Why and how do we learn? What do we need to learn? Human and animal physiological structures are wired for leaning. It is clear that the brain and nervous system with all their microstructures and functions give us the capacity to sense stimuli and respond, learn from those responses, and adjust behavior accordingly. This allows us to survive and adapt to our environment, or alter our environment to suit our needs. This sort of bidirectional feedback between environment, personal need or meaning, and behavior are the functional operations of learning. Bandura described this as reciprocal determinism. We can take our understanding even further if we replicate his model onto a synthesis of 1) his concept of situational behavior with 2) Piaget’s concept of developmental growth, and 3) the classical concept of personality. That combined with my concept of Quadrifacet human needs constitutes a truly encompassing theory of learning. All of these things occur within the biochemical structure of human physiology and can be observed in action from the micro to macro levels.
Learning Functions and Feedback
Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism can be visualized as a triangular graphic. The following triangles represent deeper levels of the functioning mechanism in each of the learning factors above. They are visual representations of the synthesis of cognitive, behavioristic, and holistic schools of thought made in neurophysiological terms. The diagrams all follow the same form with the right corner of the triangle representing input, the left representing processing and the top being output. Therefore, our definition of learning is: processing that synthesizes environmental inputs and/or behavioral outputs. Analysis of these reactions produces changes within primary neural networks (spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual). Those changes can catalyze further changes in, or integrations with, other primary networks.
The Identity Learning triangle goes into Bandura’s Person triangle. It summarizes Piaget’s concept of schema. Whom a person perceives their self to be is an ever-changing product of their personality, given situation, and their maturity, which personality and maturity we will explore further in a moment.
Behavioral learning goes in the behavior triangle in Bandura’s learning triangle. What a person believes guides their actions and what they have done and observed has shaped their beliefs. This combination has formed habits, which have ingrained certain beliefs and altered the structure of their lives so as to limit their sensory experience within their habitual environment.
The Environmental Learning triangle fits inside Bandura’s environment triangle. As you can see, it contains many of the concepts of advanced behaviorist thought. What is useful or of need is what is most readily perceived of all environmental stimuli. The learning state is one of seeking the reinforcement of need satisfaction or aversion from need deprivation. And within the stimuli triangle we must recognize as Piaget did that “How an organism interacts with its environment will depend on the kind of cognitive structure available to the organism…The cognitive structure that exists at any given moment sets the bounds on what can be assimilated by the organism” (Hergenhan 1997).
Personality is an individual’s pattern of processing and behavior that is determined by the individual’s need efficacy, need analysis and need preference. Preferences can be spiritually, emotionally, physically, or intellectually focused. Need preference is the priority a person places on any one or combination of those needs. Need efficacy is a person’s sense of capacity to meet his or her own needs or the person’s access to or influence over those with power or resources. Need analysis is the ability to perceive and evaluate the four facets of need and the states of satisfaction achieved through personal thought, action, and/or experience.
While evolutionists maintain a narrow view of physiological survival and assume all learning is based upon the physical needs of nutritive sustenance, protection, and survivalist procreation, there are other needs that are inherently wired into human physiology. All the needs are manifested in specific physiological regions of the body and form an integrated systems network, which drives the organism to fulfill those needs. The system must learn how best to fulfill those needs. Hence, learning is vital to our survival and well-being.
All learning is motivated by the drive to satisfy any or all of the four areas of human need. Intellectual brain networks are what we primarily associate with learning. The body parts and neural networks associated with the senses are connected to various cerebral regions to process and interpret, filter and associate external sensory stimuli. The primary need of the intellectual network is to receive, process, and interpret external sensory stimuli. This allows us to sense the outside world and form cohesive concepts of objects, persons, and sensations, as well as to associate cause and effect, and remember sequences of events and perceive time. Memory is a very important aspect of the intellectual network.
Physical brain networks allow for the functioning and movement of all physical activity and are primarily regulated in the cerebellum, brain stem, and spinal cord. The primary physical needs are for nutritive sustenance, protection and defense, and reproduction. The association of physical networks with emotional networks produces drives to satisfy physical needs for food, physical work (building protective structures and coverings, etc), fighting/defending, and copulation.
What of the impact of the physical needs network interactions with other needs networks? Robert Brummer notes the powerful connections of the “brain-gut axis” “describing the bidirectional communication pathways connecting cognitive and emotional centers in the brain with neuroendocrine centers, the enteric nervous system and the immune system” (p.98).
Emotional brain networks are motivated by the need to function in a system larger than self. Cooperative sociality is the ultimate power to expand system functions. These functions are developed and improved in infant-parenting interactions that develop or inhibit the efficacy of future social interactions.
