Tag Archives: learning


Making Mistakes while Learning facilitates Memory

Topping conventional thinking, a new study found that making mistakes while learning can benefit memory, but only when the wrong answer is close to the right one. Random guesses can actually harm memory of the subject, the study found. The result held true for both young and old adults alike, with profound implications for clinical memory rehabilitation for the elderly. A process where participants are guided and encouraged to make the right kind of errors can be beneficial.

Mistakes (not random guesses) help learning, no matter the age


Credit: Morgan Cafe

“Making random guesses does not appear to benefit later memory for the right answer , but near-miss guesses act as stepping stones for retrieval of the correct information – and this benefit is seen in younger and older adults,” says lead investigator Andrée-Ann Cyr, a graduate student with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.

The research is controversial controversial considering past literature recommends the elderly to avoid making mistakes, unlike young adult who benefit from them.

[RELATED] Brain training may boost working memory, but not intelligence

Cyr and colleagues enlisted 65 healthy younger adults (average age 22) and 64 healthy older adults (average age 72) and asked them to play a memory game. The participants had to learntarget words (e.g., rose) based either on the semantic category it belongs to (e.g., a flower) or its word stem (e.g., a word that begins with the letters ‘ro’). For half of the words, participants were given the answer right away (e.g., “the answer is rose”) and for the other half, they were asked to guess at it before seeing the answer (e.g., a flower: “Is it tulip?” or ro___ : “is it rope?”). On a later memory test, participants had were shown the categories or word stems and had to come up with the right answer.

The researchers found participants, young or old alike, were better at remembering words when they made wrong guesses prior to study them, as opposed to seeing the answer right away. This held true, however, only when the answers were learned by category. Guessing actually made memory worse when words were learned based on word stems (e.g., ro___).

This happens, the authors write, because the brain organizes information conceptually, instead of relating information by lexical family. When you think of the word “pear”, the next thing that might pop to mind is another fruit or some other kind of food (pear pie), instead of a similar word like “peer”. The conclusion is that wrong answers or guess only add value to the learning process when these are related to the right answer. The guess tulip may be wrong, but it is still conceptually close to the right answer rose (both are flowers). Also, by first having a guess instead of just memorizing the right answer, the brain is engaged in making connections that might prove useful in retrieving the right answer later on. Random guesses, on the other hand, clutter memory and inhibit learning.

Since the findings held true for both young and elderly adults alike, a shift in clinical procedure might be warranted.

“These results have profound clinical and practical implications. They turn traditional views of best practices in memory rehabilitation for healthy seniors on their head by demonstrating that making the right kind of errors can be beneficial. They also provide great hope for lifelong learning and guidance for how seniors should study,” says Dr. Nicole Anderson, senior scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and senior author on the study.

The study was published online today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

Photo: quotevadis.com

Curiosity sparks Brain Mechanisms that Facilitate Learning

Whether we’re assigned a learning task or choose to follow it, those subjects that interest us are always easier to comprehend, assimilate and remember over a long time. In this context, interest is actually another word for curiosity and a new research found that it is an important factor for effective learning. The team at University of California, Davis, found that a dopamine spike sparked by curiosity facilitates learning not only of the subject at hand, but incidental information also. The findings could prove useful to doctors looking to treat people with memory deficiency, like those suffering of Parkinson’s, as well as professional working in education to inspire them to make their classes more curiosity orientated.

Preparing the brain for learning

Photo: quotevadis.com

Photo: quotevadis.com

The UC Davis team invited 19 participants to answer a trivia questionnaire made up of 112 questions. In the test, the volunteers had to rate how confident they were of responding correctly to the question at hand, as well as how interesting they found it. The again, another round of trivia was given, with questions made up only of those the participants didn’t answer right – half intriguing, half downright boring. After each question appeared on the screen, following a 14 second pause, a random face flashed for up to two seconds. The answer to the question was then revealed. The whole process was carried out while the participants had their brain activity scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

[RELATED] Most detailed map of the developing human brain released

The scans showed that during the waiting period brain activity ramped up in two regions in the midbrain, the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens. These regions are responsible for transmitting dopamine – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure and regulates the reward system. This suggests that the brain was already engaged in the reward system, triggering pleasure before the answer to the question was revealed. The more curious a subject was, the more his or her brain engaged this anticipatory network, brain scans showed.

