The Nature of Learning, or the Learning of Nature?

Nano-flower2.png Studying for Mass Comm Theory Final, I have some thoughts about learning from Nature…

In 1994, psychologist Albert Bandura gave the world of mass media effects social learning theory, hypothesizing that people don’t learn by trial and error or by reinforcement and reward as much as by observing the behaviors of others. Social learning theory acknowledged (thank goodness) that “human beings are capable of cognition or thinking and … can benefit from observation and experience.” In social learning theory, learning “takes place through watching other people [or nature?] model various behaviors.”

The logical extension of Bandura’s social learning theory was into the realm of mass media effects. The theory was used to explain how adults and children both learn to engage in various behaviors that they see modeled on television or through other mass media. Social learning theory gave way to modeling theory (explaining how and under what conditions individuals adopt behaviors portrayed in the media) which subsequently gave way to the broader social cognitive theory, which focused on the “cognitive processes involved in social learning”. These theories were used to explain, for example, why and how children imitate violent behavior as seen on television or from the adults around them, given that they identify with these ‘characters’ and expect some type of reward (good or ‘bad’) from an imitation of the behavior.

But do humans only stand to learn from other people in their social circles or in the media? When I think of “observing the behaviors of others”, I can’t help but think beyond the borders of our own kind… into the realm of Mother Nature with all her wonderfully complex creatures and biological processes. What about learning from these processes? They sure are just as ubiquitous (even more so!) as mass media, and as observable as any behavior of the social companions around us.

I’m talking about biomimicry… a special case of learning and imitating the behaviors and physics of the natural world around us. As Scitable’s Doaa Tawfik recently pointed out, scientists and engineers today learn such things as how to make the rotor blades of wind turbines and helicopters more efficient by imitating the dynamics of humpback whale fins! Now if we can learn from these giant swimming mammals how to improve some of our more complex technological innovations, we can learn from almost anything. And psychology scholars really used to think that we learned only from trial and error!

Unfortunately, trial and error in the world of science may be more common than we might hope for. Take drug design for example… a classic case of trial and error, learning from ‘reinforcement’ (i.e. which drugs have beneficial effects in clinical trials, and which drugs don’t, after months to years of design and fabrication). Sure, technological computing innovations and complex modeling software packages are improving this process as we speak, but the days of trial and error in the making of science are certainly not coming to an end anytime soon.

744px-Bur_Macro_BlackBg.jpg Unless? We get REALLY good, even better, at observing and imitating the natural world! From insect-path algorithms, to insect swarm intelligence, to the hydrophobic and self-cleaning properties of nanostructures on the rose petal and the lotus leaf, to the hooks on the end of a burs’ spikes that inspired the invention of Velcro, to the reflective and anti-wetting properties of nanostructures on the butterfly wing, to the information storage system of coiled DNA structures, we have already learned a vast amount from nature in the building of our ‘human’ world. But when I consider the vastness of the natural world and all the ways that life has adapted to dynamic conditions, in finding new ways to cope with seemingly complex problems, I am astounded… I don’t think we should stop observing behaviors in the natural world anytime soon. Mimicking nature might give us some of our most innovative designs, technological and energy solutions yet. All we have to do is watch and learn.