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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Dana Foundation

The Dana Foundation's website has information about current advances in brain research. The following is an excerpt from a Dana Foundation publication entitled "Staying Sharp - Learning Throughout Life"

What Do We Mean by “Learning”?

How much do you remember of what you learned in school? Algebraic formulas? Perhaps, if you’re a mathematician. Periodic table of the elements? If you’re a chemist, certainly. Sentence diagramming? Maybe, if you’re a writer.

The point is, you may have learned these things in grade school—you may have even aced the exams—but unless you’ve used them in your day-to-day life since, you may be hard pressed to remember the details. This illustrates a distinction that brain researchers are quick to make: learning and memory are not the same thing, though they are intricately linked.

“Learning is how you acquire new information about the world, and memory is how you store that information over time,” says Eric R. Kandel, M.D., vice chairman of The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the molecular basis of memory. “There is no memory without learning, but there is learning without memory,” Kandel says, because “you can learn things and forget them immediately.”

As a result, not all learning gets laid down into memories that last. We look up a phone number and retain it just long enough to dial it. This is sometimes called “working memory.” It still requires learning, just not for the long haul.

Scientific definitions aside, what most of us think of when we think of “learning” is really an attempt to establish a memory that sticks. Learning a new dance step, how to play a musical instrument, or the name of a new acquaintance all require that our brain encodes new information and stores it until we need it.

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