Peter Milner:
THE AUTONOMOUS BRAIN (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

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The Canadian neurobiologist Peter Milner offers a neural theory of attention and learning that somewhat reverses traditional learning theory. Milner shows that the brain comes equipped with circuits that focus attention on what is relevant for survival and with circuits that direct the sensory system towards vital stimuli. Unlike biologistis who believe the brain is more or less passively reacting to stimuli from the outside world (basically, mapping the outside world), Milner argues that a "response" mechanism in the brain determines what stimuli must be selected in order to perform an action. This central executive is located in the frontal region of the brain and is in charge of selecting the input needed in order to direct the motor system. The processes that Milner is interested in are: reinforcement, expectancy and response planning. The brain "learns" by reinforcement, and its configuration leads to expectations and these lead to response planning. Specifically, Milner suspects that learning originates from the basal ganglia. Milner is moving towards a bottom-up model of learning, in which higher cognitive functions are the last ones to be involved: learning is initiated by "instinct", by more or less mechanical adaptation behavior, and only afterwards it is "internalized" in the form of concepts and ideas and knowledge. What we learn is what we need to learn, not what we want to learn.

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