How Brains Learn

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Thus, the gross structure of the cerebral cortex was altered both by exposure to opportunities for learning and by learning in a social context. Are the changes in the brain due to actual learning or to variations in aggregate levels of neural activity? Animals in a complex environment not only learn from experiences, but they also run, play, and exercise, which activates the brain. The question is whether activation alone can produce brain changes without the subjects actually learning anything, just as activation of muscles by exercise can cause them to grow. To answer this question, a group of animals that learned challenging motor skills but had relatively little brain activity was compared with groups that had high levels of brain activity but did relatively little learning Black et al.

There were four groups in all. What happened to the volume of blood vessels and number of synapses per neuron in the rats? Both the mandatory exercisers and the voluntary exercisers showed higher densities of blood vessels than either the cage potato rats or the acrobats, who learned skills that did not involve significant. How do rats learn?


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The objects are changed and rearranged each day, and during the changing time, the animals are put in yet another environment with another set of objects. These two settings can help determine how experience affects the development of the normal brain and normal cognitive structures, and one can also see what happens when animals are deprived of critical experiences.


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  • After living in the complex or impoverished environments for a period from weaning to rat adolescence, the two groups of animals were subjected to a learning experience. The rats that had grown up in the complex environment made fewer errors at the outset than the other rats; they also learned more quickly not to make any errors at all. In this sense, they were smarter than their more deprived counterparts. And with positive rewards, they performed better on complex tasks than the animals raised in individual cages. It is clear that when animals learn, they add new connections to the wiring of their brains—a phenomenon not limited to early development see, e.

    But when the number of synapses per nerve cell was measured, the acrobats were the standout group. Learning adds synapses; exercise does not. Thus, different kinds of experience condition the brain in different ways. Synapse formation and blood vessel formation vascularization are two important forms of brain adaptation, but they are driven by different physiological mechanisms and by different behavioral events.

    Learning specific tasks brings about localized changes in the areas of the brain appropriate to the task. For example, when young adult animals were. When they learned the maze with one eye blocked with an opaque contact lens, only the brain regions connected to the open eye were altered Chang and Greenough, When they learned a set of complex motor skills, structural changes occurred in the motor region of the cerebral cortex and in the cerebellum, a hindbrain structure that coordinates motor activity Black et al.

    Deciding what to learn

    These changes in brain structure underlie changes in the functional organization of the brain. That is, learning imposes new patterns of organization on the brain, and this phenomenon has been confirmed by electro-physiological recordings of the activity of nerve cells Beaulieu and Cynader, Studies of brain development provide a model of the learning process at a cellular level: the changes first observed in rats have also proved to be true in mice, cats, monkeys, and birds, and they almost certainly occur in humans.

    Clearly, the brain can store information, but what kinds of information? The neuroscientist does not address these questions. Answering them is the job of cognitive scientists, education researchers, and others who study the effects of experiences on human behavior and human potential. Several examples illustrate how instruction in specific kinds of information can influence natural development processes.

    This section discusses a case involving language development. Brain development is often timed to take advantage of particular experiences, such that information from the environment helps to organize the brain. The development of language in humans is an example of a natural process that is guided by a timetable with certain limiting conditions. A phoneme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit of speech sound. Very young children discriminate many more phonemic boundaries than adults, but they lose their discriminatory powers when certain boundaries are not supported by experience with spoken language Kuhl, Native Japa-.

    It is not known whether synapse overproduction and elimination underlies this process, but it certainly seems plausible. The process of synapse elimination occurs relatively slowly in the cerebral cortical regions that are involved in aspects of language and other higher cognitive functions Huttenlocher and Dabholkar, Different brain systems appear to develop according to different time frames, driven in part by experience and in part by intrinsic forces. But, as noted above, learning continues to affect the structure of the brain long after synapse overproduction and loss are completed.

    There may be other changes in the brain involved in the encoding of learning, but most scientists agree that synapse addition and modification are the ones that are most certain. Detailed knowledge of the brain processes that underlie language has emerged in recent years. For example, there appear to be separate brain areas that specialize in subtasks such as hearing words spoken language of others , seeing words reading , speaking words speech , and generating words thinking with language. Whether these patterns of brain organization for oral, written, and listening skills require separate exercises to promote the component skills of language and literacy remains to be determined.

    If these closely related skills have somewhat independent brain representation, then coordinated practice of skills may be a better way to encourage learners to move seamlessly among speaking, writing, and listening. Language provides a particularly striking example of how instructional processes may contribute to organizing brain functions. The example is interesting because language processes are usually more closely associated with the left side of the brain. As the following discussion points out, specific kinds of experiences can contribute to other areas of the brain taking over some of the language functions.

    For example, deaf people who learn a sign language are learning to communicate using the visual system in place of the auditory system. Manual sign languages have grammatical structures, with affixes and morphology, but they are not translations of spoken languages. Each particular sign language such as American Sign Language.

    The perception of sign language depends on parallel visual perception of shape, relative spatial location, and movement of the hands—a very different type of perception than the auditory perception of spoken language Bellugi, In the nervous system of a hearing person, auditory system pathways appear to be closely connected to the brain regions that process the features of spoken language, while visual pathways appear to go through several stages of processing before features of written language are extracted Blakemore, ; Friedman and Cocking, When a deaf individual learns to communicate with manual signs, different nervous system processes have replaced the ones normally used for language—a significant achievement.

    Neuroscientists have investigated how the visual-spatial and language processing areas each come together in a different hemisphere of the brain, while developing certain new functions as a result of the visual language experiences.

