginative use of IT
  • Threats - toxic childhood and toxic adulthood, isolation, poor nutrition, too much passive IT, not enough sleep
Toxic Childhood

Poor nutrition

  • Too protected
  • Reduced risks and imagination
  • Reduced active play
  • Reduced sports
The average Briton was better fed at the height of the WW2 blockade than today.

  • CAL - not as good as a real flesh and blood teacher
  • IT revolution carries the risk of human isolation and passitivity
  • Potentially, the visuospatial renaissance and a new era for brain / computer symbiosis.
Essentially, John Stein ran out of time at the end and didn't really get to cover the ICT aspects of it, but this was like drinking a sharp fruit beer in the midst of a line of occasionally heavy pints of beer - refreshing and completely different

1 comment:

  1. Great post, loved the pace of information that came through.
    It's a real shame Prof Stein ran out of time before the ICT factor!Maybe he could do an interview and you could blog the answers? :)