Category Archives: neuroscience

The Significance of Experiencing Learning

thumbIn a previous blog entry, I wrote about the future of education as depicted in Science Fiction, realizing even that genre does not often share a vision of the learning enterprise. And when it does, the teaching and learning endeavor is protrayed most often as rather unchanged from the present day approach. Yes, there are exceptions such as the direct-to-brain information downloading technique utilized for skills training in The Matrix, but that’s rare. (Hogwarts from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories is an absolute disaster as an education model.)

If we’re going to imagine the future, it is the direct-to-brain (d2b) downloading process that seems to be most interesting as a truly new education paradigm. Not only would it effectively address learning outcomes achievement, it would dramatically reduce the time required to acquire knowledge and master skills (at least as the fictional process is defined). To be sure, there are obvious technology hurdles to be overcome: creating the brain-machine interface and determining how to encode information so that it can be accessed through the standard memory recollection process are two of the more obvious challenges. But let’s say we crack the technology. Could people actually learn that way and ultimately retain what they learned?

To run through this thought experiment, it would be helpful to use a fictional model that defines the process and provides a framework for our assumptions. While the concept of digital compression of information fed into the brain has been used several times in Science Fiction (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Whedon’s Dollhouse, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy), it is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” that is based on the central theme of the digital information transfer and what actually takes place in the “learner’s” mind during the process.

Written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light” is about remembering the experiences of a lifetime without having to live through that life in real time. Briefly, the technical scenario within the plot is this: an alien probe finds Captain Picard and creates a wireless link to his brain. Through the link, the probe downloads an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences into Picard’s brain. From his perspective, it is all completely real, and he thinks he is living that life: having children, learning to play the flute, suffering the death of his best friend, having grandchildren, and watching his wife grow old and eventually die). In real-time, however, only 25 minutes has elapsed. When the download is complete and the link is broken, Picard discovers the entire life he lived was just an interactive simulation of experiences placed in his memory… and that he now knows how to play the flute as he learned it in his simulated life.

What interests me about this particular concept of d2b downloading is that it addresses the context of experience in memory. Whatever a person learns, whether it is the alphabet, discrete facts such as names or dates, complex lines of reasoning, or sequenced physical skills like playing the flute, the act of learning is wrapped in a broader experience of what the person was doing during the learning activity. How important is this, especially when it comes to having the learning “stick”?

In 1890, Williams James noted that human consciousness appeared to be continuous. John Dewey observed much the same thing, and in 1932 wrote:

As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one in the same world. What he has learned in the way of knowlege and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue.

Dewey is telling us that learning is a continuum, and lessons learned (formal or not) become the foundation for lessons yet to be learned. Certainly this makes sense to us intuitively, and there is research indicating pre-established schema expedites more rapid memory consolidation in the brain. Which is a way of saying that we learn things more quickly if we already have a context for understanding what we’re learning.

But what are the implications for d2b learning as Picard experienced? What Picard experienced, while not logically flowing from his past life (he was, after all, just “dropped” into a new life story), was a narrative built upon the concepts which he already understood: marriage, friendship, birth, death, and so on. And when he learned a particular skill–playing the flute–it made sense to him in that he already knew what a flute was, what playing a flute involved, and so on. There was not anything going on so “alien” that it would not fit into the pre-existing schema he had been constructing since his own birth.

Perhaps more significant is that the skills that Picard learned had a subjective real-time element even though the simulation was digitally compressed. In Picard’s mind, he learned to play the flute because he actually practiced playing the flute, over years in subjective time. Therefore, when he picked up the flute in the real world, he was drawing on the memories of his experience of practice. It wasn’t that he just woke up with a new skill that came out of nowhere.

Interestingly, there is evidence that mental practice can improve real-world performance at some activities such as sports or music. One study had participants mentally practice a sequence on an imaginary piano for some time daily, and the participants displayed the same neurological changes as those who practiced physically instead. It’s possible that mental practice and physical practice both activate the same brain regions involved in skills learning.

Experience, though, is multifaceted, and it is not simply a dispassionate sequence of events, recorded and played back in some documentary style. In learning, there is the idea of how engaged the learner is with the subject matter at hand, and again it doesn’t matter if the topic is the Pythagorean Theorem or Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.” Jennifer Fredricks talks about three types of engagement that may influence learning: cognitive engagement: what we are thinking about our learning; behavioral engagement: what we are doing while we’re learning; and emotional engagement: what our feelings are about our learning. It seems difficult to imagine that a simple d2b data dump would involve all three of those categories, unless the d2b transfer allowed a person to live what was being learned.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture over a Science Fiction idea, and for now, there is no way to run any actual tests. The potential for d2b learning is intriguing in that it may provide a solution for many of today’s education challenges, provided the technology is even possible. At the same time, it presents many questions regarding the true nature of the learning process. We are analog beings that make use of our senses in real-time to learn from the world around us. If we somehow could bypass our senses and compress years of experience into minutes of transfer time, how would we interpret the experience? How would we remember what we learned, and what would those memories feel like to us? Based on what we know today, I’d say that learning is not possible without experience. Whether it is real or virtual may not matter, but without an experiential framework, transfered information is just noise without meaning.


