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Friday, April 26, 2019

Learning and Memory Bias Choices But Don't Preclude Free Will

One common definition of "free will" is that a person can decide or choose among multiple alternatives without being forced by physical laws, luck, fate, or divine will. Most of us feel that there are situations where we are in charge of our choices and no outside force compels us to make a particular choice. But it is fashionable these days for scientists to insist that free will is an illusion. In fact, they claim, without evidence, that consciousness cannot do anything. It just observes a little of what the magnificent unconscious mind does. The possibility that conscious thought programs neural circuitry escapes their biased thinking.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Who or what compels us to accept one moral code over any other? Who or what compels us to believe in God or to be an atheist? Who or what compels us to become a certain kind of person, with no option to "improve" itself in any self-determined way? Learning experiences may bias our choices, but we are free to reject learning that does not serve us well. Wise people do that.

Human brains make choices consciously and unconsciously by real-time evaluation of alternatives in terms of the anticipated usefulness of previous learning from other situations. This learning occurs in the context of the learned sense of self, which begins unconsciously in the womb, as neural connections construct a map of body parts. The conscious brain is aware that it is aware of choice processing and makes decisions in light of such understanding. When a given alternative choice is not forced, the conscious mind is aware that it is not obliged to accept any one choice but is "free" to select any one of the available options. We may be creative by consciously constructing other alternatives than the ones presented. Such realization might even guide many decisions at the subconscious level. In any case, neural networks weigh the probable value of each alternative and collectively reach a "decision" by inhibiting networks that lead to less-favored alternatives. Thus, network activity underlying the preferred choice prevails and leads to a selective willed action. What governs the network activity causing the final choice is the activity in other networks, which in turn is governed by stored memories and real-time processing of the current choice contingencies.

What usually gets left out of free-will discussions is the question of how a brain establishes stored-memory preferences and how it evaluates current contingencies. These functions surely cause things to happen, but what is the cause of the cause? Any given brain can choose within certain limits of its learning experiences and stored memory. We govern those choices by what a brain has learned about the self-interest value associated with given contingencies. Brain circuitry assigns value, and values chosen are largely optional choices. The conscious brain directs the choices that govern value formation, reinforcement, and preservation in memory.

Now we are confronted with explaining how neural circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) representing the sense of self can have a free will. First, I reason that each person's brain has a conscious Avatar that acts as an active agent to act in the world on embodied brain's behalf, as explained more completely in my recent book. This is reminiscent of the 3rd Century idea of a homunculus, a "little person" inside the brain. A modern view is that this homunculus exists in the form of mapped circuitry within a more global workspace.

Certain maps are created under genetic control. These include the topographic map of the body in the sensory and motor cortices. Then there is the capacity for real-time construction of maps of the body location in space that resides in circuitry of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Other maps are created from learning experience from the near-infinite circuit capacity of association cortex. What these maps learn is stored in memory as facilitated circuit synapses and deployed "on-line" in the form of CIP representations of what was originally learned. New learning likewise exists as CIP representations in network populations. Thus, what has been learned is stored as memories that can be accessed later in decision- and choice-making.

The conscious Avatar itself is a constellation of certain CIPs representing the conscious-agent sense of self. Certainly, by definition, the Avatar can make choices and decisions. Avatar choices can be implemented unconsciously, because Avatar circuitry is embedded in the global workspace of unconscious mind. Wakefulness releases consciousness to make its own choices and decisions. Avatar processing is neither random nor inevitable, and presumably can occur with more degrees of freedom than found in unconscious mind. Avatar processing more likely progresses via non-linear chaotic dynamics than by linear deterministic processing.

If the conscious Avatar exists as a set of CIPs, how can something as "impersonal" and physiological as that have any kind of "will," much less free will? Consider that the "virtual you" is your Avatar. Let us recall that "will" is little more than an intent that couples bodily actions to achieve the intent. This kind of thinking does also occur in the circuitry that controls unconscious minds. These circuits automatically generate actions in response to conditions that call for a response. Such actions are stereotyped and inflexible, but not when there is conscious regulation.

Each choice alternative is represented as circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) within a group of neurons. Each group's activity interacts with the others―and with the CIP representation of the conscious Avatar. The Avatar CIP is poised to influence activity in the alternative sub-populations and thus can help direct the final processing result.

The Avatar must have some criteria to bias a given option. Those criteria have been learned and remembered. The Avatar CIP activity can modulate the alternative-choice representations in the context of self-awareness according to past learning and value assessments of current contingencies. The existence of bias does argue for determinism at this stage of choice making, but the bias could have been created earlier by conscious free-will reasoning and value assessments.

