The brain is made of roughly 100,000,000,000,000 neurons (Swanson 2003, p.11). In all higher level organisms neurons are the base component of the networks that form its wider structure. One of the most fruitful avenues of neurological research has been the examination of individuals with unique and/or highly specific damage done to their brain (Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998). From these studies it is deduced that the intellect and all cognitive functions are the result of neuronal activity in the brain (Swanson, 2003). Interestingly these studies have also demonstrated that isolated, specific damage done to the brain does not lead to a whole scale destruction of higher mental processes. Instead what happens is that there is a loss of specific functionality in specific substrates of processing indicating that neuronal function is highly specialized and specific (Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998, Baddeley Eysenck & Anderson 2009).
Neurons are thought to work by transmitting information utilizing electrical impulses called action potentials that travel through the axons and plasma membrane to the synapse where the impulse is converted into a chemical signal (Barnett & Larkman 2007). This chemical signal takes the form of a mixture of neurotransmitters that are received by dendritic receptors on the other side of the synaptic cleft. These chemical signals are, in turn, converted into electrical impulses that are sent down a cell’s axon membrane to the synapse separating it from the next neuron. It is the alternating of electrical and chemical signals between neurons that produce the complex neuronal systems of the brain and cognition. Through these complex systems of interaction between neuron come the vast, rich neurological behaviors associated with the brain and nervous system (Barnett & Larkman 2007). It is believed that much like a computer builds its interface through a computational system of binary bits of information, represented as ones and zeros, the brain builds its perceptual reality through a similar computational process of excited or inhibited neuron behavior. This is often referred to as the Hodgkin–Huxley model, or conductance-based model of the neuron. (Hodgkin & Huxley, 1952).
This combined sequential electrical and chemical transmission of information is common to the nervous systems of all organisms except single celled protozoa such as paramecium and euglena. Interestingly, it seems that these organisms are able to perform the three fundamental classes of behavior: ingestive, defensive and reproductive behavior, without a nervous system (Swanson 2003). It has been suggested that subcellular structures called microtubules are the source of this neuron-like behavior seen in protozoan. After “observing intelligent actions of unicellular creature’s neuroscientist Charles Sherington said in 1957: of nerve there is no trace but perhaps the cytoskeleton might serve” (Hameroff & Penrose 2014, p.43). The existence of organisms that can move, eat and reproduce without a nervous system seems to point to the potential existence of subcellular structures also being involved in brain processes.
The neuronal action potential model very effectively describes unconscious processes and is consistent with the stimulus response model of behavior. However, the model has not lead to insight into key attributes of learning and development such as motivation, self-regulation, imagination and understanding. It may be that this model is only part of the story, and the part that is most significant to our understanding of learning is still to be scientifically uncovered.
Educational researchers studying metacognition have begun to engage in very fruitful research into the effects of conscious phenomena on behavior and learning. They have found that conscious activities like goal setting and mindset can have a powerful impact on performance and learning. Looking deeper, to the sub-cellular quantum level of neurons may uncover important links between physics, biology and psychology, and lead to areas of unification between fields of scientific endeavor that have historically been separate.
Barnett M., Larkman M. (2007). The action potential. Pract Neurol 7 (3):
Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. (2009). Memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Hameroff, S., & Penrose, R. (2014). Reply to seven commentaries on “Consciousness in the universe: Review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory.” Physics of Life Reviews, 11(1), 39-78.
Hodgkin, A. L.; Huxley, A. F. (1952). "A quantitative description of membrane current and its application to conduction and excitation in nerve". The Journal of physiology.
Ramachandran, V. S., & Blakeslee, S. (1998). Phantoms in the brain :Probing the mysteries of the human mind. New York: William Morrow.
Swanson, L. (2003). Brain architecture: Understanding the basic plan (pp. 263). 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York:Oxford University Press.