A&O – DEEP ethology of LEARNING






“All men by nature desire to know.

An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses;

for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves…” 

(Aristotle, Metaphysics,  Book I, 980a.21. 350 BC )



OF COURSE we LEARN to meet NEEDS …  but we acquire new information all the time and sometime pursue it voraciously (we are INFOVORES) and can derive great pleasure therefrom.  Arguably, our reservoir of knowledge will be useful in meeting needs that we have not yet confronted.  (A hierarchy of needs developed to explain motivation can be adapted to clarify priorities of  urgency in an evolutionary sense: read about NEEDS)

“Higher Education” involves going beyond what we need to survive and meet the biological needs we are aware of or can anticipate.  (An evolutionary biologist might also argue that it is also a way of manifesting our competence and enhancing our prospects as a reproductive partner).

Arguably, all learning is about making connections Nearly forty years ago in Liberal Education, Mark Van Doren wrote:  “The connectedness of things is what the educator contemplates to the limit of his capacity.  No human capacity is great enough to permit a vision of the world as simple, but if the educator does not aim at the vision no one else will, and the consequences are dire when no one does. . . .  The student who can begin early in life to think of things as connected, even if he revises his view with every succeeding year, has begun the life of learning.”   Seeing “the connectedness of things,” is, we conclude, the goal of common learning. (From A Quest for Common Learning…The Boyer Report” 1981:52)[i]

And learning can be a source of MYSTERY—which for many has a spiritual quality: The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance.  For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance‑‑the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”  (Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutation 1968)[ii]

And a source of JOY:  “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers by base minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you.”  (Terence H. White in The Once and Future King)


But let’s return to basics for a minute: 


We learn from experience.  In fact the phrase, “A CHANGE IN BEHAVIOR AS A RESULT OF EXPERIENCE,” may be its most succinct definition…

And we are always learning: accumulating information consciously or not consciously.  It is by this means that we possess knowledge which can then be put in the service of meeting our needs or solving the problems of growth, maturation, and environmental change.  It is by this means that we possess knowledge of how to act in specific contexts, which of alternative stimuli  to respond to, or which ways of acting are most effective or efficient.

So obviously, WE change as information is accumulated, but also THE MEANS OF ACQUIRING INFORMATION changes, from the sensory detectors of stimuli themselves through the higher (more complex) cognitive procedures of putting information into the service of meeting our needs.

It is assumed that all learning has its effect by modifying the organism–particularly the nervous system–in specific ways.  In DEVELOPMENTAL biology, the neuroplasticity of the brain is such that–depending on its state of maturation– the presence of stimuli can stimulate the developing brain to produce cells that can respond to and interpret the information.  At a point in maturation where brain structures are stable, the main change is the growth of connections between neurons and groups of neurons.

(“learning as a result of experience” excludes changes attributable to cell growth or cell maturation or changes in the sensitivity of the information-sensing apparatus–sensory receptors that manifest habituation (becoming less sensitive as a result of stimulation) or sensitization (becoming more sensitive).

LEARNING–AT ITS CORE–is an adaptation of processes that reduce tension (often perceived as anxiety) by aiming at the RESTORATION of a balance between old and new information (“HOMEOSTASIS”) — the ensuing changes in behavior “reconciles” the organism (with all its history) with the environment (in all its diversity):  Read notes about LEARNING and study the simple FIGURE at that site: mismatches between internal and external worlds create a dissonance… when we are aware of it, cognitive dissonance is evoked. Even if a microstressor, the mind works to resolve it.


Myxobacteria? Look at Dale Kaiser’s (2013) “Are myxobacteria intelligent?” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2013.00335/full

The protozoa, Paramecium? Stentor? A few researchers think so. Read article: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/can-single-cells-learn-68694.    Then: Lyon P (2015) The cognitive cell: bacterial behavior reconsidered.  Front. Microbiol. 6:264. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.00264THEN look at: Front. The cognitive cell: bacterial behavior reconsidered by Pamela Lyon (2015) https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2015.00264

LEARNING requires MEMORY:  SINGLE CELL learning requires modifications of or complements to prevailing theories of memory being represented by changing patterns of synaptic strength or connectivity between neurons:  quick overview reported by Catherine Offord (2021)in The Scientist 


Diversity in Learning Styles

Although there are diverse ways of characterizing the traits of personality and style that an individual can bring to the experience of learning new information Kolb’s scheme has been useful to me for its generality and as a provocation to look more closely at the process [see Kolb’s Diversity in Learning Styles]






[i] From A Quest for Common Learning: The aims of general education by Ernest L. Boyer & Arthur Levine, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 1981, p. 52) 

[ii] Quoted in Ferris, Timothy. 1988.  Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Chapter 20, “The Persistence of Mystery,”  pp 381‑388.  Wm Morrow and Co. 495 pp