While it is true that genetics and experience help program the Avatar circuitry, the Avatar does its own non-linear processing and makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. The Avatar can insist that it has a need to remember some lessons of experience and makes it a point to remember them. In short, the Avatar gets to help shape what it becomes.

It seems to this Avatar that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.
Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Cursive Is Not Dead Yet

The national education standards, Common Core, aimed to kill the teaching of cursive. But is not deadjust wounded.

Yesterday, I did a radio interview on WHO in DesMoines. WHO bills itself as the “America’s #1 Audio Company.” I remember fondly listening to WHO over the three years when I lived in Iowa many years ago. The Justin Brady Radio Show people had read one of my articles on why teaching cursive to children is valuable, and they wanted to explore things further. As many people know the Common Core standards did away with the teaching of cursive, presumably because it is not relevant in the digital age where children write by tapping a screen or keyboard.

My state of Texas, notable for doing its own thing, has refused to endorse Common Core, but still the state did not require the teaching of cursive. Now Texas mandates the teaching of cursive. In accordance with the state's new school guidelines, second graders will be taught how to write cursive letters before advancing to third grade, where they'll be expected to "write complete words, thoughts and answers legibly in cursive writing leaving appropriate spaces between words." When students get to fourth grade, they'll be required to write all of their assignments in cursive.
Justin Brady wanted to know what I thought about all this. My first reaction was this: “If we don’t need to teach cursive, why do we need to teach printing by hand?” Cursive is just a refinement of printing letters. Why don’t we just show them pictures of the letters and teach them to punch a key for the letters? In fact, that may well be the next educational “reform.”

We teach printing so kids can more easily learn their ABCs. We could teach ABCs by showing children which letters to tap on a screen. Maybe in some states that think they are so progressive, the teaching of printing letters will be on the way out. However, the reason learning to print letters by hand matters is that it demands mental engagement. A child has to think about the structure of each letter, and in the process of thinking about how to draw it, learns and remembers what the letters look like. Hand printing is an example of the “production effect” principle that benefits memory. We remember things better if we reproduce the learning, either by drawing, writing, or telling. One of the fundamental but unheralded principles of learning is that the best way to remember anything is to think about it.

Learning cursive builds on this principle and provides additional benefits. Cursive has two special advantages over printing: it promotes a higher-level mental development, and it can nurture a child’s emotions and motivation for learning and achievement.

Brain Development

Cursive should be easy to learn once one knows how to print letters, because there are many good books explaining the slight modifications needed to turn printed letters into script. But cursive demands more hand-eye coordination, a change in brain wiring that creates the mental infrastructure for many later uses in real life. Hand-finger dexterity becomes crucial in later life if a child wants to play a musical instrument, excel in sports, manipulate tools, or even master a computer keyboard. In my blog post that Justin had read, I had described how writing in cursive activated many more areas of brain than mere printing. It is training the brain to recruit neural resources to solve problems.

Excelling at cursive does another important thing. The learner has to pay more attention and focus on what needs to be done to make each letter and attractive. To do a good job at cursive requires self-discipline. Who can argue that kids don’t need to learn focus and self-discipline? Our multi-tasking culture is teaching kids to be scatterbrained. All kids have some level of attention deficit.
Learning cursive successfully also incidentally programs the brain for the habit of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a mental heuristic that enables a person to pay attention to the details of what is needed to improve a skill. If an adult wants to improve her golf game, she has to do more than just repeat a swing of the club. She has to think about what is the best way to improve the swing with each attempt.

Motivational Benefit

Learning to write cursive well has enormous motivational and emotional benefits. First, writing cursive is a form of drawing, and children naturally love to draw. The child happily takes ownership of their cursive creations, being proud of having a skill that generates such elegant writing. They can even develop a personal style, which is gratifying in their limited world that demands so much conformity. They discover that they have powers of mastery, which motivates them to do better in other school work. Of course, they also discover the practical benefit of cursive, which is that they can write much faster than printing, which helps them greatly in taking schoolwork notes.

In recalling my own childhood, I remember that I did not like school until the seventh grade. Before then I hated school and made poor grades. It may have been no accident that I started to like school and make all As in that year when I also had a couple months of penmanship class. I knew how to write cursive earlier, but penmanship taught me how to write cursive that was attractive, not perhaps as elegant as the script in the Declaration of Independence, but still something I created that I could be proud of. I still have attractive cursive today.

