INTRO TO PSYCHOLOGY
Set #4 (Lectures 10, 11, 12)
Lectures 13 and 14 will be sent to your email
1 Lecture 10
October 1 2009
Continuation of learning and what it is:
When we first introduced the concept of learning in this class, weve talked about learning
having to last a certain amount of time. Theres a quality of enduringness to it. You cant be
considered to be learned something if the learning doesnt last some amount of time. That
might be different for different organisms. For humans that live 80 years, if you can hold onto
something for a week or two, you might call that learning.
Definition about learning that youre going to somehow take in information that you receive
from the environment and use it to adjust your behavior. What would you say about a flower
that opens its petals when the sun comes out? Has it learned to do that? Its innate and it never
learned to do that. What about a mouse that learns to press a pedal, thats learning right?
Whats a grey area that you have a hard time identifying as learning or not? Suppose an animal
is really hungry and it found some food that its never eaten before, and the animal doesnt get
sick. Now it learned that food is safe. We learned to walk, although its a grey area.
The point of this is that learning takes place in a lot of different ways. Some things we learned
because were programmed to, such as language. Our brains are able to map out the speech
stream and figure out where one word ends and another begins, we figure out grammar and the
word order. Most of these things arent explicitly taught to us, but we learned them through
exposure and through experience.
There are similar experiences with cats where theyve been denied access to depth cues having
one eye covered during the few months of their lives. And thats a developmental stage in
which their brains put together the information about a 3 dimensional world. When the eye
patch is removed the cats cant make sense out of the information. Thats now coming in and
they dont have depth perception. Learning of it is automatic, based on our mental input.
We learn things by seeing other people do them. You see someone do something and you
model that behavior. This is where it gets interesting. Not every animal can learn by watching.
Here again there is a continuum. Certainly monkeys and apes can learn by watching others. If a
monkey sees another monkey pick up a hammer and crack open a coconut with it, the second
monkey who watched all this will learn from that. Its not clear that dogs, cats, mice and rats
can learn these kinds of things by watching others do that.
That tells us something about difference in the brain, capacity and structure differences across
the different species. One of the biggest clues that how it is that we learn by watching was only
discovered in the last decade. It was the discovery of mirror neurons and it happened in Italy
and it happened kind of by accident. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues were studying
2 monkeys. And they had electrodes attached to their brains and theyre recording the responses
from areas in and around the motor cortex. And what they were interested in doing was
mapping the parts of the brain that are in involved in reaching and grasping something.
This is a big unsolved problem, not just in neuroscience, but in computer science. How it is that
were able to guide our hands toward something and grasp it and take hold of it? Its not a
trivial problem. You have to be somehow figuring out where in a 3 dimensional space the
object is and you have to coordinate right muscle movements to move your hand there. And
youre constantly having back information about whether youre close or not. It all happens so
effortlessly and seamlessly that you dont realize the number of steps that are involved.
They were interested in how the brain solves this problem and they were watching a monkey
reaching and grasping for a banana. Monkey grabbed the banana and then started to peel it. A
monkey that was sitting in the corner that they werent working with was watching all of this.
And by mistake, one of the researchers has left the electrode hooked up to the monkey that
isnt being tested. And as this monkey in the corner is watching whats going on, they started
getting a bunch of firing from neurons around the motor cortex. And because they were alert
scientists, they decided to investigate it and it turned out that the monkey in the corner had
neurons that are firing that corresponded to the neurons to the monkey that was actually
reaching and grasping.
They came to be called mirror neurons because the monkey that was doing nothing was
actually executing, what it called a motor action plan, in his brain in a way, the actions that he
would have to do in order to get banana and peel it. Even though hes there motionless theres
thins planning going on. The monkey takes in input through his eyes, and his brain works out
through the visual scene what he would have to do in order to replicate those actions. These are
the monkey-see-monkey do neurons.
It turns out that mirror neurons near the motor cortex are probably responsible in some part for
us learning to speak. Sided infants are typically watching the face of the people that are
teaching them to speak. And there are mimicking the mouth, muscle and tongue movements.
They are getting some visual input and using that to create motor plans and moreover theyre
using auditory input. The brain is trying to figure out what combination of tongue, lip, air and
mouth movements is going to create that sound Ive just heard.
Mechanisms for learning:
One of the mechanisms for learning is that we see things done and the mirror neurons are
hardwired. Evolutionary psychologists believe that there are dozens of special purpose neurons
in the brain that evolution has created in order to do certain things. They seem to be systems
that function somewhat independently than other systems: modular independent systems.
3 There is also cultural learning that the book talks about. The idea with cultural learning is that
some of the things we learn are passed down from culture. They are not hard wired although
they seem to be, like washing hands. Thats not instinctive, we learn to wash our hands and its
not necessarily we learn by modeling.
Richard Dawkins called the culturally transmitted things memes playing one the word
genes. Education is a meme. Institutions were discovered by the Greeks earlier and we have
them because they are a meme. They passed on or transmitted culturally. They are cultural
When our brain models something, its creating an internal representation of the external
world. Its trying to figure out how to act on the world or how to represent the world. This is a
key insight of cognitive psychology that pertains very closely to the work we did on
perception last week. You carry around in your head a model of the world.
How we learn to identify ourselves? When we talked about things following a continuum such
as intelligence and learning, self-consciousness also follows a continuum. Explicit
understanding that youre an entity and the ability to think about yourself in third person.
Humans are born with the capacity for self-consciousness. Some primates have self-
consciousness, but demonstrations of dogs and cats having self-consciousness are somewhat
So washing your hands, sharing things, all of these are part of cultural learning. It is somehow
counterintuitive. All of us to some degree are motivated to be selfish. The survival instinct is
ultimately to a first approximation a selfish one. All of us are descendant from people who
were successful at living long enough to reproduce. Most of us have the survival instinct.
There are other things about getting along with one another that dont come that easy. And an
example of this is what psychologists call the commons problem. We have to learn to put the
needs of society ahead of our individual needs and this is difficult to do. The commons
problem is: picture the world 250 years ago, before there is electricity and cars and here in
North America where there is an agrarian society and picture a large public grazery area like
the Boston common, a piece of land thats suitable for grazing. Suppose that everybody in the
area has some cows and sheep and they raise their animals on their own land because they need
the milk and so on. And if youre wealthy enough you can afford an extra cow and an extra
sheep more than you have room to sustain on your land, theres this public area where you can
graze your sheep and cows too. At some point this common area becomes saturated, its at its
capacity. Imagine one of you says: If I can raise another cow and sell it I could make a lot of
money. There are already a thousand cows and sheep there, each one of them can live with less
grass and water. The incremental cost to all the other animals is miniscule. So the logical