Can We Quantify Learning New Things?

The human brain is a bio-mechanical masterpiece. Its mysteries and complexities can keep us curious and interested forever, if neuroscientists are to be believed. Among the many fascinations of the human brain is its ability to learn. Brain mechanics of learning aside, be content with the gross processes of how learning takes place.

The brain of a newborn child is raring to learn. It is keen and eager to “learn” new skills that eventually make “neural connections” within the structure of the brain. As the child starts learning new things — language, skills, etc. — more and more such connections are made until the brain resembles one big complicated maze. Add to it connections related to memory and you’ll realize just how complicated this maze could be.

As a human grows older, the rate at which new connections ought to be made slow down. Add to it the deterioration of the brain (brain cells die!). This explain why learning a new skill becomes more challenging as an individual grows old. You could learn any number of languages when you were young but mastering a new language when you are, say, 40 years old is very difficult.

Research also shows that young and old people engage different parts of the brain for learning [1]. This can also, to an extent, explain the differences in the rates of learning between the two age groups.

New skill learning is a critical aspect in this fast-changing world. Many employers are finding that the workforce they have to choose from does not possess the required skill sets. Also the employed work force (that is also aging) has skills that are fast becoming redundant in a changing economic scenario. It is a double blow for employers — whether Government or private — to train both fresh and existing workforce to acquire new skills.

As I said before, the brain is a masterpiece, a miracle, actually. Scientists are realizing now the differences in the ways an adult brain works and learns as compared to a much younger brain. An adult brain uses past experiences and prior knowledge to find solutions to problems. Surprisingly, it can do so at a much faster rate than a younger brain. Thus a brain that has kept on learning constantly during its life is better equipped at learning new skills, regardless of its age.

There have been shining examples of individuals achieving complex skills like mastering a language, or simply to read and write. Take Priscilla Sitienei, a 90-year old woman in rural Kenya, for instance, who decided to learn to read and write. She did so by attending a school along with six of her great-great-grandchildren. Or Aleksander Hemon, a Yugoslavian stranded in the United States during the Bosnian War, who mastered the English language from the streets without any formal process of learning and went on become one of the most celebrated short story writers, novelists and columnists of the USA. He is also a winner of the MacArthur Genius Award.

What children lack while learning, adults can make use of while learning at an advanced age. Analysis, self-reflection, discipline and the wealth of prior experiences can help adults make up for the hunger and curiosity of the young brain. However, only those skills can cause a lasting impact on the circuitry of the brain that provide some meaningful benefit in the learner’s life. So while an adult may find it difficult to master a video game, he or she can definitely master a skill that has real life benefits, like digital photography, for example.

Can learning progression be quantified? And if it can, what could be its advantages? The answer to the first question is a guarded “yes.” Why guarded? We’ll come to it later. The answer to the second question, however, opens a chest full of possibilities and opportunities. For one, if such a thing can be done, it could help people to efficiently calculate the efforts required to accomplish a new thing.

Take, for instance, the learning of a new skill “a.” If I had the means to quantify the progression of learning this new skill, I can calculate how much effort I am putting in at every step of my new learning regime. Once I learn the new skill, I can look back to understand exactly how much effort (quantifiable as “x”) I have put in. This will help me to learn a new skill “b” by targeting my efforts more fruitfully and in a focused manner.

Now, while most of you might argue about the simplicity of my solution, it does hold merit and it depends upon the methods used for measuring progression and the efforts. And that brings me to the first question whose answer was an apprehensive yes.

Researchers in the field of human cognition have tried various ways to quantify learning progression. They already have proof that says that ad hoc and informal ways to quantify learning (as in most corporate training programs) provide little, if any, value to understand whether a person has really learnt and achieved what the training program set as objectives. So only if the right methods are used to quantify progression of learning can it provide value in calculating efforts.

We’ve discussed the inherent merits of using a gamification module for motivation and participation. If gamification is used to help in the learning process, it makes it easy to quantify progression. Imagine playing a video game that you love. While playing the game, you get more skilled and you “level up.” For every level that you climb, you know the efforts you’ve put in — skills acquired (weapons gained, stars/points gained, maneuvers added/gained, etc.), time required, “lives” required, and so on. If these same fundamentals are used to quantify progress for learning a new skill, it will have dual advantage — make the learning more fun through the process of gamification and also make it easier to calculate efforts by quantifying progression.

EXP.Life is an exciting platform designed to record life events and experience life. The platform is a points-based system that incentivizes your life experiences and also stores them on an incorruptible public ledger — the blockchain. Such a record can also be used as a global, permanent digital identity for anyone to use on demand.

While on the EXP.Life platform, “players” can choose to learn new skills, or attempt to perform certain tasks. Since the entire platform is based on gamification, it is easy for any individual to quantify his or her progression. The platform also appreciates that with more advanced skills that a person acquires, the bigger should be the reward. In other words, the reward must be in proportion to the complexity of the task completed. This can also act as a huge motivator for an individual to attempt the task.

The human brain has the power to fascinate us for eternity. As we find new things about it, we are breaking old notions and understanding new facets of this miraculous organ. One thing, however, is certain. The brain never gets too old to learn new things. Leaning, it might seem, is the fuel that keeps the brain young.