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How the Brain Learns: An Insightful Journey

Knowing how the brain learns can help you perform better in life and design better learning resources. There’s a difference between knowing how or why something works and why you're learning.

Learning to learn. As the saying goes, give a man a fish vs teach a man to fish.

It’s like getting to the root, deep into the operating system of learning itself. For many years, people thought the brain, or intelligence, was hardwired and mostly inherited, with a fixed number of neurons. But all of that changed when it became feasible to monitor how the brain learns and see how it responded to what it saw and what it was asked to accomplish. This demonstrated that the brain may produce new cells not only in childhood development but also in adulthood.

This is not to say that some people aren't "brighter" than others; it's estimated that 50%/60% of IQ is genetic, but that assumes your brain can't change.

Think of your brain as being more elastic than you, well, think.

Understanding how the brain learns can help you rewire it. Evidence supports the assumption that students who are conscious of how they learn will reflect on their actions. This naturally promotes the growth of additional cells. Although there is still much we don't know about the brain, let’s try to unpack some of the mysteries surrounding how the brain works when learning.

How the Brain Learns: An Insightful Journey

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Understanding the Brain and Learning

The brain is largely made up of around 85 billion neurons, which is even more than the number of stars you can see in the night sky without any fancy telescopes. Isn't that mind-blowing? Each of these neurons acts like a little messenger, sending signals to other neurons in the form of nerve impulses (kind of like electrical messages). So, when you write something, for instance, certain neurons in your brain send the message "move fingers" to other neurons, and then that message travels through your nerves (like cables) all the way to your fingers. It's these electrical signals that allow you to do everything you do: write, think, see, jump, talk, calculate, and so much more. And get this, each neuron can communicate with up to 10,000 other neurons, creating a whole bunch of connections in your brain that look like a super intricate spider web. Pretty cool, right?

When a person learns, the brain undergoes significant changes, including the formation of new connections between neurons. This is known as neuroplasticity. It's pretty amazing how the brain can alter itself, forming, strengthening, weakening, or breaking down connections between neurons. These connections become stronger as you practice. Messages (nerve impulses) are sent faster and more efficiently as your connections improve. That's how you get better at anything you learn, whether it's motor skills, pattern recognition, reading skills, language acquisition or language learning, problem solving, or new skills. Think of the connections between your neurons like forest paths. It can be tough to walk through a forest without a trail since you have to push aside plants and branches to make your way. But the more you use the same path, the easier it gets. When you stop using the trail, the foliage grows back and the path eventually disappears. It's kind of like what happens in your brain when you stop doing something—when you stop, the connections between your neurons weaken and can eventually be disassembled or eliminated. That's why, if you haven't read during the holidays, it might feel tough to start reading again when school starts. However, certain neural networks might become so powerful that the traces or connections never completely go away.

The fact that learning rewires your neurons demonstrates how dynamic (plastic) your brain is—that it evolves rather than remaining fixed. Repeatedly practising or rehearsing activates your neurons and causes you to learn. These changes begin as soon as a newborn is conceived and continue throughout a person's life. So, how can you help your neurons build and strengthen their connections?

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How the Brain is Constantly Changing

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain's amazing ability to constantly reshape itself by forming new neural connections and pruning away unused ones. So, if you want to boost your adult learning skills and emotional intelligence, it's all about embracing neuroplasticity!

But here's the thing: simply doing a sudoku or crossword puzzle every day won't cut it. To truly keep your brain flexible and adaptable, you need to engage in sustained practice of a new activity that challenges how the brain learns in a different way. Think about how challenging it is to learn a new language or pick up a new instrument – that's the level of effort your brain needs to put in to foster growth and create new neural pathways.

So, let's get those brain cells firing and embrace the brain power of neuroplasticity!

Brain Agility

Reframing your present attitude to events and boosting underutilised brain processes can really help maximize brain performance across various and unfamiliar tasks. Putting your brain outside of its comfort zone and working on the skills you know you struggle with can actually be quite beneficial. It can help your brain become more adaptable and resilient when it comes to switching tasks and focusing. We've all developed specific talents based on the daily demands placed on our brains at work and at home. But as the world of work changes, our brains will need to constantly renew our skills and be adaptive to new situations and ways of thinking. Developing an agile brain may be more crucial than you realize. As more tasks associated with systematic thinking are automated, people and groups will need to refine their skills to think creatively, intuitively, and empathetically in order to thrive in shifting labor markets.

Mindset Mastery

According to a recent theory proposed by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, most people's brains can be classified as either fixed or developing mindsets. A fixed mindset avoids new obstacles because they are afraid of failing, whereas a growth mindset sees new everyday problems as chances to be seized and embraced as part of a larger learning process. Those with a fixed mindset believe that talents and abilities are natural, whereas Dweck contends that most successful people have a growth mindset and a drive for lifelong learning and developing personally.

As we get older, it can seem more difficult and futile to try new skills that we fear we will fail at; nevertheless, by becoming conscious of our aversion to change, we can train ourselves to conquer this resistance and expose ourselves to new activities.

Instead of shunning a new pastime or interest you've always wanted to try because you're afraid of failing, push yourself out of your comfort zone and give it a shot. You might be astonished at how new ways of thinking emerge via trial and error, and how this improves your resilience and adaptability.

