Author: Sandhya Basu
We are all familiar with the term ‘learning.’ We are continuously learning from our interactions with the environment. We learn from our family members, schools, friends, from the books we read, and the shows we watch. Learning also occurs through various areas of training like academic training in school or that of the Brighter Mind’s curriculum. However, one may wonder about the exact ways in which learning takes place inside our brains.
We are all born with a spectacular 100 billion nerve cells or neurons in our brains. These neurons remain stable throughout our lifetime; however, what changes, as we grow up, are the connections between the cells. These connections of the brain cells form neuronal networks that keep changing as and when we learn something new. This change in connections, upon learning, is called neuroplasticity. The summary of the process is depicted in the concept map, located below.
Figure 1: How learning takes place?
Does learning cause neuroplasticity, or does neuroplasticity cause learning?
A single brain cell, on its own, can accomplish nothing. Thousands of brain cells need to come together to achieve learning or any other cognitive aspect like memory. The brain cells come together by sending electrical signals to each other through the length of the brain cell, called axons. These electrical signals help in forming various neural networks that store the information through our learning. For example, when you see a bird, you see its features (eyes, beak, wings), colour, movement, your own feelings of joy or awe, etc. This information about the bird is accumulated in different parts of the brain. When these cells come together to form a neuronal network, it is then that you get a complete representation of the bird, i.e., you learn about the bird.
Are the neuronal networks in our brains permanent?
Like our learning, our neuronal networks are also temporary and are flexible. If you learn that the bird you saw the other day, for example, has a different colour on the inside of the wings (a piece of information that you missed previously), your brain will adapt to this new information and will change its neuronal networks accordingly. This change is a physiological change that shows the adaptability or plasticity of your brain cells to form different neuronal connections every time you learn something new—both at the conscious and the subconscious levels.
Even though our brain cells have an active role in our learning process, the brain structure called the Prefrontal Cortex (front part of the brain) is the seat for all the executive functions, including learning. Brain cells in the prefrontal cortex can process information at a remarkably high speed leading to quick neuronal connections.
In today’s competitive world, active learning has taken a back-seat. Unhealthy lifestyles and stress affect learning, in turn leading to sparse neural networks, and hence rapid decay of information in our brains. But can we do anything to enhance our learning strategies?
Yes, we definitely can! Although our brains do an excellent job of accommodating all the information that we have collected through our learning process, we also need to take measures to make sure that they are stored permanently in our brains. One way of doing this is to eliminate stress from our learning process. Research shows that stress can impede our learning. Secondly, having focussed attention while learning makes the information rooted permanently in our brains for a much longer duration. Critical thinking, or critically analyzing the information we process from our environment, along with associating emotional cues with the learning tasks, can also do wonders. Lastly, it is essential to know that learning continuously at a conscious level is not always efficient. We need to give adequate breaks in between our learning for the new information to take place and get consolidated by our brain cells.
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- Belham, F. S. (2018, October 10). Introduction to Neuroscience Of Learning. https://medium.com/neuroscience-in-real-life/introduction-to-neuroscience-of-learning-3dd2042b181b