The Neurobiological Foundations of Transformative Learning



Argosy University Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii

Self-Design Graduate Institute, Bellingham, Washington




With well over forty educational theories, and the number constantly rising, how does one determine which, if any, are true, correct or best? The answer is a surprisingly simple one: The best theories are ones that are rich, robust and researchable. Rich implies that the theory explains the key elements of the posited theory as well as those from other theories as well. Robust implies that it explains how communication, learning and retention occur in biological terms. Researchable implies that the resulting, overarching, biologically-relevant theory will result in numerous new, testable hypotheses. Any substantive theory of transformative learning should therefore meet at least these three criteria.

     Theories of teaching and/or learning often result from one or more unique approaches to a central problem. In the case of transformative learning, its unique approach is to a distinctly epistemological problem: The challenge of elucidating the neurobiological manner in which meaning is assigned to learned data and information.


National Educational Approaches


     In response to a re-emergence of national interest in the quality of formal education, the United States National Academy of Sciences  looked critically at the preeminent, contemporary and emerging educational theories, approaches and methodologies. In the course of their examination, it was noted that most educational theories were focused primarily on the acquisition of data and information at the expense of contextual transferability—what I call knowledge, i.e. how to apply acquired data and information in a new context, and wisdom i.e. knowing when to appropriately apply do so without incurring debilitating side effects (Gardner, 1978; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council, 2000).

     This shortcoming of the mass of contemporary teaching and learning theories, I believe, actually belies a 2,500-year schism in the very nature of education, namely between Socratic and Platonic approaches to learning (Janik, 2004).


Socratic Approaches

     Socratic approaches acknowledge that ideas cannot be transmitted directly from one brain to another (we can not yet authentically "read" another's mind), hence rely almost entirely on what a learner directly senses. Perception and apperception create an internalized construct of what is sensed. Reality is that which can be sensed, directly or through extension of our senses. The majority of people have the ability to sense and perceive. Learning is therefore a cooperative venture among learners (Janik, 2004; Janik, 2005a; Janik 2005b; Janik, 2007a).


Platonic Approaches

     Platonic approaches assume that there exists a fixed set of "ideals" to which a professional teacher-philosopher somehow gains accesses, presumably through a combination of love of knowledge and years of formal education. Reality is hidden from the senses and the majority of learners; to know it requires a formal teacher. Learners must somehow osmose the data, information, perceptions and apperceptions of the teacher. Only a few will actually succeed. Learning is a traumatic, competitive task (Janik, 2004; Janik, 2005a; Janik 2007a).

     Because of their pragmatic nature, Platonic approaches have served as the foundation of the "business of education" replete with professional educators, licensed by the state, using fixed, pre-approved curricula, daily lesson plans, resources and assessment/evaluative tools. The concept of fixed, ideational, metaphorical "ideals" has strong appeal to almost any political structure involved in governing, the United States of America notwithstanding (Janik, 2005a; see also Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council 2000)

     It is this author's contention that for a learning theory to be rich, robust and researchable, it must causally describe how information, knowledge and wisdom are acquired, retained, and passed on from person to person in a biological sense. Furthermore, this approach must utilize the major, contemporary, neurobiological theories of learning, namely those of Neuron Learning, Spinal Reflexive Learning, Autonomic Reflexive Learning, Cerebellar Learning, and Cerebral Learning, including Mirror Neuron Learning.


A Neurobiology of Transformative Learning


     Transformative learning, reflective learning, learning by enthusiasm, self-design, curiosity/discovery-based learning, mentoring and generative leadership have in common that they directly address the problem of contextual transferability, that is, acquisition of knowledge and wisdom (Mezirow and Associates, 2000; Cameron, 2006, Åteg, 2009). What’s more, transformative learning can be explained by and continues to evolve a Socratic foundation that is surprisingly rich, robust and researchable, though still largely unrecognized.

     In application, transformative learning emphasizes restful, reflective, indirect learning over more common, agitative, precipitative, direct teaching. Neurobiologically, this suggests that transformative learning actually invokes a second learning pathway (Janik, 2004; Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2005b; Janik 2007a).


