How virtual learning affects the brain

How does learning work in the brain? And what does learning virtually do to this process?
23 February 2021

Interview with 

Barbara Sahakian, Cambridge University


A brain sparking with electricity.


How does learning work in the brain? And what does learning virtually do to this process? Katie Haylor sifted through some of the psychology of home-learning with Cambridge University neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian...

Barbara - Well, they were both very impressive young men, so I was really impressed by how articulate they were and how organised they seem to be. I think the thing is that there's two kinds of learning that children do, and one is what I call hot cognition or learning, and that's the more emotional and social learning. And then there's the cold cognition, which is non-emotional; it's more the learning of facts and that type of thing. And if you're organised, and if you like a very quiet environment, and if you are self-motivated, learning at home can be quite good. But it doesn't give you that hot social interaction that you need, especially for younger children. So here we have children of 9 and 11, but some of the younger children, of course, might've had a whole year taken out of this crucial hot development, the social cognition development, which starts at year one and goes to about year five of their life. That's very important for a building block for the cold cognition, but it also allows you to negotiate and learn how to interact with other people.

Katie - And indeed, Oak was saying that he much preferred being at school. He misses his friends and he doesn't get the same interaction.

Barbara - Well, I totally agree with that. I mean, play is very important because that's how you learn to negotiate, you know, whose turn it is... and rough and tumble play for boys and girls is very important, the sort of contact, touching and rolling around and having fun. I also feel that parents are supposed to interact with their children in a certain way, so to suddenly have to become their teacher is a rather different way of interacting with your child. And some people react to it fine, and other people find it quite difficult to concentrate, if they're getting that kind of home schooling as opposed to just sitting at a computer and passively looking at a screen where your teacher's presenting material. And again, you need very good attention to be able to focus for long periods of time while just looking at a computer screen. I think we've all experienced that when we've had Zoom calls, they're better if they're shorter than longer, because it's just hard to keep your attention when it's so two-dimensional, and you haven't got that feedback that you would normally get from people smiling at you, and talking, and laughing at your jokes, and things like that.

Katie - Absolutely, I find video conferencing really fatiguing, and it's really strange to be spending so much time looking at my own face! But anyway, kids don't all think in the same way - is there evidence to suggest which kids might be getting a particularly raw deal out of the changes that lockdown has brought around when it comes to education?

Barbara - The children that are getting a raw deal are probably the ones that have been left behind a bit, because parents can't spend as much time with them if they do need some help. Because we heard from Oak that sometimes his mum has to help him with something, so if you haven't got that extra help, that's very difficult. But also, if you're shy or if you have a neurodevelopmental delay such as autism spectrum disorder or something like that, it could make it more difficult for you to interact with the screen and the information. If you don't understand it, it might be hard to get your questions answered.

Katie - Can you offer any psychological tips for kids, teachers, parents?

Barbara - Well, what I would say is that as soon as children are allowed to have rough and tumble play, and to get together and do the things that they normally do - because they are very social animals, and they want to communicate with each other, and it's very good for their language learning - make sure you let them get out there and play with their friends, and have an opportunity to. And even now, I guess you can play some good games over Zoom, and some children respond to that quite well. And I would say exercise to; exercise is very good for children, it's good for your brain, it induces neurogenesis in important areas like the hippocampus, it's good for your mood. So if children get a bit low because they're stuck in the house, getting out there and exercising is brilliant for that. As long as it's something the child enjoys doing, that's a very good thing to do too.


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