Xtreme learning part 3: personal learning and knowledge (long!)

This post will attempt to cover what I think I understand about connectionism, connectivism, personal learning, emotion, visibility & invisibility and extreme activity (assuming for this post that as a human I am capable of personal thinking and understanding). I have not yet looked at the links on Eduardo’s emotions post and some of the neuroscience posts from Suifaijohnmak’s blog but this where I think I am at today –  am sure to get in a mess but will have fun trying to write. After spending the weekend looking at connectionism and connectivism, I realised that I needed to explore the difference between intelligence that can be computed and intelligence whilst using a computer or other technology. Got into a fair amount of knots, but found an end of the string via a Dave Cormier post – more on that below. Going to use a somewhat odd referencing because want to show exactly where I read or saw something that made some kind of connection (hopefully will make sense along the way).

I first saw this video on diary of a martial artist in a discussion about fear. Without watching it, I looked at the still image and thought – is that a personal learning environment – I can see an environment and I can see a person – so far so good ! I can also see a rope, is that a possible tool?

How did he learn?

  • Maybe he didn’t learn at all, just placed the rope and walked across it.
  • He has unique physical characteristics which do not get affected by what we understand as gravity.
  • He is a human with genetically modified monkey / cat / squirrel characteristics or a reincarnated one in human flesh.

Alternatively it may have been in phases – like climbing trees – starting lower and gradually getting higher.

How could I learn?

If I am older than e.g. 11 – I may be limited in my movements because core parts of my physiology are formed. I could start with a rope and walk across, if I fall off, I experience pain, but what is sensation? I am in an environment and doing something which as a result of observing my actions, my behaviour might change. Future attempts may be based on my experience of the the first one in a view of behaviourism from Skinner (1974, via Siemens, 2007). Based on my understanding of neuroscience these attempts would be based on patterns of connections being formed by dopamine neurons which may predict either outcome and produce the relevant sensation.

Is that all of the learning process?

Assuming I am in good enough physical condition to continue trying do I just get back on the rope, fall off, get back on – make small adjustments, fall off as if I am continually walking into a door or similar, like a robot whose programming has malfunctioned (or occasionally half awake human wandering around the kitchen before breakfast not looking where she is opening cupboards). Making adjustments – may involve thinking – reviewing the initial experience, receiving information about the sensations and translating those into perceptions such as falling off = sad, making it across = happy. Are the resulting small adjustments based on processing that information internally so that every time a different outcome happens this has to be reviewed against the information already processed, maybe as per Piaget’s state of equilibrium (1918, via Siemens, 2007 ).

What about fear?

This seems to be the strongest emotion when attempting to walk across the rope which appears to be both cognitive and affective:

“it’s difficult to combat animal instincts of fear of falling and self preservation: all his fibres in his body screaming at him to stay on the ledge and not venture out. the pay off of course is the feeling of being alive upon arrival on the other side…”

In neuroscience, the area of the brain that triggers responses is the amygdala:

“As Dr. Goleman explains, the amygdala is the emotional center for the human flight/fight/freeze response…If during an amygdala hijack the right lobe of the PFC becomes heavily engaged, a person is likely to fall into a state of depression, anxiety, fear, or panic. On the contrary, if the left lobe is utilized, they will feel in control, centered, focused, and confident. The left hemisphere has natural amygdala inhibitors which regulate input and allow a person to behave much more effectively.”

Is the amygdala processing affective or cognitive or both? Either way this may lead to different reactions, perceptions of whether to continue more attempts at crossing the rope so motivation, and perceived self efficacy about the chances of getting across may be affected (Bandura, 1994). So the presence of perceptions appears to take it beyond simply getting back on, falling off and the resulting sensations. According to a neuroscience study “behaviour is a product of the orchestration of many brain areas, the aggregation functions of these areas leads to emotion & cognition” (Pessoa 2008)

Is emotion information or a set of physical connections?

My understanding of connectionist theory would say that all of this happens through processes where connections are weighted, numbers of connections/ties evaluated according to strength, where each set of neuronal connections form different patterns – organising brain circuits (Raymond, 2009 via Suifaijohnmak, 2009)

So developing emotional intelligence – by changes in emotional states and perceptions could maybe be learning, based on the connections between the different brain regions at multiple levels, but more on that later.

