The Neuroscience of the 'Transfer Problem' - Part 1

The 'transfer problem' should not be a surprise. It's central to how the brain operates

Go to the profile of Mike Hobbiss
Mar 19, 2017

One of my favourite storylines in series 4 of ‘The Wire’ followed the initially calamitous attempts of Prez, the recently disgraced cop turned high-school teacher, to get his maths classes learning anything (it’s tragic that in a drama about drug gangs I still find the bits set in a school the most interesting, but I can’t help myself). Prez’s breakthrough comes when he realises that the probability theories his students are failing to absorb in class are the same ones required for success in the sidewalk dice games that they often play after hours. He begins to present the problems in the context of the dice games, and sees their understanding take a leap forward. The implication (though from memory it is never explicitly stated in the series) is that once the students have executed the strategies in this relevant real-world context, they will also be able to demonstrate that understanding back on the paper and textbook tasks on which they were originally so stuck. This storyline is a great dramatisation of the problem of transfer, the ability to apply knowledge learned in one context into another.

As educational blogger David Didau has pointed out before, transfer is pretty much the point of education itself. Despite this, learning can often remain defiantly, and surprisingly, context-specific. There are studies which clearly demonstrate that the transfer of knowledge is actually much more complicated and less efficient than we expect it to be, including an example very similar to that fictionalised in ‘The Wire’, involving children working in Brazilian markets being able to demonstrate mathematical strategies on their stalls that they could not do in the classroom.

Other notable examples of failures to transfer knowledge between contexts include the findings that remembering a sequence of digits does not predict ability to remember a sequence of letters (Tricot & Sweller, 2014), and that brain-training games have few benefits other than making people better at brain-training games (Simons et al., 2016). Chess grandmasters, who show phenomenal memory for chess board formations which are arranged in meaningful game configurations, perform no better than the rest of us when the same pieces are randomly arranged on the board (De Groot, 1966). Even the most seemingly simplistic act such as learning a sequence of movements does not transfer into improved learning of a sequence of the same movements in a different order (Karni et al., 1995)

Although there is lots of excellent coverage (both academically and in blogs, e.g. here, here, here and here) on what the transfer problem is and when it occurs, I realised that I hadn’t ever read much on why it occurs. I thought it might be useful for those interested in these problems to provide some small insight into the neuroscience of transfer, to explain what it is about the way that the brain operates which means that transfer is so difficult to produce.

One of the reasons why we expect knowledge to transfer between contexts lies in our natural intuition that information in our brains is stored in a way that is fairly stable, so that it can be called up as often and whenever it is needed. Unfortunately this is an illusion. In actual fact, the development of our brains and the storage of information in them is hugely context-dependent, so that even in maturity we are still only ever dealing with ‘partial representations’, representations of the world which capture some, but not all of it (Mareschal et al., 2007). Partial representations are, by their very nature, completely context-dependent – that is, they reflect the features of the world (and of the brain) which were the case when the information was originally stored (for more on the idea and evidence behind the idea of partial representations see the theory of ‘Neuroconstructivism’ by Mareschal et al., 2007).

What will follow over the next three blog posts will be a review of four different levels through which the activity of the brain is constrained by the context in which it occurs, and why this context-dependence is relevant to the transfer problem. These levels are:

1 The neural context – ‘encellment

2 The network context – ‘embrainment

3 The bodily context – ‘embodiment

4 The social context – ‘ensocialment

Next post here.

These posts are adapted from a version which originally appeared on my personal blog.

Go to the profile of Mike Hobbiss

Mike Hobbiss

PhD Student, University College London


Go to the profile of Warren Raye
Warren Raye 9 days ago

Hi Mike, thanks for the multiple posts on this topic. Very interesting indeed! I wanted to double check, the Mareschal et al 2007 citation you refer to, is that the two-volume book by Mareschal and colleagues that I've outlined below?

Mareschal, D., Johnson, M. H., Sirois, S., Spratling, M., Thomas, M., & Westermann, G.
(2007). Neuroconstuctivism: Vol. 1. How the brain Constructs cognition. Oxford, UK Oxford University Press.

Mareschal, D., Sirois, S., Westerman, G., & Johnson, M. H. (Eds.) (2007).
Neuroconstructivism: Vol. 2. Perspectives and prospects. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Go to the profile of Mike Hobbiss
Mike Hobbiss 9 days ago

Hi Warren,

Yes that's the reference. Sorry if it wasn't clear.