The Internet is rife with bloggers and columnists discussing the importance of becoming a meta-learner; that is, someone who actively seeks awareness about how they learn best, and leverages this awareness to become a more effective learner. This IS important. I’m hugely inspired by these sorts of strategies and ideas, and I’ll be coming back to this in a later post. But I want to call attention to a very different reason why learning about learning is important.
Recently, I had to write a government grant proposal about a research topic I’d like to pursue in graduate school. In general, these sorts of things make for pretty dull writing experiences that require endless hours poring over dry academic literature. However, this grant demands that the writer think broadly about the ways their research may impact society. I’ve long been fascinated by how we are able to learn, store and recall information, and how these processes are regulated from the level of molecules to human behavior. Medical implications of discoveries in this area are clear – if we understand how learning and memory normally work, we can figure out where they go wrong in conditions like Alzheimer’s, autism and traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, the Broader Impacts section of my grant was not going to be this simple to write, as the grant demands that the research not have any kind of medical focus whatsoever.
This sad fact forced me to ask myself: why else should anyone care about learning about learning? Meta-learning and effective skill acquisition are a couple of great reasons: maybe you want to become a world-class swimmer in 10 days or read 300% faster in 20 minutes, and maybe learning about learning would help you accomplish these things. And that would be great for you. While I fully support your efforts to learn the four guitar chords that make up just about every pop song in record time, I propose to you that learning about learning may end up being one of the single most important factors in curtailing ever-increasing socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. and abroad. Does this sound like a total stretch? It probably is, but let me unpack my thinking a bit, starting with some background about how memories form in the brain.
The Science of Memory
The hippocampus is a paired, seahorse-shaped structure in the mammalian brain that scientists have long thought to be the key structure involved in the acquisition and consolidation of short and long term memories. Through an electrochemical signaling process called long-term potentiation, neural circuits housed in the hippocampus encode information into memories that are eventually transferred to regions of the cerebral cortex for long-term storage.
The importance of the hippocampus was established in part thanks to H.M., a man who had his hippocampi removed to cure his intractable epilepsy, and was subsequently unable to form new memories. Countless laboratory studies have since demonstrated the importance of the hippocampus in memory formation. Unlike most other parts of the brain, the hippocampus is unique in that it has the ability to grow new brain cells throughout an organism’s lifespan, a process called neurogenesis. The integrity of this process is critical for the hippocampus to maintain normal function.
Your Brain on Stress
There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that chronic stress inflicts severe damage on several regions of our brain, including the hippocampus. When we get stressed out, our brain releases cortisol, which affects the integrity of neuronal connections in the hippocampus and interferes with neurogenesis. Two recent studies from researchers at the University of Washington found that chronic stress reduces hippocampal volume and disrupts an animal’s ability to learn where they are in space.
Income inequality in the United States is at an astoundingly high level. The middle class is rapidly disappearing, and the top fifth of U.S. income earners possess 84% of the wealth generated in the country. As of 2014, a shocking 47 million people in the U.S. were living below the poverty line. A disproportionate number of people in the U.S. face an unfathomable level of chronic stress on a daily basis as they try to figure out how to pay rent and feed their families, things many of us take for granted.
Anyone who has found themselves in a financial hole knows that it can be difficult to escape, and it turns out that the reasons for this may be rooted just as deeply in biology as they are in socioeconomics. Early in 2015, scientists from Columbia University in New York City confirmed what many others had long suspected: children from low-income families, which tend to be disproportionately ethnic minorities, have a lower overall brain volume and decreased capacity for memory than their wealthier counterparts. The researchers suggest that this difference may begin while a child is still in the womb. Considering what we know about the effects of stress on our ability to learn, it’s not hard to imagine why people of lower socioeconomic status often struggle to improve their financial situation (hint: it’s not just because they can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”).
From the Bench to The Hill
One way to break this cycle is revamping and improving the effectiveness of our educational system. If we understand more about how the brain works to learn and remember, and especially how differences in environmental stressors like socioeconomic disparity play into this, we can craft better, scientifically-informed educational policies that are designed to directly address these differences.
Of course, few would deny that many of the root causes of socioeconomic disparity in America are deeply entrenched in political corruption, institutionalized racism and the greed of a select few. Obviously, learning about how learning works in the brain is not going to solve social injustice. Still, as our understanding of complex human behaviors like learning becomes more sophisticated, neuroscientists will have an increasingly important role to play in the conversations surrounding issues of social justice and public policy. And while we’re at it, maybe someone can figure out why Antonin Scalia hasn’t yet learned that we’re no longer in the year 1950.
George Carlin’s take on wealth disparity and the American Dream:
Music video for Radiohead’s All I Need. Social injustice may be a huge problem in the U.S., but the unfortunate reality is that things can always be worse: