Manfred Spitzer likes to warm up his audience by putting provocative theories to them. That’s just what he did in his keynote speech at the tts Forum, which he kicked off by showing them pictures of three brains. They are all strikingly different from a typical brain, as each lacks a large proportion of brain mass.
“What’s funny about this example,” says the neuroscientist, “is that these three people are clinically quite normal.” A huge sense of amazement engulfs the audience. In the first case, half of a three-year-old girl’s brain was removed due to a life-threatening illness. Yet four years later, no limitations on her brain performance could be detected, despite the surgery.
She has learned to manage her life with half a brain, Spitzer says, adding that, although the part of the brain that houses the language center has been removed, the child speaks two languages fluently. “If you can speak two languages without a language center,” Spitzer asks his audience, “how many are possible WITH one?”
How does our brain learn?
Spitzer argues that the other pictures, too, demonstrate how little mass our brains need to function apparently smoothly. “In that case, why do 20 percent of ‘normal’ people not manage to graduate from high school?” he asks. “It probably isn’t down to the individuals but because of the school,” he concludes.
He then explains the brain’s basic functioning using several images of neurons. “Synapses, neurons, neurotransmitters – nowadays, every high school student learns how the nervous system works.” However, he adds, it’s interesting what these students do not learn: “That’s to say, what it all means.”
Spitzer observes that it is especially fascinating to examine why synapses are needed and why electrical impulses in these are transmitted chemically. A human brain has one quadrillion synapses – a one with fifteen zeros after it. And the more often a synapse is used – i.e. the more it transmits impulses – the more its shape and its connections to other neurons change.
Is our brain a hard drive?
“That’s precisely what learning is,” says Spitzer. An important point we can infer from this is that the brain is not well adapted to learning things by rote. “We aren’t designed to learn facts,” he emphasizes. “Your brain is not a hard drive, nor is it a cassette or video recorder.”
That’s the bad news. However, Spitzer also has some good news: “Your brain is better than a hard drive!” He explains why, using the example of a baby learning to walk. At first glance, this seems an easy process. Its complexity only becomes apparent when researchers try to teach a robot to do the same.
If it wasn’t already clear how much effort this involves, it is now. In the case of a baby, its brain does this work. It pulls itself up and falls over – again and again. It practices for weeks on end without giving up, until it finally succeeds. “I don’t know of any baby that, after two months, has thought: I give up, it’s too much like hard work,” Spitzer laughs.
If the brain stored facts, the process would be completely different. “So, how does a baby learn to walk?” he asks his audience. “Quite simply, it stumbles upon the answer, time and time again.” Although this might sound funny, it is an absolutely serious part of the learning process. Because at every single attempt, the baby recognizes relationships between different movements, which are then mapped out by the brain. The realization that this process occurs entirely by itself is key. The brain can do nothing but learn.
Learning to speak follows the same principle. Experiments have shown that a baby is already learning the grammar of its native language from the age of seven months. To ensure a child is ready to start school by the age of six, it is actually essential that the learning process begins so early.
Yet non-specialists are amazed that children correctly apply grammar rules, in the same way as adults, without being able to actively formulate them. Spitzer proves this theory immediately by conducting a small thought experiment with his audience.
The subject of his experiment is the rule that no “ge” is used for the participle of German verbs ending in “-ieren”, as is generally the case. Without thinking about it, the audience directly applies this rule “intuitively” and correctly, even for made-up words. “Your brain masters this rule,” Spitzer says, explaining the successful experiment. “It’s constantly learning rules, whether or not you realize it. The brain can’t help but do anything else – that’s its job. And that’s precisely why we have one quadrillion synapses.” The brain is therefore always learning. It’s just unfortunate that children do not always learn what adults or teachers think is useful.
Learning leaves trails in the brain – both good and bad
However, recent studies show that frequently, intensively or simultaneously using various media is harmful to the brain’s ability to learn. “Multitasking calls for one thing above all – inattentiveness,” says Spitzer. The average screen time in Germany of 5.5 to 6.5 hours a day gives him cause for concern. He believes this “fills our brains with garbage”, which may have long-term consequences for our society and economy.
Based on insights yielded by brain research, he warns against the increasing use of electronic media, particularly in lessons at school. This is because of neurological findings that experiences leave “trails” in our brain. “We’ve known since 2003 that on ‘well-trodden paths’ the going is particularly good,” Spitzer explains. “A specific trail is taken not because it’s the best solution but simply because it’s already there.” That’s why it’s also much easier not to get into a bad habit in the first place than to “unlearn” it after the fact. In contrast, laying a new trail – i.e. learning and thinking – is highly complex.
Interconnectedness is everything – or, what connects math to your fingers?
Successful learning is based on the interconnectedness of the different units in the brain. To illustrate this neurological principle, Spitzer cites various cases that prove the brain works as a network. For example, vision and motor skills are closely linked to one another, which is why in an experiment that involves grabbing blocks of wood, people initially open their fingers wider for a block with the number eight than they do for a block with the number two – after all, eight is bigger than two.
