Monday, January 01, 2007

Body and Brain Engaged in Learning

Here is a description of the thought process from the neuroscience community:

1. A message is transmitted from one neuron to another through an electric-chemical process.

2. The outgoing message travels to the end of the axon (the little runway of the brain cell connecting the two ends), where a synapse is located. The synapse is defined as the end of an axon and the receptor on a dendrite between these 2 structures: the synaptic gap.

3. The electric signal, or outgoing message, releases the chemical message.

4. The message crosses the synaptic gap.

5. The dendrite of the neighboring brain cell receives the message if the information is stimulating enough.

6. The threshold for activation of a particular neuron is determined by a complex interplay of one's genetic code, physical condition (tired, in pain, alert), and environment (noisy, light, cold, stimulating).

7. The chemical message now becomes an electric signal again and travels from the dendrite to the cell body, passes through that cell's axon to another cell's dendrite, and the process continues.

8. Frequent transmissions of information between particular neurons can establish a permanent relationship between them.

Two of these points are very interesting to me today. Number 5 says “if the information is interesting enough.” I look at the motivation it took for me to learn to ski downhill this weekend, and relate to the concept that the information was not only interesting to me, but more so because I earnestly wanted to learn. I watched my fellow students in the beginner classes as they struggled with the same obstacles. Some were there because their spouse or friends insisted they “try it!” None of these students progressed through the first hurdle – coping with the awkward, heavy, and tiring equipment.

The second point of interest is Number 8. As I played along with the instructor’s requests, I listened to the signals traveling back and forth through my neural systems. The first day, many of my thoughts were counterproductive. An ongoing conflict played out: I want to sit down, I can’t stand on the skis, I don’t want to fall. The instructor coaxed us down the hill. I don’t want to go fast, I can’t turn, my skis aren’t responding, I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m thirsty, I’m tired. But the motivation won out. I wanted to be able to make it down the hill so I could ride the lift! Uh-oh. Another conflict: Getting off the lift. A notorious difficulty as the lift chair grazes the snow bump before it makes a u-turn. You have to get off the chair, go straight down a short hill, and try to remain standing. Neurons stack up like impatient skiers waiting for the lift: I can’t stand up! It’s like jumping out of the lift chair! Who would do that?


Now, if those “permanent” signals will last until next weekend, when I can build some more neural pathways on the little hills.

Peaceful blessings for your new year,

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