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smkaplan's picture

Central Pattern Generators and 'Learning'


Sort of along the lines of what a few other people have been addressing here, to me the most interesting thing that came out of Thursday's discussion was the concept of Central Pattern Generators, which for me seems to really destabilize a lot of our most common notions about what it means to "learn" something.

I feel like there's a linguistic or conceptual issue at the root of this idea of Central Pattern Generators—that is, what is "learning?" If, for example, a CPG exists for walking, does that mean children do not "learn" to walk? Can we "learn" a new action if the blueprint for that action is already present in our nervous system, just waiting for us to use it? What exactly is going on as children try and try to walk—or as birds try, over and over, to fly out of their nests those first few times?

I would say that our impulse, after Thursday's class, to reject the idea that such efforts constitute "learning" is premature. Maybe what we require is a more specific vocabulary to describe how exactly we acquire and store information, because "learning" as a catch-all term is clearly causing us problems here.

On a related note, I'm interested in how CPGs become part of the nervous system. It seems like there are some that we have from birth—walking, for example, or other subconscious neural and bodily activities—but that there are others we are able to acquire through experience. What's the distinction between these two types of CPGs—say, learning to walk vs. learning to play an instrument? How is it that some CPGs are passed on to future generations and seem to be part of our genetic structure while others are only acquired?

I guess overall it seems like there must be some kind of spectrum, a continuum of learned behavior ranging from the most instinctual to the most acquired, and that various types of CPGs would lie at different points on that spectrum. I'm interested in investigating this further.

Finally, I'm curious about the CPG as a metaphor—because that's essentially what it is, right? In class, we used CPGs to talk about activities ranging from breathing or our hearts beating to playing a sport or instrument. The brain must have different ways of handling such diverse phenomena, and so I'm interested in what differences are paved over by the concept of the CPG—that is, a metaphor for some kind of activity becoming more-or-less permanently "engraved" (or something) in the pathways of the nervous system.



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