Someday not so far away, scientists, astronauts, physicians, pilots, and surgeons will not have to get a formal education. In fact, no one, not even children will have to go to school.
OK, I may be overstating that just a bit.
Let me restate: In the future, the definition and process of learning is shaping up to be quite different than how we know it today. The changes we may see in the future could have big implications on many areas of our lives — education and medicine, to name just a couple.
In the Future, We’re All More Intelligent
I’ve spent a good deal of my little share of the blogosphere discussing how the Millenial and Homelander generations are different from Gen-Xers and Boomers. Here’s another: Millenials and Homelanders and generations beyond will spend less time learning, yet likely know more, than their parents’ generations.
When older generations were growing up, learning involved committing to memory (and hopefully using in practice) various facts about history, language, mathematics, and so on. Let’s face it: some of that information turned out to be not so useful in our adult lives. For example, we may remember facts here and there about the American Civil War – and may be a nasty Trivial Pursuit competitor as a result – but most of us use that information very little in our day-to-day lives.
Its almost inevitable that younger generations will view their parents’ education process as quaint or even wasteful. To their way of thinking, why bother learning more than the basics of how to communicate and manipulate numbers? They already know that the Internet holds more collective knowledge, available at their fingertips 24X7, than they can possibly learn on their own. If they need to know something, they just Google it. Some people consider this ability to instantly access new information in the cloud as a bump in the collective intelligence.
I can almost hear the masses of educators and parents bemoaning how today’s lazy and unmotivated kids are going to ruin the world. In fact, there is a great suspicion of the web in many educational circles. Many educators even limit the types of websites a student can reference in their projects, presuming that students can’t assess the difference between reliable information and misinformation. This seems a bit short-sighted to me: I don’t recall a teacher instructing our class not to use a particular book or newspaper for our projects. Even if, generally speaking, the information we used to be exposed to was more “reliable” because they were filtered by a publisher of some sort, it’s well known that even the books and newspapers of those bygone days contained misinformation, or at least biased information. Better to teach kids how to detect misinformation, I’d say.
I’m slightly off topic… again.
Really, though, is the avoidance of committing to memory a bunch of information you don’t need right now a bad thing? Why not find and use information when you actually need it rather than studying something just to pass an exam?
Well, that just might happen. In the future, we might use new perceptual learning techniques to learn something when its useful as opposed to learning something only for an exam that may or may not be useful to us in the future.
We all already use some degree of perceptual learning today: a child uses perceptual learning to to detect patterns in numbers sequences or a series of shapes, for example. The basic concept will remain the same. What might change is that we may train our brains to enable more dynamic and instant perceptual learning. You know, just like Neo, who sits back in a dentist’s chair, plugs his brain into the Matrix and, upon waking up, has this profound observation: “I know Judo.”
Well, sort of. There are different systems in the brain. Broadly speaking there is the cerebrum, the cerebellum, the limbic system, and the brain stem. The cerebrum is the system involved in higher thought and action, and its this part of the brain that I’m mostly concerned with today. To learn Judo, I’d also need to discuss other parts of the brain that control movement, and hey, I’m not writing a term paper here (You can read this article to see if brain training could be used to learn Judo. Of course, you’ll read it after you read my post, right?). Also, I don’t foresee – or ever hope to see – an era in which parents will consent to having large outlets installed into the backs of their children’s heads.
It used to be thought that the brain was essentially static and somewhat untrainable after 12 months of age. But, in 1994, an Israeli neurobiologist, Dov Sagi, demonstrated that rigorous, extended training in certain visual tasks could improve how well people performed those tasks. Sagi’s study (and others that followed) have proven that the brain is highly plastic and even capable of re-wiring itself well past the age of 12 months.
Neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe recently conducted experiments to see if the brain’s visual system (in the cerebrum) could be used for more instantaneous perceptual learning. First, using an fMRI, Watanabe recorded brain activity patterns while subjects observed diagonal lines on a computer screen. Later, the same subjects were wired up again and then shown a computer image of a small disc. Now here’s where it gets weird: they were asked to use their mental powers to increase the size of the disc. They were not told how to use their mental powers, just to try to mentally increase the disc.
