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Tag Archives: psychology

Tom Stafford of the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield gave a presentation entitled ‘The Learning Brain’ as part of the Cafe Scientifique, York programme.

We started with challenges to the dominant metaphor of the brain as a machine; instead studies have shown it is capable of change and adaptation. Examples of the enlargement of the hypo-campus of London taxi drivers (who have done ‘the knowledge’) and the motor cortex of musicians illustrate it’s dynamic nature.

Although it’s attractive for those who study the brain to want to attribute certain functions to fixed areas of the brain in all subjects, those who sustain brain damage early in life can still become fully functioning because the brain can relocate functions to parts of the brain that are undamaged.

Probably we have also experienced the ‘curse of knowledge’: when you understand something, you can never truly take yourself back to the mental state when when you did not, as learning makes itself invisible.

Although the study of neural networks in the ’80s gave some a false hope that we might be able to build an artificial brain, studies of that technology taught us something important: that learning systems are autonomous. Feeding a cat because he is complaining will result in the cat learning that complaints bring rewards, not what you want to teach the cat but what it learnt nevertheless.

Does coffee taste better from your favourite mug? Well, no and yes. Intrinsically, no it’s the same coffee whatever the mug. However, the mug becomes part of the ritual of taking the drug caffeine. And because caffeine gives the brain a sense of reward without the brain knowing this is only due to the caffeine, the mug become associated with the reward.

So, can you taste the differenece if the milk goes into the cup before the tea or the other way around? Well… find out for yourself at where you can see the results and find out how to carry out your own experiment.

We tend to repeat what we have liked in the past and avoid what we have not liked or the unfamiliar, and this tends to lead systematic bias which can stop us exploring and seeking new experiences. Arguing with someone to convince them that their views are biased is useless, what can work is exposing them to the alternative viewpoint or experience.

The idea of learners as merely receptacles into which knowledge is poured was challenged: what is learned transforms what is doing the learning, and the transformation of the learner is done by the learner, not the teacher.

So gather some of your friends, go to to try some science and enjoy a nice cup of tea (or coffee) into the bargain. Biscuits optional.