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Psychology: Prepared Learning

The idea of "prepared learning" comes to us through the realm of evolutionary psychology. Since I briefly referred to this idea in Survival: Lifesense and Learning it makes sense to try and tease this idea out a little more. The importance of this idea is clear: if part of our learning is in fact "prepared" then the ability to learn is inescapably biased in some way...

What Prepared Learning Is Not...
a) Prepared Learning is not an absolute but instead deals with averages in behavioral responses. One particular behavioral response may be statistically prominent, but this does not mean that it should be over-generalized or presented as some kind of universal phenomenon.

b) Prepared learning is not a hard-wired neural pathway in the brain. In other words, the discussion is not about instincts. It simply means that human behavior is at least partially shaped by the biology of the brain and that the biology of the brain is connected to our own evolutionary path.

What Is Prepared Learning...

a) Prepared learning is a kind of bias in our behavior. One of the most common ways of showing this is through a discussion of fear. In Consilience, Edward Wilson discusses the fact that many people possess a natural, innate aversion to snakes.

Children simply learn fear of snakes more easily than they remain indifferent or learn affection for snakes... The propensity is deep-set... People's special sensitivity can just as easily turn into full-blown ophidiophobia, the pathological extreme in which the close proximity of a snake brings on panic, cold sweat, and waves of nausea... For hundreds of thousands of years, time enough for genetic changes in the brain to program the algorithms of prepared learning, poisonous snakes have been a significant source of injury and death to human beings." (pp86-87)

So prepared learning deals with innate reactions, a deep-set propensity, pathological extremes, evolutionary trace memories, and neural pathways. The idea comes to us through evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.

b) Prepared Learning is connected to cultural symbolism.

"The snake image also attracts many extraneous details that are purely learned. and as a result the intense emotion it evokes enriches cultures around the world." (pp.87-88)

The innate reactions that we have, then, are extended through cultural and artistic enterprises. At this point, as Wilson points out, the symbol of the serpent replaces the physical reality of the snake.

Future Considerations

The idea of prepared learning leads us to believe that learning is at least in part about bias. We are oriented toward learning in certain ways more than others.

Understanding how we are biased in learning is about deep habits that have been developed and intensified over long periods of time. The habits become neural pathways that are easily triggered, emotional responses that are felt, and experiences that are communicated.

Another key point is that prepared learning can be "unlearned." This is a term that has often confused me. In our reference to the fear of snakes, unlearning might be interpreted as overcoming the fear of snakes. At a biological level, this would mean that the specific neural pathways that were responsible for creating the fear of snakes are in some way re-routed so that a different response is possible. At a cultural level, it may mean a change in the way we symbolize our relationship to snakes.

So prepared learning is a network that connects our mindbrains (i.e. - our pyscho-neurological selves) through to our cultural identity and artistic expression. In this sense, prepared learning is a narrative that influences our identity and offers one interesting way of explaining ourselves to ourselves.

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