What Happens To Our Brains When We Learn?

A book with an image of a brain on a pink background.

Learning is a lifetime journey. There is always something new to study and explore. There have been many discoveries in science and technology, but the most important are those that scientific researchers have discovered about the human brain; looking deeply into our mind and how it operates. It is about what we do, how we live, how we behave in society, how we interact with one another, and how we plan for the future. Learning is living—it gives meaning to our existence, and for this reason, it is our common duty to explore the mind. It is our existential task to study the brain and shed light upon its many functions. It is the most complex part of the human body, and it gives shape to who we are and what we aim to be.

Besides the biological functions, the purpose of the brain is to learn and act based upon what it has learned. This process occurs naturally throughout each day. The brain repeats activities making them easier to complete, and what we learn and do changes the structure of the brain. Recent data have shown that the human brain changes throughout our life—it forms connections with new cells, while some cells stop communicating with others. All brain cells shift and change as we learn, and different parts of the brain have different functions. Neuroscientists, like Nathan Spreng, have conducted experiments to discover how the brain changes as we learn. With the help of two other experts, he analyzed thirty-eight studies; each one of them used fMRI or PET scans to probe various regions of the brain when people learned a new task. The parts of the brain that permit people to pay attention became more active during the learning process, but they gradually lost their activity with the passing of time. (Stevens, 2014).

Every new activity requires a lot of attention at the start, but with practice, you will be able to think less about what you are doing. Extensive practice allows people to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. For instance, a pianist can play complex music without thinking about each individual note. Overthinking about the next step can interfere with a flawless performance. During the process of learning, cells send and receive information about the task and become more efficient—taking less time for the cells to communicate with one another. This is how neurons wire together to perform multitasking functions. (Stevens, 2014)

A book with an image of a brain on a pink background.

For more effective learning, it is important to spread the exercise of the action over many days— repeating the task again and again. This will allow neurons to steadily strengthen. Even a simple exclamation is the result of accumulated information. New information allows memories to be associated with the task. When memory neurons are active, they can form new connections and strengthen the existing ones. With the passing of time, a level of comprehension is reached when you get it immediately. (Stevens, 2014).

Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist, has given his insight about the brain and how learning affects it when he said:

“Because our brains are designed to prune away unused synaptic connections, our cognitive skills tend to dip after we graduate from college or retire from work. To stay sharp as a whip, continue to challenge your brain on a daily basis. Each time you learn something new and practice it, your brain will either change the structure of its neurons (cells) or increase the number of synapses between your neurons, allowing them to send and receive information faster. You can harness your brain’s inherent plasticity to learn new skills, build a better memory or quicken your speed of processing abilities, which will help to keep you sharp as you age.” (Amen, 2010)

 

There are many activities for improving the brain’s ability to learn:

  • Travel: Taking a trip will introduce your brain to different stimuli. Those new experiences will extend to learning opportunities.
  • Memory Training: Memory games will help maintain connectivity and have been found to prevent memory loss due to aging.
  • Music: Learning a musical instrument helps to connect different parts of your brain and encourages growth.
  • Physical Activity: Exercise helps to reduce stress. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.
  • Reading: Reading promotes learning new vocabulary and improves imagination, which encourages connections between pathways in the brain.
  • Creativity: Being creative can enhance portions of the brain even while you are asleep, increasing your memory, attention, and focus.
  • Sleep: The brain works hard to cement new information into cells. Even the brain needs time to rest and rejuvenate so that it can form memories into knowledge.
  • Video Games: Along with musical training and physical activity, video games can improve functions of perception, motor skills, and cognition, though it may be a non-traditional approach. (Green and Bavelier n.d.)

So far, we have discussed learning and its effects on the brain, but we must take into consideration what happens if we do not learn. There is research that focuses on what happens when people do not try to learn new things. A British research study proved that people who do not often engage in learning activities (or are bored most of the time) can endanger their health. They have a higher risk of heart disease—more than two times the risk compared to those who do not report boredom. Too much time without learning activities will slow down brain function, making it less responsive. Adult learning is good for mental health, and has been shown to slow Alzheimer’s progress and can prevent the general slowing of mental functions. (Sterling, 2017).

The act of learning can be complex to explain through biological terminology. To give a fuller definition of learning and elaborate further, we must take into consideration psychological, sociological, philosophical and historical aspects. The studies conducted on the brain and how it functions have given us insight and enabled us to consolidate what we have learned before. As a result, we must consider how the brain reacts to different methods of learning in order to benefit from the learning process. (Tokcan, 2009)

 

References:

  1. Amen, Daniel G. 2010. “What Impact Does Constant Learning Have on the Brain.” sharecare. https://www.sharecare.com/health/brain/learnings-impact-on-the-brain.
  2. Green, C. S. and Bavelier, D. 2008. “Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning.” NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2896818/
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. n.d. “Brain Basics: Know Your Brain.” Updated February 13, 2020. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain.
  4. Power of Positivity. n.d. “Researchers Explain What Happens Top Your Brain When You Learn Something New.” https://www.powerofpositivity.com/researchers-explain-learn-something-new/.
  5. Semrud-Clikeman, Margaret. 2010. “Research in Brain Function and Learning: The Importance of Matching Instructions to a Child’s Maturity Level.” American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/education/k12/brain-function.
  6. Sterling, Christa. 2017. “What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn a New Skill.” CCSU Continuing Education. https://ccsuconed.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-learn-a-new-skill/.
  7. Stevens, Alison Pearce. 2014. “Learning Rewires the Brain.” Science News for Students. https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain.
  8. Tokcan, Halil. Effects of Conditions on Learning and Brain. ScienceDirect. January 10, 2009. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042809000111

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