Archive for May, 2008

Are You What You Learn?

May 28, 2008

Yes, You Have a Brain in ThereDo an exact word search in Google on the terms “you are what you learn” and you’ll turn up more than 3400 results. But is it true?


It sounds like it ought to be true and heaven knows I am inclined to believe it is. But is there any proof of it for informal or formal learners?


I’m glad you asked.


Raymond Fisman a professor at Columbia Business School and his co-authors Shachar Kariv of the University of California at Berkeley and Daniel Markovits at Yale Law School, have tested that idea in a remarkable way and the answer may well be yes.


Here’s the setup. Yale law students are randomly assigned to professors for their first year classes in contracts and torts. Sometimes the teachers are economists by training, sometimes they’re trained in the humanities and sometimes they don’t have any “strong disciplinary allegiances.” The teachers are permitted to create their own syllabi for the classes.


Using this ‘natural experiment,’ Fisman et al put 70 of these Yale law students in a computer lab and put them through their paces in something called a ‘dictator game,’ a game commonly used in experimental economics. The game tested the students’ willingness to give in various situations.


“In some cases students started with $10,” writes Fisman, “and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case giving was ‘cheap.’ In others giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner.”


Here’s what they found: 

“Relative to subjects with economics instructors, those who studied under faculty from humanistic disciplines were more sympathetic to equality; subjects whose instruction came from unaffiliated faculty showed a similar emphasis on equality as those who studied with humanists. These effects were very large in magnitude; in our favored specifications we found that exposure to economists causes a students’ expenditure on [other participants] to be nearly twice as sensitive to the price of giving as those exposed to humanists.


“Subjects exposed to economics instructors displayed greater levels of indexical selfishness relative to those exposed to humanists (and those exposed to unaffiliated faculty exhibited intermediate preferences).” 

The results gave pause to Fisman, who is an economist by training.  

“These findings hint at the influence that powerful ideas may have in shaping how we see the world, even late in life. It’s also a sobering message for teachers such as myself. The students in my classroom will venture forth into the world of business and management, carrying with them some of the viewpoints and attitudes that I choose to emphasize in my lectures. Students learn much more than the facts; what we choose to communicate to them is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.” 

For informal learners I see at least two implications: 

  1. The mind remains open to new ideas, suggestions, and information, and can continue to be shaped over time.
  2. Since informal learners are likely the ones directing their own learning they take the role of the teacher, deciding what they expose themselves to and what they don’t. Because 70 percent of all learning is said to be informal, it is probably our own self-selection that makes our mind or our thinking rigid over time.

Your Brain Lifting Weights

May 21, 2008

Increasingly science is coming to the opinion that the brain can be effectively trained, like a muscle.


If you’re like me, the idea that neurons, ganglia, dendrites and synapses, can get stronger-faster-better through regular mental sweating sounds like another case for Dr. Obvious. But in fact the state of the art for most of my lifetime was that the human cognition peaked at, oh, say age 35, and then began a long (hopefully slow) slide into senescence. How fast or slowly that happened depended in the main on our genetic inheritance.  


But remember, state of the art science until 1661(!) was that the earth and all its matter at its most elemental was comprised of earth, air, fire, and water. That’s what Aristotle posited in the fourth century BC. So great was his genius that it wasn’t until the 17th Century…nearly two millennia later… that Irish chemist Robert Boyle called this premise into question with the publication of his book The Sceptical Chymist, which presaged the modern theory of chemical elements.


In other words, sometimes science gets its mind around an idea and won’t let go no matter the evidence to the contrary.


But in the last few decades especially, it’s becoming clear that new brain cells born in mature brains “integrate into existing neuronal circuitry, providing the brain with a continual reservoir of youthful active cells. Such cells might then replace older neurons or possibly be used to reshape the brain so it may learn and adapt to new experiences.”


So new brain cells grow in mature brains and replace the old ones, which possibly (I say likely) allows us to continue to learn things as we age.


So how can we learn as we age? Current science suggests that “exposure to complex experiences boost the components that process information in the brain. Brain cell survival increases, the neural appendages that receive communication signals grow and the connections between cells multiply. Some of these changes occur not only during the brain’s early growth stage, but also in later years. A severe lack of mental exercise and even stressful experiences, however, limit the brain plan.”


What constitutes ‘exposure to complex experiences?’ Or, to continue the analogy, what gives your brain a workout? That’s the 100 billion brain cell question.


For me it’s travel to new places (preferably in Italy where I can get plenty of gelato), games, reading or listening to books and magazines, researching and writing, physical exercise, watching documentaries on TV, taking formal coursework, using brain workout software, learning new career skills, and getting friendly again with my dictionary and encyclopedia.


Since, by most estimates, 75 percent of all learning is informal, there’s almost certainly more.


One big bonus to mental workouts, after exercising my brain I don’t have to shower with a bunch of strangers!

Games Learner’s Play

May 13, 2008

Brain Games and Brain Age Promise to Whip Your Brain Into ShapeAccording to a 2003 German time-use study, informal learners with the highest education levels learn because they love to learn. If you’re not quite there yet, or if informal learning seems like a sort of like a ‘eat your veggies’ exercise, then you might benefit from ‘Brain Age’ for the Nintendo DS player, or the handheld game called, ‘Brain Games’ from Mattel’s Radica division.


Both Brain Games and Brain Age occupy a ticklish position. Both purport to be based on honest-to-Pete science. Both suggest that a regular diet of the mental exercises included on them will help keep your brain strong and young. Brain Age goes so far as suggesting that regular use could help you lower your brain’s age. Get it? Both cost around $20 in electronics retailers and the mass merchandisers.


