How Learning Happens
Learning occurs at the molecular level inside the brain.
Understanding how your brain absorbs and stores new information is important for helping you to protect what you have learned.
All learning occurs through the work of a massive network of neurons. Any new sensory information received by your nervous system from your environment is chemically transmitted by synapses along neural pathways.
When it first enters your brain, new information is stored temporarily in short-term memory. This is a hectic region of the brain that acts as an “operations center” for the flood of information you encounter minute by minute.
Once processed through short-term memory, the same neural pathways carry the new learned memories deeper into the brain’s structural core for further processing.
Here the new memories are compared with existing memories. A decision is then made as to whether to send the new information to long-term memory for permanent storage, or to reject the learning as non-essential or repetitive.
The brain is programmed to pay special attention to any experience that is original or unusual. It does so by making comparisons between the new information and existing information stored in long-term memory. If the brain finds a match, it will quickly eliminate the new memory as redundant.
Learning inherently requires the acquisition of new information. Our brains’ propensity to focus on the novel and forget the redundant makes it a perfect tool for new learning. In fact, our brains are hard wired to learn from the instant we are born.
Your long-term memory is a vast repository of everything you have ever experienced. The process of moving information from short term to long-term memory occurs in an instant, but there are sometimes problems.
Problems and Challenges Facing Your Brain
As information races across billions of neurons inside your brain, some degradation occurs. That’s why many of your memories are incomplete or include things that did not really happen. Your brain will try to fill blank spots in your memory based on what it already knows about the subject.
Researchers have discovered that when two neurons interact frequently, meaning they share synapses, they form a bond that allows them to transmit information easier and more accurately.
This happens because the neurons know each other so well. They are familiar with each other in the same way that you are with a sibling or close friend.
Familiar interaction between two neurons that “know” each other leads to more complete memories and easier recall.
Conversely, when two neurons don’t know each other because they rarely interact, the first time they do, their communications will often be incomplete, leading to either a faulty memory or no memory at all.
As an example of this, consider your daily commute to work. Ordinarily, you don’t need to think consciously about how to get to work. It is a trip you have made so often that the memory of how to get there is ingrained in your neurons.
In other words, the neurons that control this particular memory have communicated through synapses so often, they have formed a tight bond, like a group of best friends.
But suppose you find another job in a new city? Contrast your daily commute in your old hometown with the task of driving to a new location in a city you’ve never visited. To make this trip, your brain has to work much harder, because everything about it is new to you.
You have to write down new directions. You have to 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 often. Therefore, their communication is incomplete or ineffective.
The new trip requires you to form new neuronal connections within the brain, which in turn requires greater conscious effort and attention on your part.
How Neurons and Synapses Affect Learning:
This research has important implications for learning, especially regarding how we acquire new knowledge, store it in memory, and retrieve it when needed.
New learning, memory, and recall are strengthened by frequency and how recently you have practiced the new learning. Practice makes it easier for the brain to remember, transmit, store, and recall. This process is called fluency. In other words, practicing new learning leads to fluency in that subject.
Learning new things that entail an emotional reaction to something-fear, anger, love, or revulsion-causes the emotion to become part of the memory, and dramatically strengthens that memory.
Subjects who experience an emotional reaction are far more likely to remember the event with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed it without an emotional element.
This shows that we need to ensure that learning engages all the senses and taps into the emotional side of the brain, through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities, and games.
On the other hand, we have to be careful not to let past memories become an impediment to future learning. As we age and gain more experience, we tend to rely too much on old knowledge. We may wrongly miss or even reject novel information that does not agree with previous memories. This can happen, even though the new information is correct, and the old information is incorrect.