Sunday, 7 June 2020

Pribram's Biology of Learning

The psychologist Karl Pribram contributed a fascinating essay on "The 4 R's of Remembering" in a volume of essays on the biology of learning (see and the essay here ( This volume also contains a fascinating paper from Konrad Lorenz, but Pribram's paper is the most striking because it cuts to the fundamentals of education in a way that nothing does today.

The poverty of our present scientific inquiry into education is a scandal. We have allowed a marketised education system to stymie inquiry in ways that have been shaped by journal publishers, with unconstructive critique which endlessly swings from one fad to the next, making random academic "celebrities" in the process, and a discourse on education which has become entirely beholden to the social sciences which are in a similar mess. The possibility for educational experiment has been dissolved by ambitious vice-chancellors alongside dull bureaucrats who defend mediocrity in the name of "quality". It's all ridiculous.

So Pribram's essay is a breath of fresh air - from 1969. His 4 R's are: "Representation, reconstruction, registration and rearrangement". But the biggest R is "redundancy" - through repetition and multiple descriptions of the same thing. Pribram doesn't explicitly mention this, but redundancy can be both synchronic and diachronic, and he sees "representation and reconstruction" as a form of synchronic structuring, while he sees "registration and rearrangement" as diachronic.

He begins by making the case for taking information theory seriously in education, and particularly redundancy over information (redundancy is the negative image of "information"). Gregory Bateson was making a similar point in his work at the same time. Redundancy is context, and without context, there is no meaning (tell that to the machine learning people!)

Pribram is interesting because his work drew on the quantum mechanics of David Bohm. He saw in the patterns of electrical activity in the brain a fractal which referenced the origins of the universe. This seems fanciful, but Pribram amassed a lot of evidence that something weird was going on. He was interested in how these fractal patterns encode memories in the brain. Within the brain, Pribram argued that there was a holographic process that related neurons to each other, and that this holograpphic process was related to the deeper "holomovement" that Bohm postulated within his physical theories. Something like this must be going on, intuited Pribram, in order to explain intuition, deep thought, insight and empathy - all those processes where the power of the intellect is so manifest and apparently magical.

This raises questions as to the mechanisms by which these holograms are established in the brain. Pribram speculates about the role of proteins encoding interference patterns, which implicates cellular processes of protein expression in DNA. But it also raises a question as to how an encoded interference pattern is then decoded to produce a "memory". The key in this process is the redundancy of the holographic encoding, and the way that this redundancy is paired with the presentation of input signals which trigger memories. Effectively, redundancies interfere with one another producing patterns which relate to the encoded mental structures ("Event dimly remembered become more vivid when we return to the scene of the experience"). Memory is carried "out there" as much as "in here": its in the DNA as much as it is in what we might now call the epigenetic marks in the environment.

Pribram concludes:
"for education, the moral is clear. Instruction (shared discovery of structure) should supplement teaching (showing). The tools for structuring and restructuring must be developed by the pupil; the machinery of reconstruction must be put together. The techniques of analysis and of synthesis are to be empasized. The simple repetition of loosely connected facts ought to give way to the search far structure in the material to which the student is exposed. The short-answer test, which explores the number of items retained (ever so briefly and meaninglessly), ought to be recognized for what it is-a labor saving. featherbedding procedure to process the students through the school system with the least possible effort on anyone's part."
For the diachronic aspects of cognition, Pribram makes more explicit reference to redundancy. He is particularly interested in the process of reinforcement, which obviously is an aspect of redundancy. He considers the role of redundancy in the encoding of time:
"The process can be conceived to encode and distribute redundancy in a temporal mechanism much as the neural hologram achieves the distribution of redundancy spatially. When this active organizing process is engag~d, events are promptly registered in memory. Without the operation of this mechanism, items must be repetitiously presented to the organism before they bccome "memorized.""
In the  accompanying "rearrangement" process, Pribram asks how a temporal encoded structure is decoded and reassembled through experience. He makes the case for a kind of selection mechanism which distinguishes the segments of memories and rearranges them appropriately. He relates this to the experience of education:

"These experimental results suggest that a great part of the educational process, except for the acquisition of skills, lies in arranging and rearranging one's experiences. When I was in college, as today, there were individuals who "cribbed" during exams. One of the most effective methods was to condense the most important material onto small cards or even onto the inside of the shirt cuff. I was impressed and envious-identification and imitation quickly suggested itself. But as I began to work studiously through the course material in order to compress the relevant facts and ideas adequately, I found that I could go the "cribbers" one better. The arranging and rearranging of notes constituted a superb review. And the aim toward parsimony in expression left me with a few key cards, which could now easily be committed' to memory, since a context had been provided by the review. With one stroke, rearrangement had given me superiority: not only did I remember the material for the examination; I gained knowledge of enduring value and didn't have to risk disruption of my social fabric or of my conscience."

I think this work is very admirable, even if I have some reservations about some aspects of the theory and methodology. We need more of this - particularly now. 

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