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Learning and the Structure of Thought:

From Developing Brains to the Evolution of Knowledge



This book concerns the nature of learning, knowledge and culture. It tries to make sense of these three highly complex subjects by systematically studying some functional interrelations between them: namely, insofar as knowledge is the outcome of learning, and culture is shared knowledge. Applying a systems architecture that maintains clear distinctions between cellular, individual-organism and group levels of analysis, it shows how representations of knowledge in individual brains have the same operational-activity structure (or functional “flow”) as do some cultural forms expressed in groups, and as epitomized in the very structure of human language. Equipped from this correspondence with some representational elementals, it schematically maps the progressive construction of some basic neurocognitive functions in the developing brains of infants and children, including referential operations and “theory of mind.” Then through comparisons with other animals and a systemic analysis of the paleoanthropological record, it follows evidence for the parallel construction of human cognitive functions over evolutionary time, including the evolution of language. Reviewing this prehistory cumulatively recovers the successive layering of characteristics that have made us human, and finds these to be multiply based on increased parental investment in our young. Additionally it finds that our unique metacognitive (and “theory-of-mind”) ability to mentally shift to another’s perspective enabled our Homo sapiens ancestors to tell stories that passed on ecological knowledge for future generations. Some philosophical, moral and educational ramifications of this naturalistic epistemic framework are also discussed.


Contents in Brief

Part I: Learning in Neurophysical Systems
The Nature of Learning
Memory and the Contextualization of Experience
Learning and Directed Action
Affect, Motivation and Valuation
Development of Some Neurocognitive Functions
Representing Self and Other

Part II: Ecology of Knowledge
Knowledge and Its Shareability
Internalizing and Externalizing Cultural Knowledge
Metainterpretation and Sociocultural Modelling
Biological Roots of Human Society
Our Hominoid Evolutionary History

Part III: Evolution and Narrative
The Human Evolutionary Context
Early Hominins and the Australopithecines
Genesis of the Genus Homo
Homo Unbound
The Evolution of Protolanguage
Archaic Humans
Homo Sapiens and the Accumulation of Culture
Dispersing from Africa
Beringia and the Americas
Western Eurasia
Emergence of the Neolithic in Southwest Asia
The Institutionalization of Knowledge in Southwest Asia

Part IV: Further Explorations
Epistemology of Science
Moral Knowledge
Some Instructional Applications


Principal Learning Outcomes/Findings

Part I, on Learning in Neurophysical Systems, begins with a survey of brain function in the context of the classic instructional trichotomy between cognitive, operative (or “psychomotor”) and affective forms of learning. There you will see that:

  • these processes are mediated generally by posterior, frontal and basal brain regions that represent interpretive, operative and valuative neurocognitive operations, respectively;
  • the flow of brain activity forward from the sensory into the interpretive cortices early diverges dorsally–ventrally into (spatial) WHERE and (entity) WHAT pathways before merging again in frontal regions where ACTIONS are represented and executed, and this reflects the structure–function relation found in the “universal” syntax of a (declarative) sentence;
  • the LIKE->WANT->GET chain of neurocognitive and related neuromodulatory activity illustrates the composite and formal functionality of brain processes;
  • activity-mapping of the evolutionarily ancient animacy function, mediated by the STS-association area between WHAT and WHERE pathways, shows it to couple entities with (externally caused) complex motion into a representation of an agent acting;
  • strengthening top–down attention processes and increasing working memory capabilities enable older infants to develop a (WHERE-based) referential indexing subsystem and so to express more complex cognitive states (or thoughts) in words, while syntactic knowledge develops later, frontally through successive layers of neuronal schematization;
  • the brain areas most active during “theory-of-mind” operations (which normally develop in children at about four years of age) show neurophysically that we ascribe to other people internal (mental) states based on our own personal experiences under similar circumstances;
  • both our “theory-of-mind” and metacognitive abilities are founded on (spatial) perspective-shifting functions that implicitly posit an external, “real world” as a global space within which to represent alternative frames of reference.

Part II, on the Ecology of Knowledge, articulates some structural relations between personal knowledge (as represented neurophysically in individual brains) and cultural knowledge expressed at the group level. There you will see that:

  • when specified as the outcome of learning, knowledge can be characterized empirically as a framework for interpreting, evaluating and operationalizing select actions;
  • maintaining coherent forms of sociocultural knowledge over generational time requires both internalization and externalization/expression processes at the level of individuals, particularly among the young;
  • some common sociocultural knowledge representations (such as of “eating” and of kin-words) exhibit elemental structures similar to those of our personal, brain-based representations, in which case the structural kernel signifies a “mēmotype” expressible as a simple declarative sentence;
  • as with other primates, our larger brains depend on a steady source of higher-energy foods, and these adaptations necessitate a lengthened period of maturation for the young to learn the skills needed to survive in a more complex niche;
  • consequently, a crucial challenge facing the young of all larger-brained primates concerns gaining knowledge about the root action-event or memotype, GET food FROM location.

Building upon the observed cognitive abilities of other primates, Part III, on Evolution and Narrative, surveys the course of human cognitive evolution while tracking the appearance of some distinctively human attributes: bipedalism, brain-size increases, use of technology, language and elaborate culture. There you will see that:

  • the niche in which bipedalism evolved appears to have also fostered couple-bonded families, with joint parental investment in offspring, as an early cornerstone of human societies;
  • the use of technology to improve diet supported increases in brain size at least three times during human evolution; and using such instruments as digging sticks and hammer stones, and later stone-flakes, collaterally exercised those brain regions that mediate our spatial, indexical-symbolic and speech capabilities;
  • the grade-shift that gave rise to the genus Homo was evidently fueled by a change in life-history such that the energy-costs of reproduction were offset from females by paternal investment in the childhood of (identifiable) offspring;
  • language evolved over some two million years through both holistic and combinatorial stages, with the latter enhancement enabled by more robust neurocognitive pathways (fueled by a diet improved by cooking) to mediate the concomitant increase in cognitive load;
  • modern humans applied their perspective- and time-shifting capabilities to tell stories that model ecological phenomena as cultural knowledge, especially in terms of kinship relations, for example in “Dreamtime,” in ancestral stories, in beliefs about the generative power of apparently “dead” seeds, or of how to pollinate date palms.

Part IV explores some further implications of this learning/epistemic architecture, particularly:

  • by distinguishing between two forms of truth, a bi-level epistemology resolves the interplay in scientific knowledge between theoretical validation at the cultural level (based on definitive, logical truth) and empirical verification at the personal, experiential level, where accuracy (or empirical truth) can ever only be approximate;
  • as the engine of learning operationalized by (Hebbian) neuronal coactivation, consciousness constructs integrated (episodic) knowledge structures based on modally grounded percepts, chemosomatic states and related action representations by engaging summative attentional processes focused on select aspects and their neurocognitive associations;
  • as a system of psycho-cultural values that regulates social order, moral knowledge is founded at the level of dyads on empathy and reciprocity learned by way of (mammalian) mother–infant relationships, at the level of small groups on behavioral norms and respect for authority as dominated by paternal (primate) males, and most abstractly (among humans) at a transcendent level as idealized, pure or sacred principles that posit how one ought to act;
  • finally, constructive learning environments naturally engage both internalizing and externalizing epistemic activities, by building personalized learning paths upon elemental neurocognitive structures and by fostering the expression of culturally recognizable explanations and logics in the context of collaborative localized real-world projects.




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