Biological/Neural Basis of Learning, Memory and Motivation

Biological/Neural Basis of Learning, Memory and Motivation


Learning is a process by which we incorporate new knowledge generated as a result of experiences. The creation of such experiences is converted into memories stored in our brain. There is basically no learning without memories. Learning is a powerful process that quite literally shapes our life. But we must not overstate the importance of any psychological process. We must keep in mind that our ability to learn from experience is not limitless; it’s influenced in a number of ways by psychological factors.

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We know that our biological process influences what people can learn? For example, it appears that people are biologically prepared to learn some kinds of fear more readily than others (Ohman& Mineka, 2001). It is easier to classically condition a fear of things that have some intrinsic association with danger using electric shock as the UCS then it is to condition a fear of truly neutral things such as lunch boxes and skate keys (Cook, Hodes, & Lang, 1986). There are essentially two ways in which learning occurs: one is called classical conditioning and the other instrumental conditioning. Both ways modify brain structure and brain chemistry, but they do so with varying degree of awareness or self-control. Classical conditioning pertains to situations in which we tend to respond automatically, based on the severity or repetition of a stimulus. The amygdala is involved in regulating many of our autonomic, fight or flight type responses. For instrumental conditioning, more brain structures appear to take an active role in encoding and reinforcing a learned behavior. For instance when we learn driving, the repetition or rehearsal of that behavior will involve the perceptual and motor systems as well as the frontal lobes. As the behavior is memorized, it is managed by the basal ganglia. People who have lesions in the basal ganglia have severe deficits in their capacity to learn via instrumental conditioning. The process by which we learn new behaviors is also largely influence by specific neurotransmitters, especially dopamine which is known to reinforce or reward specific behaviors by making us feel good about it.

Any learning involves changes at the cellular level and depends on connections between neurons. Each neuron relates to thousands of others, across three dimensions. It relays a biochemical electrical signal that is excitatory (the next neuron fires) or inhibitory (the next neuron does not fire).The repetition of this process is the basis of all of our central nervous system activities.

Learning means establishing a pathway, a pattern of neuron firings, that when repeated is recognized. With language, that means a specific series of sound waves at a particular frequency has occurred often enough that our minds recognize it.


Psychologist considers memory to be the process by which we encode, store and retrieve information. Each of the three parts of this definition encoding, storage and retrieval represent a different process.

Recognizing the memory involves encoding, storage, and retrieval gives us a start in understanding the concept. Encoding refers to initial recoding of information, storage refers to information saved for future used and also retrieval refers to recovery of storage information. The three memory theorist proposes the existence of three separate memory storage these are sensory memory, short term memory and long term memory.

Temporal lobe is located on each side of the brain. They process memory and auditory information and also deal with speech and language function. Memory is distributed across the brain, related to different sensory information processing systems involved during the initial exposure to a stimulus. When we learn new something then some physical changes may happen in our nervous system (Kandel, 2009).

Another parts of the biological basis of memory is synaptic is the process by which neural activities causes structural changes in the synapses that facilitate more efficient memory (Hebb, 1949).

The hippocampus, a part of the brain limbic system. It places a central role in the consolidation of the memories. It located the brain’s medial temporal lobes just behind the eyes (Dudai, 2004; Kandel, 2009). The hippocampus aids tin the initial encoding of information, acting as a kind of neural e mail system. That information is subsequently passed along to the central cortex of the brain, where it is actually stored (Peters, 2007; Lavenex and Lavenex, 2009). Some researcher also said that hippocampus are involved in the consolidation of spatial memories (Woollett and Spiers, 2006; Woollett and Maguire, 2009). Neuron also plays an important role the transformation of information into memory. When the information is transferred the certain neural pathways become easily excited. At the same times, the numbers of synapses between neurons increases as the dendrites branch out to receive messages. The changes reflect a process called consolidation. Contain for days and ever years (Izaki and Grace, 2006).

Some studies have shown that, genes are involved (like DNA) with memory that influence neurons in the brain. Some genes are turned on or turned off when the memory is formed (Miller and Sweatt, 2007). Experienced don’t change our DNA but experience can changes how DNA is expressed. These changes in DNA expression are now believed to be part of what happened in the brain when the memory is created (Kandel, 2009). In sum up, scientist is just beginning to understand how the brain compiles the individual neural component into single coherent memory. Still although memory researchers have made considerable steps in understanding the neuroscience behind memory.


Motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behavior. It involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. The motivation refers to an internal state that activates and gives direction to our thought.

Biological motivation is the processes that directly affect an individual’s ability to survive. It is a large extent, rooted in the physiological state of the body. Homeostasis is the tendency of the body to maintain its internal physiological process at optimal level (Morgan, 1997). This balance is crucial for life. There are many biological motives, including hunger, thirst, a desire for sex, temperature regulation, sleep, pain, avoidance and a need for oxygen.

Researchers have discovered autonomic mechanisms that maintain this motive. Our appropriate body temperature is 98.6 farenhight. If the body temperature rises too high, sweating and the resultant cooling by evaporation lower the temperature.

The automatic physical mechanisms that maintain homeostasis are supplemented by motivated behavior.

Hunger motivation is regulated by blood glucose. When our supply of glucose is high and the cells of the body are able to use it, hunger is low. As the blood sugar supply decreases, hunger increases. The hypothalamus has been considered an important in the regulation of hunger motivation (Berthoud and Morison, 2008).

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They emphasized two reasons of hypothalamus was considered to be excitatory region for hunger motivation and the ventromedial hypothalamus was involved cessation of eating (Berthoud and Morrison 2008). Thirst and drinking motivation are mainly triggered by three conditions of the body. These are:

  1. Loss of water from cells.
  2. Reduction of blood.
  3. Mouth dryness.

Sexual behavior depends on physiological condition, so it is a biological motive. Sex hormones effect on the structure on the body and the brain especially especial the regions of the hippocampus that maintain hormone release. In the human being sensory stimuli rather than hormone levels, are the most important triggers of sexual drive.

Sensory stimuli also play a significant role to arise other motivational states. Such as, the smell of a savory can arouse hunger in a person who is not biologically very far out of homeostatic balance.


Berthoud, H.R. (2000). Multiple neural systems controlling food intake body weight. Neuroscience and Bio-behavioral Reviews, 26, 393-428.

Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., &Jessell, t. m. (Eds.) (2009). Principles of neural science (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006; 2009). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neurological analysis. Hippocampus, 16, 1091-1101.

Morgan, A. A., Marsisky, M., & Whitfield, K. E. ( Characterizing and exploring and explaining differences in cognitive test performance between African American and European American older adult. Experimental aging research, 34, 80-100.

Pinel, J.P.J., Assanand, S., & Lehman, D.R. (2000). Hunger, eating and ill health. American psychologist, 55, 1105-1116.



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