The struggle to learn

· Science
One of the more intimidating aspects of my chosen academic pursuits is the sheer volume of information that I’ve got to pack into a small biochemical computer. I try not to think about it too much because I have a lot of anxiety. Many of the academic topics that I love cause me anxiety for fear that I may not be as smart as everyone keeps telling me that I am. What if I just can’t get it? What then? Is my dream of getting a PhD  shattered?

As far as computers go, in my opinion, the brain is the most annoying to work with. If you’ve ever seen the tangled mess of cables in a network closet that wasn’t put together right, and you’ve been asked to find the connection for Port x in building y at campus z, you’ll start to get the idea for how completely messed up the brain is for tracing the link between learning facts and the external world.

Learning anything, even those things which you’re good at, aren’t very easy for the brain at all. Let me give you a great analogy for how the brain learns something new.

A hiker/climber comes to a great ravine about 30 feet across and It’s about a 100 foot drop to the rocks below. There’s no way around, the only way is across. The rope the climber has is strong enough, but not as strong as it should be. The climber ties a grappling hook to the end of the rope and flings it a cross. Missed! The climber coils up the rope to try again. This time, it just touched the cliff on the other side, but it still missed. The climber repeats this exercise about 50 more times until finally it catches on something. Testing the strength of whatever it is on the other side, the climber pulls back on the rope to see if it will support the climber’s weight. Pull…and snap, the grappling hook releases and the climber has to try again. Finally the climber gets a good grab and is able to tie a line over to the other side that will support the climber’s weight.

The first trip across is difficult and treacherous. Will the connection to the other side snap? Once the climber makes it to the other side, the decision is made to build a bridge. A bridge will be much stronger and easier to cross over and over again. The climber rigs another rope and grappling hook and traverses across the first line back to the other side. The line is secured and now there are two lines connecting both sides. Each journey across makes the connection stronger and easier to travel until eventually it takes very little effort at all to travel across the ravine. Depending on how strong the connection, if not maintained, over time it will deteriorate or even be lost altogether. We calls this “forgetting”.

In the brain, the 30 foot ravine is called a synapse. A synapse is about 30 to 40 nanometers. To put that into some perspective, the width of a human hair is a bout 40000 to 60000 nanometers. But if you’re a bit of information, it may as well be a 30 foot ravine across a 100 foot drop.

Now let’s compare that to your average computer hard drive. When a computer learns something, it goes out, gets the information one time, and stores it on a metal platter where it will remain for as long as the platter survives. The mechanism for writing information to a hard drive isn’t that much different from way your brain learns, but it only has to do it one time! For those of us that remember the record player, a hard drive has “heads” which are just like the old needles on the record player except that the heads don’t actually touch the surface of the platters. There’s actually a space of about 50 nanometers. That’s only a few more nanometers than a synapse.

So hmmm…why can’t we just download information directly into our brains rather than spending hours upon hours and thousands of dollars listening to someone else who also spent hours upon hours and thousands of dollars learning what they are now teaching you?!

The simple answer is, “it’s complicated”. But we’re making progress! We won’t see the Matrix style of information download anytime soon, but at least we’re starting to unravel the tangled mess of our brains.

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