A Cognitive Psychologist on How The Brain Learns

February 17, 2012 by Geoff Nixon

A Cognitive Psychologist on How The Brain Learns

You Can Climb or Learn Anything .. If  The Steps Are Close Enough Together

There is a fascinating new book, called Guitar Zero, The New Musician and the Science of Learning  by cognitive  psychologist, Gary Marcus that investigates how the brain learns.  He recently answered questions for the New Times, and one stood out to us:

Question: Can an old dog learn new tricks? Bert Gold, Frederick, Md.
Answer (by Gary Marcus):

Absolutely, but possibly not as swiftly as a young pup.

One of my favorite studies in the last decade looked at barn owls, as a test case studying the idea of “critical periods.” Barn owls aren’t blind, but they can navigate better in the dark by learning to calibrate their eyes and their ears. The Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls’ eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they see with what they hear; young owls could easily learn to compensate for the distortion, a shift of 23 degrees, whereas old owls could not.

But in a more recent study, the same researcher discovered that adult owls weren’t hopeless after all, just slower. An adult owl can’t adapt to 23 degrees of distortion in a few days like a baby owl can, but the adult owls can manage just fine, if the job is simply broken down into smaller chunks: a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few weeks at 11 degrees and so on.

Knowing that was a huge inspiration to me in my own quest. The key is breaking down the task into smaller pieces.”

In neuroscience this description of how the brain learns is called “shaping” and it equates to tried and true methods used in learning all kinds of physical skills.  And this is the secret sauce that makes our reading programs so powerful.  When a child is very young, 0-3, their ability to develop new learning skills is incredible.

However, if a child does not get set by the time they turn 4 years of age, it does not mean they still cannot develop these skills.

They can.

It’s just that the way they were learning early in life, just through natural conversation and listening, becomes less effective and so they need things to broken down into smaller steps.  Our cognitive software uses how the brain learns to do just that, making improvements in the cognitive skills needed for reading and learning proficiency possible at any age.

Here’s a link to the Gary Marcus article where answers reader questions