How the Brain Learns
We have known since antiquity
that the seat of learning is the human brain.
But it has only been in the last decade that neuroscience researchers
have been able to go inside the brain and observe how learning actually occurs
at the molecular level. New technologies
like diffusion imaging have opened up the brain's inner workings and allowed
scientists to "see" what is going on inside the brain when people are
engaged in learning. More sophisticated experiments with the brains of
laboratory animals are stretching the bounds of our understanding further.
To comprehend the way learning
occurs in the brain, here’s a brief primer on its physiology. The brain acts as a dense network of fiber
pathways consisting of approximately 100 billion (1010) neurons. The brain consists of three principle parts –
stem, cerebellum and cerebrum - as shown in Figure 1 below. Of the three, the cerebrum is most important
in learning, since this is where higher-ordered functions like memory and
reasoning occur. Each area of the
cerebrum specializes in a function - sight, hearing, speech, touch, short-term
memory, long-term memory, language and reasoning abilities are the most
important for learning.
1: The Human Brain
So how does learning happen? Through a network of neurons, sensory
information is transmitted by synapses (see Figure 2) along the neural pathway
and stored temporarily in short-term memory, a volatile region of the brain
that acts like a receiving center for the flood of sensory information we encounter
in our daily lives.
Figure 2: Synapse Across Two
Once processed in short-term
memory, our brain’s neural pathways carry these memories to the structural
core, where they are compared with existing memories and stored in our
long-term memory, the vast repository of everything we have ever experienced in
our lives. This process occurs in an
instant, but it is not always perfect. In fact, as information races across billions
of neurons’ axons, which transmit signals to the next neuron via synapse, some
degradation is common. That’s why many
of our memories are incomplete or include false portions that we make up to
fill holes in the real memory.
Neuroscientists have long
believed that learning and memory formation are made by the strengthening and
weakening of connections among brain cells. Recently, researchers at the
University of California Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and
Memory proved it. In experiments with
mice, they were able to isolate and observe the actions of the brain while
learning a new task. Researchers found
that when two neurons frequently interact, they form a bond that allows them to
transmit more easily and accurately.
This leads to more complete memories and easier recall. Conversely, when two neurons rarely interacted,
the transmission was often incomplete, leading to either a faulty memory or no
memory at all.
As an example of this, consider
your daily commute. You don't really need to think consciously about how to get
to work, because it is a trip you have taken so many times that the memory of
how to navigate is ingrained. The neurons that control this memory have
communicated so often, they have formed a tight bond, like a group of old
Contrast your daily commute with
the experience of driving to a location you have never visited. To make this
trip, your brain has to work much harder. You need to get directions, write
them down or print them and then pay extra attention to road signs along the
way. In this case, the neurons involved
in navigating to this new destination have not shared synapses frequently
before and so they communicate incompletely or inefficiently. This requires forming
new connections within the brain, which results in greater conscious effort and
attention on our part.
This research has important implications
for learning, especially regarding how we acquire new knowledge, store it in
memory and retrieve it when needed. When
learning new things, memory and recall are strengthened by frequency and
recency. The more we practice and
rehearse something new and the more recently we have practiced, the easier it
is for our brain to transmit these experiences efficiently and store them for
ready access later.
This process is called fluency.
Another recent study at the Martinos
Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General
Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that the structural core of the brain
receives sensory information from different regions and then assembles bits of
data into a complete picture that becomes a memory of an event. This memory is strengthened by multiple
sensory inputs. For example, if we both
see and hear something, we are more likely to remember it than if we only hear
If we experience an emotional
reaction to something - fear, anger, laughter or love - that emotion becomes
part of the memory and strengthens it dramatically. In recalling memories, subjects who had
experienced an emotional reaction were far more likely to remember the event
and with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed an event without any
emotional attachment. That explains why
highly emotional events – birth, marriage, divorce and death – become unforgettable.
What does this neuroscience research
suggest about learning? We need to
ensure that learning engages all the senses and taps the emotional side of the
brain, through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities and
games. Emphasis on the rational and
logical alone does not produce powerful memories.
third recent discovery at the University of Michigan’s Biopsychology Program
confirmed that the brain behaves
selectively about how it processes experiences that enter through our five
senses. The brain is programmed to pay special attention to any experience that
is novel or unusual. It does this by
making comparisons between the new information brought through the senses and
existing information stored in our brain's long-term memory. When the brain
finds a match, it will quickly eliminate the new memory as redundant.
new information contradicts what's already stored in memory, however, our
brains go into overdrive, working hard to explain the discrepancy. If the new
information proves useful to us, it becomes a permanent memory that can be
retrieved later. If this new information does not seem useful or if we do not
trust its source, we are likely to forget it or even reject it altogether, preferring
to stick with the information we already possess.
learning inherently requires acquisition of new information, our brains'
propensity to focus on the novel and forget the redundant makes it a natural
learning ally. In fact, our brains are hard wired to learn, from the moment we
are born. Our native curiosity is driven by our brain's inherent search for the
unusual in our environment.
the other hand, past memories can be an impediment to future learning that
contradicts previous information. As we age and gain more experience, we tend
to rely too much on our past knowledge. We may miss or even reject novel
information that does not agree with previous memories.
brain research is unlocking many of the mysteries of learning. Learning professionals should stay abreast of
these developments and derive learning methods based upon the way the brain
table below summarizes the three recent research findings and their
implications for training.
Recent Brain Research Finding
Implications for Learning
Frequency and recency of neuron
synapses increase memory
Increase frequency through
practice and maintain fluency through use
Emotions strengthen memory
Appeal to and engage emotions
Learning causes changes to the
physical structure of the brain
Engaging in learning increases
our ability to learn throughout our lives
Memories are stored in multiple
parts of the brain
Engage all senses when learning
Our brains are programmed to
focus on new and unusual inputs
Learning should tap into the
brain’s natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation
Table 1: Learning
Implications of Brain Science
Written for TrainingIndustry.com