Dr. Darlene Howard, Davis Family Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, investigates how the human mind absorbs subtle patterns and learns about the world indirectly in the article Implicit Learning: A New Frontier in Cognitive Psychology.
Howard and her colleagues in the Cognitive Aging Lab seek to unlock the secrets of implicit learning. Borrowing observation techniques from other areas of research and developing their own behavioral measurements, Howard and her collaborators use carefully designed testing situations to monitor the outcomes of the indirect absorption of patterns and information, allowing researchers to effectively quantify implicit learning
Questions Howard was looking to answer:
Two major questions for this population are :
1) Whether implicit learning declines with age and
2) How implicit learning can be facilitated at all ages.
Imagine a person in their seventies selling their home of 30 years and moving to a retirement home. In the familiar home, they know from experience how to operate the oven and how to get from their bedroom to the bathroom. How quickly can they adjust in the new retirement home? What is the best way for them to effectively familiarize themselves with their new environment? Howard’s research can help reveal the underlying mechanisms of such learning to determine not only how the learning takes place but whether there may be more effective ways of teaching people essential tasks.
Initially, Howard’s research and other studies suggested that during healthy aging declarative, conscious memory declined, while implicit learning was spared. Consider a comparison between a young college student and an elderly person, both moving to a new home: The elderly person is likely to have a hard time memorizing her new phone number while the college student can remember it easily. This is because the task of declarative learning—explicitly memorizing the phone number—is often more difficult for the elderly.
However, both the college student and the elderly person, after a few days of routine, would likely have little trouble going to the correct cabinet to retrieve a water glass without giving it much thought. At least this would be so if implicit learning didn’t decline with aging.
Howard’s more recent work indicates that while some forms of implicit learning are spared during aging, others are not. Her research has shown that there are multiple forms of implicit learning relying on different brain regions, which may be affected differently by aging. Howard and her collaborators are working to understand how aging affects these different learning systems.
The long-range implications of her research could lead to methods of teaching and learning that effectively help aging persons impaired by aging-induced neurological changes. “We want to understand which implicit learning systems are spared with aging and which aren’t,” Howard says of her intention. “We are working to understand how these are related to the changes in the brain that occur in the course of aging. And most important, we want eventually to figure out what can be done to help people of all ages adapt to changing environments, because this is an essential component of successful aging.”