Memory, learning, and great-uncle Gillies

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

This post is part of the Working/Learning blog carnival for April, 2008, hosted this month by Manish Mohan, who blogs at Life, the Universe, and Everything about eLearning and Content Development. It’s the second run of the carnival; the first was in March 2008.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules. I’m also trying to relate them to learning and to things that affect my work. In other words, using his rules as a framework, what can I do with them?

I’ve decided to start with rule six, “remember to repeat.” Why this one? Because last Wednesday was the 262nd anniversary of the Battle of Culloden.

‘Twas love of our prince drove us on to Drumossie
But in scarcely the time that it takes me to tell
The flower of our country lay scorched by an army
As ruthless and red as the embers of hell…

Although I don’t weep over the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, neither do I let April 16 pass unnoticed. Why is that?

Medina writes about how we move information from short-term to long-term memory. Nothing much new: repetition and restatement. One of the principles that we know (but don’t always capitalize on) is spacing out the input. Or as I like to call it, three times 20 is more than 60.

If you’ve got a a given amount of time to learn something, you’ll almost certainly learned better and more thoroughly by spacing out your exposure. Instead of cramming for two hours, try four sessions of 30 minutes each. As the descendant of Scottish Highlanders, I’ve certainly spaced out my exposure to stories of the Jacobite rebellions and songs about “The ’45.”

old_books.jpgMedina also says that when information is retrieved from long-term memory, it’s not fixed as if it were a book pulled from a library shelf. It’s almost a repetition of the initial learning — the information is once again labile, malleable, something we can re-work.

That means when it’s re-stored, it’s been changed. Not always leading to greater accuracy.

Which brings in my great uncle. Actually, Gillies Mhor MacBain is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle, if I can trust a genealogical history called The Mabou Pioneers. Gillies fought for Prince Charlie and died at Culloden.

Google his name, and you’ll find dozens of accounts saying that he was 6 foot 4, that he killed at least 13 redcoats, and that an English officer tried in vain to have Gillies spared because of his bravery.

Who knows what really happened? The story of Gillies MacBain has been told and retold. Details were lost on the battlefield and over the years; without a doubt, new details have been supplied. They’ve altered the cultural memory the way recall and reconsolidation can alter your personal memory.

Over time new information in the brain reshapes what’s already there. We can “remember” things that never happened.

That suggests things we can do, in the world of learning at work, to increase the value of that reworking and reconsolidation. Focus the learning on what’s important to the job, for example. Create support and structures to ease recall and increase accuracy.

brainfunnel.jpgThink hard about questions like:

  • What’s our rationale for a three day workshop?
    • Does it make sense to firehose information this way?
  • If we must have one, how do we design for spaced input?
    • Can we break up topics and interweave them?
  • Are we focusing on tasks rather than on content?
    • Even (or especially) for concepts and principles, can we provide opportunities to work with them, apply them in job-relevant contexts?
  • How do we design, create, or organize information externally to make it easy to retrieve and apply as needed?

I spent more time than expected thinking through this post as I was writing it. While I don’t see Medina’s brain rules as the fulcrum of all knowledge, I like the idea of trying to apply them to the blog carnival themes of “work at learning; learning at work.” So I think this post will be a first in a series based on Medina’s rules. Feel free to chime in.

Old book photo by alpoma / Alejandro Polanco.
Brain funnel image by Beth Kanter.

Short-term memory, or, encode of the Woosters

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

Rule #5 in John Medina’s Brain Rules is, “Repeat to remember.” He’s talking about short-term memory and the ways we work with information. Working backward from what people have learned, we know there are at least two types of memory.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, Stephen Fry as JeevesBertie Wooster, the genial imbecile of the P. G. Wodehouse stories, demonstrates declarative memory — facts we are consciously aware of. (His man Jeeves demonstrates a higher level of skill with regard to declarative memory.)

“Newts, Jeeves. Mr. Fink-Nottle has a strong newt complex. You must have heard of newts. Those little sort of lizard things that charge about in ponds.”

“Oh, yes, sir. The aquatic members of the family Salamandridae which constitute the genus Molge.”

Nondeclarative memory, logically enough, refers to what we’ve learned that we are not consciously aware of. When Bertie is tooling about in his motorcar, he’s usually unaware of how he knows when to steer, when to shift, and so on. You may know how to ride a bike, but you can’t consciously recall the details, because that’s not in declarative memory.

tape_recorder2.jpgMedina discusses for processes involved in memory: encoding, storage, retrieval, and forgetting. One point he makes is that our memories are not stored like tape recordings. You can’t just press play and stream them out again.

