Tag Archives: Learning

Can plants learn?

9 Dec

In his famous book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes mentions his experiments on learning in mimosa plants. I found this fascinating and always wish he had provided more detail. Now a paper published in Nature points to evidence that plants are capable of associative learning. From the abstract:

Here we show that this type of learning occurs in the garden pea, Pisum sativum. By using a Y-maze task, we show that the position of a neutral cue, predicting the location of a light source, affected the direction of plant growth. This learned behaviour prevailed over innate phototropism. Notably, learning was successful only when it occurred during the subjective day, suggesting that behavioural performance is regulated by metabolic demands. Our results show that associative learning is an essential component of plant behaviour. We conclude that associative learning represents a universal adaptive mechanism shared by both animals and plants.


2 Dec

There has been a lot of attention to the idea of developing expertise. We would like to know what are the most effective techniques for becoming an expert in any domain. Perhaps, we should take a more atomic view and study expertise in very small domains, such as this:

Niall Brady writes “It took me just under a year to get a spoon into a mug while filming it all on snapchat. One attempt a day. This is a compilation of the clips I remembered to save.”

The 10,000 hour rule backlash

15 Aug

The 10,000 hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. As we have noted here there were a number of serious problems with the kind of claims made on its behalf, in particular claims that talent is illusory and superior performance is only the result of intensive practice. Now the reservations, previously voiced in academic journals, are beginning to make themselves felt in the popular press. Witness this article in The Washington Post:

“That rule was in turn loosely based on a 1993 study of accomplished violinists in Berlin, which found that the most accomplished students had spent 10,000 hours practicing by the time they were 20 — far more hours than the less accomplished students had spent practicing. Gladwell estimated that the Beatles and Bill Gates had also put in 10,000 hours of practice fiddling with guitars and computers, respectively, by the time they went big.

There’s one problem with this idea: Research suggests it isn’t true. Practice is helpful in improving performance in a variety of fields, from athletics to chess. But it plays a surprisingly small role in determining whether people become virtuosos.”

One of the problems with the way scientific controversies get reported in the media is that the claims swing between extremes. First, we are told that talent doesn’t matter. Later we are told that talent is the only thing that matters.

Ericsson’s work on peak performance has made a real contribution and he has discovered important insights into effective training that may have important implications for education. The 10,000 hour rule is misleading, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Ann Patty on learning Latin

15 Jul

A fascinating Lexicon Valley podcast where linguist  John McWhorter interviews Ann Patty about her efforts to learn Latin. Patty documents her learning project in her book Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin

As I have said many times, learning a language is an ideal exercise for your brain. Don’t waste you time with expensive and, probably, ineffective brain training software. Learn a language instead.

Lifehacker on spaced learning

27 Feb

I have been posting a lot over this last week about flashcards. Here is a good short piece from Lifehacker about the underlying principle: spaced repetition learning:

“the idea here is that shorter sessions spaced out will be more effective, you don’t need to build up studying as a massive task. You can study a little bit every day and retain much more information.”



Learn a language at any age

16 Sep

A great piece in the Guardian, “Am I too old to learn a new language?” The answer is no.


‘Despite the difficulties, Black regards learning foreign languages as fun, and treats the endeavour like a puzzle that has to be solved. “I’m doing it partly to keep my brain active,” he says. “When you have some success and can express yourself, it feels like you’re using different parts of your brain that you weren’t using before.”

Indeed, research shows that bilingual children use the same brain regions for both languages if they are learned during childhood, whereas learning a second language later on in life recruits different regions from those involved in using one’s mother tongue. And learning a foreign language, much like learning to play a musical instrument, does indeed appear to be a good way of exercising one’s brain, and keeping it healthy, throughout life.’

Here is an interesting TED talk on language learning and teaching:

The number peg memory system

28 Aug

In the peg method, sometimes called the minor peg system, an individual memorizes a fixed set of ordered mnemonic cues. It can be used to learn ordered and unordered lists, such as a set of historical events or your weekly shopping. The technique relies on the use of vivid visual images.

The most widely used peg system is the number peg method. This system invented by John Sambrook in 1889 and a simplified version is described in most books on memory improvement. The peg word system is easy to learn and can supplement other mnemonic devices that we will be learning, such as the Dominic system. The first step is to create a numbered list of ten mnemonics pegs. Each peg word should rhymes with its respective number making the list easier to learn. Here is a suggested list, but you should modify if you can think of words that are more memorable to you. For example if the word “bricks” is easier for you to visualize than the word “sticks,” by all means, use it as your peg word for number six.

Number Peg Word
1               Gun
2               Shoe
3               Tree
4               Door
5               Hive
6               Sticks
7              Heaven
8              Gate
9             Vine
10           Hen

Once you have committed the list to memory, you are now ready to try to learn a list. What you will do is to make a vivid visual association with each item.

So let’s try to learn a grocery list. Suppose you want to purchase the following ten items; 1. oatmeal, 2. apples, 3. bananas, 4. spaghetti, 5. peanut butter, 6. carrots, 7. mushrooms, 8. maple syrup, 9. baked beans, 10. soy milk. Here is a chart suggesting visual associations between the items and the peg words.


Peg Word






Gun shooting out oatmeal (instead of bullets)




Shoe crushing apples under its heel




A tree with bananas hanging on it




Spaghetti forcing itself through a door



peanut butter

Bee hive made of peanut butter




A bundle of carrots wrapped up like sticks




Giant mushrooms growing in heaven



Maple syrup

A gate holding back a flood of maple syrup



Baked Beans

Cans of baked beans growing on a vine



Soy milk

A hen laying a carton of soy milk

If some of these associations seem bizarre, so much the better. The more bizarre, the easier to remember, a phenomenon called the bizarreness effect. It is important to try to create vivid visual images for each association. If, in addition you can link the image to something you already know the easier it will be to remember. For example, when I think of a gate holding back a flood of maple syrup, I am reminded of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

When one reuses the same pegs over and over again there is always some danger that memorizing one list might interfere with the learning of a later list. However, research suggests that the number peg system can used over and over again.

Here is a video showing a version of the number peg system:

1 Aug

In this video from The Quantified Self,  Steven Jonas does a good job of explaining spaced repetition software. Spaced repetition software represents the single greatest advance in memory improvement technology.

Spaced repetition at the Quantified Self

6 Jun

The Quantified Self has a post with many videos and links from the the Spaced Repetition breakout session at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference.

Although the basic science date back to Hermman Ebbinghaus, modern spaced repetition technology now empowers a new generation of memory improvement techniques.



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Start learning a new language today!

4 Jun

Yesterday, I blogged about the mounting evidence that second language learning, even for adults, may reduce the risk of dementia. I have also suggested that Esperanto is an ideal candidate for new language learners. Recently, Benny The Irish Polyglot has been filming his girl friend’s attempts to learn that language.

Here is his explanation of the project:


“Since I’m too busy on my book tour and maintaining my languages this year to learn a new language, she said that she would love to get into language learning herself. Thinking long-term though, I highly recommended that she start with Esperanto. It also turns out that a group of other people are learning Esperanto at the same time, with the deadline of the polyglot conference in Berlin, so we ran with that idea!”




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