Have you ever heard of a chess champion who picked up the game
The vast majority of human brain development occurs at young age
during certain critical
periods. That’s why 4-year-olds can learn languages in a matter of weeks and why pro athletes
generally begin playing their sports very early on. Later on, it
become vastly more difficult to master a new language, much less to
shake an accent, and to develop the expert motor skills required in
Critical learning periods are the reason why many (but not all)
parents and grand-parents find themselves asking their youthful
family members to setup their Skype account or configure their TV
on-demand. Children who have encountered these technologies and
surrounding culture are able to more quickly develop the associated
behaviors required to take advantage of these tools.
We’ve seen time and time again, in our movies and literature,
how generational differences can strife between old-school parents
and their more progressive offspring, even contributing to
large-scale political revolutions.
Now, with accelerating tech
info change looking more and more real, we can expect youth
raised in increasingly complex environments to exhibit new
abilities and behaviors that the rest of us just won’t be able to
learn as easily. Barring either a developmental intervention
(possibly in reaction to a rise in brain disorders) or
revolutionary change in how our older brains go about learning,
this is an inevitable consequence of acceleration.
What new and amazing skills might children born in 2008 posses?
Quicker info-retrieval abilities, developed as they grow up with
advanced semantic search engines or AI. 3d and 4d visualization,
caused by interactions with immersive video games and virtual
It was recently
announced that hospitals in Isreal have begun using virtual
reality programs to diagnose and treat patients with brain
injuries. The patient tries to catch a virtual tennis ball being
thrown on a screen, their actual hand movements are recorded, and
the information is fed into a computer program. The program then
diagnoses whether the person has had a traumatic brain injury or
stroke (with 90-98% accuracy!), and run a series of simulations to
determine what will be the most effective treatment and
This is a huge step in demonstrating the value of virtual
environments and simulations to do real good in the world. For
almost all of the decisions we make, we run simulations in our
brain without even thinking about it. “If I do A, then B is a
likely and desired outcome.” Through trial and error, our
simulations get more accurate over time – we may call it “wisdom”.
But, in some situations, such as the above brain injury example,
even our best human guesses for the right course of action may be
wrong. By running computer simulations, we can take that guesswork
out. Instead of creating a rehabilition therapy that may not only
be ineffective, but downright harmful, doctors will now be able to
implement the most effective therapies according to the patient’s
level of injury.
As computer processing speed continues to increase, and we
methodically quantify the underlying systems that drive everything
around us, we’ll see simulations popping up as tools for increasing
efficiency in all fields. I can see this being used to improve
learning and skill development in both education and the
I recently blogged and vlogged about Medtronic starting a clinical trial where deep brain stimulation (DBS) would be applied to the ventral striatum (part of the human reward circuit) to treat depression in up to 200 patients. Then the article on CNNmoney that I was basing this on disappeared and I worried that the whole thing might have been a mistake or a hoax. But the article has resurfaced on the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, and I finally got around to digging up Medtronic's original press release from 19 Feb 2009, which confirms that they are conducting a clinical trial of DBS as a treatment for depression.
But more than that. It turns out that the entire implant procedure that they're using isn't new at all - it's the same procedure they use to treat OCD (recently FDA approved for up to 4000 patients). The implant is called Reclaim and (quoting the press release) "the anatomical target in the brain is the.. ventral striatum.. which is a central node in the neural circuits believed to regulate mood and anxiety". So it seems DBS implants have been placed in the human reward circuit since the OCD trials started, many years ago. This is good news because it means we're even better at putting DBS implants in the human reward circuit than I thought we were. Basically, DBS applied to the ventral striatum (VS) didn't just alleviate the behavioural tics of OCD patients but also improved their mood. Studies like Schlaepfer et al 2008 (3 patients) and Malone et al 2009 (15 patients), which I thought were ground-breaking, merely confirmed that DBS applied to the VS improves the mood of severely depressed patients as well.
When contemplating the future, people need to keep a very open
mind about what might be possible. Consider this article which describes how researchers at UC San
Diego are developing facial recognition technology that can
recognize if a person is having trouble understanding an
educational lesson – say in mathematics or biology.
As the technology continues to improve, one possible implication
is that smart devices and robots will become better and more
effective teachers because they will be able to pace lesson plans
to an individual student’s ability to comprehend the information
which is being presented.
Longer term, it is possible that robots and other smart devices
will become more effective teachers than even human teachers
because the machines will understand each student’s learning
idiosyncrasies and then present material in a manner which is
optimized for that individual student’s learning style.
Now, I understand how discomforting the idea that a robot might
be a better teacher than your old favorite third grade teacher,
Mrs. Hubbard, ever was; but, as that wise American philosopher
Yoggi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
A comprehensive report asserts that web-mediated learning has been found to be more effective than face-to-face learning.
New York Times: Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile.
My initial reaction is that both learning settings are critical and that students empowered with laptops in a classroom setting, such as in Maine, would probably outperform both groups. That said, it certainly does open the doors wider to distance learning and, hopefully, sweeping educational reform.