One of my lecturers today asked a question, not a tough one, sounded simple, but would not consider an easy one either. He asked “what do you think of learning?” Not a difficult question isn’t it? If we were to be asked to write a paragraph out of it for an exam paper, it would not be a tough thing to do; it is an open question with subjective view. But the sad part is, I could not think of a good answer. Instead, it triggered me to ask myself, what is learning, or what learn is?
Some may think, it is not a difficult word to define. In most English dictionary, learning is usually defined as a process where new knowledge or skill is gained. However, from a neuroscience’s point of view, learning is a process of acquiring new memory, which is defined as behavioural change caused by an experience. This definition appeared to make more sense because it covers a larger aspect of incidence. But, I would like to define “learning” as an acquisition of a response or responses from stimuli which has not been previously acquired. This has a few problems, because we immediately assumes that the presence of brain is mandatory in the process of learning, as also we assume memory only can occurs in the presence of a functioning brain or at least a neural system. If that is the case, then organism without such fortune could not learn; this includes the entire list of microorganism. A bacterial which developed new gene, new protein and new mechanism to protect itself from antibiotic fits the definition of mentioned earlier. Can we say these bacteria have learnt? If our answer is yes, then learning does not required a brain anyone. One may argue that these bacteria changed as a result of genetic mutation which is part of the evolution process, and does not consider learning. If so, then we should redefine “learning” or maybe redefine “behaviour”. I’m quite sure that the bacteria have a behavioural change; well, at least according to my personal dictionary.
How about plants? Can plant learnt? Plant that grows towards lights, water, or against the direction of gravity; are they learning? Well again, one may argue it is in their gene. If that is the case, then a child who learnt to eat can be part of the gene anyway because every child will begin to chew (unless some medical illness interfered). Walking is learning or simply genetic? Some genetic defect affects a child ability to walk, thus, gene definitely play a part in learning. Hence, if genes determine plants’ and also animals’ behaviour, can we group them up as part of learning process?
Up to this point, we are almost certain that learning is only possible in living organism. But there is one more question stuck in my brain. If we programmed a button in our laptop as a shortcut to type this article, so that it will automatically retype everything with a push of a button; is it learning? It definitely is a memory and a new behaviour. The only difference is it is not a living organism.