Two Types of Learning

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I originally wrote this in response to some reading I was doing about the psychology of which was discussing some interesting studies on in children versus in adults. I no longer recall the name of the book.

Initial development in animals occurs by overproducing synapses and then pruning away those that aren’t used. This allows for maximal flexibility and adaptation to the environment. For example, if one eye is damaged at birth, the other eye will get more synaptic connections, while the damaged eye receives fewer synaptic connections. In adults, however, new synaptic connections are built as learning occurs, rather than pruning away existing connections. 

The first kind of learning–by pruning away existing connections–enables more complete responses than the second kind. As an analogy, imagine that you are given 1,000 different shades of paint and then start a course in landscape painting. You learn to rely on certain oft-repeated colors. Those less used colors work their way to the bottom of the paint box and may eventually be thrown away altogether. Now, if you suddenly switch to still-lifes or portraiture you may find that you no longer have some colors you need, so you have to make due with less accurate colors. You have exactly what you need for the job you do most often, in this case, painting landscapes. The problem is, once the unused paints are thrown away, you no longer have them if the job changes.

That brings us to the second type of learning; that of building new synaptic connections that were lost long ago, or maybe never existed in the first place. The good news is, it can often be done. For example, an adult speaker of English can, with careful training, be taught to hear sounds in Russian that don’t exist in English. Some times.

Some things may be trained while others may not yield to training. And some things, while trainable, may not ever be mastered as well as if you had used the first way of learning. That’s why most people must learn languages before puberty if they want to speak those languages without an accent. You can learn Russian or Chinese or English as an adult, but it’s much more difficult to learn to speak it as fluently as you would have had you learned it as a child.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “Two Types of Learning”

  1. It is encouraging to know that we can build new synapses in our brains. I would like to hear more about how we, as adults, can make this happen and more detail about how it works.

  2. I managed to track down the book mentioned above. It is How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, by the National Research Council. Chapter 5, pp. 114-127 gives the key background to what I said above, but the rest of the book really expands on that. The short answer to your question, Lauren, is that you build new synapses by learning. According to the research described in the book, “This process is not only sensitive to experience, it is actually driven by experience. Synapse addition probably lies at the base of some, or even most, forms of memory.” In other words, this is what naturally happens as you learn. Check out the book! It explains in great detail and describes the research on which this is based.

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