So, I say “hats off” to states like Texas that are restoring the hallowed place of cursive in elementary education. My only criticism is that second graders are not likely to have the brain development and hand-eye coordination required to create attractive cursive. Children need refresher instruction when they are older, as I was lucky enough to get in a couple months of the seventh grade. If a child does not learn to do cursive well, many of the emotional and motivational benefits do not occur. In fact, if their cursive is ugly and unreadable, the emotions are negative.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Making Note-taking Work for You

Despite a recurring stream of educational fads, lectures still dominate teaching approaches. In spite of such teaching reforms as "hands-on" learning, small group collaborations, project-based learning, and others, teachers generally can't resist the temptation to be a "sage of the stage," instead of a "guide on the side." And when they are not lecturing, teachers may assign instructional videos. Maybe that's a good thing, because many students are not temperamentally equipped to be active learners. Rather, they have been conditioned by television and movies to function as a passive audience. Even the way we test learning with multiple-choice questions conditions students to be passive by recognizing a provided correct answer among three or four incorrect ones.

Then there is the problem of alternatives, such as learning from reading. Too many students don't like to read academic material. They want somebody to spoon feed the information to them. Most lectures are just that—spoon feeding.

Given that the dominance of lecturing is not likely to change any time soon, shouldn't teachers focus more on showing students how to learn from lectures or from videos? It seems there is an implicit assumption that passive listening will suffice to understand and remember what is presented in lecture or video presentations. The problem is, however, that deep learning requires active, not passive, engagement. Students need to parse content to identify what they don't understand, don't know already, and can't figure out from what they do already know. This has to happen in real time, as different ideas and factoids come and go.

So how should students engage with presentations? Traditionally, this means taking notes. But I wonder if note-taking is a dying art. I don't see many students taking notes from lectures or web pages or U-tube videos. Or textbooks (highlighting is a poor substitute). My concern was reinforced the other day when I gave a lecture on improving learning and memory to college students. The lecture was jam packed with more information than anyone could remember without being actively engaged. Yet, I did not see a single one of the 58 students taking notes. Notably, the class's regular professor, who had invited me to give the lecture, was vigorously taking notes throughout.

Why don’t students take notes? Are they too conditioned for passive learning? Is it because they can’t write legibly in cursive, and printing is too slow and cumbersome? Whatever the cause, it can be traced to faulty teaching by previous teachers.

Just what is it that I think is valuable about note taking? First and foremost is the requirement for engagement. Students have to pay attention well enough to make decisions about the portion of the presentation that will need to be studied later. Paying attention is essential for encoding information. Nobody can remember anything that never registered in the first place.

Next, note taking requires thinking about the material to decide what needs to be captured for later study. This hopefully generates questions that can be raised and answered during the presentation. In the college class I just mentioned, not one student asked a question, even though I interrupted the lecture four times to try and pry out questions. Notably, after the lecture, about a dozen students came to me to ask questions.

Notes should be taken by hand. This is a good place to mention note-taking with a laptop computer. Students are being encouraged to bring laptops to take notes. Two important consequences of typing notes should be recognized. One problem is that for touch typists, taking notes on a laptop is a relatively brain-dead process in which letters are banged out more or less on autopilot. A good typist does not have to think. And if you have not mastered the keyboard, paying attention to which keys to hit is a distraction from the content the learner should be thinking about. Hand-written notes inevitably engage thinking and decisions about what to write down, how to represent the information, and where on the page to put specific items. A formal experiment has been published showing that students remembered more when they took notes by hand than when they took notes by laptop typing.

A special benefit of hand-written note-taking is that students create a spatial layout of the information they think they will need to study. A well-established principle of learning is that where information is provides important cues as to what the information is. The spatial layout of script and diagrams on a page allows the information to be visualized, creating an opportunity for a rudimentary form of photographic memory, where a study can imagine in the mind's eye just were on the page certain information is, and that alone makes it easier to memorize and recall what the information is.

This brings me to the important point of visualization. Pictures are much easier to remember than words. Hand-written notes allow the student to represent verbalized ideas as drawings or diagrams. If you have ever had to learn the Kreb's cycle of cellular energy production, for example, you know how much easier it is to remember the cycle if it is drawn rather than described in paragraph form.

All learners take in information differently. There are at least five common types of note-taking. Learners should select the type that works best for them. The type selected may vary with the nature of the information source. After reading the different descriptions of note-taking styles below, it will be up to you to decide which style of notes you would prefer to utilize.

