6th June 2013: We don’t need no Educashun; The brain as a learning machine by Prof Ray Miller


On Thursday June 6th from 7 to 10pm in The Counting House in Edinburgh, please join us for an evening with Ray Miller who will be telling us about the brain as a learning machine

Name of speaker and subject:

Prof. Ray Miller, Psychologist

Title of talk:

What has Psychology ever done for us? (A story in three parts)
Part 3:    We don’t need no Educashun: The brain as a learning machine.
How learning develops, intelligence, critical thinking and the do’s and don’ts of study skills.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
― Albert Einstein

Bullet points:

•    What is learning?
•    Innate learning (Evolution, herring gulls and visual cliffs)
•    Behavioural learning (Classical and Operant models – training tigers)
•    Learning through observation (Monkey see, monkey do?)
•    Learning through study (Cognitive learning – back to school?)
•    The Question of Intelligence (‘g’ and the Bell Curve)
•    Using Intelligence (Mindsets and thinking)
•    Study Skills (Why not to highlight!)
•    Lifelong learning (Health and well-being)


In Psychological terms, Learning is: A process by which behaviors, skills and capabilities are acquired and/or modified though experience. Although it is related to concepts like Education, Schooling, Training and Life Experience, it actually begins even before birth and continues until the day we die. We are the sum total of everything that happens to us as the constant addition of information to our cognitive and biological systems moulds and shapes our current and future thoughts, actions and responses.
The brain is undoubtedly the most amazing learning machine we know of; yet so little of how it works is really understood. Despite modern methods of brain scanning and EEG, most neuroscientists and psychologists would have to admit that we work largely on the basis of ‘black box’ theories in learning. That is, we know that if we introduce certain kinds of input into the box, we get certain kinds of predictable output – most of the time. What actually goes on inside the box is deduced mainly from the relationship between input and output. Yet there are some findings that seem fairly reliable and give us some insight into how learning works.
These findings are not only fascinating, but useful. The ability to learn is crucial to effective functioning and even our survival. Understanding the most basic principles can help us improve significantly our ability to thrive and develop.  And learning can be fun!
A few words about you and your passion:
I have been a psychologist for nearly 40 years. Most of that time has been spent as a professional psychologist in the field of healthcare (now retired) but much of the psychology that I used, and continue to use, is based on understanding some essential concepts that I acquired during my undergraduate years.
Psychology is more than just an academic topic or applied science, although it is certainly both of these. Psychology is a fundamental aspect of our daily lives, our interactions with others and with our environment. In that sense, we all have to be psychologists and, even without aiming to become experts, we can all benefit from a better understanding of some of its principles.
Don’t expect an in depth study of the topic. This will be a somewhat idiosyncratic taster to whet your appetite rather than to educate you. However, you will probably find at least some ideas that set you thinking and which may start you along the path of self-generated learning.

A few lines about the history of your subject:

Psychology, Philosophy and the urge to understand ourselves and our world have been around as long as there have been people. They are the springboard to Science and the very etymology of these terms can be traced back to Ancient Greece.
Modern Psychology, as an academic and scientific discipline, can probably be dated back to the late 19th century and the attempts of people like Wilhelm Wundt to formalise the study of personal experience. Theories of psychology have ranged from Freud’s model of the psyche, through Behaviourism and Learning Theory, Models of Cognition, Evolutionary Psychology and, most recently, the integration of Psychology with our emerging knowledge of neurology and biology.
It is a subject that has grown hugely in both its scope and understanding in the last 100 years or so. The British Psychological Society was founded in 1901 but few, if any, of its original members could have conceived of its development 110 years later.
It sometimes seems that the more we look into it, the less we actually know. It challenges many ‘common sense’ beliefs and sacred cows. It is political, social and, often, revolutionary. It raises questions about our attitudes and beliefs, our social structures and even about the notion of ‘self’. Where will it take us in the next 100 years? Who knows! But the journey will certainly be full of surprises.

Anything else you may want to say:

That’s all folks!

Come Along to The Counting House on the 6th of June to enjoy learning about the psychology of learning ! It is an open door event and everyone is invited to come along. Join the Meetup group to meet new people.