Brain Networks Blog 3: What they can teach us about experiential education

February 2, 2021 at 5:41 PM
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Brain Networks Blog 3: What they can teach us about experiential education

by Brandon Ascencio UA ‘23, Brandy Eggan, and Jim Stellar

As mentioned in a previous blog, the default mode network (DMN) is a network of interacting brain regions, revealed by fMRI brain scans, that are activated when the subject is planning or mind-wandering and not doing any specific task. In second blog, we discussed the skill learning network (SLN) that is seen to be a network of interacting brain regions that are active when a person is learning to do something new. In learning and writing about these networks we began to wonder, is there a way in which these two networks transfer information? That is, if we move from an actively learned skill to more of a now learned behavior, could the SLN influence the DMN in the unconscious while daydreaming? If so, what could that mean? Is it the mastery of a skill when the information transfer occurs? Does the DMN reinforce the SLN by replaying the task at hand mentally and strengthening neuronal connections to make a quicker route to mastery? Does the DMN enable us to consciously integrate aspects of the unconscious SLN learning?  And what does do of these questions have to do with experiential learning?

Studies do exist that provide evidence that motor skill learning changes the activity of some brain regions during the execution of a task as well as in some networks during rest. A great example of this could be typing on a keyboard without looking. Not only do you have to go through the physical side of mastering this task, but there is definitely a mental process going on as you are learning. You are developing the motor skill through the skill learning network, and this is where it gets interesting. The default mode network could act as a reinforcement for the skill learning network. We know that there is neuroplasticity throughout the brain and even the spinal cord. This leads to the famous saying, attributed to Donald Hebb, that “neurons that fire together wire together.” Well, what if they’re firing when the DMN is active, without you even focusing on, much less performing that physical task? Is mental practice like learning a skill?  To go back to experiential education issues, is this thinking a model for how working at an internship, where you use knowledge gained in the classroom, reinforce academic knowledge and does exercising that academic knowledge when you are back in the classroom (or even just daydreaming) reinforce that skill learning?

Learning while not doing anything sounds too good to be true, right? We thought so too. Interestingly though, a recent study used fMRI imaging to investigate the alteration of the DMN after a motor skill learning task with mental imagery practice. Interregional connectivity between the medial temporal lobe, lateral temporal, and lateral parietal cortex within the DMN was increased after learning; whereas activity of the DMN remained stable. These results showed that DMN has a role to play in the process of skill learning, though it is still may be a bit early to announce its purpose in this process. Perhaps the DMN works while the SLN is active, and then continues working after you’re done practicing the skill for the day. With the DMN replaying the task though, there is a reinforcement of the neuronal firing that was occurring during skill learning itself. Again that would work to strengthen the neuroplasticity underlying that behavior and move it from a learned skill toward a mastered skill. It has not escaped our attention that the role of reflection in many models of experiential learning, may be creating just this effect in the brain.

So how then does the DMN function at a value-decision level when the skill is learned and the person is aware of it? Some people might decide that they see the skill as useful to their future career. Also, where in the brain does the pleasure of mastering a skill reside? The answer to that will take a great deal more research and linking brain activity studies in humans to more detailed, perhaps neuronal firing recording studies necessarily done in animals. However, there are clues. One of them was reviewed in a blog on dopamine and the reward prediction error. Here, the neurons in deep brain structure origins of dopamine seem to transfer their firing activity from the reward itself initially to a stimulus that totally predicts the reward including stopping responding to the reward itself (think Pavlov and his dogs). Are those circuits that smart? Perhaps. But there is a direct glutamate pathway to that brain area from the frontal cortex and it is involved in the DMN. As more research is done, we learn more about frontal cortex subareas and their connections to these older limbic circuits. Another example is frontal cortex control over the amygdala and fear reactions, such as those classically seen in PTSD. If dopamine is thought to be the reward neurotransmitter, maybe its connectivity with the frontal cortex reveals how emotions are brought into DMN consolidated SLN and that then helps someone decide “this is it” whether it be a small focused discovery or a big diffuse one like a choice of a career pathway in college.

The long-term promise of brain network research to experiential education is two fold. First, there is the idea that we might learn something from these studies about how to better design the experiences themselves such as reflection during and after the experience and in the context of a student’s choice of and potential change in college major. Second, having an underpinning of neuroscience for the behavioral level of experiential education, strengthens its appeal and makes it seem more necessary to take into account when planning a college education. This is not new. In many fields from the modern treatment of mental illness to getting people to follow public health practice in a pandemic where the societal/behavioral level of operation is underpinned by a biological level, people tend to more strongly see the value of the proposition.

In our opinion, it is past time for higher education to strongly embrace the role of experience as a powerful complement to academic learning in college so that students better find their way to success during college and after they graduate. Universities serve the world in many ways. They need to do it here with their students looking for a better life through higher learning as well as a more enlightened one.

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