Simplicity

Putting a stop to our frantic daily lives and simplifying how the brain learns can have an unexpected impact on its potential to grow and evolve. In the act of mindfulness, we can focus all of our attention on the current moment and our breathing, which can have both long and short-term physical advantages on the brain. 

In the short term, it will reduce our stress by lowering blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Longer term, regular practice (three times per week) will result in enhanced gyrification - the production of additional folds in the prefrontal cortex. This is significant because the pre-frontal cortex is involved with our higher executive skills, such as our ability to think flexibly and creatively, switch between tasks, and make sound judgments. So why not try to include some mindfulness into your everyday routine? It could make a real difference!

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Learning About the Mind, Brain and Body

Physical and mental health are closely connected. Research consistently demonstrates the relationship between psychosocial factors (such as stress, anxiety, and adversity) and physical health (e.g., neuro-cognitive development and chronic medical conditions). Although the exact mechanisms behind these connections are still unknown, recent studies have revealed the involvement of the brain-gut-microbiome axis and immune system, among others.

Including activities that address the mind-body connectivity in treatment programs for mental health and substance abuse is important. Remember, physical and emotional health are intertwined, and improving one can positively impact the other. By incorporating mind-brain-body principles into your treatment plan, you can gain valuable tools for your rehabilitation journey.

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Tackle Short Attention Spans with Repetition for Better Learning

Did you know that the hippocampus is this really cool brain structure that's tucked away deep in the temporal lobe? It's part of the brain's limbic system, which is responsible for memory, learning, and emotion. The hippocampus has a pretty important job - it helps us hold onto short-term memories and then transfers them to long-term storage in our brains. Plus, it even plays a role in our emotions, like anxiety and avoidance behaviors. Pretty fascinating, right?

If our decreased memory spans with repetition are to help us focus on the most significant and urgent activity on our plates, then we should be continuously attending to the most meaningful and urgent item on our plates. However, this may be extremely rare. Overcoming our desire for instant fulfillment allows us to focus on what genuinely matters to us. We can manage external circumstances, such as keeping our phones away from us when we need to focus on work, or setting deadlines and daily to-do lists, to reduce the clutter in our thoughts.

The most successful approach, though, may simply be to connect a strong emotion to our long-term goals. Don't blame it on a reduced attention span the next time your mind wanders when you need to stay focused. Remind yourself of why you want to achieve it so desperately and the things that are important to you. We might be able to teach our minds to focus on a longer time horizon gradually.

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What are the Different Types of Memory?

There are several types of memory that a person possesses. Let's take a look at some of the main types:

Sensory Memory

This type of memory holds sensory information for a very short period of time, allowing us to perceive the world around us.

Short Term Memory

Also known as working memory, this type of memory holds information temporarily and has a limited capacity. It allows us to retain and manipulate information for a short duration.

Long Term Memory

This type of memory has a vast capacity and stores information for a longer period of time. It is responsible for storing facts, experiences, and skills that we have acquired throughout our lives.

  • Episodic Memory: This is a type of explicit memory that stores personal experiences and events in a chronological order, such as your first day of school or a family vacation.
  • Semantic Memory: This is another type of explicit long term memory that stores general knowledge and facts about the world, such as knowing that Paris is the capital of France.
  • Procedural Memory: This type of memory is responsible for storing skills and habits that the brain learns through repetition, such as riding a bicycle or tying shoelaces.
  • Implicit Memory: This type of memory is unconscious and involves the retrieval of information without conscious effort. It includes skills and habits that have been learned over time.

These are just some of the main types of memory that we possess as individuals. Each type plays a different role in how the brain learns, retains, and recalls information.

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Find the Learning Strategies that Work for Your Brain

Many people learn better through visual processing, meaning they absorb and recall knowledge better when they see it. In a virtual situation, as an educator, adding visual context to courses, such as breaking up your slides with a GIF that brings students' attention back during a lecture or finding a brief video of the scientific principles you're talking about, are simple educational strategies to maintain students' attention remotely. Other interesting methods to include visual aspects into your teaching include changing a Zoom background to match the theme of a lecture or donning a goofy hat or fancy necktie.

There are also Exercises for Mind Mapping. This aims to help students organize and structure their ideas, develops creativity and improves reading comprehension. Through its structure, the use of colors and symbols facilitates effective learning.

Brain breaks are an excellent technique to get your pupils up and moving while also increasing brain activity. You might be aware of how fidgety your students become when sitting at their desks for extended periods, so introducing some movement into the day can help. Fortunately, brain breaks are simple to deploy in any room setting and require little to no setup.

Gabriella Janzsó
Featured Uplyrn Expert
Gabriella Janzsó
Education Consultant, Mind Mapping Expert
Subjects of Expertise: Visual Thinking, Sketch Noting, Mind Mapping
Featured Uplyrn Expert
Gabriella Janzsó
Education Consultant
Mind Mapping Expert

Subjects of Expertise

Visual Thinking
Sketch Noting
Mind Mapping

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Priyanshu Ranjan
  • 2024-01-06 01:34:24
This article is an eye-opener Lear...
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Neha Singh
  • 2024-01-03 21:40:27
In the present era when short span...
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Sahasra Kudikala
  • 2023-12-29 19:11:40
This article about how our brains ...
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S Bhavadharani
  • 2023-12-28 17:10:36
After reading this blog I have gai...

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