This interdependency can be seen even more clearly in the link between finger games and mathematical skills. Most people learn to count by using their fingers. The international consensus is to count to ten on both hands. The sole exception is the Chinese, who can count to ten on one hand and only need their second hand from eleven onwards. Switching hands has an impact on calculation speeds. Experiments show that the higher the number, the longer it takes to calculate.
The link between finger motor skills and mathematics can also be seen in stroke patients. Whenever patients have difficulty moving their fingers following a stroke, their calculation skills are also impaired. A further discovery is that the more finger games a child plays in kindergarten, the better they will be at mathematics. “So if you want your child to be good at IT later in life, they should not have a laptop in kindergarten,” Spitzer warns.
Professor Spitzer’s team examined this fundamental link between motor and vision skills in a study of its own. This revealed that the connections between the regions of the brain responsible for vision and motor functions have a dramatic impact on thinking speed. This is because each of these two regions accounts for one third of the brain.
If a test participant learns to activate their vision and motor skills simultaneously, two thirds of their brain are active when thinking. “How you’re able to deal with a situation later on depends on the type of training,” says Spitzer, summing up the study. “It therefore matters whether your children experience the world in kindergarten by clicking a mouse or – quite literally – come to grips with things using their motor skills.”
It is in no small part due to this finding that family businesses, for example, are increasingly starting “HR development” in their own daycare centers. Using computers in those environments should as far as possible be avoided, since computers relieve learners of the need to think. Children who do not have to exert themselves learn less and will be less mentally agile in later life.
No studies are yet available regarding the positive impact of using computers on students’ learning behavior. However, a huge amount of research has been carried out into how living environments impact on the development of children’s intelligence. For instance, adoption studies indicate that an adoptive family’s socioeconomic status influences IQ levels.
The educational background of the child’s primary carer also plays an important role. “The impact of a good kindergarten on education is roughly as big as the effect of smoking on lung cancer – i.e. very high,” Spitzer stresses. In his view, investing more money in education is therefore essential.
Teaching old dogs – and puppies
But is the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” also right? First, we need to realize that synapses change in the course of a lifetime. This means that a ten-year-old still learns very quickly, whereas things go into rapid decline thereafter. Even 17-year-olds are markedly slower learners. The learning curve is steepest during children’s years in kindergarten or daycare centers. After that, it continues to falls throughout school and subsequently in adulthood.
This is another reason for investing in early childhood development in particular, according to Spitzer. “The brain is not a normal container but a paradoxical one,” he explains. “The more it has inside, the more that fits!” And that’s why an adult learns completely differently than a child. For instance, if an adult can already speak five languages, they learn the sixth one faster than a child.
But if an adult only knows one language and is to learn another, a child can do this much more quickly. “If at the age of 20 you haven’t yet learned anything, you won’t learn anything in the future either,” says Spitzer provocatively. “Lifelong learning must therefore start right from kindergarten and school.”
The role of emotions in learning
Emotions have a major impact on learning behavior. In the case of fear, the amygdala is key to the type of response. To explain the response process, Spitzer cites the example of someone coming across a snake in a forest. Using their vision, they perceive a snake in front of them. Yet before they actually realize what they see, their amygdala has already recognized the danger and triggered an appropriate response. The amygdala means humans don’t spend a long time deliberating but instead ensure their survival with a simple physical response – i.e. running away. In other contexts, this process is referred to as a “blockade”.
Learning in fear inhibits creative development of solutions. Fear should therefore be prevented from arising in education and training. Spitzer illustrates this with the example of math classes, which many students have problems with because the subject has a reputation for being scary.
A link between thinking capacity and colors has also been demonstrated, as people associate particular emotions with them. For example, the amygdala is activated at the sight of red because it associates it with danger, which therefore impairs creative thinking and impedes our ability to find creative solutions. This may imply you should be less anxious in creative tasks, whereas fear can help when looking for errors because it has been shown to lead to more accurate work.
Learning makes you happy
To conclude his fascinating presentation, Spitzer addresses the impact of positive emotions on learning. The “happiness center” is responsible for positive feelings. When it is activated, various substances are released, including a large quantity of dopamine, which in turn speeds up learning processes.
“When your happiness center kicks in, you learn really fast,” Spitzer says. But the happiness center only fires up if something positive occurs in the form of a new realization. “So what’s activated isn’t your happiness center at all but your learning center,” he explains. “However, lasting happiness isn’t possible.”
The best example is shopping – a popular activity in our society. Experts call it the “hedonistic treadmill” – whereby people keep on buying things because they want to be happy. But this feeling of happiness has been demonstrated to last no more than ten seconds. The happiness has already passed by the time it comes to paying. Nevertheless, “deep inside our brain, happiness and learning are intrinsically connected with one another,” Spitzer says, concluding his presentation. “Lasting happiness isn’t possible, but happiness can return time and again. And you can achieve that through learning.”