Complex Processes in Learning

The same complex process of neural system function that Varela documented in human perception underlies many of the basic cognitive processes of learning. One prestigious study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, documented in an MIT publication, explored the cognitive processes that make up a common type of standardized test question (Brown and Hagoort 1993). Researchers gave subjects pairs of words that were either related, such as table-chair, or unrelated, such as apple-money. Then they asked study participants to respond by pressing a button the moment they were able to recognize that the words were related. It turned out that such word-pair recognition tasks depend on the preceding semantic context, engaging what the authors called a lexical integration process that is “concerned with entering the spoken or written word into a higher-order meaning representation of the entire discourse.” It’s an emergent process, in other words, not one of linear cause-and-effect. (By the way, now you understand some of the more unexpected ways I may have linked from one concept to another in your cross-weaving.)

Other studies strongly suggest the complex neural system from which perception and other cognitive processes emerge is more whole-body than it is just whole-brain. Because it turns out that emotion is integrated into things as well. As just one example, here’s a passage from a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Gray, Braver, and Raichle 2002): “Task-related neural activity in bilateral PreFrontalCortex showed . . . an Emotion–Stimulus crossover interaction . . . with activity predicting task performance. This highly specific result indicates that emotion and higher cognition can be truly integrated, i.e., at some point of processing, functional specialization is lost, and emotion and cognition conjointly and equally contribute to the control of thought and behavior.”

The type of integration described in these studies isn’t a linear process, but an emergent one. They begin to show us that the things we do, the things we learn, and even the way we perceive the world are emergent phenomena that spontaneously arise from a complex body-brain system. We simply didn’t know enough to ask research questions that provide this information until fairly recently. The more we look at natural systems with our eyes opened to complexity, the more we can see that this really is the way the natural world functions.

Questions to facilitate your weaving process:

How might the process of lexical integration (described in the first paragraph, above) help us understand why a linear format academic journal paper makes it hard to communicate complex subjects?

How might the Emotion-Stimulus crossover interaction Braver and Raichle describe (second paragraph) interact with Mythic Way of Learning?

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