First Learning Pathway

     Effective teaching involves sympathetic-biased, serotonin-based, epinepherine-enhanced, directed/focused/controlled, “fight or flight” induced learning. This pathway is proven effective and efficient in the eidetic transfer of fixed, "crystalline" data and information. Data and information acquired in this manner are retained in a largely non-malleable state, often for the lifetime of the learner (Janik, 2007a). One of the most effective and efficient first learning pathway methodologies is to invoke a "trance" state in the learner. Ask any medical student if this is not so. Common "side-effects" include acquisition of traumatic triggers, development of neuroses, repression, depression (Janik 2007a).


Second Learning Pathway

     Transformative learning, on the other hand, involves parasympathetic-biased, dopamine-based, oxytocin-enhanced, curiosity/discovery-driven, “rest and relax” induced learning. It is most effective and efficient in the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. What is learned is "malleable" changing with experience over the learner's lifetime. Interestingly, second pathway learning results in a lessening of first learning pathway side effects (Janik 2007a).


Neurobiological Foundations of Transformative, Second Pathway Learning

     A long list of contemporary educators, psychologists and neurobiologists such as Titchener, Cajal, Hodgkin & Huxley, Brodmann, Jackson, Schally, Gage, Sapolsky, James, Pavlov, Lorenz, Skinner, Itard, Freud, Rank, Watson, Lenneberg, Milgram, Zimbardo, Levine, Montessori, Schumann, Deacon, Crick, Kandel, Rosbash, Gopnik, Kessler, Rizzolatti, Gallese, Mezirow, Cameron, Janik, Ramachandran and Mehl-Madrona (not necessarily listed in temporal order) have contributed to the description of the actual physiological processes involved in both first and second pathway learning (Janik, 2005a). Neurobiology is often said to be in its infancy and new to most educators, but it has, as indicated above, a long, established and venerable history.


     Clinically, this “second learning pathway” was a consequence of the study and application of Titchener's "Structuralism," in which passionate appeal was made to understanding the inter-relationships between anatomy, histology and physiology in living organisms - a good definition of neurobiology (Titchener, 1915). Later, Freud’s “talk therapy," a free-association narrative form of second pathway learning, was shown capable of lessening the debilitating side effects of first pathway learning (Freud, 2009). Felt to be confined, at first, to individuals 12 years of age or older who had acquired sufficient frontal cerebral lobe maturity to make "executive" decisions, second pathway learning has since been demonstrated in K-12 students, pre-schoolers, infants, and newborns after recovery from the birth event (Mezirow, 2000; Cameron, 2006; Gopnik, 2000). It may, in fact, prove the dominant learning pathway of fetuses from 12-weeks gestation to roughly 32-weeks gestation when the first or traumatic learning pathway appears fully functional (Janik, 2007a).




     With a neurobiological foundation, transformative learning becomes a rich and robust area of inquiry. For instance, a need for a minimum of seven (rather than the classically held five) senses, the additions being senses of kinesthesia and time passage or chronicity. Sensoria require the existence of a demonstrable mechanism to transduce environmental electromagnetic radiation into neural impulses, and these impulses must connect to the nervous system (Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a). This is an example of a rich, robust, researchable hypothesis derived from a neurobiological theory of transformative learning.


     Kinesthesia (i.e. body or "gut" feelings—responses of smooth muscles to chemical emotions) are transduced by Golgi tendon and muscle stretch receptors. They send neural impulses via autonomic afferent (sensory) neurons to the "unconscious" spinal cord, where they participate in "reflex" motor responses. They are then sent to the upper central nervous system for semi- and conscious processing. Feelings may be quick, short-lived and specific, or slow, sustained and general. They result from chemical emotions, produced locally in neuron-to-neuron synapses, the surrounding intercellular space, or appear throughout the blood stream. When short-acting and localized, these emotions are simply secreted neurotransmitters; when circulated in the blood, hormones. Interestingly, the latter can sustain the former (Janik, 2007a).


     Chronicity (i.e. order, as well as rhythmic, cyclic and spiral progressions) are recognized or created using constant input from time flow transducers. In fact, there appears to be more than one type of time flow transducer (Janik, 2007a). Intensity and duration of daylight appears transduced by supraoptic neurons. This information is used to constantly "adjust" several other internal clocks. In another form, daylight transducer cells appear scattered throughout the surface of the body, regulating and modifying somatic PER (periodicity) gene activity locally and collectively (Stoleru, 2004). This complex sensorium undoubtedly plays a role in procedural learning e.g. assembling a bicycle as distinguished from unordered declarative learning such as remembering the visually-static elements of a face (Schumann, 2004). Bike-riding and Salsa-dancing, for example, require one to perform each piece of the activity in correct order.