Now, even weirder, many of the subjects – or, rather, the subjects’ brains – actually could make the disc bigger. The connection between the subjects brain and the computer had been set up such that if the subjects could reproduce the brain activity patterns previously recorded, then the disc would grow. Turns out that when faced with a visual challenge, the brain will automatically replay old perception patterns to find a match and “solve” the problem. In effect, the subjects displayed the capability to replicate brain activity patterns and work with “information” through their brain patterns.
So, if this technique could be developed to be used in education, students may not be educated in the traditional sense, but rather be trained to call up certain kinds of brain activity. Once the students’ baseline is established, they would activate the relevant brain pattern while observing material that they need to know. The hope is that the material is then automatically stored in the brain and can be called up as needed to complete a particular task.
I’m guessing here, but it seems that this technique could solve a whole host of educational issues that we struggle with today. We already know that the “one size fits all” or “teaching to the middle” methods aren’t working well. Perhaps this technique will enable us to deliver personalized educational programs for each student? Presumably all students will learn much faster, yet each will learn at their own rate. Maybe learning problems, like dyslexia or ADHD, will be irrelevant? And, maybe, just maybe, all learning will happen at home and kids won’t have to go to a formal school environment any more! (I’m not going to mention this to my kids just yet, but I, for one, will be glad to see the early morning drop-off eradicated from my schedule.)
There’s more. This type of perceptual learning may be something that can happen while the students are asleep just as often as it happens when they are awake. Can you imagine…?
“Now students, your homework assignment tonight is go home, wire your head to your home learning unit, look at a picture of the material for 10 minutes and then take a 2 hour nap. Feel free to stay up all night partying after that. Just be back here tomorrow morning for the exam.”
How many of us would have loved to hear that after calculus or biochemistry class?
Un-learning … and Stanley Kubrick
Have you seen the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It’s definitely one of my top five movies, though I can’t say for sure whether it ranks better than Kick-Ass, Galaxy Quest, Napoleon Dynamite, Bedazzled, or Tropic Thunder … yes, I am that person.
Eternal Sunshine is a great movie (and relevant, which I’ll get to in a minute) because it examined a fascinating and terrifying concept: if the brain could be manipulated to forget painful memories, would it make us happier?
Let’s return to Watanabe’s research. Watanabe also hypothesizes that we could use perceptual learning techniques — but in reverse — as a cure for things like depression, kind of along the same lines as cognitive psychology. For example, a depressed person could go through un-learning therapy (my term), where a doctor would expose the depressed person to images of kittens and babies, record their brain activity during the session and then have the patient access the happy brain activity as the need arose. Alternatively, doctors may use this technique to erase a certain painful time period from a patient’s memory. (Would they also get to wear cool, semi-retro suits and get an instant memory-zapper tool like Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black?)
Amazing as it sounds, I’m not so sure that un-learning or erasing memories would be a good or desirable “cure”. Watanabe suggests erasing a whole time period, as opposed to selective events, from a person’s memory. Would we really want that? Maybe for people with certain kinds of mental issues, like soldiers who suffer from PTSD, erasing a whole year might make sense. But for the man on the street, both good and bad things happen through the course of a year. Surely painful experiences have lessons to teach us. And what is life without both joy and pain? Boring.
Certainly there’s also the potential for chaos and confusion. Wouldn’t your co-workers look at you a little funny if you can’t remember what you discussed in the last team meeting? I’m thinking that erasing your memories might be a career-limiting move. (I’m also thinking that I’ve worked with a few people who may have already had this procedure.)
I’ll concede that there would be something about un-learning that could help with problems caused by poor habits and deficient thought patterns. For example, if un-learning could curb Americans’ cravings for processed, high-fat, sugary foods (except, of course, chocolate) and increase our desire to exercise, maybe we could solve the obesity crisis. Ditto for smoking. Also, repeat criminal offenders have been shown to fall victim to poor reasoning. Maybe un-learning could help them rehabilitate? Along those same lines, could teenagers become people that their parents can live with???
But, Will It Work?
If un-learning comes to pass, I’m kinda hoping it turns out the same way it did in Eternal Sunshine: (SPOILER ALERT) ultimately the characters who go through the memory erasing procedure are inevitably drawn to back to the person they wanted to forget. The moral: Not even amazing technology can usurp Fate.