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Teaching Snails - Lessons on Learning, the Brain, and the Importance of Timing

  • Written by Erica Peterson, campus manager, Dartmoor School

Learning at a snail’s pace just got a little faster, according to researchers at the University of Texas, Houston.  Yes, top researchers from the UT’s Health Science Center have been working on training snails, and a computer program that models the biochemical processes in the snails’ brains has helped them get a lot better at it. In the terms of a neuroscientist, learning is called “long-term synaptic facilitation,” and in order for it to happen in both snails and people, multiple chemical reactions in the brain have to work together in just the right way. John Byrne, senior author of the study from UT, thought that a computer model could help scientists discover when the chemical processes in the brain align to make learning more possible. Apparently, he was right.

Learning is all about timing, as far as the brain is concerned. Researchers demonstrated this by using the computer model of the chemical interactions in snails’ brain to predict times that the snails would be ready for learning. Based on these predictions, the UT team developed a training schedule for the snails specifically designed to be sensitive to the brain. Other researchers administered training at regular 20 minute intervals, without regard to the snails’ readiness. As suspected, snails that were trained using the special schedule learned better and remembered their training longer.

Of course, snails aren’t people. Scientists are a long way from being able to predict optimal learning schedules for brains as complex as that of the average human. Luckily, it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to tell us that when it comes to learning, timing is important.  We may not be able to track protein reactions in our neurons, but all of us have experienced times when our brains were tired. Or low on fuel. Or grumpy. Or distracted. Any number of things can turn the human brain off.

That’s why all of us can benefit by paying better attention to the brain’s readiness to learn. This is especially important for educators and parents, who often work with students who may not be able to articulate their own state.Are our students’ brains ready? Do our students have sufficient nutrition, or is their blood sugar crashing? Are they ready to focus or are they distracted by an emotion or by an environmental disturbance?   Are they rested, or are they wilting after a sleepless night playing video games? We may not be able to schedule classes by our brain chemistry, but we can still be brain-sensitive as we plan our lives and our students’ educational experiences.

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