Learning Stages and Periods


     Another hypothesis of a neurobiology of transformative learning theory is that learning occurs in incremental levels, steps, phases, stages or periods, interspersed with periods of cellular, histological (i.e. tissue) and organ re-organization. Examples include long term potentiation (LTP), and the existence of critical periods in language learning (Janik, 2007a; Kandel, 2007; Lenneberg, 1967, Lenneberg, 1975). Whether conscious, sub-conscious or unconscious, whether declarative or procedural, transformative learning appears acquired roughly through data, associative (iconic), symbolic, personal-cognitive, social-metacognitive, ecologically-metacognitive, and spiritually-metacognitive levels, the first three being particularly representative of first pathway learning, the latter three of transformative or second pathway learning (Deacon, 1998; Janik, 2005a, Janik, 2007a). These latter three, along with a possible super-cognitive level, are in the process of being histologically, anatomically and physiologically defined within the human nervous system (Janik, 2007a).


The Neurophysiology of the Two Learning Pathways


     That two learning pathways, the sympathetic ("fight or flight," or first) and parasympathetic ("rest and reflect" or second) are anchored within the autonomic nervous system has become a physiological truism. That they are separate and oppositional as frequently-taught, is not. For example, reproduction in mammals involves initial parasympathetic (transformative, volitional, “love,” or second pathway) initiation, followed by sympathetic (traumatic, non-volitional, "orgasmic," or first pathway) nervous system response (Sapolsky, 2005). This is likely one of many instances where these two learning pathways work together to result in complex behavior. How these two pathways are best invoked, entwined and applied for more effective, efficient, contextually-transferable learning is an exciting, emerging area of study.


Empirical Proof


     In order to be truly robust, a neurobiology of transformative learning must be grounded in, explain and predict clinical observations. For example, psychologists since Freud have used transformative therapies (psychoanalysis, counseling, somatic therapies, narrative neuroscience), all forms of second pathway learning, to help learners assign relevant meanings to traumatically-learned data and associations. The fact that such therapy can mitigate the side effects of traumatic learning lends substantive empirical support to relevance of a neurobiology of transformative learning (Janik, 2005a). This neurobiological approach to cognitive and somatic therapy is leading to a new understanding not only of repression, depression, neuroses and psychoses, but is resulting in new, rich, robust and researchable hypotheses.

     It behooves champions of transformative learning to return to the works of Freud, Reich and Jung (Freud, 2009; Reich, 1975; Jung, 1997), in particular the somatic and counseling therapies including humanistic counseling, Rolfing, massage, acupuncture, body movement and dance movement. Future research into Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), alongside advances in medical imagery, coupled with increasing parent/learner/educator frustration with contemporary education, are pushing transformative learning to the forefront. The National Institutes of Health's CAM effort, will, I believe, provide a deeper understanding of transformative learning (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2010).


Intergenerational Transmission


     At this time, education appears focused on making first pathway learning more effective and efficient—more traumatic—resulting, unfortunately, in more and stronger attendant side effects. Another way of saying this is that it appears to this author that advocates of first pathway learning are having to focus increasingly on ways of mitigating its side effects, specifically student-teacher alienation, burn-out, anger, rage and depression (Janik, 2005a).

     If these side effects were isolated to the individual learner, individual psychotherapeutic intervention might work. Indeed, public educators are considering group psychotherapy within educational institutions. This assumes that the side effects are isolated to the individual learner and are neither transmitted to others nor subject to evolutionary selection. In fact, if there is one lesson from the national social experiments of the 1930's with their emphasis on first pathway learning, it is that the side effects of widely-experienced traumatic learning are, in fact, multi-generational in effect (see Torture, 1986). We now understand that classical Darwinian inheritance expressed in terms of genetically-encoded changes in sex cells are but one of at least several way of transmitting learning from one group to another. Baldwinian and Butlerian inheritance, for example, touch directly on this.


Baldwinian and Butlerian Transmission

     Baldwinian transmission of instinctual reflexes in humans, animals and possibly even plants, as well as concurrence of social song and calls are currently thought to be transmitted in an as yet incompletely explained "epigenetic" manner (Deacon, 1998; Baldwin, 2010). 

