The ability to adapt to new information is clearly critical for learning. However, more plasticity does not necessarily mean more learning. Too much plasticity can actually make it difficult to retain what we have learned. Meaningful, long-lasting learning instead requires plasticity that is balanced with stability, with the ability to retain information over time. Becket Ebitz is working to understand (1) how different brains balance these competing demands and (2) how we can help improve this balance to produce better learning outcomes. Becket’s work combines mathematical models, direct recordings from neural populations, and comparative behavioral experiments.
My plans for the fellowship period
Scientists have long struggled to understand how the brain can be both plastic enough to learn new information and stable enough to remember it going forward. This fundamental open problem is known as the “stability-plasticity dilemma”, and it is the major focus of research in my lab. So far, our central insight is that we are not actually plastic and stable at the same time. Instead, we alternate, over time, between being plastic and being stable. This alternation process, and the mathematical techniques we have developed to measure it, create a critical opportunity to accomplish two important goals. First, through measuring individual differences in this alternation process, we can better understand individual differences in learning outcomes—including why some learners fare better in some environments than others. Second, through developing ways to predict and perturb this alternation process, we will determine how we can regulate stability and plasticity to improve learning outcomes in a diversity of learners.
Through combining mathematical models, neural recordings, and behavioral experiments, these projects will (1) deepen our understanding of two processes that support long-lasting learning, (2) identify the biological bases of these processes, and (3) determine how individual differences in these processes affect learning outcomes.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Our work asks how learning is shaped by two fundamental underlying processes: plasticity and stability. Understanding learning in terms of these processes will improve our basic understanding of how children learn and why they struggle. This is important because a child who struggles because they are too plastic will need very different support than a child who struggles because they are too stable.
Through creating a typology of different learners, our work will help parents and educators better understand where the children in their lives fall along the stability-plasticity continuum. Through studying how we can harness stability and plasticity to optimize learning, our work will deliver the insight needed to support children to achieve their full learning potential. Someday our insight could help parents, educators, or future educational support technologies to deliver new information exactly when children are best able to learn about it, or to help children develop strategies to ensure that they are better able to learn more often.
Ultimately, our work has the potential to create a new model for making sense of differences in children’s learning “ability” while informing the personalized interventions needed to better support a greater diversity of learners in the future.