He cites one striking example. A stroke victim lost the ability to use written vowels. If you asked her to write, “Your dog chased the cat,” this is what she’d write:

Y r d g ch s d th c t.

She not only got all the consonants right, she left room for the vowels she couldn’t write. Consonants seemed to be stored in a different part of the brain from the one affected by her stroke, which did affect the region dealing with written vowels.

This phenomenon illustrates the binding problem — how does the brain connects the widely scattered elements of memory? The problem is even more complex when you consider we encode it in different ways. For example:

  • Semantic encoding, or the meaning of what we’ve learned.
  • Phonemic encoding, or the sound of what we’ve learned.
  • Structural encoding, or the shape or arrangement of what we’ve learned.

There’s also automatic encoding, which all of us have experienced. We seem able at times to build rich memories that we can easily retrieve in great detail with almost no effort.

We’ve all experienced the challenge of deliberate encoding when we want to remember something but can’t drag it out of storage. What IS the password for this website? What is my wife’s Social Security number (which I have looked up at least 50 times)? What are some implications for learning?

Elaborate encoding means stronger memory.

Paradoxically, we can learn better when presented with great detail. It does seem that the detail needs to be relevant rather than distracting, though. Imagine two groups of people given a list of words to study. The first group is asked to focus on words containing the letters I or E. The second group is asked to rate each word and indicate whether they like it on a scale of one to 10. When asked to recall the words later, the “like” group recalls two to three times as many words.

One obvious aid to learning: real-world examples. Rather than focusing solely on principles or theory, we’d learn better with specific examples that provide connections or relationships to what’s already in our memory. It’s one thing to say, “Use striking visuals.” It’s another to see three examples in context.

Retrieve the way you stored.

Research suggests that memory works best if the conditions at retrieval mimic those at the time of storage (initial learning) .

One way to capitalize on this principle is to close the gap between “training” and on-the-job performance— the dilemma known as transfer. Making training or learning part of the job, rather than and auxiliary activity, something you do when you’re not working, helps ensure that the conditions for storage replicate the conditions for retrieval.

Tape recorder photo by AlphaDelta / Peter.

Coffee on (or in) your mind

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

Rule number three in John Medina’s Brain Rules is, “Every brain is wired differently.” The brain is like a muscle; what we do with the brain changes its physical structure. Not just advice from a motivational speaker, that’s a biological fact.

Infants start life with roughly the same number of neurons that they’ll have as adults. By age 3, children have two to three times as many neurons; the brain then begins radically pruning. Eight-year-olds are back to the adult number.

Second adolescenceTeenaged twice?

This growth and pruning happens again around the time of puberty. So, before we are out of our teens, our brains have gone through two cycles of rampant growth and cutting back.

One child-rearing book referred to the “terrible twos” as “first adolescence.” In both stages, your brain frantically processes energy — stimuli from the outside world. Stimulated neurons start, strength, and abandon connections; the brain creates and discards neurons by the millions.

We’re all the same; vive la différence

Medina makes a point that’s as important as it should be obvious. The result of frenzied activity combined with our unique experiences of the world, each person’s brain is, at many levels, completely different. Medina describes a neurosurgeon who spends hours mapping regions in the brains of patients awaiting surgery to deal with epilepsy. Why? “He has to map each individual’s critical function areas because he doesn’t know where they are.

Ojemann can’t predict the function of very precise areas in advance of the surgery because no two brains are wired identically. Not in terms of structure. Not in terms of function…. Bilingual people don’t even store their Spanish and their English in similar places.

This doesn’t mean there’s no similarity. The closer you get to the specific, like the closer you get to individual residences, the more distinct the differences become. It’s like my big discovery about coffee in Paris.

No vente, no caramel, no coffee to go Coffee’s coffee, right? Grown, harvested, roasted, brewed. When you get to individual consumption, you find great variation.

The café near my Paris hotel had three prices for coffee: lowest if you stood at the bar, higher at a table inside, and highest sitting at a table on the sidewalk so you could observe or ignore tout le monde.

Minding the brain

So what?

Well, if the brains of school children very as widely as their bodies — and they do — we need to rethink or replace the one-size-fits-all, standards by each and grade level approach that characterizes formal education.

I wonder if that’s true for adults? You know, people who’ve gone through those two ridiculous cycles and built their individualized brains.

I see you're reading a blog post...Our unique configurations argue strongly for education, training, and learning that help us customize and adapt in ways that take advantage of those configurations. Must we adapt to software, or can the software adapt to us? (I’m not thinking of Microsoft’s Clippy.)