     In Butlerian transmission, each generation is said to react dialectically to the previous one, for example, in the case of family violence, causing an apparent "skipping" in every other generation. Nonetheless, transmission of the behavior can occur (Butler, 2004).

     That these inter-generational transmission mechanisms play a role in the transmission of what is traumatically learned, including side effects, appears more and more likely. Their specific role in transformative learning, however, has yet to be elucidated.


     As first learning pathway side effects accumulate, they can be expected to result in both individual and collective societal depression. I believe this process is positioning humanity on the cusp of a world phenomenon whereby, given a better understanding of second pathway learning, humans could exercise a choice as to which learning pathway to emphasize and thereby self-direct learning evolution. It is this author's opinion that humans (as well as other primates), some mammals, cetaceans, and quite possibly domesticated animals such as dogs and cats, may be similarly poised. That transformative or second pathway learning may hold the key to a new learning evolution is an exciting thought, indeed.


Contributing Theories


In addition to the above, Neuron, Ethological (Imprinting), Mirror Neuron, Thalamic Searchlight (I prefer the more descriptive Perceptive Gateway), Lateralization-Specialization, Neural Networking, Autonomic Nervous System, Myelination and the Somatic DNA learning theories represent important hypotheses of a cohesive neurobiology of transformative learning.


Neuron Hypothesis

Advanced to current levels of understanding, the Neuron Hypothesis posits that of the four biological tissues, nervous tissue is the primary regulator of organ function. This hypothesis incorporates a number of key neurobiological concepts.

     The resting potential is the mechanism by which nervous cells build up a battery-like ionic "charges."

     Ion channels provide the mechanism for creating cellular action potentials, collectively called "neural impulses."

     Neurotransmitters, chemicals that can move across the minute spaces (synapses) between neurons allow actions potentials to be transmitted from one neuron to the next. Molecular changes within heavily-used neurons allow for short-term cellular learning and memory. Calcium-based, micro-tubular "scaffolding" changes that occur within heavily-used neurons, result in medium-term cellular learning and memory. Retrograde neurotransmitters, such as nitric oxide, can adjust the sensitivity of transmitting neurons by traveling back to the nucleus of the pre-synaptic neuron and altering it's somatic DNA, ultimately resulting in long-term cellular learning and memory commonly referred to as Long Term Potentiation (Carpenter, 2003; Sapolsky, 2005).


Ethological Hypothesis

     Ethologists, historically marginalized because of reliance on Baldwinian inheritance to describe multigenerational transmission of, for instance, early "imprinted" behaviors—a concept up to recently anathema to classical evolutionists—have nonetheless continued to expand on Tinbergen, Lorenz and von Frisch's observations of imprinting and it's mechanisms. In a contemporary interpretation, genetically pre-programed spinal reflexes are "released" through chance discovery of the stimuli that activate the "releasing mechanism" (Tinbergen, 1951; Lorenz, 1970; Sapolsky, 2005). 

     Ethologists also refined the manner in which reflexes advance, through classical and operant conditioning, to complex vertebrate behavior like locomotion and language. Complex behaviors are advanced primarily through learned suppression of the various parts of the reflex, rather than by creation or acquisition of new, fully-intact, reflexes per se (Pavlov, 2001; Deacon, 1998). An example of this is the Babinsky reflex. Newborns spread their toes when the side of the sole is stimulated; adults do not. The reflex returns to its infantile state, however, if the central nervous system connection above the reflex is damaged. 

     First and second pathway learning can be understood as (1) basic spinal reflexes, modulated by (2) autonomic (affective or feeling) reflexes, modulated by (3) hypothalamic chemical "emotional" expression, repressed or de-repressed by (4) brain stem "awake" and "alert" systems, refined by (5) cerebellar fine motor and procedural coordination, consciously initiated by (6) cerebral functioning (Janik, 2007a). Periodic re-organization at each "level" results in the appearance of increasingly sophisticated behaviors, collectively called "personality."


Mirror Neuron Hypothesis

Mirror neurons provide the first extant neurobiological explanations of how animals and presumably humans actually acquire new initiation behaviors (Rizzolatti, 1996; Gallese, 1998). The Mirror Neuron hypothesis posits that groups of specialized cortical neurons fire whenever a primate senses a behavior, automatically firing motor neurons in the observer's brain that, if allowed to be expressed, would result in performing the behavior. Actual execution of the copied behavior during mirror neuron learning is apparently inhibited, probably in the thalamus, where the "releasing mechanism" is likely located.