    Learning rewires the brain | Science News for Students

    In the brains of all deaf people, some cortical areas that normally process auditory information become organized to process visual information. Yet there are also demonstrable differences among the brains of deaf people who use sign language and deaf people who do not use sign language, presumably because they have had different language experiences Neville, , Among other things, major differences exist in the electrical activities of the brains of deaf individuals who use sign language and those who do not know sign language Friedman and Cocking, ; Neville, Also, there are similarities between sign language users with normal hearing and sign language users who are deaf that result from their common experiences of engaging in language activities.

    In other words, specific types of instruction can modify the brain, enabling it to use alternative sensory input to accomplish adaptive functions, in this case, communication. Another demonstration that the human brain can be functionally reorganized by instruction comes from research on individuals who have suffered strokes or had portions of the brain removed Bach-y-Rita, , ; Crill and Raichle, Since spontaneous recovery is generally unlikely, the best way to help these individuals regain their lost functions is to provide them with instruction and long periods of practice.

    Although this kind of learning typically takes a long time, it can lead to partial or total recovery of functions when based on sound principles of instruction. Studies of animals with similar impairments have clearly shown the formation of new brain connections and other adjustments, not unlike those that occur when adults learn e. Thus, guided learning and learning from individual experiences both play important roles in the functional reorganization of the brain.

    Research into memory processes has progressed in recent years through the combined efforts of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, aided by positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging Schacter, Most of the research advances in memory that help scientists understand learning come from two major groups of studies: studies that show that memory is not a unitary construct and studies that relate features of learning to later effectiveness in recall.

    Memory is neither a single entity nor a phenomenon that occurs in a single area of the brain. There are two basic memory processes: declarative memory, or memory for facts and events which occurs primarily in brain systems involving the hippocampus; and procedural or nondeclarative memory, which is memory for skills and other cognitive operations, or memory that cannot be represented in declarative sentences, which occurs principally in the brain systems involving the neostriatum Squire, Different features of learning contribute to the durability or fragility of memory.

    The superiority effect of pictures is also true if words and pictures are combined during learning Roediger, Obviously, this finding has direct relevance for improving the long-term learning of certain kinds of information. Research has also indicated that the mind is not just a passive recorder of events, rather, it is actively at work both in storing and in recalling information.

    There is research demonstrating that when a series of events are presented in a random sequence, people reorder them into sequences that make sense when they try to recall them Lichtenstein and Brewer, In one example Roediger, , people are first given lists of words: sourcandy-sugar-bitter-good-taste-tooth-nice-honey-soda-chocolate-heart-caketart-pie. The finding illustrates the active mind at work using inferencing processes to relate events. Thus, it is a feature of learning that memory processes make relational links to other information.

    Random and Sparse Networks

    For example, when children are asked if a false event has ever occurred as verified by their parents , they will correctly say that it never happened to them Ceci, However, after repeated discussions around the same false events spread over time, the children begin to identify these false events as true occurrences. Magnetic resonance imaging also shows that the same brain areas are activated during questions and answers about both true and false events.

    This may explain why false memories can seem so compelling to the individual reporting the events. In sum, classes of words, pictures, and other categories of information that involve complex cognitive processing on a repeated basis activate the brain.

    What Processes Are Taking Place In Our Brains When We Learn New Things?

    Prefrontal Cortex: this part of the brain makes up only 17 percent of the brain and is in charge of judging, analysis, organization, connecting the dots, and making calls on what is valid information and what isn't. It also plays a huge role in empathy and self-awareness. It's one of the last parts of the brain to develop and can be influenced. Therefore, hormones and emotions easily manipulate the prefrontal cortex. So in other words, just when we're asking them to evaluate, show relationships, and analyze, the middle schooler's prefrontal cortex can be sidetracked in a big way simply by a note slipped to them during the passing period.

    It's not that they can't control it, but 'tweens need to know about this tendency if they are going to successfully work despite it. We all can better fight an enemy if we know the enemy we are facing. Automatic Brain: This is also known as the reactive brain and makes up the remaining 83 percent of the brain. It's the part of the brain that automatically reacts to the world around it. In other words, when a student is stressed, depressed, angry, or bored, information gets filtered into the reactive brain, not the prefrontal cortex, possibly dooming that information to the short-term memory.

    Pawan Sinha on how brains learn to see

    When we think about middle schoolers, we know that for many of them, stress, depression, anger, and boredom can be completely out of whack and disproportionate, so it becomes essential that we design lessons to coax information towards the prefrontal cortex. Neurons: They transmit information along the nervous system, connected by synapses. Think of it like neurons are the depots while the synapses are the trains upon which the information is carried. Neuroplasticity: This term refers to the very encouraging fact that the brain is capable of growth, of developing new connections and pathways between neurons through new experiences and teachings.

    So, in other words, if a bridge is down between the depots see above , specially targeted lessons might just help build track where there was none before. Dopamine: When a person feels pleasure, success, pride, dopamine is released into the brain and acts as a lubricant of sorts, increasing attention, motivation, and memory. Amygdala: This monitors the emotions. Carmena, J. PLoS Biol. Hochberg, L. Koralek, A. II , Costa, R. Graybiel, A. Alexander, G. Tsien, J. Cell 87 , — Humayun, M.

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    Article metrics. Advanced search. Skip to main content. Subjects Animal behaviour Brain—machine interface Learning and memory Neurophysiology. Figure 1: Music to my brain. Full size image.

    The Mind of a Middle Schooler: How Brains Learn

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