Do the patterns created by neurons in my brain, reflect the patterns viewed through my retinas?

I.e is there a link between patterns inside my brain and patterns outside of my human physical structure. Roel Cantada put this beautifully when describing red

“I can’t shake of the idea that to say color “red”, the brain would have to fire connections between the neurons that are working on the electrochemical signals from the retina, with the neurons connected to the ear that remembers the activation of the sound “red’, and then so on and so forth connected with red until quiesence. Does the brain contain only what to me are settings of the sense organs (e.g. excitation due to a certain pattern of light frequencies). And that all these primitive settings/memory emerges into let’s say a child pointing to a new object as red? (is this behaviorism in the level of neurons?”

With human movement, as previously explored , at the moment we can generate images and graphics using paint, pens or computer graphics using software but are limited to representing much of this as a series of dots because as humans we can’t paint in molecules or atoms or anything smaller as yet undiscovered. A dot is a static entity just as maybe the perception of a colour is perception of a static pattern. However, stepping onto the rope – neurons will not just be static even if they were capable of being so – your head is moving around whilst you attempt to balance and head moving = brain moving = neurons moving.

Would we all see these patterns in the same way?

Our reactions are not all going to be the same, we may never step out in exactly the same way as anyone else. The majority of us would experience sensations of extreme discomfort or fear when walking out into the air. This is similar to the rock bit of canyonying – you literally have to step out – off a rock, looking forward, not down. If you could take a running jump off a rock, you would experience other sensations, build up momentum and move more quickly. Literally walking off a rock is – disturbing – there is no rope but on the first try even though you can’t see anything there, you feel like there should be and put your feet out as if on an invisible line.

Trying to tie together physical and emotional connections is really complex as in the video. You have a physical image in front of you, your previous experience of attemps to walk, emotions generated by the sensations of these attempts and all of these have patterns of connections in your brain as well as the patterns that you perceive in your visual environment. You do not have photographic images in your head (Downes, 2009). Just like an athlete who visualizes a sprint down the racetracks, the experience of visualizing how to better attempt to walk across the rope is not a static image.

What does this have to do with knowledge and networks?

A way of understanding how different areas of the brain are linked is by viewing as network topologies which forms the networks for creating connectionist, and with the development of more advanced computing technology-  artificial intelligence (in a long line including Thorndike, Bush, Turing, Minsky, Chomsky, Papert, via Siemens, 2009), computational neuroscience. The behaviour and function of different regions are similar to behaviour in a technological network with features such as clustering, frequencies, channels, paths (Sporns, Honey, 2006). This research is starting to explore environments outside of the brain where both might be connected via networks. As per patterns mentioned above, this is not easy to define between what we see and what is inside our head.

Going back to the video, if you took the rope away, how would you get from one rockface to the other – fly (not in this post!), jump, hop? If you had to walk in the air and there was no rope how would you decide what path to take? You could plot out a possible path based on your perception of space and distance. Just as data travels across a network, we could also go along an invisible path – without a rope, we would fall, which is similar to data dropping in a phone call or online interaction – when data doesn’t make it across from one node to another.

The rope could be an item that connects one side of the rockface with the other. Something which helps us visualize how to connect, doesn’t have to be a technology as in an appliance (Siemens, 2004, 2005, 2008). It can make an invisible path visible, helping with our awareness of our environment. Most of us would need additional tools, climbing gear to help us cross over, not just a single rope.

Am speeding through…

What about personal?

So far, have looked at a person connected to or with objects and space. As I have been writing this post, I have been using quotations and references from other people and there are thousands of years of people talking and writing, as well as thousands of years of people experiencing fear and other emotions.”Everybody relies on everyone else” (Siemens, 2009). So is any of this unique to the multi-connected form that appears to be my human self?

In a reply to a fantastic description by Roy Williams who used a metaphor of wired soup on the CCK09 forums; I looked at form and formlessness which brings me in another circle back to defining what is personal:

“Form inevitably creates narrative, disclosing the intent and the hand of the author. Whether linear or non-linear, any narrative contains a particular point of view. On the other hand, formlessness allows for unencumbered individual interpretation. I think of formlessness in its purest state as randomness. The only true opposition to structure, it gives equal importance to each structural entity. It is the only truly democratic (objective) view of information.”

