MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: Is the way in which you learn hereditary?

Date: Thu Dec 7 08:45:32 2000
Posted By: Alex Goddard, Grad student, Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 975271659.Ge


Nice question! Knowing someone’s learning style right off the bat (because their parents learn best visually, for example) would be a great thing – we might have various types of education programs tailored to each person’s need!

I haven’t been able to find out if people have looked at how learning style is organized genetically. However, people have looked for genetic trends in cognitive abilities, which may be related to learning style. (I’m not sure if this is the question you asked before about cognition, so if I’m repeating someone else’s answer, I apologize!) Some of the cognitive skills analyzed seem like they could be a part of a learning style. For example, the cognitive trait “verbal comprehension” may lend itself to “hearing” learners, or the cognitive trait of “spatial relations” may be related to people who learn by doing. People have found a genetic link for at least those two cognitive traits. They don’t know the genes for the traits, but they definitely see patterns within families and between twins (such that twins are more likely to have the same trait much more often than would be by chance).

This being said, it should be noted that the role of environment can’t be downplayed. Studies have found that just getting animals and people active and engaged can help them learn better (and be healthier) later in life. On a battery of tests, animals with toys in their cages or little running wheels outperform animals who just have to sit in their cages all day with nothing to do! To understand the role of environment on learning, people have looked at mice that are “born stupid” so to speak, because their brains aren’t quite formed right. But if they were placed in more stimulating environments, these animals “smartened up” such that they were just a smart as any other mouse! (Granted, mice aren’t all THAT smart, but they can learn various things – you’d be amazed!)

Also, just because your learning style appears to be “visual” doesn’t mean you can’t learn by hearing. The amazing thing about the brain is that it’s really, really good at adapting to its environment. It’s very possible that you could make yourself a much better “hearing” learner by practicing; and it might be almost as good as your visual learning skills. And generally speaking, you will generally learn something much better by hearing, seeing, and doing than just by using one of those forms.

So to summarize, people have found that there is a link between cognitive abilities, which may relate to learning styles. However, a stimulating environment is necessary to make the best of those innate abilities, and as a rule of thumb, the more, different ways you learn something, the more likely it’ll stick!

A news page on the effect of stimulating environments on learning: htt p://

Here’s the article I used to find the genetic basis of cognitive abilities. You’ll probably have to go to a medical school library to find the journal; if there’s no med school library close by, or it doesn’t have these journals, go ask your local librarian about an InterLibrary Loan (ILL).

Powell A, Royce JR , An overview of a multifactor-system theory of personality and individual differences: III. Life span development and the heredity-environment issue. J Pers Soc Psychol 1981 Dec 41:6 1161-73

-Alex G

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