     Another way of saying this, is that sensing other's behaviors (or one's own for that matter), causes groups of mirroring neurons within the observer to fire without release of the actual behavior. Sensed behaviors can thereby be "learned" and/or "pre-rehearsed," awaiting conditioning of the release mechanism (Sylwester, 2005; Janik, 2007b).

     This testable hypothesis has vastly implications. For example, viewing violent behavior would lead directly to learning it, regardless of whether the violence is directed at the learner or another. Additionally, when the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, as it is during traumatic learning, it is not necessary to empathize with what is being sensed to internalize and learn the behavior (Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2005c).

     Volitional viewing of nurturing or other transformative behaviors during rest and reflection, i.e. parasympathetic nervous system arousal, is somewhat different. In transformative learning, it is important the learner not only sense the behavior, but also empathize with the actor. Empathizing implies identification with the actor in terms of species, group and individual, either emotional or feeling-wise (Janik, 2005a). That is not to say that the learner must experience exactly the same emotions and feelings that the actor is experiencing, but, at the least, the viewed behavior is invoking emotions and/or feelings within the learner or towards the actor, or both. It is sometimes said that no one can truly know the emotions and feelings of another, but I would suggest that given my imposed definition of emotion as "circulating chemicals" and feelings as smooth muscle reactions to these emotions, learners should be quite capable during rest and reflection, of ascertaining many, if not most of the actor's feelings, thereby effectively recreating the actor's emotions in the learner's body.

     With transformative mentorship, as opposed to contemporary teaching, mirror neurons and the second, "rest and reflect" learning pathway are invoked through appeal to learner's curiosity and display of mentor behavior (Mezirow, 2000; Cameron, 2006; Janik, 2007a). It is important to be aware that, in the end, it is through careful observation of the mentor's behavior that transformative learners acquire both the new behavior and appropriate release stimulus during mirror neuron functioning.

     There is, on the other hand, an important caveat to the Mirror Neuron Hypothesis: While it has been demonstrated in some primates including, anecdotally, at least in some humans, the full role and significance of mirror neuron function has yet to be elaborated.


Perceptive Gateway Hypothesis

     The Perceptive Gateway Hypothesis (aka the "Thalamic Searchlight Hypothesis") states that, in most humans, only a small fraction of what is sensed is cognitively perceived. The majority of sensations are blocked from actual perception at the thalamic level. This translates into the thalamus being a "gateway" for sense-perception (Crick, 1998; Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a).

     Whether sensations are perceived or not, they can still initiate learning. Sensations are processed and selected for perception in a special memory processing area of the non-cortical cerebrum called the hippocampus (Janik, 2007a). This hypothesis further implies the existence of two somewhat different mechanisms for moving short-term memories into long-term memory. One mechanism deals with perceived sensoria and their attendant motor releasing mechanisms, the other with non-perceived sensoria and releasing mechanisms. It would appear that the two may, in fact, share substantive hippocampal short-to-long-term-memory-movement circuits.

     Interestingly, the summative hippocampal system includes both left and right hippocampi connected respectively to left and right thalami on the one end, and right and left sides of the hypothalamus at the other. In short, the hippocampal learning system appears highly influenced by emotions (Papez, 1995; also see Sapolsky, 2005).

     Emotional content, as well as the number and strength of sensory associations paired with a learning event, appear to lower the thalamic gateway and increase the likelihood of the sensation being perceived in the cerebral cortex (Janik, 2005a).

     This same circuit is connected directly to the pre-frontal and frontal "executive decision-making areas" of the cerebral cortex (collectively called the "limbic system"); hence, there would also be expected to exist a range of variation in learning between emotionally-oriented and reason-oriented learning.


Lateralization-Specialization Hypothesis

     That the central nervous system, and to some extent the peripheral nervous system, are paired structures with right and left sides is an anatomic truism. Right and left sides are, however, neither entirely redundant or separate in function. It is clear from language acquisition studies that early lateralization and attendant specialization in function occur, though any one area of the cerebrum is generally capable, under the right circumstances, of functioning like another. That is, despite the general toti-potentiality of the human cerebrum, lateralization and specialization in function nonetheless occur. For example, most people are right- or left-handed; that is, one "side" seems to take precedence in sensation and motor function over the other. At the same time, some activities, like language processing and production, occurring mainly in the dominant side of the cerebrum (note: the left body, in general, is controlled by the right side of the upper central nervous system). It is likely that this lateralization occurs within many deeper structures, such as the thalami, hippocampi and hypothalamus, as well as the bilateral limbic system as well (Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a). The full, functional significance of this is not yet appreciated.


