Archive for the ‘education’ Category

There are something like 100 billion neurons in your brain – a literally mind boggling figure.  Are you really able to imagine what a 100 billion of anything looks like?

As if that weren’t challenging enough, each neuron has up to 50,000 connections with other neurons, and each connection (a synapse) is an electro-chemical switch of a sort – passing information and energy across the gap between two neurons. This makes the total number of states of the brain (number of “on” or “off” neurons) a figure which is……well, unimaginably huge!

I was taught at university that a synapse was a pretty simple connection between two cells where on neuron released a chemical, which then crossed the gap and stimulated the next neuron. This, of course, is a huge oversimplification.

Researchers have recently managed to describe a single synapse much more accurately.



The researchers say



The new model shows, for the first time, that widely different numbers of proteins are needed for the different processes occurring in the synapse,” says Dr. Benjamin G. Wilhelm, first author of the publication. The new findings reveal: proteins involved in the release of messenger substances (neurotransmitters) from so called synaptic vesicles are present in up to 26,000 copies per synapse. Proteins involved in the opposite process, the recycling of synaptic vesicles, on the other hand, are present in only 1,000-4,000 copies per synapse. The most important insight the new model reveals, is however that the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process scale to an astonishingly high degree. The building blocks of the cell are tightly coordinated to fit together in number, comparable to a highly efficient machinery. This is a very surprising finding and it remains entirely unclear how the cell manages to coordinate the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process so closely.

It’s not just the numbers which are astonishing, its the complexity, and that last sentence particularly struck me – “it remains entirely unclear how the cell manages to coordinate the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process so closely”

Just how much DO we know about how the human body works? How much DO we know about how it evolves to this level of complexity, both through an individual lifetime from the fertilisation of a single egg cell to a fully grown human being, and throughout history from single celled life forms to the multi celled human beings?

Humility. That’s what we need as scientists. Humility. Our ability to discover and understand is astonishing, but so far pales in comparison with the complexity of a single human being.

I’m amazed.

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I’ve often thought about the question attributed to Albert Einstein (although I think he didn’t actually ever pose it!)

The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe

Whether he said it or not, it’s still an interesting question which highlights how our beliefs inform our choices. If we believe the universe is hostile then we see ourselves in a constant battle for survival, if we see it as friendly then we call to it for support, and if we think it is neither then maybe we make choices based on the essential meaningless and randomness of life.

OK, I think that is too simplistic and in fact there are no clear answers to this question, but I do think the useful point is about influences. I do believe your choices are informed by your beliefs. Simple, everyday beliefs. Is it safe to walk down this street? Are strangers likely to attack you? Are your friends likely to act in your best interests? And so on…..

All this came to mind this morning having listened to Jim Carrey’s speech at the Maharishi University. Here’s the ONE minute edit…..

(you need to click the link to see the video for this one. Go on, do it now, then come back and read the rest)

So, here’s the key point to think about just now – are you making your choices based on love or fear?

Fear is the main weapon of persuasion in the world, but you don’t need to make it the basis of your life.

What choice will you make today if that choice is to be based on love?

What choice would you make instead if you are basing it on fear?

What are you going to choose?

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Diving for silver?


It seems we didn’t evolve into human beings in a smooth, seamless way, but more with a pattern of great leaps and long, slow changes.

One of these great leaps was in the growth of the size of the brain. One of our pre-human ancestors, Homo erectus,  had much smaller brains than we do, but over the course of 200,000 generations (2 million years), their brain size roughly doubled in size, taking them up to about the same size as brain as we humans have (since about 500,000 years ago).

As Stephen Oppenheimer states, rapidly increasing brain size was a key feature that set humans apart from the walking apes that lived before 2.5 million years ago. Since then our brains have trebled in volume. This increase was not gradual and steady: most of it came as a doubling of volume in Homo erectus 2 million years ago. The greatest acceleration in relative brain size occurred before 1.5 million years ago – early in our genus. Modern humans – and Neandrathals – living before the last ice age 20,000 to 30,000 years ago had bigger brains than do people living today. (from)

Interestingly, brain size in humans hasn’t increased over the last half million years (indeed it’s shrunk a bit!), but what has happened is rapidly increasing asymmetries in the brain. It’s not just that our massive cerebral cortexes are asymmetrical, but within each area of the brain there are highly specialised areas. In other words, its a story not just of an increase in size, of adding more and more neurones, but of complexity.

Here’s one of the puzzles about evolution though – how on Earth did brains evolve so quickly? You might say 2 million years doesn’t seem that quick but look at the speed of change.



This is why some people refer to the growth of the human brain as the second “Big Bang”…….although I do like the idea of a “Great Leap”!