Swain and his colleagues (2007) have recently done important work in expanding John Bowlby’s attachment theory of a “universal human need to form affect laden bonds” (p.263). Their research shows that people with organized attachment patterns showed increased activity in the right amygdala, left hippocampus, and right inferior frontal gyrus. Areas of social and emotional empathy activation are in the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex.
Spiritual networks are responsible for abstract and symbolic learning in specific regions of the brain. It is the spiritual need to conceive idealizations and manifest them that promotes goal setting, symbolic learning, and artistic creativity. Language, art, and, of course, religion develop spiritual learning. However scientific method also develops spiritual learning networks. Scientific method is a hypothesized ideal and an ordered goal for verifying idealizations, which is nearly the definition of spiritual learning. However the distinction between scientific and religious learning is that science must be verified by reconciling the external sensory stimuli of the intellectual network and religion must be verified by the interpretation of internal sensory experience, which can only be verified by the person actually experiencing it. One can report the experience to others, and they can believe your report, but until they have the experience themselves, it is not verified.
Spiritual and emotional network integration processes internal sensory stimuli and operate subconscious to the processing of external sensory stimuli within the intellectual brain network. Sandra Blakeslee (2008) describes the neural network of transcendental spiritual experiences associated with meditative bliss or out-of-body sensations. While this can represent a culmination of spiritual need satisfaction, it is not the definition of spiritual satisfaction.
Only when the intellect is integrated with the emotion and spirit are we capable of understanding our complex and even contradictory approaches to satisfying our multiple needs. Spiritual learning primarily helps us to meet our spiritual and emotional needs and intellectual learning helps us most in meeting our physical needs and intellectual needs. However the more thorough our integration of learning, the more integrated our satisfaction of varied needs will be, and thus it will be all the more satisfying. (I talk about Needs Network Amplification in my social psychology paper, Social Networks.) Integrated satisfaction can also manifest as self-empowerment, performance pride, or a sense of unity or completion. These psychic outcomes of integrated action, thought, and emotion are processed spiritually and emotionally.
Cognitive activities, or methods of processing include (any or all of these at once) association, categorizing/discriminating and filtering/attending, sequencing, action, and representing (abstractions, language, and symbols). Although Tolman labeled these processes as learning it is more useful to think of them as processing mechanisms that lead to learning. Furthermore, none of these processes exist independently. They operate as a whole program.
I have simplified Tolman’s terms. Association is what he referred to as cathexes. This is the joining and synthesizing of inputs, the forming of wholes from the endless parts of information.
Tolman made two categories out of equivalence beliefs and drive discriminations when the same operating process is at work for both concepts. Categorizing is discriminating between what satisfies and what does not, what belongs together and what does not. We could say, more specifically that it is association processes which allow us to connect things and categorizing processes which allow us to distinguish them. Categorizing is very important in helping us filter or attend environmental or internal stimuli. Stimuli are categorized as presently important for filling needs, or not. My stomach is providing internal cues that I need to eat, but I have chosen not to attend to it because I have a greater present need to capture these mental concepts before I forget them.
Sequencing is equivalent to Tolman’s field expectancies. The sequencing process gives us the concepts of time and cause and effect relationships. Sequencing does not occur without memory in some form. This brings up the question of what memory is. For now, we will define memory as the cellular/microcellular storage of outputs, processes, or inputs. To clarify: learning is the synthesis of processes and memory is the storage of that synthesis. From simple assembly of sound waves or light images into a single sound or object image to the complexity of learning an operatic aria and performing it, sequencing and memory have vital interaction.
Finally, I believe that Tolman’s concept of field cognition modes could be better described as representing. Analog, abstraction, language, and symbols are forms of representing that allow us to correlate other learning experiences, share them, clarify them, and give meaning to them.
Tolman was correct for labeling motor patterns as learning. It would be confusing to include action as a process like I have with the other things he labeled as types of learning. Action is a learning output formed from the inputs and processes. Action further provides feedback because it is a way to test cognitive propositions. That is why it is a critical part of learning feedback. Motor processes include physiological operations that allow seeing, touching, tasting, etc. With this understanding we can see, even on a micro level how the output of action further facilitates sensory input for further analysis and action in the critical cycle of feedback.
All of these learning feedback processes must be catalyzed by valence states, or needs (similar to drive reduction or cognitive disequilibrium) that must be properly interpreted by the animal to correctly meet vital or tangential survival needs. In all higher functioning animals there is the capacity for one need to override or take priority over another need. This is a function of filtering processes.
