Why is it often Difficult to Learn from Experience

There is little doubt that the Homo sapiens’ ability to learn from experience is a trait that sets us apart from most other species in the animal kingdom. This ability has evolved and been perfected for a specific way of life in order to ensure our survival and pass on our genes.

Because of the environments in which we evolved; the wilderness of deserts, plains and forests, we have a restricted ability in the way in which we learn and indeed what we can learn from. Such reasoning can be observed in life; there are always instances in our lives where we felt threatened or in danger, and such memories tend to be vivid or are reflected in the subconscious constructs of our minds such as in dreams and even subtle tendencies. This occurs due to the fact that it is an evolutionary advantage to recall and learn from events or things that could harm or kill us. Applying these advanced primeval behaviors can be difficult in modern circumstances. It is not suited to the trials and tribulations of modern day life. A stockbroker, for example, who makes the same mistake twice by selling her shares too early is most likely exercising a multitude of behavioral patterns that evolved in the dangerous lands of the Sahara; excitement, fear and even greed are traits that exist to help us to find a mate, run away from a lion or find enough food to survive for another week. Placing these instincts into a complex modern situation such as selling shares is bound to be problematic for the brain to process. This is compounded by the fact that most modern day events in life are not life threatening, they may leave an impression, but one great enough to be remembered for years to come? Probably not. Unless she gets fired or something similarly distressing.

There is an explanation on a more molecular level, however, and it focuses on a specific receptor in the brain called DRD4. The DRD4 receptor is specific to the chemical found in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine attaches to the receptor and initiates an electrical impulse in a neuron in the brain. The chemical serves many functions in the brain, but an interesting one is its role in the learned behavior aspect of the brain.

Dopamine has been linked to emotional reward; when an action or thought is good or helpful it will be associated with dopamine which will be released in conjunction with the act in the future. This relates to learning from experience as we have found that there are a variety of different genes coding for the DRD4 receptor, and that these different versions of the DRD4 receptor will form different character traits in an individual; e.g. increasing the likelihood of gambling addiction or even the likelihood of taking cannabis when parental monitoring is low.

As a result, the reason for an individual’s lack of ability to learn from experience could be, simply, put down to the way their brain functions. However, I do not think that this should absolve us from any form of responsibility because we are predetermined on a molecular level, no, when we observe evolutionary biology we find that the ability to learn was one of the last things to evolve in the primate story and that which sets us apart from other animals. We should be good at it, and indeed we are. The problem lies within society. This artificial construct that we have somehow managed to make more complicated than we have evolved to handle means that there will be times when learning from important experiences does not occur.