June 22, 2023

Consolidation: The Fourth Pillar Of Learning

Consolidation is the fourth pillar of learning, which renders what we have learned fully automated and involves sleep as a key component.


Consolidation: the fourth pillar of learning

Consolidation: the fourth pillar of learning, happens in all domains: a shift from slow, conscious, and effortful processing to fast, unconscious, and automatic expertise. Our brains never stop learning. Even when a skill is mastered, we continue to learn it.

Automatization mechanisms “compile” the operations we regularly use into more efficient routines. They transferred them to other brain circuits, outside our conscious awareness, where processes can unfold independently of one another without disrupting other operations in progress.

Freeing up brain resources

Whether we learn to type, play a musical instrument, or drive a car, our gestures are initially under the control of the prefrontal cortex; we produce them slowly and consciously, one by one. Practice, however, makes perfect; over time, all effort evaporates, and we can exercise those skills while talking or thinking about something else. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, further solidifies our abilities, allowing us to perform these tasks effortlessly and seamlessly, as if they were second nature. The same shift happens for arithmetic.

For a beginner child, each calculation problem is an Everest that requires great effort to climb and mobilizes the circuits of the prefrontal cortex. At this stage, a calculation is sequential: to solve 6 + 3, children will typically count the steps one by one: “Six . . . seven, eight . . . nine!”

As consolidation progresses, children begin to retrieve the result straight from memory, and the prefrontal activity fades away in favor of specialized circuits in the parietal and ventral temporal cortex. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, facilitates this shift, enabling swift and automatic retrieval of information or skills. With practice, these circuits take over, making performance effortless..

Consolidation: the fourth pillar of learning
Effortful Reading
Consolidation: the fourth pillar of learning
Automatic Reading

Why is Automatization so important?

Because it frees up the cortex’s resources. While our brain’s central executive is focused on one task, all other conscious decisions are delayed or canceled. Thus, as long as a mental operation remains effortful because it has not yet been automated by overlearning, it absorbs valuable executive attention resources and prevents us from focusing on anything else. Consolidation is essential because it makes our precious brain resources available for other purposes.

Let us take a concrete example.

Imagine if you had to solve a math problem but your reading had remained at the beginner’s level:

“A dryver leevz Bawstin att too oh clok and heds four Noo Yiorque too hunjred myels ahwey. Hee ar eye-vz at ate oh clok. Wat waz hiz avrij speed?”

I think you get my point: it is practically impossible to do both things at the same time. The difficulty of reading destroys any capacity for arithmetic reflection. To progress, it is essential that the mental tools most useful to us, such as reading or arithmetic, become second nature — that they operate unconsciously and effortlessly. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, is the key to achieving this. We cannot reach the highest levels of the educational pyramid without first consolidating its foundations.

The key role of Sleep

We have already seen that learning is much more efficient when done at regular intervals: rather than cramming an entire lesson into one day, we are better off spreading out the learning. The reason is simple: every night, our brain consolidates what it has learned during the day. This is one of the most important neuroscience discoveries of the last thirty years: sleep is not just a period of inactivity or a garbage collection of the waste products that the brain accumulated while we were awake.

Quite the contrary: while we sleep, our brain remains active; it runs a specific algorithm that replays the important events it recorded during the previous day and gradually transfers them into a more efficient compartment of our memory.

Consolidation (Image Credits: brainpost.co)
Consolidation (Image Credits: brainpost.co)

The amount of nightly gain varies according to the quality of sleep, which can be assessed by placing electrodes on the scalp and monitoring the slow waves that characterize deep sleep. Both the duration and the depth of sleep predict a person’s performance improvement upon waking. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, plays a vital role in this process.

Discoveries during sleep

Does sleeping merely strengthen memory? Many scientists think otherwise: they report making discoveries at night. The most famous case is the German chemist August Kekule von Stradonitz (1829–96), who first dreamed up the structure of benzene.

Consolidation (Image Credits: Discoveries  During Sleep)

Nocturnal consolidation is not limited to the strengthening of existing knowledge. The discoveries from the day are not only stored but also recorded in a more abstract and general form. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, is instrumental in this phenomenon. Nighttime neuronal replay undoubtedly has a crucial role in this process. Every night, our floating ideas from the day are reactivated hundreds of times at an accelerated rate, thus multiplying the chances that our cortex eventually discovers a rule that makes sense.

In addition, the twentyfold acceleration of neural discharges compresses information. High-speed replay implies that the neurons that were activated at long intervals while awake now find themselves adjacent in the night sequence.

This mechanism seems ideal for gathering, synthesizing, compressing, and “converting raw information into useful and exploitable knowledge"—the very definition of intelligence according to artificial intelligence mogul Demis Hassabis.

The new idea is that during sleep, our brain works in the opposite direction: from top to bottom. During the night, we use our generative models to synthesize new, unanticipated images, and part of our brain trains itself on this array of images created from scratch. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, aids in incorporating these synthesized images, fostering cognitive growth during sleep.

This enhanced training set allows us to refine our ascending connections. Because both the parameters of the generative model and its sensory consequences are known, it is now much easier to discover the link between them. This is how we become more and more effective in extracting the abstract information that lies behind a specific sensory input: after a good night’s sleep, the slightest clue suffices to identify the best mental model of reality, however abstract it may be.

According to this idea, dreams are nothing more than an enhanced training set of images: our brain relies on internal reconstructions of reality to multiply its necessarily limited experience of the day. Sleep seems to solve a problem that all learning algorithms face: the scarcity of the data available for training.

To learn, current artificial neural networks need huge data sets — but life is too short, and our brain has to make do with the limited amount of information it can gather during the day. Sleep may be the solution that the brain finds to simulate, in an accelerated manner, myriad events that an entire life would not suffice to experience for real. Consolidation, the fourth pillar of learning, aids in extracting insights from these simulated events during sleep.

Sleep duration

We learn during the day, but nocturnal neuronal replay multiplies our potential. This may indeed be one of the secrets of the human species because suggestive data indicate that our sleep may be the deepest and most effective of all primates.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the 4 pillars of training?
    • Knowledge: Acquiring the necessary information and understanding of the subject matter.
    • Skills: Developing practical abilities and expertise through practice and hands-on experience.
    • Attitude: Cultivating a positive mindset, motivation, and a willingness to learn and improve.
    • Behavior: Incorporating learned knowledge and skills into one’s actions and daily practices.
  2. What are the 4 pillars of education in India?
      The four pillars of education in India are:
    1. Learning to know: Acquiring knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a broad understanding of various subjects.
    2. Learning to do: Developing practical skills, vocational training, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-life situations.
    3. Learning to be: Fostering holistic development, personal growth, and nurturing values, ethics, and character.
    4. Learning to live together: Promoting social awareness, empathy, inclusivity, and the ability to interact harmoniously in a diverse society.
  3. Who gave the four pillars of learning?
    • The four pillars of learning were proposed by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in the Delors Report titled “Learning: The Treasure Within” in 1996.
  4. What are the 4 pillars of cognition?
    • There is no widely recognized or established framework that specifically identifies the “four pillars of cognition.” Different models and theories may propose different components or pillars within the field of cognition, but there is no universally agreed-upon set of pillars.

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