For humans, however, the complexity of needs creates conflicting signals about need priorities. Further, the interrelated circuits can cause ambiguity in interpreting valence states and the underlying needs that may or may not be satisfied in a given situation or series of causal and personal relationships.
The Physiology of Learning
What, Then, Is Learning? Learning is the integration and interpretation of stimuli into any of the physiological needs networks in such a way as to help an organism meet any or all of its Quadrifacet needs. Any learning helps us to alter our behavior in order to adapt ourselves to our environment to satisfy our needs or it helps us to adapt the environment itself to suit our needs.
The primary translation of this concept in evolutionary thought is focused on strictly physical needs. Adding the three other classifications of need allows us a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior and motivation.
How Do We Learn? Learning tools include categorization, sequencing, memory, analysis, and practice. Memory is an important tool for integration. It allows us to associate the varied stimuli of past experience so that we can create catalogs of experiences and place them properly according to category. Sequencing, of course, is impossible without a memory of what came before.
Physical experiences are translated into abstract meaning in the spiritual network (analysis). That meaning is applied to future physical experiences that have been categorized into groups of similar meaning and can be repeated or avoided based on the remembered sequence of events associated with the experience. If the proper meaning or significance of an experience is ascribed to it as meeting, or not meeting one of the Quadrifacet needs, a person can effectively learn how to meet their needs. However, in a culture that does not clarify these needs, it may be especially difficult to glean the most satisfying meaning from our experiences and seek those experiences which most effectively satisfy our needs.
What Do We Learn? We learn what generates positive and negative valences. Positive valences give a reinforcing sense of satisfaction. Negative valences produce a sense of dissatisfaction or negative reinforcement. We learn that satisfaction reduces our sense of need, or that we have obtained what we need. These sensations occur on the biochemical level and are interpreted in conscious thought and subconscious processing.
One thing that we must learn, but do not do so naturally is that there is a difference between the sense of satisfaction and the satisfaction of an actual need. This was demonstrated by Olds and Milner (1954, cited in Hergenhan). When rats were artificially stimulated in reinforcement centers in the brain without receiving any necessities, they preferred the immediate gratification, but had very rapid response extinction because there was no integrated network reaction from the stimulus. This is false satisfaction. Drug induced responses and any sort of addictive behavior are the result of this mechanism. Recall how this reinforcement interferes with infant bonding in cocaine addicted mothers. False satisfaction, then is the generating mechanism for addiction. Filling a need with a false satisfier induces increased use of the satisfier for an increased sense of satisfaction, but because it does not satisfy a genuine need, no quantity of it will ever generate genuine satisfaction.
We must further understand that any physical need substituted with a spiritual need, for example will never satisfy that need. Substitute satisfaction will not signal dissatisfaction, but it will fail to fully satisfy. Therefore, those unaware of their specific needs will be left to feel that if they did more of the same thing the need would somehow be satisfied. While this does not require any form of addictive behavior, it does tend to produce maladaptive behaviors.
Therefore, we must understand that temporary or partial satisfaction may indicate an incorrect form of satisfaction. For example, one could test how satisfied they are with a non-nutritive food and note that they continue to want more of the same type of food and still be only partly satiated. Testing the hunger contrast when eating nutritious foods should produce fewer episodes of hunger—especially in conjunction with proper hydration. However, there would need to be a period of extinction where the habit of responding positively to the sensation of a stretched stomach becomes disassociated with the sense of satisfaction.
We must also learn that there are some actual needs that can satisfy one facet of being at the expense of another facet of being. When this is the case, a non-contradictory method of satisfaction must be sought to achieve genuine well-being.
There are three kinds of threshold: 1) stimulus threshold 2) response threshold and a processing threshold. Normalizing mechanisms set the threshold within narrow parameters or comfort zones. There is not time to further develop these concepts here, but the theory is not complete without at least mentioning the impact of thresholds.
Learning is motivated by the biochemical induction of satisfaction valences. Those valences enable integration of information (stimuli) across spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual networks with the system goal of achieving overall satisfaction, which produces biochemical balance and genuine well-being.
Blakeslee, Sandra (April 2008) Flesh made soul: a new theory in the neuroscience of spiritual experience. Science and Spirit 19:26-31.
Brummer, R.J. (May 2005). Nutritional modulation of the “brain-gut axis.” Scandanavia journal of nutrition 49:98-105
Hergenhahn, B.R. & Olsen M.H (1997) Introduction to theories of learning, 5th ed. Prentice Hall; New Jersey.
Swain, J.E. et al (2007). Brain basis of early parent interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 48:262-287.