Learning Addiction - The Scientific Explanation

Continuing the theme of ‘learning addiction’ I have been developing (1, 2, 3, 4), it is interesting to see medical science furthering our understanding of why our brains are wired for that (Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous). I guess it should be no surprise that it is essentially a survival instinct called ‘seeking’. Accidentally discovered in 1954, the seeking stimulus is triggered by learning, and even more so by learning unexpected things (aka discovery?). Interestingly, the seeking stimulus is not a pleasure like sex or eating chocolate, but rather a kind of excitement that triggers the release of dopamine and the desire to do more seeking. It is no wonder then that when the barrier to successful seeking becomes lower (e.g. Google, Twitter, and texting), people can get stuck in an addictive feedback loop.

The original article goes into far more interesting detail (learning addicted beware), but I have also quoted an ‘abridged’ version below from SDR News (because I could not link to it directly):

How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous. Basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls. They at first thought they had found the pleasure center but this supposed pleasure center didn’t look very much like it was producing pleasure. It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing. The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

Reddit also has some interesting (and some hilarious) comments.

In some ways this makes it even more astonishing that many children can have the love of learning beaten out of them at school. In some cases it is displaced by more stimulating activities (e.g. talking, texting), but in many cases it only leaves boredom and apathy. On a more positive note, at least it helps provide scientific evidence of the benefit of allowing “self directed learning”, as is encouraged in some schools like Discovery 1 (1, 2).

How Podcasts and Other Media Feed Learning Addiction

In a recent series of blog posts (1, 2, 3) I talked about the concept of ‘learning addiction’, and that for some people, it can be very tempting to continue acquiring vast quantities of knowlege far and beyond any practical abaility to apply it.

Unfortunately, I guess this hilights a problem with podcasts – there is very little navigational control one you are in a ‘chunk’ of audio. Thus it is much harder (than with a newspaper or internet article) to:

  • skip to the next topic,
  • read a topic heading and decide if it is relevant to you,
  • skim through a topic of minimal interest,
  • bookmark a topic to look into further later,
  • or jump to the references and read about that item in more depth.

It can even be a pain finding a list of the topics in a particular audio file in order to decide if it is worth listening to. Of course there is no technical reasons that these forms of navigation are not possible, so given time we are likely (hopefully) to see them become more widely available. QuickTime’s ‘enhanced podcasts’ are making some progress in this area, but there is still a lot more work to do.

But in the here and now, this still poses a problem, in that the system generally makes us consume more information than we need to – possibly causing, but at the least, supporting ‘learning addiction’.

It is intersting to see how this differs across different media forms. TV and radio are similar to podcasts and vodcasts, in that you get, e.g. a 1 hour chunk of news with the topics chosen by someone else, and minimal navigational control, although with TV and radio it is arguably slightly easier to change the channel. Newspapers and print media offers a lot more navigational control which, if used with dicipline can make you a lot more efficient, however, it is still a big ‘chunk’ (10’s of pages) of topics chosen by someone else, and because they are so readily available and have such tantalising headlines, people can still be easily tempted to feed their learning addiction. Online news probably has the best navigational control, but the concept of ‘chunking’ gets a little gray. A chunk could be interpreted as what story is on the page, what stories are linked to from this page, all the stories on the site, or all the stories on the internet. Thus the contribution to learning addiction is quite variable. I wonder if artificially increasing the time to load a new page might actually help curb learning addiction by increasing the cost in the cost:benefit ratio, and thus making the decision to read it more consciously “is this information valuable or just entertaining – am I going to apply it?”.

These comparisons can’t be limited just to different media forms – within a single media (e.g. podcasts) there can be different uses of the media (a news show, a panel discussion, a seminar or interview, or a novel etc). Interestingly, the same Audible interview with Ben Bova and Orson Scott Card as referred to in a recent post talked about the advantages of audio books (some audio books are also released as podcasts, or at the least downloaded in segments, so the distinction is blurred) because they had limited navigational control. They liked that story is delivered at the pace and in the detail the author had envisaged – it is very hard to skip ahead or skim over certain parts. In one anecdote, Orson (I think) had started listening to a long book which started quite slow – if he had been reading it he would have skimmed throught the start, but as he was listening he didn’t, and his opinion was that this resulted in a much more pleasurable and fulfilling experience. In this case, I don’t think it contributes to learning addiction, as the entire novel is on a single topic that the listener chose ahead of time, and it is more a form of entertainment and relaxation, which may not need to be ‘applied’ to anything more than that.

