It is an indisputable fact of life that the technological revolution has come to dominate most aspects of modern life. In recent times, it has filtered through towards the education sector in ways that has the potential to fundamentally transform the way we teach children for the better. The development of the new field of Connectomics holds the ability to modify and adapt teaching strategies towards new understandings of how the student brain operates. By being able to create a map of the brain through neural imaging and histological techniques, connectomics will allow educators to craft educational strategies directly aimed at increasing the speed, efficiency, and resolution of neural connections in the nervous system in a way that will maximise learning speed.
The beauty of Connectomics lies in the understanding that it gives educators in relation to the inherent structure of the human brain. Our most basic endeavours into Connectomics have taught educators a great deal. In essence, the brain possesses 100 billion neurons that are connected to each other by 10,000 times as many connections, the jungle of our densely packed neural wires run millions of miles in our brains. Connectomics tells us that it is precisely in these connections that our soul is encoded – the way we understand the world, reflect on our experiences, feel sorrow and joy, accumulate memories, and decide how and when to act. By understanding the way our neurons connect – our connectome – we would be able understand ourselves. By understanding ourselves, it will be made very easy to maximise learning speeds. Fortunately Connectomics allows us to do just that and the effects on effective teaching are already paying off. Consider the case of Scientific Learning.
Whilst the potential for connectomics is huge, the field is still relatively in scientific infancy. The only known scientific endeavour into the feed has been the Preliminary research conducted by Dr. Jeff Lichtman and his team of researchers at Harvard on using connectomics to explain the brain of a mouse. Lichtman and his researchers have built some unusual contraptions that carve off slivers of mouse brains as part of a quest to understand how the mind works. Their goal is to run slice after minuscule slice under a powerful electron microscope, develop detailed pictures of the brain’s complex wiring and then stitch the images back together. In short, they want to build a full map of the mind. By using this process to bring a visual map of the mouse brain, it will then be made possible to do the same for human brain maps. Whilst the human brain is more complex, the success of the basic process will be crucial for the human brain model.
For the foreseeable future however any application of connectomics will remain a pipedream. Litchman believes that it will take several years to build the connectome of the mouse, let alone a human connectome. Whilst breakthroughs in connectomics are yet to be seen, the field has seen much financing which is room for hope. In September, the National Institutes of Health handed out $40 million in grants to researchers at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Los Angeles, to pursue connectomics. Together, their research efforts comprise the Human Connectome Project. What is even more encouraging is that scientists around the world, including Stephen J. Smith, a neuroscience professor at Stanford, and Gerald M. Rubin, a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have pushed past the naysayers and developed varying techniques for mapping the brains and nervous systems of human as well as other creatures. These efforts should make us optimistic that the development of Connectomics is only a question of when with the potential educational benefits just around the corner.
Sun Yong Kim studies Commerce/Law at Macquarie University and is a member of the Young Liberal movement. He has also launched a policy magazine/blog, Aus Solutions. www.aussolutions.com.au