How Physical Experiences Improve Our Ability to Learn

The internet has opened up incredible opportunities for learning. It is easier than ever to share information, and we can gain valuable knowledge from people we will never meet. But in improving access to knowledge, the internet cuts away several important features of traditional classroom learning.

When we read an article or join a course online, there is no teacher standing beside us. If we see them through video, we frequently miss subtle changes in their body signals and spoken language that can hinder communication. The teacher is also unlikely to see the confusion on a student’s face when they misunderstand a particular point, or the subtle reactions of excitement and insight when they hear something interesting. This reduced two-way communication means that a teacher, or any other leader, is less able to optimize their approach to fit the evolving dynamics of their audience.

But there’s more. Think back to your science classes and some of the physical demonstrations you participated in. A good teacher would set up experiments that you could see, hear, and feel, in order to vividly demonstrate particular scientific principles. In a chemistry class, you might have seen and smelled the products of exciting chemical reactions. In a biology class, you might have felt the structure of plants and animal organs with your fingers. In a physics class, you might have held a bicycle wheel gyroscope in your hands to directly experience the properties of angular momentum.

Could these physical experiences actually improve learning? If they do, we may need to think about how to optimally structure our teaching and training for the modern digital world. The good news for eager learners is that researchers at the University of Chicago and DePaul University have tested exactly this question.

The science of physical learning

The researchers took 22 pairs of college students with no college-level physics experience, and asked them to read some text on the principles of angular momentum. They then tested each participant’s baseline understanding of those principles with a quiz about the force exerted by spinning objects in several videos.

After these tests, one participant in each pair was assigned as an actor, and the other was assigned as an observer. The actors were asked to hold and tilt different sets of spinning wheels by their axles while trying to keep them as steady as possible. The observers were asked to simply watch what happened. A laser pointer firing directly out of the axle toward a vertical line on a wall showed both participants how the spinning wheel behaved as it moved.

The important point to keep in mind is that both actors and observers could see how the wheels created different forces depending on spin direction, speed, and size. But only the actors could physically feel the effects of those forces.

So did this experiential difference in learning have any meaningful impact? After 10 minutes of training with the spinning wheels, the pairs repeated the video quiz test that they completed before training. The researchers analyzed their scores, and found that the actors from each pair significantly improved their test performance, but the observers made no progress.

The physical forces that the actors personally experienced actually improved their knowledge of what was going on, even though in principle, all participants had access to the same factual information. The additional bodily sensations involved in physical learning solidified the information in actors’ minds.

So reading and watching are great for learning, but complementing them with physical application is even better.

What happens in our brain when learning through experience?

The results above support the idea that physical experiences promote learning, but it’s still not entirely clear why the advantage exists. Perhaps there are indicators in our brain that would help us understand what’s going on. The researchers went a step further to answer this question.

They repeated their experiment with new participants. But this time, after the spinning wheel training, each participant completed their final quiz test while lying in a brain scanner.

Once again, the actors from each pair performed significantly better in their test than the observers. The actors answered 74.5% of their questions correctly while the observers only reached 52.2% accuracy overall.

But let’s turn to compare their brains. When the actors were answering their quiz questions, they showed enhanced activity in several brain regions known to be important for action planning and body movement, including the motor cortex, premotor cortex, and somatosensory cortex.

More importantly, their levels of motor and somatosensory activity actually predicted how well they performed in the tests. The sensory and motor structures in their brain, which were presumably recruited while they trained with the spinning wheels, actually carried over to help when recalling the relevant knowledge in their minds. In other words, rich sensory experiences support the information we process and embed within our memories.

How useful are these effects?

It’s all well and good finding benefits in basic lab quizzes, but could the advantages of physical experiences extend further into our real-life outcomes? The researchers introduced a final twist in their research. They took some university students from an introductory physics course and randomly split them into groups of four with two actors and two observers. Just as in the previous experiments, the students read about angular momentum and then completed the spinning wheels training, with half of them physically holding the wheels and half of them watching.

Several days after this workshop and an additional course lecture based on the material, all students took part in a class quiz on angular momentum, including multiple-choice, short-answer, and mathematical questions. When they got their grades back, the actors had outperformed the observers.

With evidence that our physical experiences affect the quality of our learning, it’s worthwhile thinking about how to optimize our studying as students, teaching as supervisors, and training as employers. Learning isn’t just a trivial exercise; it’s the foundation for all of human progress.

So what do we do now?

Some abstract types of learning may not benefit from active physical exercises. If we do introduce additional sensory experiences in training programs, we need to make sure they are directly relevant to the skills we want to acquire. But when you start to think about it, it’s surprising just how many challenges benefit from the inclusion of physical practices.

Imagine learning to drive a car purely through studying books rather than driving. No matter how much we prepare with books and online articles, the first time behind the wheel is always a shock to our brain. In addition to mentally rehearsing the formal rules of driving, we need plenty of physical experience shifting gears and steering before we become safe companions on the road.

The examples are endless. For people learning a new language, spending time in a relevant foreign country is a major step up. For sports fans, actively playing a sport boosts knowledge compared to purely watching the games and reading the rules. Even the psychological torture of completing tax returns could be reduced with programs that provide good working examples to journey through.

The point of this article is not to diminish the value of the internet, reading, or traditional lectures. There is incredible knowledge available to us at the click of a button, turn of a page, or structuring of a sentence. And the benefits of these resources are self-evident in all of our lives. But when we have the opportunity to include physical experiences in training programs, we should not underestimate the advantages of doing so.

Physical expertise provides additional inputs to our brain that we use in learning and reliving experiences. When dancers watch videos of their practiced dance styles, their sensory and motor brain areas are more active than when they view unpracticed styles. When expert athletes listen to people talk about the movements involved within their sport, their motor system is automatically engaged purely through listening to the relevant sentences. For all of us, physical experiences recruit additional resources in our brain during learning, and those resources assist our understanding. We get a dramatic push up the ladder toward expertise.

If we can build training programs that combine the easy access of online learning with teacher-guided physical practices, we’ll have found an ideal compromise in our ongoing struggle for efficient learning. Sometimes, we need to step away from the textbook and pick up the toolbox.

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

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Neuroscientist writing about brains, behavior, & health. “Understand more, so that we may fear less” — Marie Curie. Sign up for your brainlift:

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