Research Shows Multitasking Makes you Dumb

I think I can now shed a little light on part of a quote from this previous post (from a Time Magazine article):

…students remember just 20% of the content of class lectures a week later…

It seems that research has revealed that multitasking makes you dumb. Once you have read the quotes below, you might wonder, as I do, why educational institutions, especially Universities, expect you to simultaneously: listen to the lecturer, comprehend what they are saying, compile it into an abbreviated form, and write that in your notes. If that isn’t multitasking, I don’t know what is.

The quote comes by way of SDRNews, inspired by the following summary from Slashdot of an article in The Atlantic:

…in which Walter Kirn talks about the scientific results that support his claim and his own experiences with multitasking: that it destroys our ability to focus.

“Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires — the constant switching and pivoting — energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on… studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.”

Interestingly, a couple of years earlier, Digg also mentioned coverage in ArsTechnica of a Time Magazine cover story:

…entitled “Too Wired For Their Own Good?”, condemns the youth of the nation as gadget-obsessed, perennially multitasking, social failures who can’t really get into anything important or even relax. The article brings up example upon example of dysfunctional teenagers and their equally disjointed families.

It is good to see scientific evidence can now substantiate and explain this. Who knows – given that the research was released two years after the Time article, it may have even been in response to it.

European vs US University Philosophies

My last post (on some US university curricula becoming more applied) reminded me that there is quite a different approach between European and US universities.

European Universities which, by extension includes many Commonwealth countries, (including New Zealand, where I have experience), tend to specialise far more quickly in a chosen major, often having to strategically choose papers relevant to a major in the second, or even first years. This tend to favour ‘narrow and deep’ degrees.

On the other hand, the philosophy of US Universities (I hope I can represent them accurately) is more that you are not likely, or even expected to be prepared for your career by the end of your 3 year undergrad. Therefore you are more likely to get a ‘broad yet shallow’ (e.g. liberal arts) degree, that gives you the potential to work in a wider variety of careers after further training – either in post graduate, or on the job training.

I am not sure which is the best approach. On one hand, I have always tended to have broad interests (taking calculus, computing and philosophy papers during my Biochemistry degree while persuing business, music and film extracuricularly), and I strongly believe this gives you valuable multi-diciplinary perspectives in whatever you choose to focus on. However, I also believe your undergrad degree provides a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, start applying it, and see if it is a good fit with you.

In some ways, this seems confusing, and almost contradictory. However, I think the problem comes from misinterpreting specialisation as being the same as application. However, on closer inspection, they are not – I could know everything there is to know (of what knowledge is currently available) about a given, specialised topic, yet have never applied it – either to test a theory learned, or to aquire new knowledge, or to apply it to a real world problem etc. Therefore, maybe both European and US University Philosophies are ‘wrong’ as neither typically focus enough on application of knowledge, or even on understanding how it can be applied. I don’t mean doing homework assignments where you apply your knowledge to theoretical real-world examples (although this is a good start) – I mean getting out into the real world, understanding what it is like to apply this knowledge as a career, and understanding the imacts this has downstream. I guess this is partially addressed by work experience, but even that is too narrow, and the last time I experienced that was in my mid teens.

I have come to think of this kind of ‘kowledge application’/’work experience’ as a painfully obvious form of risk minimisation. If you think of acheiving your degree as a form of investment (of time and resources), then isn’t it basic due dilligence to dedicate even a fraction of that investment to ensuring the investment will generate a satisfactory return? In other words, ensuring that the time and resources put in result in a return of wealth and satisfaction. Assuming you spend 40 hours a week for 48 weeks a year over 3 years on a degree, that is 5760 hours, not including tuition fees. I would propose spending even 3 weeks – only about 2% of you investment, on investigating what it would be like to be applying that knowledge would be immensely valuable, and could save you a lot of pain in the long term. I suspect the 2% could actually be considerably higher.

Of course it is too much to ask for college students to ‘find’ this extra time, and structure and persue these investigations on their own. Therefore, it would make sense for Universities and Colleges to do this as part of their degrees. I am sure a few already do some of this, but I also know that a lot more can be done, and that a small extra investment up front could have a huge return just a few years down the track.

Application of Knowledge Increasing at Universities

When I was looking for an online reference to the quote in my last post, I came across another blog post quoting it with interesting relevance.

