Thursday, March 15, 2012

New brain research is unlocking many mysteries

This Blog is a repost, see source below for direct link.

“How the Brain Learns” By: Donald J. Ford, Ph.D., C.P.T.  


Some of the latest neuroscience research is literally opening up the brain to greater understanding of how one learns which transcends into instructional and pedagogical best practices.

Some of this new research has important implications for learning, especially regarding how we acquire new knowledge, store it and retrieve it. Understanding neurons and the elaborate network of fiber pathways within the cerebrum unlocks the obscurity around deep learning.




Neuroscientists have long assumed that repetitive actions build memory at the cellular level as neuron connections are strengthened. New research out of the University of California (Irvine) have found the very evidence to prove that this assumption in true. Scientists have isolated and observed the brain while a learner is learning a new task. What they have found is that when two neurons frequently interact they couple together and bond in a way that allows this action when repeated to occur more easily. On the flip side, if neurons interact infrequently, the transmission is faulty and does not bond in a way that would produce a cellular and enzymatic memory.

Another study that includes Harvard Medical School found that the structural core of the brain pieces bits of information together to stitch a complete image that becomes our memory. This is important because what they found is that this collation of data points is strengthened when sensory input includes more than one sense. For example, if we see and smell something, our memory of it will be stronger than if we only see it. As such, we will be more likely to remember it in greater detail. Add this to the understanding of repetitive frequency and we start to see how deep memories are made within the brain. Scientists call this fluency – the more we rehearse something or couple it with more sensory points, the easier it is for the brain to remember it and transmit these experiences efficiently deep within the brain for easy and ready retrieval.

In another recent discovery, scholars at the University of Michigan confirmed that the brain is selective in how it processes sensory information. Our brains pay special attention to new or novel information. It makes comparisons between information stored in the brain (long-term memory) and the new information. It performs a matching sequence of sorts and will eliminate redundancies. The brain will also struggle to make sense of contradictions or discrepancies and will lay-down new memories. When and if these new memories are retrieved frequently, stronger pathways are established and deeper memories are built.

In the realm of teaching and learning, this research brings new light into tapping into the emotional side of the brain, building upon our senses, using repetitive actions (such as simple quizzes and tests), engaging  students in games and group activities which involve emotions. How do recent neuroscience discoveries translate into teaching? Take a look at the table below.


Table 1: Learning Implications of Brain Science

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 while learning

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



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