• Arturs Pilkevics

Learning About Learning: Use the Butter in Your Brain!

Updated: Feb 21, 2020


I get a deep sense of satisfaction and a sort of a special excitement not only when I have learned something new myself, but also when I see someone else learning. To me, this probably explains my success as an educator on three continents. As an American composer Scott Hayden sharply remarked: "Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together." Being a principal, I can definitely say this must largely apply to an educational administrator if you want to enjoy your job. Some time ago, influenced by some fellow educators, I started to get interested in the very question of what is learning and how it happens. This inquiry has led me on a journey of discoveries that I would like to share in a series of posts with the goal of inspiring everyone to think, learn, share, and flourish. The question I would like to bring to light today, is: "Can everyone learn to be really good at something?" By answering it, I hope to delve into the basic physiological principles underlying learning.

Myelin and the Butter in Einstein's Brain

The idea that "everyone can learn" is spreading around the globe with unprecedented speed. My personal encounter with this simple, but profound idea was 7 years ago when a colleague shared a book that she was using with her Psychology class students - "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. Here is a video trailer with a good summary by the author himself. Coyle argues that talent or exceptional mastery in some area is not something extraordinary, but a product of deliberate, focused practice and can be explained. Coyle concentrates on a process called myelination. It is the process of coating the axon of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently. It is produced when we practice something deliberately resulting in experts having much better myelination in circuits that execute a particular skill (1).

This led Coyle to squeeze even such geniuses as Einstein and Mozart from the realm of extraordinary (what about "extraterrestrial"?) talents, into the humble existence of simply hard working and determined individuals. Einstein's brain was found to be smaller than average size and lighter than the average weight. However, he had a significantly larger than average number of glial cells in the left inferior parietal lobe. It turns out these glial cells support and produce myelin. At the time the finding was considered so meaningless as to be nearly comical - apart from the function of these cells being unknown, glial cells are fatty and white - in other words: "What's that butter doing in Einstein's brain?" Now it makes perfect sense, as we know what myelin is for.

In Mozart's case, we know that by his sixth birthday, he had studied 3,500 hours of music with his instructor-father - a fact that places his musical memory in the realm of impressive but obtainable. Coyle further explains that geniuses tend to excel within narrow domains that feature clear, logical rules, like piano and math. They typically accumulate massive amounts of prior exposure to those domains, through such means as listening to music in the home. "The true expertise of these geniuses, the research suggests, resides in their ability to deep-practice obsessively, even when it doesn't necessarily look like they're practicing." As you may have sensed, Coyle is a strong proponent of the 10 000 hours theory - a notion that any skill can be mastered in ten thousand hours. This theory is based on the work of a Swedish researcher Anders Ericsson, who by delving into understanding how memory works discovered the limitless potential of learning and its physiological principles. However, it is important to note that Ericsson himself criticized the "10000 hours" as oversimplification of his findings. For one, the 10000 is an average from a range of 2000 -18000 in his study (depending on the skill) and it does not take a PhD to understand that averaging in this case is not the best idea. After all, you don't want to plan on sweating ten thousand hours imagining yourself performing solo in the La Scala Opera only to realize at the end that this particular skill will actually need another six thousand or so to get there. It is of great relief that unlike Malcolm Gladwell in his Outliers, Daniel Coyle does mention that this is an oversimplification, even if the underlying principle is very true.

One more fascinating and somewhat amusing fact mentioned in the Talent Code is about the world's fastest runners. Even though speed, of all things, seems such a random gift, there is one pattern or commonality among the world's fastest sprinters that is not just hard work - they were born, on average, fourth in families of 4.6 children. "This pattern suggests that speed is not purely a gift but a skill that grows through deep practice, and that is ignited by primal cues. In this case the cue is: you're behind—keep up! We can safely imagine that in most families this signal is sent and received hundreds if not thousands of times over the childhood years, sent by older, bigger kids to smaller, younger ones, who respond with levels of effort and intensity that those older children (who share the same genetic inheritance) never had the opportunity to experience." To add to his explanation, I would also mention another important principle of learning - the mirror neurons.

The Mirror Neurons and the Baby Geniuses

Another aspect in the process of learning is related to the peculiar working of very special cells called Mirror Neurons. They are a fascinating bunch in our brain that, among other things, primes us for learning. Several studies have shown that simply looking at an execution of a motion by another person triggers a response from the special type of neurons located in the same are where the motion is actually executed. In other words, we mimic the motion even by looking at it and thus can learn more efficiently when we are actually executing it. This helps explain the fastest sprinters being late children even better - even before constantly having to "catch up" (execute), the mirror neurons in the heads of our cute baby sprinters had a chance to imitate their older siblings with a strong motivation to learn.

To me, this discovery about the function of the mirror neurons provides an answer to a question I often hear in my workshops with PE teachers and coaches. Hearing the deliberate practice argument, they are often curious how and why by the age of 5-6, when they get their first trainees, there is already a clear distinction between so called "talented" and "non-talented" kids in a particular sport or craft. My usual counter question is about their family or life style - potential exposure to a particular skill or related skill set. These very subjective informal inquiries usually prove the point about the mirror neurons - the talented kids are either younger siblings or have been exposed to the particular sport or skill in some circumstances. A 6-year old who takes a basketball and starts dribbling has either seen or done it with somebody somewhere before. A perfect example is portrayed in the documentary about Kristaps Porzingis, a young NBA star from Latvia. The rare footage shows him during his 5th birthday, when he plays some very clumsy basketball on a newly made mini basketball court that his father built so little Kristaps could play with his much older brothers. The baskets are lower, the court is tiny, but Kristaps is surely getting his myelin pumped and mirror neurons happily firing towards his NBA career (3).