Filed under consciousness, direct-to-brain, education, experience, future technology, Hap Aziz, learning, narrative, neuroscience, Science Fiction, simulation, Star Trek, technology, virtual identity, virtual worlds

Education Delivery within 30 Minutes, or Your Money Back!

by Hap Aziz

No, education is not like a pizza (nor is it like a box of chocolates), a commodity to be delivered–even if there is a transaction involved. However, many people do equate the process of educating with the task of information delivery, where students’ minds are vessels to be filled by the wisdom of some source. While that might be a component of the very complex and textured process of learning, it isn’t everything of course. One of the challenges to understanding the process is in identifying what all the components are, and after decades of “research,” it appears to me there are still major gaps in our understanding.

The article “Is Khan Academy a real ‘education solution’?” written by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post is a more critical look at the approach the Khan Academy takes by “flipping” the classroom. I like the points that Strauss makes in her piece, especially regarding the issue of learning efficiency, and how we might come to know the efficiency of the process. While Strauss asks the question, I want to point out that we truly do not measure what is going on in the brain in terms of learning and cognition–not in a way that would give us a very clear and accurate picture of the effectiveness of various teaching practices. Last year I wrote a blog entry on that subject, “Practicing 18th Century Education in the 21st Century Classroom.” Also, it is worth mentioning that while there are common themes that may be effective for large groups of learners, the most efficient education processes are going to depend on customization to the learner. There will be no one-size-fits-all solutions. To a large degree, the Khan Academy videos fall in this bucket, but there are avenues for customization through the integration of interactive elements that “direct” the video clips–though this will add greatly to the complexity and cost of production.

Ultimately, though, if we are to know with certainty what education processes work for individual learners, we need to be able to take a look at what’s going on in learners’ minds. Outside of the occasional NASA experiment, we’re really not doing a whole lot of kind of research.

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Filed under education, education technology, effective practices, Hap Aziz, neuroscience

Video Games, Addiction, and the Potential for Addictive Education

by Hap Aziz

Dr. Paul Howard-Jones has been creating somewhat of a stir for the better part of the past year in a series of interviews and conference presentations regarding the addictive nature of video games, and the possibility for leveraging that addiction in the process of education. There has been a series of articles published in the recent weeks covering Dr. Howard-Jones’ ideas, research, and findings, and the education and the game communities have been enjoying a fair amount of discussion and debate on the topic. As the Senior Lecturer at Graduate School of Education at University of Bristol, specializing in Neuroscience and Education, he does have a natural interest in the field, and his research is currently focused on finding better ways to help students learn. Video games as a compulsion actually has some positive promise, according to Dr. Howard-Jones. As he states:

“It certainly didn’t arise from trying to find an application for interactive whiteboards. It actually arose from the nucleus accumbens–the NAcc, a knot of neurons important in reward, pleasure, addiction, aggression and fear–and realizing we’d missed a big trick in education, in that we have an overly simple idea of the relationship between reward and learning.”

To understand where Dr. Howard-Jones is coming from conceptually, it is instructive to review his paper, “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Well-Being,” authored for the Nominet Trust in July of 2011. The paper covers a range of topics that link technology and the human condition (often as it relates to education considerations) including social networking, excessive Internet use, information gathering, attention problems, and the displacement of exercise and homework. In the section on the attraction of video games, Dr. Howard-Jones seeks to answer questions around the addictive qualities of video games, and how much video game play can be considered as safe, if, indeed the brain responds to games as it does to addictive substances. From the paper:

“Neuroscience research provides some insight into why games are so engaging and why this can become a problem. Along with many other rewarding pleasures such as food, drugs, gambling and music, studies have suggested midbrain dopamine is released when we play video games (1).”

Dr. Howard-Jones takes a fairly deep look at the connection between video game play and dopamine projection in the brain. While dopamine can serve to focus a person’s attention on something (as in a particular object of addictive desire), it can also enhance synaptoplasticity, which is the ease with which something can be learned. Another way to put it is that the more something is desired (as measured by dopamine uptake) the better that something is remembered. Dr. Howard-Jones writes that provides more rewards in the same span of time as compared to most real world experiences, and that reward density can cause the release of dopamine in comparable amounts to psycho-stimulant drugs. He points out:

“You can see what’s happening with the help of our new neuro-imaging tech, and it’s very clear that the reward is being very, very stimulated by video games. What’s clear is that when the rewards system is stimulated your efficiency of learning improves.”

While he sees the potential in the application of video games in the teaching and learning environment, Dr. Howard-Jones is quick to caution that as with any technology, there is can be a dark side as well as a light side–the technology itself is neutral. And while there is tremendous potential in utilizing games to enhance the education experience, he acknowledges that efforts to-date have largely been considered failures. He is convinced at the need of different sorts of video games that can leverage this unique “addictive learning power” into something both practical and useful, as well as something that can be tested in the classroom.

Whether or not educators (and gamers) accept his research on video games and addiction remains to be seen. His perspective is certainly unique, and the manner in which Dr. Howard-Jones turns the “negative” of video game playing compulsion into a “positive” involving enhanced abilities to focus and retain learned material is and avenue that the education community has barely scratched the surface in exploration. However, by connecting learning research with the more measurable field of neuroscience, Dr. Howard-Jones does open the door to experimentation and direct measures that can bring education practitioners out of the 18th century as I had discussed in this previous blog entry. I think that’s worth a little bonus play.

(1) Koepp, M. J. et al. Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. . Nature 393, 266-268 (1998).


Filed under addiction, computer games, education, education technology, games, Hap Aziz, neuroscience