The Inner Workings of Learning and Memory

Learning is an integral part of student life. But exactly what is learning, and how does it work? There are actually different types of learning. One of them is analytical learning, the one you use while blindly executing the steps of some complicated drill. The other is insightful learning, the one you use when you suddenly discern the underlying theme in the book you are reading in your literature class. Let us dig deeper into the seat of all these processes: the brain.

The brain consists of a special type of tissue. This tissue is made out of neurons, and the entirety of our consciousness and memory is encoded in the connections these cells make with others of their kind. According to the book Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain by Mark F. Bear, Barry W. Connors, and Michael A. Paradiso, scientists earlier believed brain development to be the same as any other organ development; they thought that it was formed in the womb, developed some more when out of the womb, and stopped growing and changing once the individual becomes an adult.

The connections of the brain are not permanent, however. These change with every new experience we acquire and every new skill we learn. For example, you are changing the structure of your brain simply by reading and thinking about this article! This theory, that the brain retains its pliability throughout life, is called synaptic plasticity, and it is integral to the workings of learning and memory.

The workings of both of these types of learning are similar in that the brain follows the same general pattern while dealing with them. According to David Handel, cofounder of website iDoRecall.com, both first go into what is called working memory when they are first introduced; that is, they are still temporary. No long-term changes have been made in the brain yet, and the majority of the information you have gathered will be lost after a while. So far, all your brain has dealt with is memory acquisition: the process of acquiring the memory/information.

If you reuse and exercise this information, you physically make the connections that store it broader and stronger. Once this has happened for long enough, the information becomes a part of long term memory, a permanent location in the brain. This is the process of memory consolidation: the process of changing the brain to form a long-lasting memory. Once the information is in long-term memory, it will stay there for life (Handel).

But what singles out specific information to be encoded in long term memory? There is a reason you do not remember that vaguely interesting statistical fact about something from your history teacher’s powerpoint, but can clearly recall the plot of a movie on the same topic. One of the best way to remember stuff is to give it some emotional significance. This process is, according to Gretchen Schmelzer in the article Understanding Learning and Memory: The Neuroscience of Learning and Repetition, is called association: “the ability for a piece of information to tap into a neural connection that already exists.”

You already know about the topic, but it is enforced by associating the material with a strong emotion. When the emotion is too strong, like fear, the memory is encoded due to its urgencyas Schmelzer explains, your fear center, the amygdala, forces the brain to encode the connection into long term memory for survival purposes. That is why people never forget a mistake that drove them into a car accidentthe incident was too scary. The last, and most familiar, way to remember something is to repeat over and over again until you can recall it in your sleep. While the most boring and the most discouraged, this works well too.

We’ll now turn to a relatedbut more advancedtopic, learning. Analytical learning is almost exactly the same as memory storage, it involves exercising the steps of the drill until you cannot unlearn them. The more interesting one is insight learning. The brain-process you follow in analytical learning actually harms the process of insight learning. Jonah Lehrer, the author of the book Imagine, explains this best.  People usually assume that concentrating hard on an insight problem is essential to get to the solution. “While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights” Lehrer explains.

Insights involve making seemingly unrelated connections between two things, something that cannot be accomplished when you are narrowing your field of view during extreme concentration. Therefore, on insight problems, “It’s not until you let yourself relax and indulge in distractions that you discover the answer; the insight arrives only after you stop looking for it.”

Consider the study Lehrer talks about in his book: Asking people to make the statement III + III = III true by changing only one line. The question was posed to two groups of people: one with normal people, and one with people who, because of a brain injury, had cognitive and attention deficits. The people with attention deficits solved the problem faster –  they quickly saw that the answer was to change the vertical line of the + sign and make it parallel to its neighbor, making an = sign (the equation is now III = III = III). They indulged in distractions more, and as a result, had to come up with fresh ways to approach the problem each time they returned back to it. They started off the same way as we did – they looked at the roman numerals and frantically searched for a way to shift a line from one of them around.

Unlike us, however, they could not walk this fruitless path for too long. They constantly got distracted and while refocusing, they realized they should’ve focused on the operators instead of the numbers. Note that this “distractions help” method is contradictory to theory of “concentration is crucial.” That theory is applicable to analytical, step by step learning, but not to insight learning.

How does this information relate to us, as students? Depending on the course, we tend to develop study strategies that use mainly one type of learning or the other. But this is the wrong approach to take. For example, we see math as a subject that uses solely analytical learning. But, as Math teacher Katie Collins explained, “the goal of learning math, or any subject really, is to use insight learning to really understand the concept and generalize it to many different places.” According to Mrs. Collins, the analytical learning-focused approach students take in math keeps them from truly internalizing the concept.

Students focus on the drill and redo particular types of problems until they master them, but when an unfamiliar problem pops up, “they can’t do it, because they haven’t really understood the concept.” While analytical learning does play a role and we should use it to master the problems taught in class, Mrs. Collins recommends incorporating insight learning into our study by solving a variety of unusual or unfamiliar problems on the lesson being taught. We need to use both insight and analytical learning strategies for studying, and not focus on only one.

The recent years have seen a huge amount of discovery in the topic of learning and memory. We have since overturned the theory that the brain is static and unchangeable in adulthood, and this has opened the door for more research on the topic. The discoveries have already started influencing classroom environments and learning strategies. Our brain is an amazingly complex organ, and the more we learn about it, the more we can utilize it to our benefit.