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How does your brain learn?

It's all about the neuro-cognitive bases of learning!

Okay, when was the last time you rode a bicycle? Let’s say, it was five years ago. Now, you are given a bicycle and asked to drive around the block. Would you be able to do it? Common sense and observational data say- Yes.

This is because learning a skill like cycling or any other motor activity in the brain is governed by a cognitive process called, “Implicit Learning”. Implicit learning is defined as the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without being aware of what has been learned. It’s a more subconscious process of learning and recall, that’s also called procedural learning or unintentional learning. The alternative to this would be “Explicit Learning” or declarative learning or intentional learning. It differs from implicit learning by the awareness of the information being learned and the presence of consciously accessible knowledge that can be recalled at a later time. The brain areas involved in working memory and attention are usually more active during explicit learning. Now that we have a clear idea of these two types of learning, let us delve deep into how we can become more effective learners, by promptly remembering the learned information, recalling at a later time, and utilizing the lessons learned in a wide array of real-time situations.

Let us start with learning a language. Neural and behavioral research studies show that exposure to language in the first year of life influences the brain’s neural circuitry even before infants speak their first words. What do we know of the neural architecture underlying infants’ remarkable capacity for language and the role of experience in shaping that neural circuitry? Language learning is a deep puzzle that our theories and machines struggle to solve but children accomplish with ease. How do infants discover the sounds and words used in their particular language(s) when the most sophisticated computers cannot? What is it about the human mind that allows a young child, merely one year old, to understand the words that induce meaning in our collective minds, and to begin to use those words to convey their innermost thoughts and desires? A child’s budding ability to express a thought through words is a breathtaking feat of the human mind. The learning processes that infants employ when learning from exposure to language are complex and multi-modal, but also child’s play in that it grows out of infants’ heightened attention to items and events in the natural world: the faces, actions, and voices of other people.

Research has begun to appear on the development of the neural networks in humans that constitute the ‘‘social brain’’ and invoke a sense of the relationship between the self and other, as well as on social understanding systems that link perception and action. Language has evolved to address a need for social communication and evolution may have forged a link between language and the social brain in humans. Comparative studies at the phonetic level have allowed us to examine the uniqueness of infants’ language processing abilities. We are also beginning to discover how exposure to two languages early in infancy produces a bilingual brain.

Non-invasive techniques that examine speech and language processing in young children include Electroencephalography (EEG)/ Event-related Potentials (ERPs), Magnetoencephalography (MEG), functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). ERP works by placing sensors on a child’s scalp and measuring the activity of neural networks firing in a coordinated and synchronous fashion in open field configurations. In addition, the voltage changes occurring as a function of cortical neural activity can be detected using ERP. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is another brain imaging technique that tracks activity in the brain with exquisite temporal resolution. fMRI studies allow precise localization of brain activity and a few pioneering studies show remarkable similarity in the structures responsive to language in infants and adults. Studies of brain rhythms in infants and other neuroscience research in the next decade promise to reveal the intricate relationships between language and cognitive processes.

Many questions remain about the impact of cognitive skills and social interaction on natural speech and language learning. As reviewed, new data show the extensive interface between cognition and language. They also indicate whether or not multiple languages experienced in infancy, affect cognitive brain systems. The idea that social interaction is integral to language learning has been raised previously for word learning; however, previous data and theorizing have not tied early phonetic learning to social factors. Doing so suggests a more fundamental connection between the motivation to learn socially and the mechanisms that enable language learning. Understanding how language learning, cognition, and social processing interact in development may ultimately explain the mechanisms underlying the critical period for language learning. Furthermore, understanding the mechanism underlying the critical period may help us develop methods that more effectively teach second languages to adult learners. Neuroscience studies over the next decade will lead the way on this theoretical work, and also advance our understanding of the practical results of training methods, both for adults learning new languages, and children with developmental disabilities struggling to learn their first language. These advances will promote the science of learning in the domain of language, and potentially, shed light on human learning mechanisms more generally.