“When we compare trials where people are highly curious to know an answer with trials where they are not, and look at the differences in brain activity, it beautifully follows the pathways in the brain that are involved in transmitting dopamine signals,” said Chara Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. “The activity ramps up and the amount it ramps up is highly correlated with how curious they are.”

An hour later after the initial trivia, participants were engaged in a memory test. The results show that students were more apt remembering both the answer and related face (incidental info) related to questions that sparked their curiosity.  On average, they remembered 35 of 50 answers when they were curious, compared with 27 out of 50 when they were not. Similar results were reported when a memory test was conducted a day after the initial trivia round suggesting the effects curiosity has on memory are long-lasting.

[ALSO READ] Heavily decorated classrooms disrupts attention and learning in children

Besides, an increased dopamine rush, fMRI scans showed that curiosity was increased activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory formation.  In fact, the degree to which the hippocampus and reward pathways interacted could predict an individual’s ability to remember the incidentally introduced faces. Basically, curiosity prepped the brain for learning.

“There are times when people feel they can take in a lot of new information, and other times when they feel their memories are terrible,” said Ranganath. “This work suggests that once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning. Once you get this ramp-up of dopamine, the brain becomes more like a sponge that’s ready to soak up whatever is happening.”

The findings reported in the journal Neuron could prove to be very important for optimizing knowledge acquisition in education. More engaged classes that spur curiosity could have a long lasting effect. Curiosity, however, is a subjective trait; people get excited by different subjects. This would explain why so many kids feel burned out at school, where they’re exposed to a plethora of general subjects – some to their liking, while others come off as totally boring.


Active learning greatly outperforms passive lecturing in classrooms

BORED_classroomMost University professors still rely on passive lectures to get their subject across. A meta-study which analyzed 225 studies found that active teaching – lectures that actively engage students and make the learning experience two-way – improves grades and significantly reduces fail rates. The findings add to an already body of literature that suggests the current dominant teaching model is underperforming and obsolete.

Revising the way education is being transferred

“It’s no longer necessary to prove that active-learning methods are better than traditional lectures,” says Rory Waterman, a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont who is an advocate for active-learning methods and a coorganizer of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative New Faculty Workshop. “The field can instead focus on which active-learning methods are most effective and how they can be best implemented.”

Scott Freeman, a biology lecturer and education researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues combed through a myriad of studies looking for data that would tell them what kind of impact active learning has. In their paper, the researchers define active learning  as any method that engages students in the process of learning as opposed to passively listening to a lecture. This includes anything from so-called ‘clickers’ – an audience response device which allows lecture attendees to participate in the lecture actively – to the common, yet proven study groups, big or small. The findings suggests that active learning outperforms passive lecturing on all levels – be it chemistry or physics, small or large groups.

On average, score cards improved by one-third of a letter grade. While this might not seem like much, the importance of active learning becomes striking when we look at how it improves student retention rates. Students in traditional lectures are 55% more likely to receive a grade of D or F or to withdraw from a class than are students being taught with active-learning approaches. This tremendous improvement, the researchers write, costs only 10% of the lecture’s time. So just by engaging students for even five minutes during a lecture, a professor can significantly improve his class’ scores and overall learning – statistically speaking, at least.

Susan Singer, director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, believes active learning is most important in science disciplines, where student retention rates are usually lower than other fields.

The study warns, however, that it’s not enough to implement active learning in your class – you have to do it right, too.

“You can goof it up if you don’t do it right,” Freeman explains. He’s witnessed “clicker abuse” in some classes. “There’s a literature on how to use clickers effectively. People have never read any of those papers. They’re just doing it off the cuff. For a scientist or engineer who’s trained to respect evidence and act on it, it’s just horrifying.”

Eventually, Freeman hopes, the study might help educators who still rely on traditional teaching methods to revise their course and migrate to a more engaged method.

“Universities are still over-reliant on lecture-based teaching,” Waterman says, “so helping faculty identify the minimum or first steps they need to take in their classrooms to see these incredible gains in student performance has always seemed to me to be the most practical way to advance student-centered learning.”

Epilepsy drug helps adults learn like when they were kids

An international team of researchers believes they have found a way to reopen critical learning periods in the brain, allowing adults to learn as if they were children, even abilities thought to be restricted to early ages, such as new language learning and absolute pitch development.