Throughout his book, John Medina stresses how many things we don’t know. He urges experimentation, study, and discussion. We who work in areas like training, learning, and performance could do worse than see ourselves as researchers. Get a notion, build a hypothesis, and try it out in the context of doing work that we and our clients value.

People do learn on the job. They don’t necessarily learn effectively through formal training, and they certainly don’t learn exclusively that way. At the same time, just as word processors haven’t made people good writers, web 2.0 tools on their own won’t make people better learners.

We’re in a time of rapid expansion and rapid pruning of technology. Sounds like a good time to use our brains.

Neuron tattoo photo by g33kgrrl.
Café photo by Julie 70 / Julie Kurtesz.

Body of knowledge

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

In John Medina’s Brain Rules, rule number one says, “Exercise boosts brainpower.” In a way that feels like saying, “The Atlantic is damp,” but Medina emphasizes his point evolutionarily. In the good old days, he writes,

We moved….

If we sat around the Serengeti for eight hours — heck, for eight minutes — we were usually somebody’s lunch.

The body needs food and turns a lot of it into glucose. The brain craves glucose. 2% of our body weight, the brain consumes 20% of our glucose. As we metabolize glucose, the process releases electrons in the form of free radicals. These aren’t good for us.

Oxygen in the blood stream absorbs the free radicals and expels them in the CO2 we exhale. The point of this biology lesson is that exercise increases blood flow, which can construct new blood vessels, which means more efficient disposal of the free radicals.

So, the Romans were right: mens sana in corpore sano. The sound body actually contributes to the sound mind.

According to Medina, research suggests that exercise also increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. BDNF appears to strengthen neurons and, even more important, increase neurogenesis: it helps you grow new brain cells.

Inch by inch, row by row

As with the garden in the David Mallette song, we can foster the growth. Medina suggests things like to recess periods per day for schoolchildren or treadmills in cubicles.

When I worked in a cubicle, there was barely room for a guest chair, let alone a treadmill. Still, the fundamental things apply: regular exercise makes you smarter. How many workplaces allow for, let alone encourage, physical activity? The organization and the culture laud multitasking, a myth with barely more evidence than the tooth fairy. Not then I’m in favor of mandatory company calisthenics; more that I’d like to see work-life balance means something other than, “We’ll provide the work and you spend your life balancing.” in the meantime, I’ll see if I can manage to exercise as often and as regularly as I scribble here on the Whiteboard.

(Note: since my WordPress update this weekend, the “Series” codes I’d put in don’t seem to work. I’ll try and resolve that today.)

(Okay, so I resolved it eight weeks later… but I did resolve it.   Dave, June 28, 2008)

The image is a detail from a photo by Joe Shlabotnik / Peter Dutton.

Brains: how we got this way

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

In John Medina’s Brain Rules, rule #2 says, “The human brain evolved, too.” This chapter focuses on how our brains developed. One factor in that development was that our ancestors gave up on consistency. They didn’t have much choice; the changing environment slowly, steadily pushed them out of the trees and onto the grasslands.

Instead of learning how to survive in just one or two ecological niches we took on the entire globe. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes didn’t survive long enough to pass on their genes. The net effect of this evolution was that we didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learn to grow our fangs not in the mouth it in the head.

As Medina points out, learning to walk upright — something you can’t do in the trees — freed up our hands and was also energy-efficient, freeing energy to build and fuel our minds.

As we evolved, our brains became larger. The triune model sees three brains:

  • The brain stem, or lizard brain, controlling basic functions like breathing, heart rate, sleeping.
  • The mammalian brain, dealing with functions like “fighting, feeding, fueling, and… reproductive behavior.”
  • The cerebral cortex or the human brain, managing most of what we think of as higher reasoning.

How did we manage this evolutionarily? We developed childhood.

Much of our brainpower develops after birth, which means our survival depends on adults who can protect children. we had to learn how to cooperate. We can form impressions about the internal states of other people, something known as the theory of mind.

Suppose you are not the biggest person on the block, but you have thousands of years to become one. What do you do? If you are an animal, the most straightforward approach is becoming physically bigger… but there is another way to double your biomass. It’s not by creating a body but by creating an ally. If you can establish cooperative agreements with some of your neighbors, you can double your power even if you do not personally told your strength.

Another major trait we developed is the ability to reason symbolically. Here, too, we need time. Under the age of three, children don’t reason symbolically very well. Past that age, they can grasp and wield powerful human tools like language; they can reason; and they can deliberately set out to learn.

Brain photo by jj_judes / Jude.