So anything I create is personal but is ultimately connected, maybe explicitly through links, or more tacit through reflection, to thousands of other ideas and people. The connections I make between difference sources of information be it online or offline have a unique context (unless I am a clone or a dream – apologies to the dreamer if so!), so I have a potentially different meaning to others based on the associations I have made to it from other connections. Other people may have made the same connections but not in the same time, place, space, environment, feeling the same way that I did, however if I can’t make these patterns explicit in a form whilst being connected to being formless then how can I explain what is personal and what isn’t?

“I’m saying that in a connectivist model, as i understand it, the learning (and i would argue knowledge) lives in the network, it lives in the connections that are part of each thought and idea. In the print world, we have an amazing maze of interconnections in references and works cited pages that go back (in some way or other) thousands of years, one cannot speak of ‘knowledge’ as being separate from that historicity nor of ‘learning’ any part of it without it being part of the whole. One of the prime affordances we have at our fingertips with the web is the ability to create these connections very quickly, and very complexly, we can also see far larger chunks of the network at any one time.

The Personal Learning Environment may simply be a misnomer. If it is, as (i think)Chris suggests, a fancy way of talking about a medium of publication, then it is more like a “Snapshot of my personal thinking platform” (SOMPTP) if it is, however, as Pat suggests, a place where my personal knowledge lives or, say, a place where my personal learning happens, then I’m thinking that it might disagree with the ‘non-individualistic’ nature of connectivism.”

barbary monkey walking across railing
As above, have mentioned many different people, but if I haven’t spoken directly with them, could they be a part of my learning network? Maybe we don’t have an environment – we do just walk through the air, take some tools which aid us in doing some activity but maybe not actually learning. I see Eduardo do this all the time, he sends me ropes & branches in the form of delicious bookmarks, to my inbox and he is very clear in his understanding of what a personal learning environment is – however for me, I need to understand more about a) physiology, b) physical environment c) associations which form categories d) attributes and then maybe I will get there. Either way, I will continue to enjoy the adventure!

via Siemens G (2007), Situating Connectivism, Universityof Manitoba Learning Technologies Centre wiki, available at: http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/wiki/Situating_Connectivism


Littlefair C (2009) Walking in the Air, Diary of a Martial Artist, available at: http://diaryofamartialartist.blogspot.com/2009/10/walking-in-air.html

Ikigai M (2009) An Exploration of the Traditional Martial Arts Mind, Ikigaiway.com, available at: http://www.ikigaiway.com/2009/an-exploration-of-the-traditional-martial-mind/

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). Available at: http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/BanEncy.html

Pessoa L, (2008) On the relationships between emotion and cognition, Perpectives Neuroscience Reviews, Nature (Vol. 2,pp. 148-58), Nature Publishing Group, Available at:  http://www.indiana.edu/~neurosci/Recent%20Publications/28534410.pdf

Raymond J (2009) Building a Circuit Diagram for the Brain, Stanford University on YouTube, via http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/connectivism-building-a-circuit-diagram-for-the-brain/

Cantada R (2009), What is the distinction between connectionism and connectivism, CCK09 Moodle Forum, available at: http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/moodle/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=2248

Downes (2009), Connectivism Week 1: Differences between Downes & Siemens, CCK09 Elluminate Session, available at: https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/installinfo/playback?psid=2009-09-17.1420.M.1223D4571DF6BC84DD5B92A640F41D.vcr

Siemens G (2009) Where have all the people gone in CCK08, CCK09 Moodle Forum, available at: http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/moodle/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=2661

Sporns O, Honey C (2006), Small Worlds inside Big Brains, PNAS online, available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/103/51/19219.full

Siemens G (2008), Schweier R interviews Siemens G on Connectivism, available at: http://omegageek.net/rickscafe/?p=1193

Schmidt C, (2009), The Authority of Formlessness, Form Follows Behaviour blog, available at: http://www.formfollowsbehavior.com/2009/03/29/the-authority-of-formlessness/

Cormier D (2009), Does the PLE make sense in the connectivist context? Dave’s Educational blog, available at: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2009/11/21/does-the-ple-make-sense-in-the-connectivist-context/


https://learn4kicks.wordpress.com, http://www/teazlewood.org.uk, http://mv2k.wordpress.com and several others

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