Depakine powd for inj 400 mg994f8761-1eea-45d0-9ff0-9fab002243d3.GIFThe drug is known as valproate or valporic acid (VPA) and may be marketed as Depakine. Its main purpose (as it is marketed now) is as a mood stabilizer, especially recommended in epilepsy cases, but also in migraines, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.

According to the study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, researchers believe that the drug increases the plasticity of the brain to more closely resemble that of a child, which allows it to absorb and retain more information faster.

Typically, the critical learning period is defined as “a fixed window of time, usually early in an organism’s lifespan, during which experience has lasting effects on the development of brain function and behavior.” Takao Hensch, a molecular biologist at Harvard wanted to see is such a period could be recreated in adults. He administered to adult males with no musical training and then asked them to attempt to acquire absolute or “perfect” pitch. They used absolute pitch in this study because “there are no known cases of an adult successfully acquiring it.”

Half of the men took the valproate, while the other half a placebo, and then, they were asked to perform online tasks to train their ear to recognize tones. The treatment was not light: the regimen included taking 500 mg (two 250 mg capsules, one in the morning and one at night) for 3 days (days 1–3), followed by 1000 mg (four 250 mg capsules, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and two at night) for 11 days (days 4–14), and taking 250 mg (one capsule) on the morning of the post-treatment assessment (day 15).

“Given the difficulty of improving [absolute pitch] performance in adulthood,” the researchers wrote, “we hypothesize that in our task, even a small advantage in pitch class identification in [the valproate group] as compared to the placebo group is suggestive of the reopening of plasticity, as musically naïve participants were trained for a relatively short time period on several pitch classes, conditions under which no existing study has shown any improvement in [absolute pitch].”

The results seem pretty conclusive: those who took the drug showed major improvements, scoring much higher on pitch tests than those who underwent a similar training but only took the placebo.

“Our study,” the authors conclude, “is the first to show a change in [absolute pitch recognition] with any kind of drug treatment. The finding that [valproate] can restore plasticity in a fundamental perceptual system in adulthood provides compelling evidence that one of the modes of action for [valproate] in psychiatric treatment may be to facilitate reorganization and rewiring of otherwise firmly established pathways in the brain.”

However, before you start popping pills to learn like a kid, you have to know that there are many side effects, some of which can include loss of appetite, pain in your upper stomach, yellow skin or eyes, fever, chills, cough, sore throat, or body aches, as well as massive and rapid bodyweight gain.

Journal Reference: Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch. Judit Gervain, Bradley W. Vines, Lawrence M. Chen, Rubo J. Seo, Takao K. Hensch, Janet F. Werker, and Allan H. Young. Published online 2013 December 3. doi:  10.3389/fnsys.2013.00102

Chemical Experiments

Fun and Exciting Chemical Experiments for Teaching and Learning

There’s no better way to foster interest in science and chemistry than seeing it in full, dazzling action. Most of the time, kids and young people wouldn’t really be all that interested in how chemistry works. They wouldn’t be particularly bothered about the different reactions you can get out of two different chemicals interacting with each other. Teaching them the calculations can drive them up the wall with boredom even further. But chemistry, as those of us who know better, can be extremely exciting and well worth getting interested in. And this especially works if you know all the right combinations to make an impact.

So in case your baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano isn’t quite enough to dazzle  them, here are some truly incredible chemistry experiments that’ll get them paying attention at every moment:

Elephant ToothpasteElephant Toothpaste

They can laugh all they like at the funny name, but “Elephant Toothpaste” is a really amazing chemistry experiment that can be done in the lab. You will need:

–        Hydrogen Peroxide Solution (30%, but if you need it higher, you will need to take safety precautions)

–        Saturated Potassium Iodide (KI)

–        Dishwashing detergent

–        Food coloring

This is pretty easy. Pour a small amount (about 50ml) of the H2O2 into a flask. Add a little bit of dishwashing detergent to it, mixing it gently. Add in a few drops of food coloring for effect. Now take a step back, and pour in a little of the KI solution (10ml or so). The result should be an exothermic reaction that causes a huge amount of colored foam to form, which would then spurt up and out of the cylinder.