Styles of Note-Taking:

1. Outline
2. Charting Notes
3. Cornell Notes
4. Mind Mapping
5. Matrix Notes

Outline Notes

These notes are arranged in terms of topic, sub-topic, sub-sub topic, and so on. Each item is on a separate line and is indented. Each topic or sub-topic can be numbered and lettered. Here is an example for information on cell biology:

1. History
A. Initial discoveries
1). Robert Hooke
2). Early microscopes
3). Etc.
2, Cells
          A. Definition/cell theory
          B. Organelles
                     1) Mitochondria
                     2) ER
                     3) etc.

The numbering and lettering can become distracting. I prefer to use headings, sub-headings, sub-sub headings. This is readily automated in a word processing by using a styles menu (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on). Here is an example:

History (main heading)

Initial discoveries (subheading)

Robert Hooke (sub- sub-heading)

Early microscopes






Outline notes are most useful when you have to capture information quickly. If you don’t have much time to think, outlines are usually easy to construct because that is the way most information is presented in lectures, videos, and textbooks. A presenter typically presents a main thought, then explains it with some detail, and then moves on to the nest main idea.

For more understanding and to promote memory, it is important to think about the words that appear in an outline. Other note-taking methods require reconstructing the initial information in a different format, and this requires some thinking. Thinking is the best way to improve understanding, and it also automatically promotes memory formation.

Charting Notes:

These notes are put in a table with column headings. Here is an illustration based on cell biology information:

Main Topic: Cell Biology

Learning Objective: understand that all organisms are composed of one or more cells and explain the three parts of cell theory.

Topic 1: History

Topic 2: Cells
Topic 3: Cell Theory
Topic 4:
Key Info/Ideas

Robert Hooke conceived idea of cells.

Hooke used a microscope to look at slices of cork
Key Info/Ideas

Cells are individual units that are alive

Cells contain organelles that perform specific functions

Key Info/Ideas

All living things are made of cells

Cells are organized into tissues of similar cells
Key Info/Ideas

Cornell Notes

There are 5 components of the Cornell notes: topic, learning objective/outcome, keywords/questions, notes, and summary.

Main Topic: Cell Biology

Learning Objective/Outcome: understand that all organisms are composed of one or more cells and explain the three parts of cell theory.



Cell definition



Hooke’s study of cork under microscope

Cells as membrane-bound units

Organelles: nucleus, mitochrondria, ER, etc.

Mind Mapping

Ideas can be mapped in ways that show how they relate to each other. The map drawing should begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a map in real time during a lecture or video. In simple mind mapping, basic ideas are stated within circles and arrows are drawn from “parent” to “daughter” circles. A useful addition is to write in brief text along the arrows that explain what the relationship is. When this addition is included, the map is called a concept map. Here is an example:

Each circle object in the map can be expanded to whatever level of detail is required. In the map above, for example, from “History” you could add a circle for “Hooke” with a labeled connecting arrow saying “the first pioneer was.” Maps like this are easily made with paper and pencil. If you want more formal maps, these can be done in a computer drawing program like Powerpoint or more automated concept mapping software that is available from multiple vendors.

Matrix Notes

Matrix notes place information in a table, where the columns might be categories of information and the rows contain items within each category. The columns represent one category of information (such as topics and the rows another, such as items. Here is the basic idea:

Core Ideas
Cell Theory

Relation to tissues

Energy production



As with concept maps, the process should begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a matrix in real time during a lecture or video. Also, as with concepts maps, the main advantage is that the learner has to think about the content. The best way to remember anything is to think about it. Such thinking may also provide insights that would otherwise not occur.

Matrix notes can be more comprehensive and force thinking about content in a wide range of contexts. Matrix notes are most useful when cross-cutting relationships need to be clarified.

The advantages for learning are that the learner conceptualizes the ideas in the process of constructing the matrix. Because ideas are presented in one view, preferably in units of one page at a time, it is easy to see cross-cutting relationships that otherwise are not so apparent. Such organization is an aid to stimulating insight. In addition, the fixed spatial layout is a memory aid, because knowing where a given piece of information is located makes it easier to remember the information.

To conclude, learners will remember more if they take notes of the learning material. The reason is that note taking requires more attentiveness, engagement with the information, thinking about relationships and applications of the information. Notes also provide a condensed personal copy that can be filed for later reference.

For more or memory strategies, see my books that are described at (author tab).