Now, let’s move onto motor skill learning. The acquisition and long-term retention of motor skills play a fundamental role in our daily lives. Skills such as writing, playing golf, or riding a bicycle are all acquired through repetitive practice. Motor skill learning refers to the process by which movements are executed more quickly and accurately with practice. Our understanding of the neural substrates underlying the acquisition and retention of motor skills has been boosted in recent years, owing in a large part to technological and methodological advances in neuroimaging, as well as in noninvasive brain stimulation in humans.

Non-invasive stimulation demonstrated a strong link between the acquisition of motor skills and neuronal plasticity at cortical and subcortical levels in the central nervous system that evolves over time.

Advances in neuroimaging provide new insight into functional reorganization associated with the acquisition, consolidation, and retention of motor skills. Plastic changes involving structural reorganization in gray and white matter architecture that occur over shorter time periods than previously thought have been documented as well. Motor skill learning can be divided into a fast stage, in which typically significant improvements can be seen within a single training session, and a later, slow stage, in which further gains are achieved across multiple sessions of practice. Performance improvements during skill acquisition can occur not only during training (online learning) but also between sessions, with no further practice (offline learning).

Progression from fast to slow motor skill learning is thought to rely on appropriate consolidation, defined as the progressive stabilization of a recently acquired memory. Through consolidation and plasticity, new memories are transformed from their initial fragile states into more robust and stable forms. Different brain regions are involved in the consolidation of motor memories. Once motor skills are acquired and consolidated, they can be retained over extended periods of time or forgotten. Under controlled laboratory settings, retention of motor skills has been demonstrated in humans over periods of up to a year, yet in real life, retention may occur over much longer periods. For the learning of explicit motor sequences, even minimal amounts of practice spread over several days were able to induce long-term retention, suggesting that long-term retention is strongly dependent on successful consolidation. The neural processes leading to successful consolidation tested post-training is likely to start operating during practice and evolve over time after training ended. However, it should be kept in mind that previously consolidated memories are not immune to further modifications. Reactivation of a consolidated memory renders it once again labile and susceptible to interference. Technological and methodological advances in neuroimaging and in noninvasive brain stimulation in humans, together with novel findings stemming from animal-based studies, provide new insights into the neuroplastic mechanisms that underlie motor skill learning, suggesting that skill acquisition is subserved by multiple mechanisms that operate across different temporal scales.

There are a number of different things that you can do to improve your memory. Basic tips such as improving your focus, avoiding cram sessions, and structuring your study time are good places to start, but there are even more lessons from psychology that can dramatically improve your learning efficiency.

One sure-fire way to become a more effective learner is to simply keep learning. This “use-it-or-lose-it” phenomenon involves a brain process known as “pruning”, in which certain pathways in the brain are maintained, while others are eliminated.

If you want the new information you just learned to stay put, keep practicing and rehearsing it. This process alone helps solidify new knowledge in your brain. Next, find some way to share what you’ve learned because one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Another great way to become a more effective learner is to use relational learning, which involves relating new information to things that you already know. Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems we haven’t encountered before and drawing inferences from facts already known. By finding ways to fit new information in with preexisting knowledge, you’ll find additional layers of meaning in the new material. This will help you fundamentally understand it better, and you’ll be able to recall it more accurately. When you connect the new to the old, you give yourself mental “hooks” on which to hang the new knowledge.

While seeing information and then writing it down is important, actually putting new knowledge and skills into practice can be one of the best ways to improve learning. In addition, research has demonstrated that taking tests actually helps you better remember what you’ve learned, even if it wasn’t covered on the test. Research has also suggested that multitasking can actually make learning less effective. You can avoid this pitfall by singularly focusing your attention on the task at hand and continue working for a predetermined amount of time. Knowing how to learn effectively is a skill that will benefit you for life. Developing effective study skills requires lots of time and patience. A great strategy for improving your learning efficiency is to recognize your learning habits and styles. If you follow these tips you’ll be well on your way to discovering which type of learning works best for you!


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