The Science: The H2O2 decomposes into water, and the oxygen is then catalyzed by the iodide ion, forming the foam because of the dishwashing detergent that catches the oxygen into the bubbles.

Pharoah's SnakePharaoh’s Serpent

After I saw that video of what looked like a monster rising out of a cellphone in a microwave, I called up my old chemistry professor over VoIP (i.e RingCentral) to see if it was really possible. He replied that it was unlikely, but he did know of an experiment that would make something of a similar, and ultimately creepier (and cooler) effect. Warning: If you’re going to attempt this experiment, it has to be in controlled conditions.

Pharaoh’s Serpent needs:

–        Hg(SCN])2 R Mercury(II) thiocyanate

–        Lighter (or a lighting setup that could allow you to light the substance from a distance)

–        Aluminum foil

–        Face masks

Because the substance has mercury and cyanide in the fumes, it’s very important to have this experiment in a controlled area, as well as with everyone taking proper precautions. On top of an aluminum foil, pour a small amount of Hg(SCN)2. Then, using the igniter, simply set the substance aflame and step back so as not to inhale any of the fumes. The result is that after the substance burns into a dark ash, a huge, winding, snake-like solid will start “crawling” right out of it, rising out of the chemical reaction, until all the material is spent.

The Science: The heat source creates a rapid exothermic reaction in the substance, making the coiling solid.

Gummy bear from HellThe Gummy Bear from Hell

What seems like an innocent gummy bear can cause quite a dazzling chemical reaction. For this experiment, you will need:

–        One gummy bear (a red one, if you want effect)

–        A small test tube

–        Molten Potassium Chlorate (KClO3) – make sure the sample is very pure!

With the small amount of molten KClO3 inside the test tube, preferably suspended and the opening pointed away from people, carefully drop one red gummy bear into it. Watch as the gummy bear ignites the molten chlorate, creating what looks like a firework blasting right inside the test tube, spewing white fumes.

The Science: Potassium chlorate is combustible, as you can draw oxygen out of it. This is what is often used in high schools to create oxygen gas for experimentation. It’s important that the sample is pure so there won’t be any explosive accidents. The sugar in the gummy bear reacts with the chlorate, igniting it, and creating the combustible oxygen “firework” effect.

Now these are some experiments worth getting into.

The unified theory of brain learning

The brain learns basically by shifting between different strengths of its synapses, as a response to different stimuli – that much is clear. However, recently, a team of UCLA scientists have shattered the common belief about the mechanism of learning, showing that the brain learns rhythmically, and that there is an optimal ‘rhythm’, or frequency, for changing synapse strength. Any frequency higher or lower from the optimal one will result in a slower and more inefficient way of learning.

The findings, which, if correct, might pave the way towards a ‘unified theory of the brain‘, could also lead to new therapies for treating learning disabilities. The study was published in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience.


“Many people have learning and memory disorders, and beyond that group, most of us are not Einstein or Mozart,” said Mayank R. Mehta, the paper’s senior author and an associate professor in UCLA’s departments of neurology, neurobiology, physics and astronomy. “Our work suggests that some problems with learning and memory are caused by synapses not being tuned to the right frequency.”

Any change in the strength of a synapse as a result of stimuli is known as synaptic plasticity, and it is induced through so-called ‘spike trains’, series of neural signals that occur with varying frequency and timing. Previous experiments had already shown that stimulating the brain at very high frequencies, such as 100 spikes per second, leads to strengthening the synapse, while lower frequencies reduced the synaptic strength.

These earlier experiments used hundreds of consecutive spikes in the very high-frequency range to induce plasticity. Yet when the brain is activated during real-life behavioral tasks, neurons fire only about 10 consecutive spikes, not several hundred. And they do so at a much lower frequency — typically in the 50 spikes-per-second range.

“[..]spike frequency refers to how fast the spikes come. Ten spikes could be delivered at a frequency of 100 spikes a second or at a frequency of one spike per second.”

What is different with this study is that Mehta and coworkers were able to measure data using a sophisticated mathematical model they developed and validated with experimental data. What they found, contrary to what is currently believed, is that stimulating the brain at the highest possible frequencies was not the best way to strengthen the synapse, and that the further you stray from the optimal frequency, the less efficient it is.

