I’ve been told several times that school is about learning to learn. As Seung points out in Connectome, scientific discoveries would not be possible without the continual advances in technology; without the necessary tools, we would make no progress. As students, acquiring knowledge requires the proper tools to learn. Science depends on technology, and we students depend on our ability to learn. As we discussed in a previous class, most of us don’t remember content from classes taken two or three years ago (or even last semester… Oops!), especially if the class was unrelated to our major. I couldn’t tell you a thing about what happened in linear algebra since I haven’t built upon that knowledge or seen the material for two years. However, as we mentioned in class, it’s not too hard to remember at least some details and form some understanding of previously learned material if we are primed to do so. For example, although I am unlikely to recall a great deal of information off the top of my head, I’m usually still able to use past knowledge to answer directed questions phrased in such a way that they trigger my memory. Have these connections in my brain, presumably formed in past courses, become weaker and thus require priming for activation? Do people with an apparent greater ability to learn have a more efficient ‘use it or lose it’ mechanism in their brain? Or are their weakened connections more easily primed? Do we improve our learning ability by repeatedly using the learning process itself? Hopefully we do, as this is a part of why I’m told college is important.
Sometimes, however, I really can’t remember anything about the topic in question, even when primed. This happens a lot when I’m working as a chemistry tutor and students ask about a miniscule topic covered in a single class period that I never used again beyond the final exam. If I’m lucky, I can somehow help them solve their problem anyway. Although I seem to have no recollection of the specifics, I can apply strategies used across subjects and disciplines to help. For instance, the problem is often a matter of using the wrong units, reading the problem incorrectly, committing the dreaded simple math errors, etc. To help with those aspects, I really just need an ability to problem solve since these are skills used in a wide variety of subjects. How is the ability to problem solve represented in the brain? How are the neurons of the prefrontal cortex acting to perform such a complex feat? We’ve talked a lot about the complexity of the connectome and how memory storage itself is vastly complicated. So what about an inherently more difficult process such as problem solving? Do cell assemblies activate in certain steps of a general process used in every situation? Or are they more specific to each problem-solving task? Are the people who are skilled at deciphering complex problems also the ones with strong learning capabilities? Whatever the answer to these questions may be, none of us rely completely on our ability to learn. Thankfully, especially with the money spent on college tuition, we do use many of the facts we learned in classes—we don’t lose everything. However, approaching life post-graduation, no one has learned everything necessary for the rest of their lives; perhaps our capacity to ‘learn to learn’ will be the most important thing we take from school. How will future neuroscience research enhance education to maximize learning to learn?