Learning is a ubiquitous, mysterious phenomenon

I’ll admit it. I’m addicted to learning. There’s nothing quite like the thrill that comes with finding out something new.

It’s no surprise I ended up this way. My parents were public school teachers. They instilled in me the belief that education not only opens up new opportunities but also is enjoyable in itself. My parents regularly took my siblings and me to museums, encouraged us to read widely and entertained our incessant “whys?” and “hows?” And though neither of my parents taught science, I remember studying constellations at night and experimenting with chemistry at the dining table. (My parents passed their passion for educating on to my younger brother and sister. One teaches math, the other biology and chemistry.) 

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that as a new school year begins, I get to introduce Science News’ special report on learning. Or maybe not. After all, learning is something we all do. I share a newsroom with reporters and editors who also get a big kick out of learning every day. In truth, a love of learning is probably quite common. From birth, we learn — to recognize faces, to talk, to walk. We take the clues thrown at our senses and piece together an understanding of our world. Yes, we learn the three R’s in school, but we also learn (in and out of the classroom) how to build relationships, how to handle stress and what makes us happy. I’m currently learning how to prune my rosebush to get a great fall bloom, what makes an effective leader and the details of various cryptocurrencies. There’s an adage, occasionally attributed to Albert Einstein, that says something like: The day you stop learning is the day you start dying. That seems about right to me.

And yet learning, such a natural and lifelong process, is a mystery. How does the brain — starting nearly from scratch, or at least seemingly so — synthesize inputs into new knowledge? How is that knowledge retained and called on? How does it drive behavior? What is the relationship between learning and memory, learning and intelligence, learning and consciousness? There are so many grand questions, and scientists are just scratching the surface.

Advances in neuroscience have allowed researchers to closely watch single nerve cells firing in learning brains, but a deeper understanding of the process might require zooming out to see what goes on between groups of brain cells, Laura Sanders reports. People who learn with ease might be better at abandoning brain connections and forming new ones, she finds. Susan Gaidos investigates strategies to boost learning that have showed success in labs. Efforts are now under way to test some of these approaches in real-world classrooms.

Though we haven’t cracked the secrets of superb learning yet, we are good — sometimes too good — at training machines to do something that looks like human learning. Maria Temming covers a recent problem in artificial intelligence: By training on sample data, machines can pick up human biases. Researchers are seeking ways to avoid the problem; the trouble is that these machines are largely black boxes.

The same might still be said about human brains, but I’m not discouraged. It just means there’s plenty more to learn.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society