Talk about remembering something that has no real relevance to my current life. Memorex? That dates me!
We have discussed two basic types of learning but here are some questions we should be asking ourselves about learning? How do we learn, why do we learn and when do we learn? Is it all just memory? What does that mean? Let’s start with the “how” of learning.
According to the latest neuroscience theories, we basically have 2 memory systems: working memory (formally known as short-term memory) and long-term memory. We are processing information every second of every day; which by the way, we can only pay attention to and process on average 7 pieces of information at any given point in time out of the 1000’s of pieces to which we are exposed. We literally filter out and ignore the rest. What we don’t see as important isn’t even registered. What we do think is important makes its way into working memory. Kind of makes you question “reality” huh? What’s really going on out there we are not paying attention to?
Anyway, what makes it through the filter goes into what is called working memory. Here it remains briefly and we can configure it, work it around, plan steps of action and make decisions with the information. If we have to pay attention to something else, it’s gone as to make space for the newest filtered information coming in. This is why we forget a phone number we are bouncing around in our head trying to dial the second we think about something else! Once we have repeatedly practiced or rehearsed what’s in our working memory, it moves into long-term memory. When we say it moves into long-term memory what that really means is we create neural patterns or neural networks and neural connections in the brain. That’s how we learn, by creating neural connections. As we begin to access the information in those newly formed neural pathways, apply it under different circumstances, the neural connections become more complex, they continue to expand with additional pathways. If we don’t continue to use the pathways, the neurons find other connections to make. Hence, if you don’t use it, you literally lose it. The more it’s accessed, the more permanent those neural patterns become.
The “why” we learn is attributed to multiple factors.
1) Neurotransmitters and energy available to form those networks. In other words optimal physiology and biology.
2) Emotional context influences how quickly we form those connections because it impacts hormones and therefore neurotransmitters. Stress and depression matter here.
3) Environmental stimuli. Not enough stimulus, not good for learning. Too much stimulus, not good for learning. Just the right amount, different for everyone. Some people are better filterers of relevant information. Some people get caught up in the details and struggle to see the bigger picture. Some people are easily distracted and can’t focus on the relevant information coming in. Some people focus right in on the key elements.
4) Previous experiences. If a basic neural pattern is already developed, creating newer ones that just connect to the already solidly formed pattern is much easier than creating a brand new neural pattern. This can work for and against us under different circumstances.
5) Individual learning styles. Some learn more visually, some are more auditory and some are more kinesthetic.
6) Attitude and motivation are key. The individual has to be ready to learn. If they don’t see it as important or relevant, well, the information is filtered out and isn’t even registered.
Last question: “When” do we learn?
Well this is very interesting and applies to our culture. If I understand the research correctly, we form these new permanent neural patterns when we rest and when we sleep. Ironically, all this technology is actually a detractor from learning because it does a couple of things: constantly keeps us stimulated and interferes with our sleep (if we let it of course). Sitting in front of a computer screen apparently doesn’t qualify as rest for the brain. That might be physical rest, but it’s mental rest that is important here. Multi-tasking, not so good for learning according to recent research. Most of us (and our students) are multi-tasking almost 24/7. I have even heard of young people who sleep with their smart phones so as not to miss a text. We wonder why students are struggling? Perhaps they are overstimulated?
So as you can tell, what it means to “learn” is actually a pretty complex process. So many different components can impact how we learn, why we learn and when we learn. From a pure neuroscience perspective, learning is the creation and activation of neural patterns. That’s great, but it doesn’t really help us in education since we currently can’t watch to see if a new neural pattern was developed overnight! I think the next question might be how we “measure” learning?
(The author of this blog is not a Neuroscientist. All of this is purely an interpretation and summary of multiple books and articles on neuroscience and memory).