From the Editor: April 2018

Lessons in learning
Laura Aiken
March 20, 2018
Written by
Training and preparation play a tremendous role in firefighters’ lives. These two activities foster an environment of mandated lifelong learning in the fire service. Canadian Firefighter’s annual Training Day, which has traditionally been held in September, has an exciting new partnership with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC).


The association will be hosting Training Day in conjunction with the OAFC 2018 Conference & Trade Show, taking place May 3-6. The OAFC is offering Training Day as a great new package that includes keynote speakers, networking opportunities, the trade show, breakfast, lunch and breaks. OAFC 2018 is being held at the Delta Toronto Airport Hotel & Conference Centre and the International Centre, both of which are conveniently located near the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI), where Training Day will continue to take place.

In our cover story, David Moseley shares how a frightening and harmful personal experience taught him five very important lessons about fighting fire on the front lines.

Elsewhere, in safer more controlled environments than fires raging where they ought not to be raging, researchers are studying how we learn and coming to some surprising conclusions that may affect firefighters. When it comes to how our senses make associations with fear, such as not touching a hot stove, new science suggests the brain’s central amygdala is the start of the aversive learning centre, as reported by Science Daily on Oct. 23, 2017 in “How the brain learns to fear: New understanding”. The mice-based trail conducted by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) published its findings in Nature Neuroscience. Scientists have traditionally thought learning associations between senses and threat perception happen in the lateral portion of the amygdala. At CSHL, experiments that gave mice mild shocks while imaging the brain, as well as seeking to implant artificial memories of discomfort through optogenetics laser technology that activates specific neurons, suggest that the central portion of the amygdala is the catalyst. If this is right, researchers note this could change the way anxiety and disorders such as PTSD are treated. Optogenetics could certainly have implications for firefighters struggling with severe mental health illnesses brought on by trauma. Knowing where the seat of fear-based learning happens is an important step to targeting treatment, as is the intriguing potential of altering memories.

A concept called transfer of learning looks at how we take skills and information and put them to use in new areas. Generalization involves how we understand and interpret the common threads in a multitude of scenarios. A new joint study between Canada, Israel and India is looking at music as a quantifier of how transfer of learning happens, reported Alanna Mitchell in Canadian Geographic on Nov. 29, 2017.  Western music has octaves with 12 intervals, but Indian octaves range from 20 to 22. This differential in complexity may provide insight into sound-based learning and help populations with difficulties in this realm. This specific study isn’t fire service specific, but the body of knowledge it may generate could have important foundations for understanding how generalization occurs.

These two recent studies provide a tidbit of recent insight into the wide world of research on how the brain learns. We know we do what we do, but understanding why we do what we do opens the door to better training and preparation, and ultimately better learning for life.

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