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When I learned neuroanatomy at Medical School I was taught that the two cerebral hemispheres were symmetrical. There was no mention at all that they were in any way different. But look at this image above. (This is referred to as Yakovlevian Torque)

Clearly, the two hemispheres are NOT identical. In particular the right one is bigger at the front, and sits just a bit in front of the left, and the left one is bigger at the back, and sits just a little further back than the right.

Why might that be? Why the larger frontal area on the right, and occipital (back) area on the left?

Iain McGilchrist nicely summarises it by pointing out that how the left hemisphere approaches the world is by trying to grasp it. We try to make sense of the world by literally getting a hold of it – we want to understand it, to measure it, to predict what it going to happen by matching the patterns we see to those we have already learned from our experience, and we try to manipulate or control it. This is what the left hemisphere is really great at doing. Interestingly, the areas at the back of the brain are primarily for processing the outside world (our visual and auditory areas are toward the back, and the cerebellum which helps us to know whether we are standing up or falling over by orientating where we are in 3D space, is also to the back). The right hemisphere majors in making connections and maps. It has a significant role to play in all the skills we need to act as social animals.

So, one nice summary of why there might be this asymmetry in the brain, is to enable us to both grasp the world and to be social creatures. Amongst all the creatures on this planet we are probably the most able to manipulate our environment and the most developed as social animals.

There’s a huge amount more to this left brain/right brain understanding but I do think this is a fabulous starting point. Oh, and by the way, look at this


Interesting, huh? And how come this has been pretty much completely ignored for so long?

Well, Iain McGilchrist’s theory, written up in full in The Master and His Emissary, or summarised in the Kindle Single, The Divided Mind, is that we have over developed the left hemisphere approach so much that we have developed the tendency to see only what we have already “learned” – so if we were taught that it was symmetrical, and we haven’t explored the differences between the two hemispheres, then we’ve become a bit blind. Time to start using our whole brains?


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What’s education about? Qualifications? Marks? Something you do until you are 16, or 18, or 20 something?  I think it’s an ongoing, constant, way of living.

becoming educated, not being educated

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This week I sat next to a student on the train. She was revising her notes on “clinical research”. I was struck by her list of keypoints under the heading “the scientific method”

  • Observation
  • Description
  • Explanation
  • Prediction
  • Control

I have a life long interest in science, but for me, science is just one form of enquiry. I’m actually an insatiably curious person. I love learning. I’m constantly reading. I read on the train, I read in cafes, at home, at work, everywhere. Having a kindle reader on my iphone and my ipad has made it even easier to weave reading into my day. I have thousands of books in my own library. I have google searches set up, rss feeds delivered to my MrReader app, Flipboard and Zite apps on my ipad…..I’m a reader!

But I’m also a photographer and a writer, as you can see if you browse through this blog. And I’m a thinker. I love to learn, to reflect, to understand. I love that every work day I get to spend time with people and try to understand them.

I observe, I describe and I explain.

But predict? I’m not so keen on that one. I find life so complex and every human being so unique, that I find it impossible to predict the future. In broad brush terms, or in generalisations, or statistical probabilities I can have a bash, but I know that for this person, right here, right now, I can’t predict how things will go.

And control?


No thank you. Way too much compliance and control going on in our society for my liking and it doesn’t seem to be improving much. I’m a lot more keen on values than I am on control.

Is science about control? I thought it was about discovery and wonder. I thought it was about learning with every new insight that we have more to learn.

I was very impressed the first time I read Deleuze and Guattari who described three ways of thinking

Art – which is thinking about percepts and affects

Philosophy – thinking about concepts

Science – thinking about function

I like that. Science for me is about discovering patterns, and getting some insights into how something works. That’s what I loved about my undergraduate medical degree – discovering the anatomy, physiology, biology of how the body works. It’s been years and years of daily medical practice, of reading, of reflecting and of thinking, which has brought me to my present place of understanding how a person works. And I sure haven’t got all THAT figured out!

There’s something that jars with me about science directed towards control. But maybe that’s because I don’t like to be controlled!


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Connectivism is an approach to learning based on the idea that knowledge is not an entity, but rather a process within a network.  As described by Stephen Downes,

“At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication. What we learn, what we know — these are literally the connections we form between neurons as a result of experience. The brain is composed of 100 billion neurons, and these form some 100 trillion connections and it is these connections that constitute everything we know, everything we believe, everything we imagine. And while it is convenient to talk as though knowledge and beliefs are composed of sentences and concepts that we somehow acquire and store, it is more accurate — and pedagogically more useful — to treat learning as the formation of connections.”

How different is this from the “Grandgrind” view of education?

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

(Gradgrind – the teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times)

I was never a fan of the Grandgrind approach, but its becoming ever more clear just how foolish and unrealistic it is.

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