Your Brain on Learning

Seed Brain about NeuroplasticityIntelligence is forming and developing throughout our lives. The concept is called neuroplasticity, a theory that was developed in the mid-1800s and researched in the 1990s. Kurt Fischer, education professor and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard University explains “The brain is remarkably plastic. Even in middle or old age, it’s still adapting very actively to its environment.” Sara Bernard supports this in her article for Edutopia Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the Brain “All those little brains in your classroom are physically growing and changing every time they learn something. And there are ways to keep that happening.”

Cells that fire together, wire together
Neuroplasticity means that if you perform a task or recall some information, that causes different neurons to fire in concert. It strengthens the connections between those cells. Researcher and middle school teacher Judy Willis, in this same article, wrote that she saw that her students were more motivated when they knew that they were all fully physically capable of building knowledge and changing their brains. She provided a few tips to create a learning environment that encourages students to learn:

    • Practice, practice, practice. When students learn content in different ways, repeat an activity and then retrieve that memory they build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain.

    • Put information in context. Tap into already-existing pathways by recognizing that learning is the formation of new or stronger neural connections. Stop rote memorization of isolated facts. Facilitate students connecting the dots and how the concept they are learning is related to past experiences and the real-world.
    • Let students know that this is how the brain works. Intelligence is not predetermined especially for students who believe they are ‘not smart.’ If students realize they have the power to change their brains, they will be empowered to learn more and in different ways.


Brain remodels itself on experiences

Use it or Lose it

A 1998 landmark study found that the human brain had the ability to develop new brain cells. This research challenged the prevailing theory that the human brain was a rigid system with no ability to generate new brain cells. Neurologist Arne May and colleagues at the University of Regensburg asked 12 people in their early 20s to learn a classic three-ball juggling trick over three months until they could sustain a performance for at least a minute. Another 12 were in a ‘control’ group who were not asked to learn how to juggle.

The jugglers showed a significant increase of gray matter in brain area V5 that is an area implicated in the processing of visual movement. In order to investigate what happens when newly acquired skills are allowed to stagnate, the participants were asked not to practice their juggling skills and were scanned for a third time after another three-month period. The amount of gray matter in V5 had reduced, supporting the idea that the brain operates in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion.

Draganski and colleagues showed that extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of German medical students three months before their medical exam and right after the exam and compared them to brains of students who were not studying for the exam at this time. Medical students’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the parietal cortex as well as in the posterior hippocampus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.

Making New Connections

Dr. Doidge wrote “The Brain that Changes Itself” and that all of us can rewire our brains. Main ideas he writes about include:

    • Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental declines. New information and new branching increases the volume and thickness of the brain that would otherwise decline with age. So read, play games, challenge yourself no matter what age.

    • Physical exercise promotes the creation of new neurons in the brain. Walk, exercise and get physical education back in schools.
    • Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to improve brain function in children and adults with learning disabilities.
    • The brain undergoes measurable, physical changes as we go through the thinking and learning process. Computer technology can now use these measurements and changes to allow paralyzed people to moves objects with their thoughts. This is where research is going to find ways to utilize our thoughts with technology.
    • Researchers at UCSD have used imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and ‘trick” the brain into managing phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain.
    • Performance can be improved through visualization because action and imagination can activate the same parts of the brain. People have learned to play the piano or achieve greater results in athletic endeavors through mental practice. To lose weight, visualize yourself eating instead of eating.

Neuroplasticity, School, and Learning
The idea that brains are plastic and can change means that students can drive their own learning. If students are passionate about learning something like how to play a guitar and then are given the freedom to experiment, practice, get feedback from others, play, take risks, practice some more, they will want to learn. They will want to learn. The learning environment plays a large role. Schools today assume everyone in the classroom learns at the same time and at the same rate. If we take the idea that brains can change and students all come into a class at different levels, then it is important to change the learning environment to encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from each other.

I am looking for research on neuroplasticity with school children similar to the other research studies. How are they learning? What is happening to their brains on CT scans? Has anyone done this?

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