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Barbara Landau: What Does the Future Hold?

Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor in Cognitive Science and vice provost for faculty affairs, was instrumental in helping to establish the new Science of Learning Institute. We asked her about that as well as what she thinks could be the next big things in the area of learning.

Can you describe your role in the Science of Learning initiative?

I first became involved as a member of one of the three working groups to think about basic mechanisms of learning. We worked with a fantastic group of faculty from the Departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Neuroscience, and Cognitive Science, and the Mind/Brain Institute. We produced a white paper summarizing what we saw as the key issues in the basic science of learning. I worked on creating a statement that would frame the Science of Learning Institute.

How do you think the Science of Learning Institute will enhance brain research at Johns Hopkins?

The institute will provide the framework for bringing together scientists and practitioners from many divisions at Johns Hopkins to think about how learning occurs at all levels—from the micro-levels of genetics and neural circuitry, through the levels relevant to cognitive function, and up to the formal and informal settings in which learning occurs. Having an institute like this can provide the setting for thinking about really big problems (like learning), and can set the stage for really new and innovative collaborations.

Given your own research and that of your colleagues, can you speculate about what some of the “next big things” might be in the study of how the brain learns?

There are a few things I think will become more prevalent: understanding why it is so easy for toddlers to learn several languages at a time, and why it is so difficult for adults to learn even one; clarifying the interactions among genes and the environment when it comes to learning; and using our understanding of human learning to improve technology, and using these improvements in technology to improve human learning.