Neural Network Hypothesis

     Prior to the existence of this hypothesis, often attributed to Turing (1992), the main thrust of neuroscience was the mapping, one-to-one, of sensoria and behaviors to specific locations within the brain. While this effort proved statistically plausible, actual one-to-one correlation between sensoria and neurons has only proved accurate at the base or "raw" sensation rather than the holistic sensation level.

     As Hubel and Wiesel showed, certain base or "raw" sensations (a dot of light, a row of dots in a straight line, curved rows of lights, moving lines and curves) can be mapped one-to-one from transducer to cerebral neuron. A different mechanism, however, is required to account for associations of raw sensations (iconic representations) and the the assignment of "meaning" (symbolism) (Hubel, 1962; Deacon, 1998; Janik, 2005a).

     Raw sensations are processed in distinct cortical sensory areas of the brain, e.g. tactile perceptions map to an area called the sensory strip, a narrow, roughly one-inch band extending from ear to ear in the cerebral cortex across the top of the brain (Janik, 2005a; Sylwester, 2005; Janik, 2007). In each case, raw sensations appear to activate vertical, outside-to-inside-oriented columns of neurons in four to six histologically-distinct levels within the cortex of the cerebrum when declarative in nature, or in the cerebellum when procedural in nature. Symbolic sensory associations with "meaning," on the other hand, are stored in less distinct but physically larger sensory association areas in the cerebrum and cerebellum (Deacon, 1998; Janik, 2005a).

     As might be expected, meaningful sensory associations (e.g. a recognizable face) take up the majority of the cerebral cortex, while the complex, neural inter-connections required to support such neural networks take up a large portion of subcortical cerebral mass (Kanwisher, 2000).

     It is from the Neural Network Hypothesis that the concepts of neural plasticity and pruning ("use it or lose it") emerge. That is, neurons that fire less frequently are deactivated or destroyed, most probably by the immune system, from neural networks, thereby diminishing access to memories to the extreme point of altering or losing the memories (Deacon, 1998; Sapolsky, 2005). Readjustments to neural networks are thought to occur daily during sleep, daydreaming, effective dreaming, and periodically on a regional and global scale during periods of developmental reorganization (see Janik, 2005a). The Neural Network Hypothesis provides the necessary architectural framework for incremental levels, steps, phases, stages and periods of learning to occur. It should provide an excellent platform for exploring the malleable nature of transformative memories.


Autonomic Nervous System Learning Hypothesis

Long-term memories acquired through sympathetically-induced traumatic memories are semi- or unconscious, eidetic, crystalline and lack deep meaning, and appear significantly different in character than parasympathetically-induced, conscious, non-"photographic," malleable but meaning-rich transformative memories (Janik, 2007a; see Freud, 2009).

     The integrating nuclei for the two systems, located in the brain stem, are, in fact, anatomically separable.

     The nine closely-associated medullary raphe (neural nuclei) of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) project down the spinal cord (to exert control on the peripheral sympathetic nervous system), in and out of the cerebellum, and up and forward into the frontal and thence to other cerebral areas. The nuclei and upward and forward projections of the SNS are heavily serotonin-biased in regard to neurotransmitters (Janik, 2007a).

     In the parasympathetic nervous system, medullary nuclei higher in the brain stem, collectively called the substantia nigra, project directly out (as cranial nerves) and down the spinal cord (to exert control on peripheral parasympathetic nervous system or PNS). The substantia nigra also project forward into the prefrontal area of the cerebrum, laterally and up into the thalami, and forward and down into "addictive reward" areas, called the ventral tegmentum and the nucleus accumbens respectively (see Flaherty, 2005). Nuclei, cerebral projections and target areas are dopamine-biased (Janik, 2007a).


Transformative Learning and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

     One result of Parkinson's Disease, in which there is a loss of dopamine neurotransmitter within the parasympathetic nervous system, is, interestingly, lack of curiosity (Frank, 2004). Simply put, a neurobiology of transformative learning "fits" the empirical observation that transformative learning is closely associated with dopamine-regulated, reflective curiosity, and ends with addictive pleasure reward when a shift in meaning (aka "paradigm-shift") results (Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a).

