Learn like a child

Interview with Rachel Wu, PhD, Assistant Professor at UC Riverside, specialising in the neuroscience of attention and learning from birth and throughout life.

Rachel is a successful neuroscientist, plays violin and piano, paints, and creates beautiful sculptures. "It is all part of my research," she says. And it is true: she is just practicing what she preaches. Her research aims to demonstrate that we should all learn how to learn from children. We should push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and try out new things - many new things. We should do so for the pleasure of learning and acquiring new skills rather than with a specific CV line in mind. We have asked her some questions about what we as parents can use from her research findings.

Learn from Learners. Rachel Wu 2015.

Babybrains: What is the one thing that no parent should ignore?

Dr Rachel Wu: When you watch your children learn, do not forget to learn, too! Parents have a tendency to become so selfless that they stop learning for themselves. Learning keeps us young and active… and it is fun! People in old age should also keep learning new things. Children are our models. [Read more about it in this Time article.] Read more about Rachel's research in her op-ed for Scientific American.

Babybrains: Can you please tell us a bit more about your research field?

Dr Rachel Wu: Brain training games are quite popular right now, but in general, they seem to only make you better just at the one specific thing that you are practicing. For instance, practicing not to press a button on a keyboard whenever you see a blue square (instead of a yellow circle) may help you inhibit responses in other computer tasks. However, it is not clear whether this ability transfers to everyday tasks that require much more than just inhibiting responses.

My answer to getting better at everyday tasks is to practice new tasks that eventually become everyday tasks - instead of practicing one thing over and over again, we need to re-learn to learn like babies. This means that we should learn many things at once. It applies also, and possibly most importantly, to older adults. We tend to think of cognitive decline as inevitable, but it does not have to be. By learning like babies, older adults may be able to remain cognitively functional. This is a highly relevant topic for our society, which is ageing in general.

Babybrains: What is your most exciting finding so far?

Dr Rachel Wu: My study on perceptual narrowing (see here). Perceptual narrowing is a developmental process during which the brain uses environmental experiences to shape perceptual abilities. In other words, it is what happens in the brain (and behaviour) when you get better at things that you keep practicing while becoming worse at stuff you never do.

The other species. Rachel Wu, 2016.

Bear with me while I explain the study. It might seem a little complicated at first, but I think the findings are very exciting. Plus, it’s a new thing for you to learn, which keeps you young, right?

We asked young adults to press a button when they found a specific human face amongst other human faces. We saw how quickly they managed to do this while we looked at their brain’s electrical activity (EEG for electroencephalogram). Consistent with previous studies, we could observe the presence of a specific blip in the brain (EEG component) just before people pressed the button. This particular "blip" is a well established measure of selective attention - in other words, "Ah, I found what I'm looking for!” In general, we found that people have an easy time spotting human faces, which we have a lot of experience with.

The exciting bit is that when we asked participants to find unfamiliar ape faces, people took much longer to indicate that they had found them (by pressing a button on the keyboard). What is surprising is that their brain "blips" were identical to finding the human faces. In other words, their brains were just as good at finding familiar human faces and unfamiliar ape faces, even though their button presses took much longer for ape faces than human faces.

So when people say: “Use it or lose it,” I respond “Maybe it is not a total loss. We just need to figure out what is actually lost (maybe not much!) and go learn something new to bolster your cognitive abilities.” [Read more about Rachel's research in her op-ed for Scientific American.]

Babybrains: Why do you think we come less able to learn as we grow up?

Dr Rachel Wu: To keep our jobs, we have be highly specialised. We need to train ourselves very intensely in one area. Often in the process, we forget to train ourselves in other areas, too. To focus on a few skills is more adaptive in the short term (to get promotions, for example). But a wide range of learning experiences are more adaptive in the long term, especially as the world changes.

Babybrains: What is your favourite method?

Dr Rachel Wu: It has to be ERPs, which is the study of brain "blips," and in particular the marker of finding what you are looking for. The reason I love this method is that it allow us to dissociate what the brain can actually do from what we think we can do. It is particularly relevant with children, as they are less able to give us clear indication about what they can actually do.

A child wearing an EEG cap. Rachel Wu, 2014.

Another great method is interviewing older adults. I often find that when I take the time to ask good questions and listen to their answers, I get truly helpful and insightful answers that can change the course of my research.

Babybrains: Is there a parenting book that you would recommend?

Dr Rachel Wu: It is not a parenting book, but a book that explains in very accessible terms how infants develop and what they are thinking:The Scientist in the Crib by Allison Gopnick and her team.

Another fantastic book that will help you understand my approach is Who Moved my Cheese by Spencer Johnson.

Seen this way, parenting can be considered an amazingly rich learning experience. If you approach parenting with your mind open and willing to learn, it will be more fun and keep you young!

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