Biological Basis of Learning and Memory

Summation of Theories Relating to the
Biological Basis of Learning and Memory

What are the various biological factors that are linked to learning and memory. How do particular structures of the brain, suggested physiological functions and the role of evolutionary development in species relating to these functions or genetic adaptations affect cognition, behavior and learning.

The Role of Evolution and Conditioning and Cognition:
• Genetic inheritance and brain physiology are the two main areas of focus in biological learning research. Behavior is defined in biological terms by combining these two areas with the individual development and the adaptive characteristics of a species. It can be argued relative to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that successful adaptive behaviors are “Ultimate Causes” that often lead to evolutionary advancements or changes in biological physiology or brain structure over time.
• Evolutionary psychologists suggest that psychological adaptations are ancient genetically coded biological structures or behaviors arising from natural selection relating to survival. These evolutionary adaptations are “both functional and specific” to the process of natural selection. These adaptations in turn can shape behavior specific to a species. Examples such as instinctive drift (behavior inherent to a species that can often eventually the affect outcomes of operant conditioning, support the idea of genetic traits and behavior specific to certain species.
• Based on the premise that evolutionary biology effects behavior, some biological theorists have suggested that cognition and learning are also greatly influenced by genetic heritage. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development seem to support this idea, in that there are commonalities to the ways and timelines by which children develop logical cognitive structures.
• Environment can also influence the genetic predispositions of a species. Although many of these concepts are behavioral in principal and covered in chapter 2, it is worth noting that evolutionary biologists would suggest that specific behavior is genetically encoded and often responses to a particular environmental stimuli will be limited to specific behaviors outcomes.
Neurophysiology and Structures of the Brain:
• Despite the ethics of early scientific research on the brain (and maybe some contemporary research as well) localized regions have been linked to specific functions such as sight, language and motor skills. Areas associated with learning include:
1. Frontal lobe: Associated with attention, the left frontal lobe specifically is associated with the ability to speak. This is also named Broca’s area after the scientist who discovered the correlation.
2. Pariental lobe: Procedural memory associated procedural tasks such as the ability to organize and differentiate between stimuli such as letters in reading.
3. Hippocampus: Associated with learning and memory. The right side seems associated with visual-spatial functions; the left side seems to be linked to knowledge of facts and related concepts. The hippocampus, apparently aided by the thalamus, also seems responsible for the ability to orientate and focus attention on a specific event.
• Given these general attributes associated with regional areas of the brain, it is also apparent that the complexities of the brain surpass our knowledge of its many functions. These are general understandings and much has yet to be uncovered as to the localized functions of the brain and how they inter-relate or even if the current associated correlations are correct.
• Advancements in brain imaging, brain chemistry, neurological structure and studies in brain trauma/damage are also helping to deepen our understanding of the operations of the brain and the functions of memory, attention and learning.
Attention and Memory:
• Attention seems to be a fundamental mechanism in learning. One must focus ones attention in order to learn or observe in a meaningful way. Focused attention eventually results in storing concepts into memory, but how does the brain do this? Contemporary research suggests that the right hemisphere (frontal lobe) of the brain contributes to maintaining alertness and attention, however subcortical mechanisms also seem very important in linking functions of attention between the left and right hemisphere. This implies a relationship of dependence between the two hemispheres. Studies into schizophrenia and hyperactivity related to frontal lobe development and catecholamine metabolism (a neurotransmitter chemical process) imply a strong correlation to attention as well and has providing research and development into drug related treatment.
• Learning and memory have several specific functions and subsystems as defined by Schacter and Tulving (1994) these include: Procedural (simple cognitive and motor skills) perceptual representation (visual, auditory structural description), semantic (knowledge and facts), primary (working memory and attention) and episodic (event memory). Studies in amnesia have allowed scientist to differentiate between the types of memory and subsequent functions relative to the individuals studied. Procedural memory often seems intact while long term or episodic memory (remembering what happened) often is challenged. This implies that different areas of the brain are been used relative to the different functions of memory.
Language, Cognitive Development and the Brain:
• The concept that language is a developmental biological function lends itself to the idea that it is indeed part of a human genetic code. Questions as to the innate nature of language and its development pose interesting ideas as to the functions of the brain and social evolution. Learning for children seems to develop in a uniform way regardless of culture or environment. Word acquision, syntactic structure and language seem driven and related to maturation implying a biological developmental mechanism. Indeed Semiotics or symbol structures seem to be innately human, studies on deaf children have shown that even in the absence of spoken words children still attempt to build a language of visual gestural signs.
• The extent that cognition is biologically developmental or environmental has different implications for different fields of learning theory. In neurological terms, biological development seems related to the maturation of certain brain systems that differentiate a child’s brain from the brain of an adult. Chall and Peterson identified four conceptual models characterizing the diversity of neuroscience and development: Fixed circuitry, critical periods, plasticity, and modularity.

Key Question relating to theory and possible applications:
• How does our actual understandings of the physical nature of the brain correspond to practical application in an educational context? Is it necessary to understand all the functions and components of the brain in order to engage it in a meaningful way and enhance the process of learning?
• Applications of neurological research have lead to a deepening understanding of the physical nature of the brain relative to individuals affected by brain damage, psychological conditions or cognitive handicaps. Given these advancements modern science we are able to provide better medical support, drug therapies and programs for those affected.

• To what extent can data on the differences in intelligence based on gender or race be misused or even dangerous relative to potential outcomes? Given the complexity of intelligence and the difficulties defining or measuring it should data presented influence social policy or education? Is this advantageous or detrimental?


Driscoll, M., (2004). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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