Friday, August 19, 2011

Learning vs. Memory: What's the Difference?

As I mentioned in Tuesday's post, I attended the ESA conference in Austin last week. It was quite a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the 2 behavior-related topic sessions that I was able to attend. Both of my favorite talks were, of course, about spatial mobility and foraging theory (if I were a brainiac modeling scientist, I would be a theoretical mathematician. Optimal theory makes me weak in the knees). During the Q&A of a particularly fascinating talk, someone asked the speaker to clarify a point from the presentation, which ultimately led to the question, "What's the difference between learning and memory?" The speaker stammied a bit and came up with the answer, but I left the session with a slight nagging feeling at the back of my brain.

A few days later, I was still thinking about this question. As scientists, we have a tendency to define the world around us in very discreet terms. We label things, categorize them, give them names and describe their behaviors. But when you think about the types of words you can use to describe a particular behavior or action, we seem to see a gray area. For example, one of the "hot topics" in Animal Behavior right now is animal personalities, and there are quite a few papers by several authors who attempt to define the terminology used in this field. The unfortunate thing is that everyone defines terms different, so to someone outside of the field or a novice just picking it up, it's very confusing to figure out what is actually meant by all of these different words. Are these researchers correctly identifying key differences in the words we use to think about their branch of science, or are they all just re-describing the same phenomena in a slightly different way?

If you think about the words "Learning" and "Memory" in a general way, you would imagine that they are probably the same. In the world of behavior and learning, however, they really do mean different things.

Memory is, as one would think, remembering information. For example, let's say remembering where something is located in space. When you go to Walmart you park your car, go inside and go shopping, then return to your car. But how do you get back to your car? Do you walk up and down all of the aisles looking at the different cars until you see yours? Usually we remember where we park our cars and take the shortest possible route to get back to them (because it's 100 degrees and I don't want my ice cream to melt!). This is memory. But would you say that you learned where your car is parked? Probably not.

Learning, as defined broadly, is a relatively permanent change in behavior, resulting from experience. The speaker at ESA defined learning as "constantly updating the information that you use to make decisions." Say you discover a secret parking area on the side of the Walmart building that always has a few empty spots and is a lot closer than where you normally park. If the next time you go to Walmart, you check this new area to see if a spot is open first, then that's learning. You've updated your information about available parking spots and are using the new information to benefit yourself.

It's important to define vocabulary in science writing, because concepts that are very close in meaning in layman's terms tend to have slightly different meanings than one might think. What do you think the difference is between "Learning" and "Memory"? How about the difference between those words and "Acquiring Information"?

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