     What is not so well understood is the neurobiology of transformative pre-discovery dysesthesia, a phenomenon commonly reported in learners engaged in transformative learning while awaiting the "Aha" or "popping up" phenomenon associated with a paradigm-shift (Janik, 2005a). In summary, the Neural Network Hypothesis is yet another part of the neurobiological foundation of transformative learning from which even richer, more robust and researchable hypotheses result (see, for example, Durstewitz, 2010).


Myelination Hypothesis

     Individual neurons that fire more frequently and/or for longer periods of time induce "helper" cells to wrap around the outgoing "axon," creating an insulating "myelin sheath." This process, yet to be fully understood, allows neural axon impulses to travel one or more orders of magnitude faster than in non-myelinated axons, and, at the same time, lessens "cross-firing" in neighboring axons. The latter "sharpens" the neural signal. Infrequently-used myelinated axons appear subject to demyelination presumably by the immune system (Carpenter, 2003; Sapolsky, 2005; Janik 2005a; Janik, 2007a).

     In addition, there appear to be "critical periods" during which large-scale myelination and re-myelination occur, possibly induced by rapid changes in circulating hormones (Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a). For example, there is some temporal evidence that during the pre-pubertal sex hormone "spurt," myelination and re-myelination may occur throughout the body (Janik, 2004; Janik, 2005a; Janik, 2007a). Similarly, during times of chronic stress, with attendant high cortisol hormone expression, myelination may be suppressed, inhibited or even reversed (Janik, 2004).

     Once a body-wide myelination period ends, the nervous system has access to more complex sensory and motor "subroutines" and can build or rebuild more behaviors. For example, if a complex behavior like language is not fully acquired during one of several critical language acquisition periods, more complex language functions may not be afforded the individual during his or her lifetime (Lenneberg, 1967; Lenneberg, 1975; Janik, 2004). The Myelination Hypothesis presents educators with an important caveat: That certain learning events as yet to be completely enumerated or described, must likely occur during neurobiologically-important, critical learning periods.


Somatic DNA Learning Hypothesis

     Already referred to indirectly twice above, this hypothesis states that the basic mechanisms of change in sex-cell DNA also apply, within bounds, to body (somatic) cell DNA. For example, a single gene mutation in an autosomal sex-cell chromosome can cause expression of a new, heritable, complex physical syndrome with attendant learning and memory changes. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is an example where, without treatment, children will experience substantive learning deficits (Centerwall, 2000). The Somatic DNA Learning Hypothesis, eloquently expressed by Crick and Kandel and cited previously, implicates DNA changes in somatic, or non-sex cells in long-term permanent changes in the function of somatic cells. When these somatic cells are neurons, this causes changes in long-term cellular memory, which Reich, also cited earlier, called "body memories."

     Kandel (2007) showed that neural DNA changes occurred as a result of, for example, retrograde neurotransmitter production, which in turn can induce functional changes in somatic-cell molecular memory. One would expect such changes to be unconscious, that is, outside the easy reach of cerebral perception, but could could still affect the behavior of the organism. Interestingly, these "somatically" leaned behaviors could be transmitted to subsequent generations through Baldwinian or Butlerian "inheritance" mechanisms.




The reader is, at this point, hopefully, busy reflecting in volitional, transformative fashion on the myriad implications of a neurobiology of transformative learning. If so, then I have more than accomplished my primary task. Still, I hope, I have also succeeded in pointing out the substantial neurobiological tradition that exists, and the more than adequate neurobiological foundation for not only traumatic but also transformative learning. As medical imaging and molecular biology continue to advance, the neurobiological underpinnings of transformative learning should continue to develop and evolve towards a unified neuroscience of learning, perhaps under the protective umbrella of "narrative neuroscience" that specifically includes transformative learning (Janik 2009).


Creating, understanding and applying a neurobiology of transformative learning is of great import, since the myriad side effects of traumatic learning are already severely affecting individuals, families, societies, humanity at large, and perhaps even our collective evolutionary future. Neurobiology can not only validate the existence and importance of the transformative second learning pathway, but also provide a rich, robust and researchable approach for the further exploration in transformative learning.




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cite: Janik, D. S. (2014). The Neurobiological Foundations of Transformative Learning. Jour Neurobiol Learn Soc 2014 (1): 1

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