We build on knowledge and understanding from the day we are born. Our genetic profile holds a body of innate knowledge accumulated via our ancestors. Throughout our lives, based on our experiences, our genes ‘learn’ and adapt. We can hence not “not learn”.
Biologically we are wired to want to understand our reality. From birth onwards, we possess an “innate explanatory drive”. Neural networks in our brain store, link and interpret pieces of knowledge. Learning and accumulating knowledge is hence part of life from day one.
As to the why and how of learning, the field of educational psychology sheds insight although there is no unified theory yet: However, multiple perspectives (such as behavioural, cognitive, developmental and constructivist) have been posed.
Our outlook is that all perspectives hold value in why and how we learn. We all learn from conditioning, motivation, our environment and our own capabilities, memories and beliefs.
Learning and understanding bring joy to our lives as we experience a positive feeling when we gain insight, a phenomenon called the Eureka effect.
The effect has been extensively studied and evidenced in neuroscience. With these aha moments, specific brainwave frequencies were measured. Also, when experiencing an aha moment, our hippocampus in our brain is stimulated. Interestingly, not only humans are excited when they learn.
Insight and the process of learning are therefore yet other building blocks for a high-quality life.
From the days our ancestors left the African territory via Christopher Columbus to our current musings to go to Mars, people have always looked to explore and experience new sensations.
The source of our curiosity can be found in our gene template, or more precisely, the receptor D 4 gene impacting the creation of dopamine, the “happiness hormone”. That is why most of us like to travel, try a new restaurant or look for other ‘kicks’. Dopamine is released when we experience new things.
From an evolutionary perspective, our need to explore new places and new ideas is a bit of a conundrum. At first sight, staying safe in a familiar environment makes more sense than exploring uncharted territories.
However, evolutionary biologists state that neoteny – the fact that adults keep child-like traits – is a Darwinist shortcut to accelerate evolution. They believe that it is the root explanation for our curious behaviour.
We all have an impulse to convert our potential into real life actions. It gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
One could argue that evolution has set us up for competition. Having the best skills increases our chances of survival.
Life can be much more than survival though. Social psychologists have developed a self-determination theory which provides more insights into the mechanisms of intrinsic motivation, i.e., the drive to do something for the sake of it. It builds on the self-actualisation theory of Abraham Maslow.
Intrinsic motivation and our drive for autonomy are closely intertwined. A complex neurological interplay of experiencing extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation seems to steer our need to apply the talents we have and “to fulfil our potential”.