Nintendo’s Brain Age, by far has the better buzz. Radica makes handheld games like Solitaire, Suduko, a 20-questions game called Q, and the like, so this is a natural line extension. Nintendo looked at the numbers and bet that there was a market for adult learners. So far the bet’s paid off wildly. Brain Age was one of the top 10 video game sellers in 2007 and sold some 4 million units in 2006. 


Brain Age runs only on Nintendo’s handheld DS player, which starts around $130. Radica’s Brain Games is self-contained in the $20 unit.


The criticism of this approach to informal learning can be summarized in the American idiomatic expression ‘teaching to the test.’ It means learning not much more than you need to pass a test.


Or as writer Greta Lorge, put it in Wired:

“After diligent effort, players routinely see their ‘brain age’ plummet from, say, a sluggish 60 to a taut 30. But the improved performance may not be a sign of wit-sharpening. Many users start with little gaming experience, so it’s not surprising that their scores improve — a phenomenon known as the practice effect. Sadly, there’s no evidence that in-game gains translate to the real world.”  


I think there’s more to Brain Age and Brain Games than the practice effect. But to explain why please indulge a personal anecdote. When I went through Army basic training my drill sergeants explicitly ‘taught to the test” when it came to the 2-mile run, 1/3 of the Army’s fitness test.


We did very few long slow runs. There wasn’t time in the training schedule for that. Instead we did sprint work and more 2-mile runs on the track behind the barracks than I could possibly count, always timed by a stopwatch.


Surprise, surprise, my final 2-mile time was several minutes below my first time. Teaching to the test helped me do dramatically better on the test.


At the end of basic training I went directly to advanced training, which was less regimented. We seldom did physical training in groups, although all the fitness tests were conducted that way. So to stay in fighting trim I began to run around a course that had several possible mileages depending on the paths you took.


What I found was that the base of fitness I had acquired in basic training… while training to the test… enabled me to become a fair runner. During my 13 weeks in advanced training I got to the point where I could easily run 8-10 miles at a time, further if I choose. My 2-mile run time dropped even further.


When it comes to informal learning teaching to the test is problematic if that’s where you stop. But if you treat Brain Games, or Brain Age like an ingredient in the mole and not the whole enchilada, than either one could be a nice addition to your learner’s toolkit. 

Informal Learning and the Eternal Memory

May 6, 2008

How Quickly We Do ForgetWhat if you could remember everything you ever memorized with such precision that you could throw away all your books? What price would you pay? [And as we’ll see, the price I’m talking about is not money.]


That’s the question I asked of myself after reading Gary Wolf’s intriguing profile of Piotr Wozniak, the Polish inventor of the software program called SuperMemo that can help you recall things you’ve memorized at close to 90 percent. Forever!


The profile goes on for 6,000 words. And do read it. It’s a terrific piece of reporting on a man who has become prisoner to his nearly perfect memory. But I can spoil the how of it in just a couple of paragraphs.


For most of us short-term memory has a lifespan. That lifespan varies per individual, but memory’s fade is predictable. What Wozniak discovered… or really, rediscovered… is that the best way to keep a memory is to be reminded of it just as you’re about to forget it. Keep the reminders properly spaced and you can sell your library of books on eBay.


But here’s the kicker; memory fades in waves that are especially steeply-sloped early on. (See the diagram on the left). To keep memory sharp you have to be reminded at just the perfect crest of forgetfulness. With each properly-spaced reminder the wavelength of memory grows longer over time.


The phenomenon is well known and now called ‘the spacing effect.” That’s it diagrammed on the left. It was first identified in the 1880s by a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and rigorously measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. His analysis led to the first description of the spacing effect.


But wait a minute you say, American educational theory scorns memorization as unhelpful and uncreative.


Or as Wolf puts it: 

“The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.”


“The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.”


“Once we drop the excuse that memorization is pointless, we’re left with an interesting mystery. Much of the information does remain in our memory, though we cannot recall it. “To this day,” Bjork says, “most people think about forgetting as decay, that memories are like footprints in the sand that gradually fade away. But that has been disproved by a lot of research. The memory appears to be gone because you can’t recall it, but we can prove that it’s still there. For instance, you can still recognize a ‘forgotten’ item in a group. Yes, without continued use, things become inaccessible. But they are not gone.” 

Bjork for instance, has studied the oddity of the elderly who can often remember distant events with perfect clarity, but forget what they had for lunch. It’s small proof that it is recall that fades, not memory.


The key to putting the spacing effect to work in enhancing recall was clearly the computer. And as Wolf puts it, turning the spacing effect into software required someone who was not so much an academic, although Wozniak has a PhD, but a kind of intellectual ‘tinkerer’ with a gift for math and certain ‘literal temperament.’


The result was the effective if not always easy to use SuperMemo.


It’s Wozniak’s literalness that makes him a prisoner to his studies and something of an eccentric. For instance, scientists have long suspected that there’s a link between sleep and mental capacity. But there’s never been a good way to find the data. Since 1999 Wozniak has been keeping detailed logs of his sleep and tracking it against his “daily performances on study repetitions.”


You read that right, Wozniak has been loading data into his brain for decades and… using SuperMemo… has kept up the repetitions required to never forget it. He doesn’t foresee leaving Poland because the travel would disrupt his routines. He keeps himself in fighting trim in no small measure because his body houses his mind. For the same reason he avoids travel in Poland because the local motor vehicle accident rate is so high.


I’ll end where I started; as an informal learner what price are you willing to pay to never forget what you’ve learned?