How Do We Learn to Learn? New Research Offers an Education

Cognitive training designed to focus on what’s important while ignoring distractions can enhance the brain’s information processing, enabling the ability to “learn to learn,” finds a new study on mice. 

“As any educator knows, merely recollecting the information we learn in school is hardly the point of an education,” says André Fenton, a professor of neural science at New York University and the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature. “Rather than using our brains to merely store information to recall later, with the right mental training, we can also ‘learn to learn,’ which makes us more adaptive, mindful, and intelligent.”

Researchers have frequently studied how memory works -- specifically, how neurons store the information gained from experience so that the same information can be recalled later. However, less is known about the underlying neurobiology of how we “learn to learn” -- the mechanisms our brains use to go beyond drawing from memory to utilize past experiences in meaningful, novel ways. A greater understanding of this process could point to new methods to enhance learning and to design cognitive behavioral therapies for disorders like anxiety, schizophrenia, and other forms of mental dysfunction.

Learning by Studying Mice

To explore this, the researchers conducted a series of experiments using mice, who were assessed for their ability to learn cognitively challenging tasks. Prior to the assessment, some mice received “cognitive control training” (CCT). They were put on a slowly rotating arena and trained to avoid the stationary location of a mild shock using stationary visual cues while ignoring locations of the shock on the rotating floor. CCT mice were compared to control mice. One control group also learned the same place avoidance, but it did not have to ignore the irrelevant rotating locations. 

The use of the rotating arena was vital to the experiment because it manipulates spatial information, separating the environment into unmoving and moving components. Previously, researchers had discovered that learning to avoid shock on the rotating arena requires using the hippocampus, the brain’s memory and navigation center, as well as, the a molecule that is crucial for strengthening neuronal connections and storing long-term memory. 

“In short, there were molecular, physiological, and behavioral reasons to examine long-term place avoidance memory in the hippocampus circuit as well as a theory for how the circuit could persistently improve,” explains Fenton.

Paying Attention and Ignoring Distractions

The mice were using relevant information for avoiding shock and ignoring the rotating distractions nearby. Notably, this process of ignoring distractions was essential for the mice learning to learn as it allowed them to do novel cognitive tasks better than the mice that did not receive CCT. Remarkably, the researchers could measure that CCT also improves how the mice’s neural circuitry functions to process information. The hippocampus is a crucial part of the brain for forming long-lasting memories as well as for spatial navigation, and CCT improved how it operates for months.

“The study shows that two hours of cognitive control training causes learning to learn in mice and that learning to learn is accompanied by improved tuning of a key brain circuit for memory,” observes Fenton. Consequently, the brain becomes better at suppressing distractions and paying attention to what matters.

StepUp Note

This research shows us that we can "learn how to learn" by learning to focus our attention and to avoid distractions. Researchers measured meaningful changes in the brains of mice as they used cognitive control training (CCT) to learn to avoid distractions. The CCT-trained mice did better than the control mice on later learning exercises. Step Up learning exercises help children “learn how to learn” by helping them focus their attention on whole-body coordination and rhythmic movement. Teachers report that children are more engaged throughout the day when they start the day with coordinated, rhythmic speech and movement exercises. StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum. Try it free for 30 days!

Reposted from New York University

Note by Nancy W Rowe, M.S., CCC/A