It discusses a recent article in Time Magazine about the curriculum in at least five US universities changing from pure aquisition of knowledge to emphasising the application of knowledge. I’ll use the same quote from the article below:

. . . the new approach emphasizes the kind of active learning that gets students thinking and applying knowledge. “Just as one doesn’t become a marathon runner by reading about the Boston Marathon,” says the committee report, “so, too, one doesn’t become a good problem solver by listening to lectures or reading about statistics.” Acknowledging how important extracurricular activities have become on campus, the report calls for a stronger link between the endeavors students pursue inside and outside the classroom. Those studying poverty, for example, absorb more if they also volunteer at a homeless shelter, suggests Bok, whose 2005 book, Our Underachieving Colleges, cites a finding that students remember just 20% of the content of class lectures a week later.

Sonds like a very positive step to me. From personal experience, I have found university education so abstracted at times, that I have completed a Biochemistry degree, still enjoying the subject matter, yet with no idea what to expect once it is applied to a real job. In my case, this meant that once I started a significant practical project (Honors year, after three years of theory), I realised that I had no interest in doing this for a career, and thus was back at square one. Whats more, it seemed like about 75% of my classmates felt the same way, and never got a job in the field they had spent so long studying. That doesn’t seem like a very efficient system to me. Sure, we did have weekly lab work during the degree, but that didn’t really give as an idea of what to expect in a career.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not bitter about this experience – I think the scientific and writing skills and diciplines I leant have been very useful in my time since, but I am sure there must be a more efficient way to learn, not just about the knowledge, but also about your relationship to the knowledge and the industry it is related to. Hopefully a more applied curriculum is a positive step in that direction. 

Learning Responsibly, in the Context of Bahá'u'lláh

This ‘last post’ thing has become a bit of a habit, but for better or worse, I am about to do it again. Ah well, at least someone comments on my posts 🙂

My last post was talking about a feeling of responsibility to learn with a purpose, rather than learn for the sake of learning. Quite a while ago, I came across this relevant quote that has stuck in the back of my mind:

Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words.  

This quote is from Bahá’u’lláh, “Epistle to the Son of the Wolf”, pp. 2627.

Learning Addiction in the Context of Greek Philosophy

In my last post, I mentioned the idea of ‘learning addiction’:

…with the continual increase in knowledge (and technology) production, and such ready access to it (via the internet etc), I am seeing a form of ‘learning addiction’ arise, for example, in people that are subscribed to 600 blogs, or in my case, a ‘healthy’ number of podcasts. 

This reminds me of the ancient Greek concepts of knowledge. They had three different terms to describe different aspects of knowledge:

  1. The aquisition of knowledge. Learning, and applying rules.
  2. The application of knowledge. Trades and crafts.
  3. The ‘being’ of knowledge. Experts that are so familiar with a topic they do not have to think about it.

Understandably, thhis is also a progression from the most basic form of knowledge to the most complex and revered form. (As an aside, this inability to describe knowledge fully in English has been blamed for not being able to fully comprehend and therefore deal with knowledge, and has thus been blamed for failures of large knowledge management systems).

This is all very interesting, but what has it got to do with ‘learning addiction’? It seems to me that ‘learning addiction’ is solely based in the ‘aquisition of knowledge’. I find it helpful to regularly ask myself if my dealings with knowledge are purely aqusition, or if they are moving towards application and being. Sure, some will always be for entertainment and I don’t think that is a bad thing (in moderation), but if you read the morning newspaper etc, how much of that do you think you will be able to apply to your life or your work?

Figuring out This World, and Another, and Another

I just listened to a free Audible interview with Ben Bova and Orson Scott Card, in which something interesting bubbled up that seemed relevant to my last post.

A third party had made the comment that Science Fiction is “a fringe genre read only be teens and techo-nerds”, which prompted the question “do you think the (SciFi) art form is becoming acceptable to more mainstream book lovers?”, to which Orson Scott Card replied (amongst other replies):

The demographics have been done on who reads science fiction: our readers are smarter than the readers of any other genre (on average). They are also people who embrace the idea of taking themselves out of the present reality, and going through the process that every two year old can do (but then we stop doing it), which is learning the world through finding, discovering, noticing new things and making rules out of them. And our readers do that routinely – that is what they read for – to have that same excitement of being in a new world, that most human beings only get between the ages of birth and three or four. So we are writing something that duplicates the experience of children, but it is the most intellectually productive time in a human life.

I personally prefer the term (or is it a genre) ‘Speculative Fiction’ rather than ‘Science Fiction’. I often feel that making sense of foreign systems, and considering different ways of doing things (both strong components of Spec Fic) have made me more perceptive and creative. However it is a ‘Chicken and Egg’ situation – alternatively I could have already been strong in those skills and appreciated opportunities to exert them. Either way, I can certainly relate to the excitement of such challenges. In fact, with the continual increase in knowledge (and technology) production, and such ready access to it (via the internet etc), I am seeing a form of ‘learning addiction’ arise, for example, in people that are subscribed to 600 blogs, or in my case, a ‘healthy’ number of podcasts.