For example, when a synapse was stimulated with just 10 spikes at a frequency of 30 spikes per second, it induced a far greater increase in strength than stimulating that synapse with 10 spikes at 100 times per second.

“The expectation, based on previous studies, was that if you drove the synapse at a higher frequency, the effect on synaptic strengthening, or learning, would be at least as good as, if not better than, the naturally occurring lower frequency,” Mehta said. “To our surprise, we found that beyond the optimal frequency, synaptic strengthening actually declined as the frequencies got higher.”

Knowin that a synapse has a preferential frequency at which it has the best performances is a huge breakthrough in itself, but researchers also concluded that for the best effect, the frequency has to be perfectly rhythmic. Furthermore, they also showed that once a synapse learns something, the preferential frequency changes. This learning-induced “detuning” process has important implications for treating disorders related to forgetting, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers said.

Even though much, much more research is needed in order to fully understand the mechanisms at hand, but even so, the results are extremely promising, and promise much, much more.


Pollution linked to memory loss

BrainIt’s pretty evident for anyone living in a big, crowded city what pollution looks like and to what degree our health is affected by it. Besides things like your lungs or skin, scientists relate in a new study published in Molecular Psychiatry, how they believe pollution can cause memory loss.

To prove their point, they confined a group of lab mice to a space in which half of their lifespan they had to live with polluted air around them. A series of simple memory and learning tests were made in between, particularly a simple maze through which each rodent had to make his escape. The mice which were exposed to pollution had a tougher time both learning and remembering where the correct exit was than those who weren’t. Polluted mice also showed depressive-like behavior and were more anxious.

Scientists this happens because of pollution which gets exposed to an area of the brain called the hippocampus, primordial for memory building. Here, the neuron’s dendrites, which are branch-like projections of the neuron that link other neurons and transmit electrical impulses through the brain, have been found to be affected. Dendrites have spines, which are the ones actually used for sending signals between neurons, however in pollution exposed mice, scientists have found fewer spines and shorter dendrites. This means worsened memory and learning.

Researchers believe this is the case because pollution is associated with wide-grade, body-wide inflammation, which hits the brain too, damaging the hippocampus.


Homer Simpson gene limits memory and learning ability ?

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have conducted a study showing that the deletion of a particular gene makes mice smarter by unlocking a mysterious part of the brain, thought to be totally unflexible until now. When the gene, RGS14, is disabled, mice learn how to figure out mazes faster and more effective than regular mice. They also show signs of better memory and improved overall mental abilty.

Since RGS14 seems to hold mice down, John Hepler, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine have nicknamed it the “Homer Simpson” gene. The gene is located in one particular part of the brain, the CA2, which is a part of the hippocampus, a region known to be involved in learning and the forming of new memories. However, the CA2 area is still an unknown area for researchers.

What makes this whole study even more interesting is the fact that the RGS14 gene is also in humans, and probably has the same use as it does for mice.

“A big question this research raises is why would we, or mice, have a gene that makes us less smart – a Homer Simpson gene?” Hepler says. “I believe that we are not really seeing the full picture. RGS14 may be a key control gene in a part of the brain that, when missing or disabled, knocks brain signals important for learning and memory out of balance.”

Some of our sources have reported that Homer Simpson doesn't like this study

What’s even better is that there didn’t seem to be any negative side effects to the deactivation of the gene, but there are still some possibilities that have to be investigated before definitive conclusions are drawn.

“The pipe dream is that maybe you could find a compound that inhibits RGS14 or shuts it down,” he adds. “Then, perhaps, you could enhance cognition.”

Learning keeps your brain healthy

brain-1Just like any muscle in your body, if not used, the brain starts to degrade as time passes; this has been known for quite a while, but recently, a team from UC Irvine provided the first visual evidence of how learning protects the brain, thus proving that mental stimulation fights against the degrading effects that aging has on your brain.

The team of neuroscientists led by Lulu Chen and Christine Gall developed a novel visualization technique and found that everyday forms of learning stimulate the neuron receptors that keep the brain cells going at top gear. The receptors are activated by a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which facilitates the growth and differentiation of the connections, or synapses, responsible for communication among neurons.

“The findings confirm a critical relationship between learning and brain growth and point to ways we can amplify that relationship through possible future treatments,” says Chen, a graduate researcher in anatomy & neurobiology.