A broader definition of learning could help stimulate interdisciplinary research — ScienceDaily

We often think of learning as cramming for an exam or teaching a dog to sit, but humans and other mammals aren’t the only creatures that can adapt to their environment — schools of fish, robots, and even our genes can make new ones Learning behaviors, Jan De Houwer and Sean Hughes (University of Ghent) explain in a new one Perspectives in Psychology Article. Adopting a broader definition of learning that includes any behavioral adaptation developed in response to regular features of an environment could help researchers in the fields of psychology, computer science, sociology and genetics to collaborate, De Houwer explained in an interview.

“Most people think of learning as some kind of mechanism for storing new information, but that makes it very difficult to compare learning in different systems because different systems are likely to use different mechanisms for storing information,” De Houwer said. “We define learning as changes in the way a system responds to its environment – that is, as learned behavior.”

Similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution, De Houwer and Hughes’ functional definition of learning focuses on how systems adapt to their environment, regardless of the mechanisms by which those adaptations may occur. The “system” in question could be a single organism, a part of an organism such as a gene or the spinal cord, or a community of organisms. In fact, De Houwer added, evolution itself could be viewed as a form of learning in which an animal species is viewed as a system that adapts to its environment.

“Because our definition of learning is ‘mechanism-free’, it allows for interactions between scientists studying learning in different systems,” said De Houwer. ‘It transcends the boundaries between different sciences and allows for an exchange of ideas that will further the exploration of learning in general.’

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Not only does this definition support comparisons between learning in different types of systems, but it can also help researchers examine more closely how these systems may affect each other’s learning, De Houwer and Hughes write. For example, a corn plant can learn to become more drought-resistant because its genes have an epigenetic response to dehydration that causes its cells to store more water, ultimately affecting the learned behavior of the entire plant.

Learning can also take place at a group level, such as in a school of fish, because some, but not all, members of that group learn, De Houwer added. For example, a fish at the top of a school may learn to avoid a shipwreck after repeatedly finding sharks there, while fish at the end of the school may exhibit similar behavior by simply continuing to follow the fish in front of them without saying anything about the experienced shipwreck.

This analysis can also be applied to the study of robots and artificial intelligence. Although each can be studied individually, a robot’s ability to learn to navigate through obstacles also depends on how its algorithm responds to the environment, the researchers explain.

However, it is important to note that a system cannot be said to be learning just because its behavior has changed in response to the environment. A system can only be said to have learned something when it changes the way it responds to a stimulus due to regularities in its environment, such as B. repeated exposure to a stimulus or the simultaneous occurrence of stimuli, said De Houwer. Learning researchers study the conditions under which regularities in the environment alter behavior, he continued.

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De Houwer and Hughes conclude that developing an accurate definition of learning can help researchers to communicate existing knowledge and encourage new interdisciplinary research.

“Definitions are tools in the service of better science,” they write. “Our definition enables scientists to share knowledge and thereby explore new ways of studying learning in different systems.”

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Materials provided by Society for Psychology. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.

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