Neurophysiological and Evolutionary Theories of Learning Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 27 July 2016

Neurophysiological and Evolutionary Theories of Learning

In the study of learning, learning theories are categorized into paradigms or schools of thought based on viewpoints shared by scientists that provide a framework for research. Three of the major paradigms of learning theories include the cognitive paradigm, the neurophysiological paradigm and the evolutionary paradigm. The first paradigm is referred to as cognitive because theorists place their emphasis on the cognitive nature of learning. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), the second paradigm is called neurophysiological because it attempts to isolate the mental and physiological correlates of things such as learning, perception, thinking and intelligence. The third paradigm is termed evolutionary because theorists attempt to explain learning processes based on an organism’s evolutionary history.

DiscussionThere are several theorists whose ideas are predominately cognitive. Theses theorists include the Gestalt psychologists Kurt Lewin and Kurt Koffka, as well as Jean Piaget, Edward Chace Tolman, and Albert Bandura. Wertheimer, Kohler and Lewin were founders of the Gestalt movement. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), Gestalt theorists believed that “we experience the world in meaningful wholes and do not see isolated stimuli but stimuli gathered together into meaningful configurations” (p. 264). Kurt Lewin proposed a field theory of human motivation. He believed that behavior and cognitive processes are determined by various psychological facts that a person is consciously experiencing. The psychological facts are interdependent and any change in one can affect all the others, therefore influencing our behavior.

Kurt Koffka, another Gestaltist falling under the cognitive paradigm defined the law of Pragnanz in Gestalt Theory. The law of Pragnanz states that, “all mental events tend toward completeness, simplicity, and meaningfulness” (Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005, p. 473). Followers of Gestalt theory used this law as a guiding principle when studying learning.

Another cognitive theorist was Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget contributed several theories including intelligence, schemata, assimilation and accommodation, and interiorization. According to his theory of intelligence, “intelligence is any act that creates optimal conditions for the organism’s survival under the existing circumstances” (Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005 p. 295). Intelligence effects how one adapts to the ever-changing environment. In Piaget’s schemata theory a person’s schema is a cognitive structure that allows a person to act and respond to the environment.

A schema can be either overt or covert behavior. The theory of assimilation explains how a person can respond to the environment using existing cognitive structures. The theory of accommodation explains how an organism adapts to the environment by modifying cognitive structures. Piaget’s concept of interiorization is described by Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) as “the gradual decreased dependence on the physical environment and the increased utilization of cognitive structures” (p. 299). Through this process, organisms can respond to more complex situations by thinking about them.

Edward Chace Tolman’s ideas were also predominately cognitive. He believed that organisms develop a mental picture of the environment which he referred to as a cognitive map. The cognitive map develops when mental expectations are confirmed by experience. When an organism is faced with a problem, it utilizes the cognitive map and chooses the best solution requiring the least amount of work according to Tolman’s principle of least effort that will result in satisfaction.

Albert Bandura, another cognitive theorist suggested that behavior is learned through observation. He theorized that learning is influenced by four processes. The first process, the attentional process, involves the observer attending to the model. The second process is called the retentional process. This process involves the observer retaining the information gained from the observation by storing it cognitively. The third process is the behavioral production process which requires the learner to have the physical capabilities or behavioral abilities to perform what is learned.

The final process, the motivational process provides incentives that motivate the learner to actually perform what has been learned. Bandura also theorized that people’s behavior is also determined by reciprocal determinism. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) summarize Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism by stating that, “behavior, the environment, and people (and their beliefs) all interact” (p. 349).

Falling under the neurophysiological paradigm is the theorist Donald Olding Hebb. Some of his theories included that of restricted environments, enriched environments, cell assemblies, phase sequences, and sensory deprivation. In Hebb’s theory of restricted environments, Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), explain that if an environment lacks stimulation or experience, it can have a negative impact on the growth and development of nervous system. A restrictive environment can disrupt normal intellectual and perceptual development. In contrast, an enriched environment full of stimulation and experience can enhance development. Hebb also believed that “each environmental object we experience stimulates a complex pattern of neurons called cell assemblies” (Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005, p. 379).

The cell assemblies provide the basis of a thought. When cell assemblies become interconnected they form phase sequences. Phase sequences allow us to have streams of thoughts. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), “Hebb concluded in his theories that “not only is sensory information necessary for proper neurophysiological development, but it is also necessary for the maintenance of normal functioning” (p. 384). When an organisms experience sensory deprivation, severe cognitive disorientation, stress and fear can occur. Hebb believed that the environment had a direct effect on mental and physiological processes which influenced behavior and learning.

The final paradigm is the evolutionary paradigm. Attempting to explain the learning process using evolutionary principles was the theorist Robert C. Bolles. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) state that Bolles believed that “learning involved the development of expectancies” (p. 425). Expectancies are when an organism learns that one event leads to another. Bolles believed that organisms had innate predispositions for behavior and that motivation restricts response flexibility.

Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) explain that an organism’s natural reaction in a situation may make it difficult to learn a new response. Using the niche argument, “Bolles argued that an understanding of learning must be accompanied by an understanding of the evolutionary history of the organism” (Hergenhahn and Olson, (2005), p. 427). According this argument, organisms have to learn certain behaviors that they are predispositioned for and not learn others depending on their niche and how they fit in the big picture. This can determine whether the organism is successful or not in adapting to its environment.


Although learning theorist in the various paradigms have attempted to explain learning and its processes, many questions are still unanswered. One of these questions is how does learning vary as a function of maturation? If learning occurs differently in different stages it would be beneficial to conduct research on how maturation affects the learning process. The information yielded from such research could be very beneficial in regards to education. Another unanswered question is how does learning vary as a function of species? If some organisms have the biological ability to learn certain behaviors and some do not, how can research involving different species be beneficial?

If psychologists want to learn more about the learning process in humans, they should study humans rather than making generalizations across species. Other questions that remain unanswered involve learning and personality characteristics, learning as a function of the total environment, learning and associations, as well as learning and instinctive behavior. It is imperative that more research be conducted in an attempt to answer these questions about learning to give people a greater comprehension of learning. The more knowledge we have about the learning process and what affects it, the better we will be at making learning successful.


Hergenhahn, B.R., & Olson, M. (2005). An Introduction to Theories of Learning. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

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