Lifelong learning and active brains: Let's get started!

With the luxury of smartphones, binge TV watching and internet shopping, it has become exceedingly easy to live in comfortable laziness. Yet we all realize that both physical and mental activity are essential for successful aging and healthy brains. We’ve all heard the saying, use it or lose it, but we are rarely given advice on how to use it. In this and future blogs, I will present MARGE, a whole-brain approach to learning that applies both biological and psychological science in the service of instilling lifelong learning and active brains.

MARGE is an acronym for five principles of efficient learning—MOTIVATE, ATTEND, RELATE, GENERATE, and EVALUATE (I associate the term with Marge Simpson, the caring, gravel-voiced matriarch of The Simpsons). My goal is to offer MARGE as a fun and engaging approach toward lifelong learning.

What is learning? An apt question as there are many interpretations and misconceptions about this term. Broadly speaking, learning is our ability to acquire knowledge from sensory experiences. Learning can come in various forms, from perceptual learning (the way a radiologist learns how to read an x-ray scan) to conceptual learning (the way a historian or scientist links new facts and ideas to existing knowledge) to skill learning (the way a musician learns a new piece). Though much of what will be discussed pertains to all forms of learning, I will focus on conceptual learning and how we can enrich our lives through it.

A huge obstacle in fostering efficient learning is failing to motivate ourselves to action. In my career as a university professor, the biggest difficulty in teaching was keeping students attuned to and curious about the subject matter. There is a common misconception that students often resort to that I call the sponge metaphor of learning, which is reinforced by our familiar college lecture format. Students approach class as if the teacher’s role is to pour out worthy facts while they sit and “soak” up the material. In psychological terms, this kind of learning is strictly a bottom-up process (bottom refers to sensations, and top refers to knowledge), which is highly inefficient and typically leads to failed attempts at rote memorizing a bunch of disparate facts.

Efficient learning depends on top-down processing, which is the active use of existing knowledge to guide and select what sensory information to process. At any given moment we are bombarded by a multitude of sensations and must therefore select and attend to relevant facts and information. Even basic perceptual analyses, such as recognizing the duck or rabbit in the ambiguous figure shown here, depends on using top-down processing to select “duck-relevant” features (e.g., focusing on the duck’s “bill”) or “rabbit-relevant” features (e.g., focusing on the rabbit’s “ears”). Which animal you “see” depends on the way you use your knowledge to guide and select sensory information. Top-down guidance and selection is the key to focused attention, learning, and retention.

One way to characterize the conceptual knowledge stored in your brain is to think of it as a vast web of connected information—your personal Wikipedia. Just like the web’s informational resource, we build knowledge by linking new information to existing knowledge. Exactly how we relate new information to our knowledge base is critical for efficient learning and retention. A well-organized knowledge base is built around an overarching framework within which are multiple links and cross-references. These organized sets of knowledge, which psychologists call cognitive maps or schemas, allow us to maneuver within them and easily retrieve pertinent facts. For efficient learning, we must work to categorize and organize new information to determine how new facts and concepts fit into existing schemas. The links that we develop that relate new information with existing knowledge are as important as the new information itself.

A classic memory study shows the importance of relating information during learning: Individuals were given 52 cards with a random word on each and asked to sort them into two to seven piles, in any way they liked. By working on this task, individuals actively linked the words together and related them according to their own set of categories (e, g., living things, household items). Later, when asked to recall the words, those that used a greater number of categories remembered significantly more words. Thus, whenever we want to learn something new it is important to consider how the new information is to be catalogued or related to our existing knowledge.

After we have focused on relevant facts and have related this information to our existing knowledge base, the learning game is not over. We must of course retain this information so that it is retrievable at a later time. In the past, memory researchers devoted much effort toward understanding the nature of how new information gets initially learned and stored. Yet in recent years, it has become evident that our ability to retrieve memories is as important as the initial learning process itself. The generation effect is one of the most efficient ways of improving memory retention. When we generate information overtly—such as telling someone about some information we’ve read or heard recently, we substantially improve our memory for that information. Brain imaging findings reveal broad neural circuits activated when we practice retrieving information in this manner.

How do we know that we will remember what we’ve recently learned? Students often have difficulty determining their success (or failure) in how well they’ve learned new material. During all phases of learning—from initial presentation to the time of retrieval (e.g., exam time), it is important to evaluate one’s proficiency in learning. Knowing about what we know is a process that psychologists call metacognition (meta is the Greek prefix referring to “about” or “beyond”). It involves monitoring cognitive processes, such as asking whether new material was actually understood, and controlling future processes, such as deciding if more study time is required. For example, the generation effect is both a means of reinforcing learning and a way of monitoring whether you have learned the material. If you cannot say in your own words what you’ve just learned, then it would be wise to spend more time on the material. We must evaluate our conceptual learning from time to time in order to maintain a healthy and proficient knowledge base.

A commitment to lifelong learning offers a more fulfilling and active means of enriching one’s experiences. It involves getting out and actively seeking both social and intellectual activities. With MARGE we will entertain tips and techniques that will engage our brains and foster a healthy lifestyle. To be continued…

Crossposted from

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