Mirror neurons have also been found to play a crucial role in what defines us a human - our ability to relate, to sympathize, to forgive, and even to engage in such a strange phenomenon as speaking a language. This is a separate topic and will be explored in a later blog about the social aspect of learning.

The Malleable Brain and the London Taxi Drivers

The final principle from the neuroscience that speaks to the “everyone can learn” notion is the plasticity of the brain. Apart from the above mentioned myelination, specializing in a certain area or skill results in more density of synaptic connections in that area. Brain scans show a picture of something that looks almost like lumps in the areas of the brain specializing in execution of some skill very particular to the craft. For example, violin players have been found to have such a lump in the area governing the fine motor movements of the fingers on the left hand (6) - the very fingers that work so hard and so precise to give us the beautiful, complicated, fast and gentle, virtuous Four Seasons of Vivaldi.

The same findings have been confirmed in research about the experts in other fields - math (7), languages (8), and even a craft such as... taxi driving. This study is particularly interesting and encouraging as it focused on the mature, seemingly less malleable brains of the adults. The London Cab taxi drivers undergo training for memorization of London street map before they take a computerized exam using a simulator to deliver an imagined client from point A to B by memory. The study has shown that taxi drivers who memorize the maps effectively produce structural, observable changes in hippocampus, the area of the brain heavily involved in storing and retrieving memories (4). This not only confirms that we can change and rewire our brains, but also that we can do it well after the careless and free years of childhood and adolescence.

Now, I will try to distill each post to a summary of major implications for teaching and learning:

Implications for Teaching and Learning:

  • Generally speaking, the more we learn about the brain, the more we understand that everyone can indeed learn. For teachers, it means clearly realizing that even your weakest student can learn if he or she devotes time and deliberate practice to it.

  • Practice and repetition does make perfect, but it has to be deliberate, focused, and at the right level of difficulty. If it is too easy, no myelin will be produced and no effective learning gain towards mastery can be achieved.

  • On the other hand, new synapses in the brain form on the existing neurons and connections. When possible learning should go from simple to complex, from slow to fast. If the task is too hard, the new connections cannot form as they have no basis. The learning has to be chunked down to be in the zone of proximal challenge.

  • Great teaching is giving precise and ongoing feedback to the learner at the early stages of the learning process with the objective to adjust his/her practices to hit the sweet spot of correct understanding or execution, then letting them execute it to perfection (well myelinated).

  • Great teaching is accompanied by expert demonstrations to prime learning and activate mirror neurons.

  • Learning should feel like struggle at first - before the new synapses are not well myelinated, the process of execution is not efficient. Mistakes are part of the process - there is no instant perfection, no fast learning of a complex skill and time is needed for the particular circuit to emerge and myelinate. Therefore great teaching involves lots of encouragement on the part of the teacher, and lots of patience and persistence on the part of learner.

  • Research has shown that telling learners about these processes in the brain and emphasizing the physiological aspect of learning helps learners to get rid of false perceptions about their own inability to learn. This results in better learning outcomes.

I am sure a careful reader, with experience in education or parenting, will challenge the simplicity of these findings, even if the underlying ideas are certainly helpful. For example, as a teacher I would still ask why, in spite of demonstrations, explanations, facilitating deliberate practice, the learning outcomes in the class are very different? Or why are they different on two different days or for classes that take place during different parts of the school day? As an administrator I would go further to ask why the same teaching methodology applied by two different teachers yields different results in the same learners? Finally, as a parent I would certainly ask why my own three kids are so different in their learning approaches in spite of experiencing a very similar environment, upbringing and education?

These questions led me to my further exploration of how we learn that will be explained in the following posts. Indeed the picture is more complex. I hope, however, I have provided a good outline in accordance with the principle we just learned - from simple to more complex!

Sources:

1. Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code. Random House, 2010. p.42-45

2. Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code. Random House, 2010. p.116

3. Porziņģis. No Liepājas Līdz Ņujorkai. 18 Oct. 2016, ltv.lsm.lv/lv/raksts/18.10.2016-porzingis.-no-liepajas-lidz-nujorkai.id82275/

4. Woollett, K., H. Spiers J., and E. Maguire A. "Talent in the Taxi: A Model System for Exploring Expertise." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1522 (2009)

5. Munte T.F., Altenmuller E., Jancke L. The musician's brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2002;3:473–478

6. Gaser C., Schlaug G. Gray matter differences between musicians and nonmusicians. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 2003;999:514–517. doi:10.1196/annals.1284.062 [PubMed]

7. Aydin K., Ucar A., Oguz K.K., Okur O.O., Agayev A., Unal Z., Yilmaz S., Ozturk C. Increased gray matter density in the parietal cortex of mathematicians: a voxel-based morphometry study. Am. J. Neuroradiol. 2007;28:1859–1864. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A0696 [PubMed]

8. Mechelli A., Crinion J.T., Noppeney U., O'Doherty J., Ashburner J., Frackowiak R.S., Price C.J. Neurolinguistics: structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature. 2004;431:757. doi:10.1038/431757a [PubMed]


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