todd_siler's picture
Founder and director of Psi-Phi Communications
What is the nature of learning?


That question strikes me as being as infinitely perplexing and personal as, What's the meaning of life? But that's the beauty of its ambiguity, and the challenge I enjoy grasping at its slippery complexity.

Recent insights into the neural basis of memory have provided a couple of key pieces to the puzzle of learning. The neuropsychological research on "elaborative encoding," for example, has shown that the long-term retention of information involves a spontaneous, connection-making process that produces web-like associative linkages of evocative images, words, objects, events, ideas, sensory impressions and experiences.

Parallel insights have emerged from the exploratory work on learning that's being conducted in the field of education and business, which involves constructing multi-dimensional symbolic models. The symbolic modeling process enables people to give form to their thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and viewpoints. By making tangible the unconscious creative process by which we use our tacit and explicit knowledge, the symbolic models help reveal what we think, how we think and what we remember. They represent our thought processes in a deep and comprehensive way, showing the different ways we use our many intelligences, styles of learning, and creative inquiry. In effect, the models demonstrate how people create things to remember, and remember things by engaging in a form of physical thinking.

Underneath our layers of individuality lives a core of universal emotions that comprise a "global common language." This language of feelings and sensory impressions not only unites us as human beings, but also connects our creative process. It also enables us to generate ideas together, create new knowledge and transfer it, come to some deep shared understanding of ourselves or given subject, as well as communicate this understanding across the various cultural, social and educational barriers, that divide us. The studies on elaborative encoding provide some basic insights into how these symbolic models work as a kind of global common language, which people use to freely build on the things they already knew and have an emotional connection with.

In short: the symbolic models open up other pathways to understand-ing the brainwork behind learning, remembering and the process by which we selectively apply what we learn when we create.

As Dr. Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine states, "What we think of as memories are ultimately patterns of connection among nerve cells." The Harvard psychologist Daniel Schachter arrived at a similar conclusion when examining the 'unconscious processes of implicit knowledge' and its relation to memory.

Clearly, when our brains are engaged by information that, literally and figuratively speaking, "connects with us" (in more ways than one), we not only remember it better, but tend to creatively act on it as well. Symbolic modeling makes this fact self-evident.

How can we improve the way we learn, and foster the learning process over a lifetime? How can we make the information we absorb daily more personally meaningful, purposeful and memorable?

The answers remain to be seen in our connection-making process. This private act of creation is becoming increasingly more public and apparent through functional MRI studies and other medical imaging techniques. Perhaps a more productive strategy for illuminating this connection-making process would be to combine these high-tech "windows" to the world of the mind with low-tech imaging tools, such as symbolic modeling. The combination of these tools would provide a more comprehensive picture of learning.

The ability to learn ­ or inability ­ seems to determine our happiness and well being, not to mention the success we experience from realizing our potential. Understanding the conditions that galvanize great, memorable learning experiences will move us closer to understanding the creative engine that powers our individual and collective growth: learning.