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The Neuroscience of Learning

The Neuroscience of Learning

Three broad types of learning – learning that, learning how, and learning why – each correspond to one of three main human brain divisions.

Learning that is associated with the posterior brain regions (the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes within the cerebral cortex). These regions primarily take information in from the senses, transforming it into usable knowledge – the patterns, facts, concepts, objects, principles, and regularities of our world. The medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, provides a system of anatomically related structures essential to conscious memory for facts and events, what is called declarative knowledge (Squire, Stark, & Clark, 2004).

Learning how is associated with the anterior parts of the brain (the frontal lobe, from primary motor cortex to prefrontal cortex), specialized for learning how to do things, and is expressed through performance (Squire, 2004). This has also been called procedural knowledge, implicit memory, and knowing-how. This type includes learning “low level” motor skills but also higher level skills and strategies known as executive functions.

Learning why is associated with the interior or central brain regions, including the extended limbic system and amygdale. These evolutionarily primitive brain regions are specialized for affective and emotional learning (LeDoux, 2000). They contribute to learning and remembering not what an object is or how to use it but why it is important to us. These structures underlie what attracts our attention and interest, sustains our effort, motivates our behavior, and guides our goal-setting and priorities. With these regions, we learn our values and priorities: our image as a person and as a learner and the values and goals that comprise it.

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