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Why do we learn?

“A man who asks, is a fool for five minutes. A man who never asks is a fool for life.” - Chinese Proverb


I find learning a fascinating topic. We are always learning - mostly unwittingly. The process of learning is a very human trait and in this series I am very excited to try and answer questions like:


- why do we have the ability to learn? (today's blog)

- what is intelligence?

- what is the Dunning-Kruger effect?

- how do we create and access memories?

- what are good conditions for learning

- given the evidence, how I would approach my school and university exams

What is learning


Our brain creates an internal model of the external world which helps us make predictions like what would happen if I walk this route to work. Those predictions drive our actions.


Learning is adding to that model of the world: filling in blanks, revising expectations, changing the model in response to bad outcomes and opening our eyes to new possibilities. Learning results in better predictions, which improves our fit for the world.


Over the COVID period, we learnt how to do many things completely differently to the way we had done them before. Whether doing online shopping, hybrid working or using digital methods of identity checking, we all found that a need to do something trumped our initial unfamiliarity with it.


Learning in the animal kingdom


Many animals are capable of learning. Some of this is conditioning, like the proverbial Pavlov's dog who learnt to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food. More advanced animals can learn social norms and become sensitive to things that lead to bad outcomes.


The capacity for learning is a large part of what differentiates humans from our most recent ancestors. We can detail complex ideas through precise language. We can efficiently share knowledge through stories and more recently the written word. Our ability to direct and reflect upon our learning further supercharges our ability to gain knowledge and skills which means humans can compound understanding of the world around them.


Learning solves two engineering problems:


Having the capacity to learn solves a two problems for humans:


1) We do not need to be born hard-wired with lots of knowledge


If each human was born with lots of knowledge but could not otherwise learn new things, we would need too much energy to keep in memory and access the relevant information in it. Being able to learn is energy-efficient, preventing us from using large swathes of memory on redundant things.


2) Evolution is slow, learning is faster


Whereas evolution is a process over centuries and millenia, learning to survive and thrive in new environments can happen through learning. Effectively, it makes us adaptable to change whether expected or not. Think of it like being able to update our software regularly.


The combination of these two, and the ability to coordinate large groups of humans through effective communication means humans are formidable at adapting to new environments.


The different depths of learning


So, what does it mean to have learnt something? In the 1950s, a framework to answer this question was developed - Bloom's taxonomy. It describes learning as a journey from very superficial level to being able to build upon and create things. Each stage requires a deeper understanding of the material e.g. being merely able to remember something is what we would term 'rote' learning, whereas to understand how web pages are designed so well that you could create your own, shows a much deeper learning.


  1. Remember: recall, define, or label.

  2. Understand: summarise or classify.

  3. Apply: implement

  4. Analyze: break down for deeper analysis.

  5. Evaluate: critique or make a judgement

  6. Create: develop something new through integrated learning.


What are babies good at learning?


We might think of babies as completely blank canvases from a learning perspective. That, however is not completely true. Lots of observational research on babies within their first year of life, show incredible intuition for some very complex and abstract ideas. By year 1 the median baby:

  • Understands elementary physics. e.g. knows that a solid toy cannot pass through another solid toy

  • Has a basic grasp of the number of things e.g. whether there are lots or few of something and be able to work out whether is something is likely to happen or not

  • Has an incredibly well honed ability to recognise familiar people

  • Is familiar with a surprisingly large vocabulary of words

  • If they found an interesting item, they can chart a path back to it

These observations suggest that whilst the actual words or numbers themselves might be learnt as they progress to nursery and school, babies are ready to learn those concepts from the day they are born.


We are in a rapidly changing world


If our brain constructs an internal model of the external world, then in a rapidly changing world we should be learning more right?


There are things that pop up everyday like ChatGPT, or Cryptocurrency or renewable energy that might be unfamiliar to us. This can spark primarily two very different reactions. One is of rubbishing the ideas, looking for reasons why you are fine not knowing about it and why it's a hoax, scam and parroting other uninformed people's views. The other is of humility. Either understanding you do not know about it, and deferring to those who do, or better still if you can, practicing your lifelong learning skills and trying to jargon-bust each area, to answer the question, 'when might this be useful?'. Learning about something without an agenda will help you overcome bias.


It is the best time ever to be a learner. The resources we have at our disposal are better than they have ever been. Websites, videos, online courses (sometimes from the best learning institutions in the world) and forums discussing topics means that people from anywhere in the world can learn about things in a very short period of time.


Become a lifelong learner


Being a lifelong learner is a subtle change to your identity. Lifelong learners open up the world around them by having fewer areas that they shut off through willful ignorance. The returns to learning newer and cutting edge things is stunningly high. Being up to date is a more pleasurable existence and professionally there is a sharp undersupply of people with up-to-date skills.


Thinking of learning as something you do all the time in the long arc of your life whether learning about health, relationships, financial security, career advancement allows learning to be done away from school and university and also away from diplomas and degrees. Keeping open your ability to learn will help you build your self esteem and potentially stave off regret.


So what?


Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:


1) We create an internal model of the external world. Learning involves updating this model by filling gaps, adjusting expectations, and adapting to errors, leading to improved predictions and alignment with reality.


2) Humans are more effective learners than other animals. They can construct and convey complex ideas and use spoken language and writing to share information with others. This makes us exceptional at adapting to new circumstances.

3) It has never been a better time to be a lifelong learner. To take advantage of opportunities and open up the world around you the breadth of resources to learn have never been more plentiful.


Thank you for joining. Next blog in the learning series - 'Motivation and learning'. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders (hartejsingh.com)

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