When we think of learning, we often think of it as a result of an effort to become more intelligent or more skilled in a particular area or subject matter. For example, we practice problem sets to learn mathematics. When we finally become a master mathematician, we assume that the countless hours of math practiced is math we’ve come to learn.
However, that is not exactly the case.
Luckily, as humans, and highly intelligent animals, not only do we learn, but we learn to learn. When we finally become a master mathematician, it is not because we know more math, but because we have learned to learn and do math more efficiently. We become more attuned to the language and environment of math and, as a result, can do math more effectively.
Learning to learn involves identifying patterns from the information among an array of learning experiences. These patterns can then be applied to alternate and novel experiences in a more generalized manner to increase efficiency of task completion and environmental interactions. The better we become at identifying patterns, the better we become at reacting to similar learning situations in the future.
Harry Harlow demonstrated the ability of highly intelligent animals to learn to learn. Monkeys were presents with two doors to open, one with food and one without food. They were tested for six trials, throughout which the food was kept behind the same door for six trials. Regardless of whether or not they opened the correct door, if the monkeys learned after Trial 1, they were expected to choose the door with food for Trial 2. In actuality, the monkeys showed patterns of guessing or choosing the right door by chance in the earlier trials. However, toward the end of the six trials, the monkeys showed the ability to intentionally choose the correct door consistently, demonstrating that the monkeys had understood the pattern.
Learning is strongly tied to memory, which are both highly constructive, rather than reproductive, in nature. Information that is learned is store in our brains as meaningful connections, concepts, or patterns. The more we exercise and enrich those neural connections, the easier it is for us to access them in order to construct new inferences and ideas in future situations. Learning to learn, and continually learning, can help to make us more multi-apt and adaptable in the world –which is never a bad thing. So, as we start our new year’s resolutions to train our bodies, we shouldn’t neglect training our brains as well.