Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Learning and memory: a psychological and neurological analysis

Lawrence Vautier

Cognition is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘ the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses ’ . This process of acquiring knowledge is what we know as learning, defined by the same dictionary as ‘ the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught ’ , and forms a core aspect of us as humans. In fact, our success as a species can largely be defined by and attributed to our great ability to learn about and harness the environment in which we live in compared to other animals. This ability can largely be attributed to the association cortices of our brain, which support sophisticated cognitive functions such as problem-solving, language and self-awareness. It is a well-known fact within anthropology and the sciences that human evolution ‘has been marked by a striking increase in total brain volume relative to body size’ 1 and that within the psychological sciences, the ‘vast majority of the current literature on human brain evolution is entirely cortiocentric’, 2 viewing the phylogenetically recent association cortices as removed and evolutionarily separate from comparatively ancient subcortical and cerebellar regions. While this view is currently being challenged, the fact remains that the development of the association cortices was hugely important in our evolution as a species, such that there is an overabundance of academic attention on these regions. The work of scientists such as Brodman (1912) and Blinkov and Glezer (1968) demonstrate that compared to the chimpanzee, our current closest species relative, our brains are much larger (the chimpanzee brain is ⅓ the size of our own), and the majority of the difference between our brain sizes can be attributed to the evolutionary expansion of our own association cortices. The brains of chimpanzees, evidently, did not evolve in a similar way. The size of our association cortices, and indeed our brains as a whole, is likely to be a contributing factor to our enhanced cognitive abilities compared to other species, simply since larger brains consist of more neurons and therefore more axonal connections. However, as stated by Ursula Dicke and Gerhard Roth, ‘ With respect to mammals, a much-discussed trait concerns absolute and relative brain size ’ and ‘ the correlation of both with degrees of intelligence yields large inconsistencies ’ . 3 Physeter macrocephalus, the sperm whale, for example, has a brain approximately 5 times the size of the human brain, and weighs up to 8 kilos in weight. 4 It has the largest brain out of all mammals in both absolute size and size relative to its body. However, as far as we are aware, our brains are more advanced such that we are capable of more 1 Chin, R., Chang, S. W. C., & Holmes, A. J. (2023) ‘Beyond cortex: The evolution of the human brain’, Psychological Review, 130 (2), 285 – 307. 2 Ibid. 3 Dicke, U. & Roth, G. (2016) ‘ Neuronal factors determining high intelligence ’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2016 Jan 5; 371(1685): 20150180. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0180. 4 Amaral, S. (n.d.)


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