CSTD Opening Keynote

This entry is the first of several that i am adding from my participation at the 2011 CSTD Conference & Trade Show in Toronto. While I have been actively tweeting from the conference, I want to provide some curated and reflective summaries based on the offline notes.

Lynn Johnson kicked off the conference with some brief opening remarks. (Personally, I am still disappointed in lack of available WiFi, but….)

In a quick audience survey we saw some Interesting demographic results. I found it surprising that the largest representation of participants are from large orgs, namely gov’t. What does that say about the nature of CSTD with respect to smaller orgs or independents? It makes me wonder if that’s a true representation or if we need to be asking different questions to make better sense of these metrics?

Dr. Sylvain Moreno (UofT) provided the opening keynote talk about Brain Plasticity and I liked his innovative approach to learning about what makes us tick and how. Plasticity – he explained – is about the brain’s ability to change in response to use or disuse. The organization of the Neural Network inside the brain also changes over time, so these are important considerations for current and future learners.

In essence, that old saw about “using it or losing it” has its roots in brain science. Moreno tells us that the more you re-use the same pathways in the brain the more they get solidified. (e.g. repeatedly walking a grass pathway…eventually the grass is worn away and the path becomes clearer and easier to see. However, if you stop using that path, the grass will eventually return.)

The extension of this basic premise is that the lack or absence of one sense can lead to compensation by others (citing the work of Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita). Blindness is good and familiar example where we often find that those with vision impairments may develop more acute hearing or a finer sense of touch. Dr Moreno also showed us some very interesting technology developments that may eventually allow vision-impaired people to bypass an unhealthy eye or optic nerve and allow other receptors to send signals to the visual cortex, allowing them to see. Fascinating stuff, but I’m sure there may be some ethical and social implications that come with this kind of innovation.

Much of this kind of work in the area (Merzenich, et al) built on Penfield’s Brain Map concepts and how these maps change over time and use.

The key message here is that our sensory neurons are undefined and “programmable”, shooting some big holes in the whole “hard wired” adage. With respect to brain maps, Age is not so much a limitation…only lack of use.

Dr Moreno reminds us that age is a factor in plasticity (eg the capacity for change) but not the ability. Brain Training, he says, could be also be used as an alternative to meds for disease treatment. I admit that I’m not clear where the limitations would be, but it certainly hints at some truths in the power of positive thinking, as well as real brain engagement for people recovering from strokes or

Challenging more than a few notions, he revealed to us that the Brain can be modified in as little as 20 minutes! The inputs are, as we expect, Vision (pattern) Auditory (sound) Motor (e.g. physical).

For me, this kind of talk leads to some interesting implications and relations to gamification of learning (e.g. Go-NoGo tasks and discrimination). The element of “play” does seem to make the forging of these maps and paths somewhat less arduous for some.

I’m seeing a retro-fit to how to conduct training in the military and the short interactions/interventions. If nothing else, it reinforce the requirement to keep changing things up. I’m not convinced that the long sessions that we occasionally run are as healthy for the learners (key component of our push for Active Learning). However, repetition is critical for information to be “embedded” in our brain map. The key, I think, is that the repetition has to be meaningful and well-timed.

This discussion is a good reminder for all of us: The more you keep training the brain, the greater the likelihood that you can improve its plasticity as well as its capacity to take in and process new information. In older brains, he says, this capacity still exists and the neural network can still be solidified or reinforced. However, the basics of “use it or lose it” are still very much in play. Even though plasticity decreases with age, brain training allows people to retain skills and manage new information…basically calling “bullshit” on the whole “I’m too old to learn” excuse.

Plasticity can be managed and I really like the concept of “brain fitness”. I think this is vital for an aging populace but also for a knowledge-based economy. I wonder what kinds of ‘activities’ help to keep the brain “fit”? (e.g workshops, ongoing learning, hobbies?) SM mentions the requirement for a feedback loop on any learning period. He says that’s far more valuable than something like a daily exam. I envision a bi-directional feedback method where the learner and facilitator can engage in a dialogue, and the learner can also solicit peer-level feedback as well. Again, this reinforces the foundations of a ‘fit brain’ because goals can be examined, measured, etc., guidance provided by facilitator, etc.

What could be important as well is the element of “association” of stimuli and inputs (eg. baby and rabbit/noise experiments) Nature is not enough…nurture is critical.

All in all, a very worthwhile session and one I noted people referred to regularly throughout the conference.

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Posted on November 18, 2011, in blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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