C.R. Gallistel, psychologist and head of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science, presented a lecture “The Nature of Learning and the Architecture of the Brain” yesterday evening at Science Center 101. He described the link between experience, learning, and the brain to an intimate but devoted audience of science devotees. Gallistel generally looks at animal behavior and applies his observations to neuroscience. According to his lecture, there is still some aspect of learning not accounted for by scientists’ knowledge of the brain; this is the “read-write memory.”
Gallistel first used ant behavior as an example. Ants are not only able to locate food, but can find their way home after every mission. Somehow, a system of “dead reckoning” has been implanted into their brains. They can gauge distance and velocity back to the colony. Like the most complicated computer they can collect information and then apply it immediately, even among a host of variables. That’s pretty good for an insect. But where does this processor place in the brain? Scientists are still unsure.
Bees have that same capability. They find nectar and relate the location of the sweet stuff back to the hive through a complicated “waggle dance.” Most would argue that these insects cannot learn anything, but Gallistel counters that they are constantly processing knowledge, however temporary.
Gallistel cites experiments by other cognitive scientists, such as B.F. Skinner, who taught rabbits how to blink by shooting air at them at intervals. Gallistel uses a Turing Machine model to describe the neural workings of the animal brain but is still searching neuroscience for evidence of a “mechanism for carrying information forward.” He wants to find the neural retention point of the brain, how conditioning actually works.
He knows that the discovery will herald a breakthrough for his field, despite the little evidence there is now that such a device exists. Using some important precedents, such as Watson and Crick’s discovery of the gene, he believes it is only a matter of time before science catches up to his observations.