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Q: What does it mean to learn?
Nothing is quite as frustrating as when you are standing in front of a class giving a lecture, and the students look bored and don't pay attention to you. It feels disrespectful, and eats away at your feelings of competence as a teacher. And yet, even though students are more likely to sit quietly and "pay attention" to a teacher who is entertaining and who is able to "command attention" in class, research shows that such qualities in a teacher don't necessarily correlate with student achievement.
That is not to say that attention doesn't play a role in learning. On the contrary, research in neuroscience shows that attention is a pivotal part of the learning process for many types of learning important in school. However, the word "attention" means different things to different people. For example, if your spouse says, "You never pay attention to me," then you know you're in trouble. In this context, the word "attention" is used to connote a lack of respect, consideration, courtesy, or politeness. But, when neuroscientists use this term in the context of learning, usually they are talking about something very different from the everyday sense of the word.
Attention, in the neurological sense of the word, is not necessarily something a person is able to control, so it has nothing to do with respect or politeness. Instead, neuroscientists use this word to talk about a complex neurological network that helps the brain manage the flow of information coming at it and to filter out information that is irrelevant, while enhancing sensitivity to information important to the task at hand. Attention, in the neurological sense, is a little like the switches and lights in a train yard. The brain is being bombarded by information (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations) coming at it from the senses, and attention networks act like the track switches and signals to control this flow so that the result isn't just a pileup and chaos.
Attention acts in two ways. It serves to reduce (inhibit) our sensitivity to distractions and enhance (facilitate) our sensitivity to things that are important. For example, when we focus intently on some task (as you are doing now reading this text), inhibitory attention networks are automatically being called into play, and these diminish your sensitivity to sounds and peripheral visual distractions that may detract from the task. At the same time, the attention networks help you become extremely sensitive to the smallest details in the text. You can more easily distinguish subtleties, differentiate one letter from the next, see the patterns making up words, and quickly make sense of their meaning.
If the brain had unlimited capacity, attention networks wouldn't be necessary. We could simultaneously pay attention to all the sensory information bombarding our nervous system and process this information accordingly. However, we cannot pay attention to everything at once. Our neuronal resources are limited, and we need to be selective in how our brain allocates the limited resources that are available. This is where attention comes into play.
People vary widely in how well their attention networks serve to control the information bombarding the brain. First, people differ in how sensitive they are to sensory information. Some people can hear high-pitched sounds others cannot, some can see differences in colors others cannot, and some may be very sensitive to touch. So, the amount of information that the brain has to deal with, which comes in on any given sensory channel, differs from person to person. Furthermore, people differ in how well their attention networks filter out the information that comes in. Some people can concentrate intently, focusing on a book while the TV is blaring, while even the slightest sounds would distract another person. Therefore, abilities for attention vary from person to person, sense to sense, and task to task. Some people may be very good at concentrating on something that is interesting to look at, filtering out even the sounds of someone calling their name, but may nevertheless be easily distracted by the scratchy sensation of a tag in their shirt.
Ordinarily, we think of learning as something students do when they master the material presented in class, so that they do well on assessments. But, from the standpoint of neurology, this process is extremely complicated and difficult to describe. We can instead think of learning more (top)
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simplistically. Learning might be thought of as a process that takes information coming into our minds through our senses, so that we can build mental representations of these inputs that remain in our minds even after the sensory inputs have ceased. We call these mental representations "memories." When seen in this way, learning is what we do when we build new memories from information we perceive through our senses. Learning is powerful because we can access, recall, and mentally manipulate these representations, long after the original sensory input has ceased. Attention networks play a role in learning because these networks determine which streams of sensory information we can access to use in building new memories.
Memory is not well understood by neuroscience, but there are a few properties of memory that have been well studied. For example, it is known that there are different forms of memory, and that these are distinguished by how fragile the memory is and by the quantity of information the memory can hold. Short-term memory sometimes lasts for only a fraction of a second and can barely hold a handful of elements. For example, if a number string is flashed on the screen, you might only be able to recall a few of the numbers, and even then not remember them for more than a few seconds after the event. However, other forms of memory are capable of holding information for a long time. This form of long-term memory is durable and seemingly expandable without limit. For example, maybe you learned a poem or lines from a play in elementary school and committed it to memory: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And perhaps those are not the only lines that you've memorized and committed to memory. Yet, such memories sometimes remain accessible for a lifetime.
One theory of memory that applies especially to words is that the volatile short-term memories are converted into longer-term memories that are stable through a process of repetition, sometimes referred to as "rehearsal." For example, if somebody tells you his or her phone number, in order to remember it for more than a few seconds, you might silently repeat the number to yourself, saying the number over and over, rehearsing it until your memory of this number feels stable.
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Attention interacts with learning in a number of ways. First, attention alters the quality of the sensory input. Have you ever tried to listen to a conversation at a noisy party? Even though it's difficult to follow the thread of the conversation, if the discussion is interesting, you're able to hear and make sense of the conversation despite all the noise and distraction. Attention is what allows you to follow the conversation by directing neurological resources toward sensory events of interest, inhibiting information that distracts. Thus, attention promotes learning by improving the quality of the information perceived by the brain, to ensure that the brain is receiving information coming primarily from the informational event we want to learn.
Have you ever tried to remember a phone number while a friend tries to distract you by saying some random numbers? Attention helps build memories by keeping such distractions at bay, and this allows rehearsal to take place unimpeded, enabling the information in short-term memory to make its way into stable long-term memory. If your abilities for attention are poor, or if your attention is otherwise overloaded, you are more likely to be distracted during rehearsal, and this distraction, in turn, could interrupt the process required for building stable memories.
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