Humans learn in a number of ways, for example by observing what happens around us, then associating events that frequently occur together. But a new study shows the huge importance of communication and how it can amplify and speed up learning.
“Human beings learn from statistical associations between events and objects,” said Hanna Marno, a researcher at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy. “If, for example, one event very frequently follows another, we’ll learn to associate the first with the second and to use this association in our daily lives.”
However, this is not the only way we learn, she noted. “For humans, in fact, sharing information by communication is a vitally important factor.”
This means that while we normally associate an object with an action after observing their co-occurrence for a certain number of times, when certain communicative “cues” intervene — such as eye contact or verbal reinforcement from another person — then learning takes place far more rapidly and without any need for repeated observations, she explained.
“In our experiments, infants aged about 18 months watched an adult interact with a box that had two buttons and a heart-shaped lamp on it,” she said. “When either of the two buttons was pressed the heart lit up.”
In the “baseline” condition, only the efficiency of the action varied, she noted. In one case, for example, the button on the right would light up the heart-shaped lamp two-thirds of the time (high efficiency) and the one on the left the remaining one-third (low efficiency). In another case, the situation was reversed.
In the experimental condition, a “communication” variable was added: The demonstrators could remain neutral (as at baseline) or interact with the child through non-verbal (eye contact) and verbal cues (in so-called “motherese” — the typical way adults talk to young children) to emphasize their action.
In a later phase, the children were left alone to interact with the box and the investigators recorded which button they pressed first.
“The results demonstrate that in these experiments the ‘communicative’ signals are more important than the efficiency of the action,” explained Marno. “Compared to children’s tendency to choose the more efficient button in the neutral condition, in the experimental situation they tended to prefer the button with low efficiency if this had been highlighted by the adult’s communicative signals.”
Marno, who started her studies on the effect of communicative signals by testing adult subjects, notes that communication seems to play a specific, powerful role for adults as well.
“Information about an object may be contingent or general,” she said. “For example, when learning about an object, we can learn its position, which is transitory information related to a specific moment in time, or we can learn more general features like its shape and function, which are not bound to any specific time period.”
In her experiments with adults, Marno observed that while mere observation of objects can contribute to the acquisition of contingent and transitory information, when communicative signals are also present, there is a bias to acquire some permanent, more general information.
“Our studies clearly demonstrate the huge importance of communication in human learning,” she concluded.
The latest study was published in PLOS One.