Assignment 3, Part A: Individual Explanation of Learning and Memory
For EME 6646: Learning, Instructional Design, and Cognitive Neuroscience
By Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida
June 2, 2017
In their 2014 literature review, Granger and Nicoll lament that long-term potentiation (LTP) has never been precisely defined. They explain that “the broadest definition is a long-lasting enhancement in synaptic strength following a brief high-frequency stimulation” (p. 1), which might be summarized as “neurons wire together if they fire together” (Löwel & Singer, 1992, p. 211). While the debate over whether long-term potentiation occurs pre- or postsynaptically continues, it is perhaps tangential to the educational ramifications. Fundamentally, the discovery of long-term potentiation in the 1970s was critical to our understanding of the mammalian brain (Teyler & DiScenna, 1987), showing us that the brain is not a static object, but that, even in the short term, neural pathways can be strengthened by mental exercise, not unlike physical exercise. This synaptic plasticity is important for many types of declarative memory (Byrne, n.d.), which, for educators, suggests that an important component of learning is repeated activation of the relevant synapses. Consequently, practice of the to-be-acquired skill should be integrated early and throughout a program of study. For example, given our knowledge of LTP, it would be inappropriate to structure a course on driving with 15 weeks of reading a textbook followed by one week of application behind the wheel. In the realm of teacher education, LTP might be accounted for by integrating field experiences early, which may also narrow the theory–practice gap (Coffey, 2010), rather than inefficiently delaying such fieldwork for a senior-year internship.
The strategy used during learning is a determinant of what type(s) of memory systems are engaged, and subsequently, the degree of success (Squire, 2004). This was discovered, in part, by inhibiting the hippocampus in rats, which aided them in navigating a maze tailored for non-declarative memory by solidifying the supremacy of the caudate nucleus. In fact, hippocampal lesions allowed the rats to perform better at this task! In humans, one can imagine a renegade researcher invasively inhibiting regions of the anterior cingulate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices in an attempt to improve human performance on the Stroop test. More practically, educators can attempt to evoke efficient learning strategies for the materials at hand. For example, trying to learn a habit while also trying to memorize the requisite steps can result in failure on both counts (Squire, 2004). Therefore, educators might specifically instruct learners to focus on repetition in one trial and memorization in another. For example, if the task is executing a mathematical operation with a series of sub-steps, a textbook author could encourage habit learning by providing several problems with a reference sheet containing the sub-steps in view. Then, to encourage memorization, the reference sheet could be subsequently confined to a separate sheet requiring a page turn, with the learner being explicitly directed to test his or her memorization of the requisite steps.
Memory Consolidation and the Essentiality of Sleep
While it is easily observed via EEG oscillations that normal human sleep consists of 90-minute cycles including rapid eye-movement sleep (REM) and four stages of non-REM sleep, how memory consolidation occurs during sleep is less clear (Stickgold, 2005). However, that it has occurred is abundantly clear because certain tasks such as finger-tapping, rotation adaption, and visual texture discrimination have been experimentally shown to be enhanced subsequent to sleep, but when tested after 4 to 12 hours of wakefulness without sleep, the enhancement does not occur. Moreover, for some such tasks, improvement occurs even more when re-tested 72 hours later rather than 24, suggesting that additional nights of sleep further enhance these forms of procedural learning. Stickgold’s (2005) literature review goes on to summarize what he dubs as “converging evidence” (p. 1276) at the molecular, cellular, and higher levels, showing that sleep helps cell membranes, myelin, and cortical neuronal responsiveness. Further, at least in the Zebra finch, songs rehearsed during wakefulness appear to continue to be rehearsed in sleep, based on detection of similar “patterns of neuronal excitation” (Stickgold, 2005, p. 1277). Therefore, strong evidence exists that several forms of procedural learning are consolidated via sleep, although the evidence for declarative memory is less conclusive.
More recently, Tononi and Cirelli (2014) have argued, with molecular, electrophysiological, and structural evidence, for the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis (SHY). This basically says that “sleep is the price the brain pays for plasticity” (Tononi & Cirelli, 2014, p. 12). The essentiality of sleep is supported by neuroscience and behavioral evidence, yet this advice is often not followed by students nor educators and other professionals. Educators might encourage learners to get adequate sleep by directly exposing them to neuroscience research on sleep’s importance and by discourage cramming or “all-nighters” with adequate instructional scaffolding (e.g., setting draft and format review deadlines prior to a final submission deadline). Finally, researchers have recognized (e.g., Piffer, Ponzi, Sapienza, Zingales, & Maestripieri, 2014) that some humans are geared toward “morningness” (i.e., “early birds”) while others have a propensity toward “eveningness” (i.e., “night owls”).
As an individual with a lifelong propensity toward eveningness, I am baffled by the culture in America and elsewhere that favors early birds while mocking and ridiculing night owls for their purported laziness. The machinations of society are organized to confer privilege upon early birds—such as requiring children to go to school early in the morning, businesses and government offices that open early in the morning, and a majority of employment opportunities requiring us to wake up shortly after sunrise. Now that most people have electricity, if we are to facilitate learning, memory consolidation, and human performance in general, why not provide parallel structures and opportunities for night owls? Surely, would it not relieve congestion on Orlando’s roads if instead of a majority of workers working in the neighborhood of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., if workplaces could be staffed in the evening and overnight so that unused nighttime road capacity might be leveraged? What about tweens and teenagers who would be better served if school was from noon to 7 p.m. rather than requiring them to rise before dawn and be tired all day? In higher education, afternoon and night course offerings can cater to night owls while not necessarily being punitive toward early birds. To further improve memory consolidation, housing developments and apartment complexes might be constructed with soundproofing and futuristic windows that use amorphous metal oxides to become completely opaque at the flip of a switch (Llordés, Garcia, Gazquez, & Milliron, 2013), facilitating daytime quiet and darkness for improved sleep, memory consolidation, and learning.
Byrne, J. H. (n.d.). Chapter 7: Learning and memory. Neuroscience online: An electronic textbook for the neurosciences. Retrieved from http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html
Coffey, H. (2010). “They taught me”: The benefits of early community-based field experiences in teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 335–342. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2009.09.014
Granger, A. J., & Nicoll, R. A. (2014). Expression mechanisms underlying long-term potentiation: A postsynaptic view, 10 years on. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 369(1633), 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2013.0136
Llordés, A., Garcia, G., Gazquez, J., & Milliron, D. J. (2013). Tunable near-infrared and visible-light transmittance in nanocrystal-in-glass composites. Nature, 500, 323–326. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature12398
Löwel, S., & Singer, W. (1992). Selection of intrinsic horizontal connections in the visual cortex by correlated neuronal activity. Science, 255, 209–212. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1372754
Piffer, D., Ponzi, D., Sapienza, P., Zingales, L., & Maestripieri, D. (2014). Morningness–eveningness and intelligence among high-achieving US students: Night owls have higher GMAT scores than early morning types in a top-ranked MBA program. Intelligence, 47, 107–112. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2014.09.009
Squire, L. R. (2004). Memory systems of the brain: A brief history and current perspective. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 82, 171–177. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2004.06.005
Stickgold, R. (2005). Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature, 437, 1272–1278. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature04286
Teyler, T. J., & DiScenna, P. (1987). Long-term potentiation. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 10, 131–161. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ne.10.030187.001023
Tononi, G., & Cirelli, C. (2014). Sleep and the price of plasticity: From synaptic and cellular homeostasis to memory consolidation and integration. Neuron, 81, 12–34. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2013.12.025