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Learning from a neurobiological perspective

We humans have a brain that is capable of learning throughout our lives. Depending on the experiences we have had individually, our neuronal networks can be constantly rebuilt, expanded, supplemented and reshaped right into old age. Learning research, which originated in classical pedagogy, assumes that learning takes place through training, practice, conditioning and a related activation of the so-called “reward centers” in the brain. Therefore, even today, attempts are made to get people to memorize what they have learned and to behave as expected by their respective teachers and later superiors by constantly repeating the subject matter and charging it emotionally by holding out the prospect of rewards or threatening punishments in the form of positive or negative evaluations. This new concept assumes that the ability to learn, and thus learning, is a basic feature of life.

However, this old and outdated understanding of learning processes has long since been permanently shaken by the more recent findings of brain research as well as by the increasingly obvious ineffectiveness of those who are instructed in this way. Pure knowledge transfer, instruction, even rewards or threatened punishments have proven to be inefficient strategies for imparting and acquiring new knowledge and skills. As a consequence of these experiences, it can only be concluded that a different concept of learning will prevail, one that comes not from pedagogy but from biology. This new concept assumes that the ability to learn, and thus learning, is a basic feature of life. All living things learn to continually reshape their internal relationships, i.e., the relationships of their constituent parts, in such a way that the result of these continually occurring reshaping processes serves their survival and reproduction. This type of learning also characterizes all social systems, i.e., families, businesses, and organizations, and indeed entire societies.

All living systems consume energy to maintain their internal structure and function. Those that fail to minimize this expenditure of energy to maintain their structure and function lose their internal stability, perish, and the energy they contain redistributes itself evenly throughout the universe according to the second law of thermodynamics. In simpler terms, living systems self-organize by learning to consume as little energy as possible. The solutions found in this process are structurally anchored as a learning experience in the internal relational structure of the living system in question.

Brain researchers call the state in which a cell, an organism, a brain or a community consumes the least energy “coherence. It is a state in which everything that takes place in it fits together as well as possible and is optimally coordinated with each other – i.e. when, at the level of an individual, thinking, feeling, acting form a unit, the currently perceived events match expectations, new perceptions can be well integrated, relationships with other people are experienced as coherent, one’s own basic needs can be satisfied, and the person feels safe and secure in his or her respective living environment. However, this coherent state, which is constantly strived for, is disturbed again and again. Incoherence then arises. “Arousal” is what brain researchers call the state that accompanies this, in which there are disordered discharges of nerve cells that consume a lot of energy. This is an unpleasant state; it is accompanied by restlessness, inner turmoil and anxiety. The affected person therefore looks for a solution. If this proves to be suitable for restoring a somewhat more coherent, energy-saving state in the brain, the activation of the so-called “reward center” leads to the release of messenger substances that promote the growth of neuronal processes and the formation of new contacts. The neuronal connections involved in the realization of the particular solution are thus strengthened and consolidated. This is “learning”, and what is learned in the process are the solutions that a person finds to the problem at hand. This can also be a new content of knowledge, a new insight or the acquisition of a new ability. Even at the level of cells, organisms or communities, it is not the problems but the successful solution strategies in the form of the ways and means found and used in the process and the structures and mechanisms created in the process that are anchored, that is, “learned.”
How and what we learn

The human brain is so plastic throughout life and rebuildable in its nerve cell networks until old age that every human being is capable of acquiring everything in the course of growing up that is of importance for his or her coexistence with the other members of a particular community. What is special about us humans is that we can learn throughout our lives from other people everything that they, in turn, have learned from others – but only if we consider what they already know and can do to be significant for us. That is, if it offers a solution to something that until then was still unclear, not yet integrable, too disconnected. Only then do we look closely, listen attentively, focus our attention on what the other person is doing and saying. The learning material in question must therefore be emotionally charged, as brain researchers call it. We must have the feeling that something is really important for us and our lives. Otherwise, the inner excitement necessary for any learning process, which is accompanied by an activation of the emotional centers and an increased release of neuroplastic messenger substances, will not occur. And without these, no new learning experience can be sustainably anchored in the brain structurally, i.e. as an expanded or newly built neuronal network.