Thursday 30 October 2014

Curiosity and Learning

Ryan is a 7-year-old piano student in one of my classes, an adorable and exasperating little boy who is infinitely curious. He walks into the classroom and immediately starts firing off questions:

“What’s that sign?”
“When are we going to learn b minor?”
“What does that mean?”
“How do you write out this rhythm?”
“What does the middle pedal do?”

And so on, endlessly.  It’s both endearing and exhausting.  He is also, you might guess, sharp as a tack, eagerly retaining every piece of information I impart in class.

Not surprising, these two traits, curiosity and learning ability, are known to go together.  And a recent study published in the journal Neuron shows how they are connected on an anatomical level.  The researchers, led by Matthias Gruber from the University of California at Davis, gave people a stack of questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers.  Then, they put each person in an fMRI scanner to look at what parts of the brain were active while they were learning the answers to the questions.  While in the scanner, the subjects were shown one of the questions.  They then saw a picture of random person’s face, and then the answer to the question.  This was repeated for the whole stack of questions.  Later, the researchers tested whether the subjects had learned the answers to the questions, and found that, in each case, when the subject was most curious about the answer, he or she was most likely to remember it.

The interesting part of this study comes next:  the researchers also tested to see which faces the subjects remembered best. They found that subjects remembered faces presented after a curiosity-provoking question, but that faces presented after a low-curiosity question were not remembered well.  In other words, simply putting someone in a state of high curiosity increased their ability to remember all information, not just information the person was curious about.

The fMRI data in this study show that during states of high curiosity, there is increased activity in the midbrain, and in the nucleus accumbens, two areas of the brain known to be involved in motivation and reward.  Intrinsic motivation, our desire for knowledge, activates the same areas as external motivators.  The fMRI data also showed that the greatest memory benefit from curiosity occurred when there was co-activation of the midbrain motivation areas along with the hippocampus, a structure long known to be important for learning.  The researchers speculate that activity in the motivation pathways of the brain might drive increased activity in the hippocampus, and this co-activation is the anatomical explanation for why curiosity aids learning.

As a teacher, I find this result both fascinating and useful.  The take-home for me is that I can increase my students' ability to learn simply by calling on their curiosity.  Instead of just telling them information, I can ask them questions, get them wondering about the answers first, to activate those intrinsic motivation pathways.  If they’re wondering what the answer is, they’re more likely to remember it when I tell them, and they'll also remember other information I tell them at the same time.

As for Ryan, lately he’s dying to learn about 6/8 time.  What is it?  What does it mean?  I think I’ll keep him in suspense a little longer (since it doesn’t come up in the curriculum until after Christmas).  In this case, I don’t think curiosity will kill the cat; instead, it will prime the hippocampus to help Ryan remember what I teach him.

Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D., and Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron 84, 486–496.

Monday 20 October 2014

Watch Me!

One of my grade 1 piano students is working on the piece The Snake by Renee Christopher and is having a hard time with the fingering, which is admittedly a little tricky in places.  In a recent lesson, I watched her struggle, and tried to correct her with verbal instructions:  “Start on finger one.  Tuck now! No, onto D, that’s it, now move finger 2 onto A…”  It was not actually very helpful for her.  So I stopped her, and instead said, “Watch me”, and played the passage for her.  She tried again, and there was definite improvement, but still mistakes.  So I played it for her again, and then she played it again, and we went back and forth a few more times until she had the fingering down.

Learning by observation is actually fairly common in musical training.  It’s less common in other fields, such as sports or physical therapy, but studies have shown that it is useful for all types of motor learning.  This struck me as kind of odd at first, because I tend of think of motor learning as something that only comes through practice.  How we can “practice” just by watching someone else?  The answer has to do with the way our brains are primed to imitate others.  There is a class of neurons known as “mirror neurons” which are active both when we perform an action, and also when we observe someone else performing that action.  In other words, for those neurons, observing a motor task is almost the same as actually performing the task.  When we make those neurons fire, the connections between the neurons get altered, enabling us to learn the movement just by watching.

And research studies have proven this.  Many studies use simple movements, such as moving your thumb quickly in a certain direction.  But even using this straightforward model, observation helps.  For example, a 2005 paper by Stefan et al. used stimulation of the primary motor cortex to cause people to move their thumbs.  Practicing thumb movements in a particular direction led to an increase in the acceleration of the movement in that direction.  The researchers showed that people who simply watched a video of someone moving their thumb in that same direction increased their movement acceleration almost as much as those who practiced the movement.  In contrast, a group that watched a video of someone moving their thumb in the opposite direction did not increase the movement acceleration.  The study showed that the motor cortex can be rewired just by watching movements, through the activation of mirror neurons.

How well can we learn movements just by observation?  In order to learn a movement, it’s pretty clear that just watching someone is not as effective as physically practicing – otherwise every armchair sports fanatic would be an expert athlete!  So how much does adding observation to our practice session help?  How should practicing and watching be combined?  In a study by Shea et al. (2000), participants had to learn to keep a dot centred on a screen in a video-game type of exercise.  The results showed that physical practice was superior to observation, but that a combination of physical practice and observation seemed to be even better.   Another study from the lab of Paul Anderson used the volleyball serve as a model and compared observation before physical practice with observations interspersed into the practice sessions.  The most effective strategy was to have participants observe serves before practicing, and then observe a few more during the early stages of practice.

And who should we watch doing the movement we want to learn?  An expert, who does the movement perfectly? Or someone who is learning themselves, so we can learn from their mistakes?  Apparently, the best scenario is when we have the opportunity to see both.  When we watch an expert, we make a mental model for how the movement is supposed to be performed.  But when we watch someone learning the movement, making mistakes and correcting them, we make a strategy for learning the movement.  Both are useful.

With this in mind, one approach for motor skill learning is “dyad practice”, where people practice in groups of two, taking turns practicing and observing.  Dyad practice has several advantages:  it minimizes fatigue, and maximizes time spent using equipment.  This approach is used in sports training, and in training surgeons and other professionals.

As a result of reading all this research, I’ve started demonstrating songs more to my students.  I always have, of course – the students should hear every new song before they head home to practice it.  But I haven’t always had the students watch me perform the song.  Usually, I have them look at the music while I’m demonstrating, so that they can make a connection with the music they see on the page and how it is supposed to sound when they play it.  But these days I to try to play it for them twice – once while they watch the music, and once while they watch my hands.  Let’s get those mirror neurons firing!


Rohbanfard, H., and Proteau, L. (2011). Learning through observation: a combination of expert and novice models favors learning. Exp Brain Res 215, 183–197.

Shea, C.H., Wright, D.L., Wulf, G., and Whitacre, C. (2000). Physical and observational practice afford unique learning opportunities. J Mot Behav 32, 27–36.

Stefan, K., Cohen, L.G., Duque, J., Mazzocchio, R., Celnik, P., Sawaki, L., Ungerleider, L., and Classen, J. (2005). Formation of a motor memory by action observation. J. Neurosci. 25, 9339–9346.

Weeks, D., and Anderson, L.P. (2000). The interaction of observational learning with overt practice: effects on motor skill learning. Acta Psychologica 104, 259–271.