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Fact Sheet

How We Learn

September 12, 2023

Who this is for:

Science Communicators

What happens in the brain when I am learning?

You may have heard people refer to the brain as plastic. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow as you navigate the world around you. These brain changes underlie learning.

You have more than 80 billion neurons in your brain. And when you encounter or interact with something in your environment, some of those brain cells will become active, or “fire.” That firing results in the neuron sending a message across the synapse, or space between brain cells, to its neighbor (See Brain Basics: What Happens at the Synapse?).

Think of learning as the creation of new connections between networks of different brain cells. So, as you learn to walk, learn to read, or even learn the dreaded chain rule for calculus class, your brain cells are simply sending messages to other brain cells. Over time—and with practice—the connections between those cells become stronger as you master that skill. It’s like you’ve established a Wi-Fi link between the cells to make it easier for them to communicate, and those conversations guide you as you engage in a particular task.

Of course, it is also possible to weaken these learning networks. The less you engage in a particular task or skill, the weaker those connections between neurons become. Once you put that college calculus book down, it’s likely that the connections that were between cells will degrade as more time passes between derivative worksheets, and if you need calculus later in life, you’ll need to do more practice to get those skills back up to speed.

Can an “old dog learn new tricks” (or can older people learn as well as youngsters)?

Absolutely, although it may take a little more effort, depending on the skill you are trying to master. Studies show that the brain is plastic throughout life, but it is especially primed for new connections—and learning—as it is developing throughout childhood and the teen years. That’s why your average 10-year-old can pick up “new math” with ease, while his or her parent with the college degree in physics may need a little more time to understand the new-fangled method required for long division.

What is the best way to learn new material?

Practice, practice, and more practice. By taking the time to practice new skills over time, you firm up those important neural connections to help you learn and remember. It also provides a foundation to build on as you work to master harder tasks.

That’s not all, though. Getting plenty of sleep sets the brain up for learning, ensuring that it has plenty of  resources to spare for higher cognitive skills instead of spending them just to keep you awake and vigilant. Removing or reducing distractions also is essential to success. Also try to reduce your stress level: like lack of sleep, anxiety can get in the way of learning. And, of course, learning by doing—meaning applying different concepts to real world activities—is a fantastic way to learn and remember new material.

Does my “learning style” determine how I best learn?

There is no such thing as “learning styles.” The notion that some people are better at learning new material when it is presented in one format over another, is a neuromyth. Many studies do show that presenting students with new material in multiple ways, say, reading a chapter and then creating a visual arts poster, is helpful to all students when learning new concepts.

Can music help me learn better?

Certainly, multiple studies have shown that musical training, like playing an instrument, can strengthen plasticity in your brain. After all, it is an activity that requires that your brain coordinate activity across a variety of different regions. When neuroscientists scan the brains of people playing an instrument, they see many areas are activated, including regions involved with movement, sound, vision, and memory. Over time, that kind of neural work-out helps to ready your brain to tackle other material, too.

There is also some evidence to suggest that listening to music while studying can also help with learning and recall. But before you crank up your favorite heavy metal band, there are some caveats: The best study music, generally, is calm and soothing, without lyrics that might distract you from what you are working on.

What about doodling?

Many studies suggest that “old-fashioned” pen and paper notes are the best tool to assist with learning. As with playing a musical instrument, activating all those different brain regions can help build strong learning connections. But doodling seems to have some benefit, too. Drawing little flowers or animals in your note margins, many hypothesize, activates the same brain areas as notetaking. Several studies have shown that people are more likely to remember even boring material when they doodled during the lecture.

What about multitasking?

We often think that multitasking, or trying to undertake multiple activities at the same time, can help us better keep up with school or work demands—and, perhaps, is even necessary to learn new material in today’s modern world. Yet, studies consistently show that human beings are terrible multitaskers. When we attempt to do more than one thing at once, valuable information, without fail, falls through the cracks. People have a hard time believing this, however—everyone seems to think they are great at multi-tasking, even when shown evidence to the contrary.

Neuroscientists have tried to train people to be better multitaskers, especially now that so many of us are forever tethered to smart devices that ping, beep, and alert every few minutes, taking our attention away from our primary task. While those studies suggest that we may not completely fail when we mix tasks that involve distinct types of cognitive resources (e.g., walking while talking with a friend or doing math while listening to music), they still involve a whole lot of cognitive delegation. The brain still has to figure out where to direct our attention. Because of that, multitasking always comes at some cost. For optimal learning, it’s best to focus on one thing at a time.


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