Does School Miss the Boat?

I was recently told of some interesting research in the BBC documentary ‘Child of Our Time‘. As they put it, the rate of learning in the first 5 years is phenomenal – far more than any time in the future. Children will learn more in that time that at any other time in their life.

So then, after this prime learning period, they then go to school. Hmmm. Doesn’t seem quite right. But then school is not really set up for that. However in the past (and in other cultures), society was set up for that – in the ‘village’ system, there would always be many other people around to learn from – younger, older and also much much older. In fact, recent theories state that living past out ability to bear young might be what gave us the (intellectual) edge, as grandparent could pass rear and pass knowledge to the young, rather than having the still learning parents do this.

The ‘village’ system also hold numerous benefits to the care givers, including education, assistance, socialisation and ‘efficiencies of volume’. For example, it is now widely thought that breastfeeding is much more difficult in isolation, because we cannot learn by observation, and have no immediate assistance when it is needed. It is also beneficial to the grand-caregivers. For example, the ‘Eden Alternative’ range of rest homes has in many cities, has joined with the local kindergarten to put both services under one roof. The elderly residents have the opportunity to help with the children, or simply watch the children, but even just having the noise and the energy of playing children nearby seems to make a positive difference. The staff notice an immediate improvement in the morale and liveliness of the elderly, who now have ‘something to live for’ (it could be argued, what they evolved to live for), and the children benefit from more individual care and attention.

There are systems and opportunities available in western societies to get our children (and caregivers) out of our sterile (both physically and socially) houses at a young age, but I think it is valuable to be aware of our past, and aware of the value and motivations behind our present actions.

More on Motivation

After going through the archives of podcasts at EdTechTalk, I recently listened to Women Of Web 2.0, Episode 7. 56 minutes in, they have an interesting discussion about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation related to the concept of Locus of Control.

As this is related to two of my previous posts (here and here) I though it was worthy of mention. Being a podcast, it is hard to give you a simple reference to the discussion point, so I decided to transcribe it below. The other difficulty related to it being from a podcast, is that I can’t be sure exactly who the speaker is, beyond the female members of Cheryl Oakes, Jennifer Wagner, Vicki Davis , Sharon Peters and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. Despite their inherent challenges in these situations, I still love podcasts. So the quote is:

I heard a gentleman talking the other day, and one of the things he said I thought were so interesting – he was talking about ‘Locus of Control’… What he was talking about was intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Research has shown that students that are intrinsically motivated and really feel that they learn best by what comes from inside of them, that their learning depends on their own initiative about ‘do I get enough sleep’, ‘have I eaten enough’, ‘have I prepared enough for this’, ‘wow, this is interesting, I am going to make it happen’. They [intrinsically motivated] are the most successful at school. But the majority of males that were tested in school were extrinsically motivated, and they beleived that learning somehow occurred from the outside – from whatever the teacher imposed upon them. They were going to be told what to learn and how to learn it, e.g. if the teacher liked them they did better. There wasn’t a whole lot that really came from the inside.

People that are intrinsically motivated, when you start to teach them, and intervene into something (e.g. there is a real wonderment going on and they are exploring and discovering). All of a sudden someone, a teacher comes in from the outside and says ‘ok, we are going to do it structured, we are going to do this, look on page 47, lets reflect on that, what do you guys think’ that the enthusiasm and the wonderment and the excitement just drops from that person who is intrinsically motivated.

And so immediately I questioned, I wonder if all those boys, who are not going to do so well in school because they are extrinsically motivated could be trained to do things the way we [the speaker] do in the average [constructivist] classroom [aka, to be intrinsically motivated].

Quite interesting. From what I can tell, Locus of Control (according to Wikipedia) is more about whether you perceive that you have control over your performance due to skill, of if you beleive it is due to luck. This is closely related to a previous post. The Wikipedia article does not mention intrinsic or extrinsic motivation (in so many words). Although it looks like a relevant Google search does highlight some connections.

It is interesting to relate it to gender differences – I wonder if the stereotypical ‘males are more competitive’ view is connected to this, in that competition may be viewed by them as extrinsic motivation.

Also interesting to see another example of how intrinsic motivation can be decreased by teacher intervention. In retrospect, the ‘imposing structure’ intervention described here is probably a broader category, of which the ‘offering a reward’ intervention of my previous post is simply an example of.

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