The best teachable moments seem to (1) increase perceptions of personal risk and outcome expectancies, (2) prompt strong affective or emotional responses, and (3) redefine self-concept or social role. PubMed Abstract; Link to article and cite list
They involve change and invoke emotions, heightening our desire to learn.
ScienceDaily reports on brain research study that suggests our neural learning infrastructure is more responsive when confronted with unexpected information.
As one of the researchers put it:
Similar to an economic theory, where efficient markets respond to unexpected events and expected events have no effect, we found that the dopaminergic system of the human brain seems to be wired in a similar rational manner -- tuned to learn whenever anything unexpected happens but not when things are predictable...The study was looking at reward-based learning, which seems to occur when dopaminergic neurons, which drive a larger basal ganglia circuit, are activated in response to unexpected rewards and depressed after the unexpected omission of reward. As they put it, a "lucky" win seems to be retained better than a probable loss.
In that model, by responding to unexpected financial rewards, those cells encode information that seems to help participants maximize reward in the probabilistic learning task.
It's interesting to consider how that model might transfer to the post-natal experience. In the absence of information about appropriate behavior, parent and child are engaged in probabilistic reward-based learning: baby cries, parent responds and both behaviors are modified depending on the outcome.
It's also interesting to consider how that learning might be affected in parent/child dyads where one or both have dopamine disorders. Dopamine seems to been involved in many events important in the first year:
[d]opamine has many functions in the brain, including important roles in behavior and cognition, motor activity, motivation and reward, inhibition of prolactin production (involved in lactation), sleep, mood, attention, and learning. Link to WikipediaAnimal studies have found that "mild" brain insult at birth (one minute anoxia) can "cause long term changes in dopamine-mediated behavior in both guinea pig and rat, two species spanning the level of human brain maturity at birth." Links to Abstract and PDF of article; another study finding links between birth insult and dopamine disorders Abstract