What is Learning? You and Your Brain

by Nan Travers, Ph.D.
SUNY Empire State College

“There is one simple principle that governs how the brain works: it evolved” (Edelman, 2004, p.32).

The brain changes in response to experiences and thoughts; this process is called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity literally refers to the ability to change, shape or form neurons in the brain. The field of brain research indicates that through neuroplasticity, the brain continuously changes and grows (learns) throughout adulthood. From this research, there are a few key concepts on how the brain functions when learning in school and on the job.

In the past, scientists thought that we had a set number of cells in the brain and once they were used up, that was it. Over the past few decades, new research has shown that in the brain stem, near the top of the spinal cord, there are precursor cells, which when stimulated form into new brain cells. We continue to make new nerve cells throughout our life, as well as changing the ones we already have in response to experience. That means that adults can continually learn new information through experiences.

When someone goes through an experience, all the information comes through sensory organs, such as the eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose, and corresponding neurons in the brain become stimulated. There are estimated to be 85 billion neurons and 1 million billion synapses, or connections between neurons, in your brain. This is phenomenal!! Think about it—all those neurons firing away in your brain all the time, regardless of whether you are awake or asleep. Of course, not all of them are firing at once, and some have very special jobs, but just for you to be reading this requires a series of networks of neurons firing. The neurons are many different shapes and sizes and can have multiple dendrites and/or axons extending from them as receiving and sending arms (see below), depending on their function.

When a neuron is stimulated, there is an electrochemical change that occurs along the cell body to the axons, literally changing the electrical potential (i.e., the negative ions shift to positive, changing the voltage of the cell). This change creates a release of chemicals called neurotransmitters from the axon tip of one cell (the sending end of the cell), across the synapse (the space between cells) to the dendrites of the next cell (the receiving end of the cell), which in turn pick up the “electrical message” and pass it along to the cell body, and on to the axon, and to the next synapse, and so on. The stronger the stimulus, the stronger the impulse passed along. If the stimulus is mild, electrical potential returns to its former state after the cell passes along the electrochemical ‘message’; however, depending on the strength of the stimulus, the neuron may not fully return to its former state. Not only that, but also every time neurotransmitters pass the message to another cell, that synaptic connection is strengthened.

As stimuli enter through the sensory system, there are dual actions occurring: sensory-based neural stimulation and value-based neural stimulation. The sensory-based neural stimulation is the strength of the neuro-stimulation. The value-based neural stimulation provides potency or value (positive or negative) to the stimulation. Discoveries have shown that both the strength (intensity) and potency (value) of the stimulus changes the composition of the neurotransmitters, which alters the chemical makeup of the synapses creating durable memory traces. In other words, the stimulus alters the neuron permanently. In addition, repeated stimulus, even if mild, can prevent the neuron from returning to its original state. Re-stimulus, such as through reflection, can also have this effect.

This long-term change is carried along the neuro-pathway. In addition, pathways that are connected are cooperative; they can combine and create a longer lasting effect, even if the original stimulus was weaker. This ability to cooperate also can form associations. In other words, as certain neurons are stimulated at the same time, they create long-term changes that remain associated together. The neurons connect together to create networks, which in turn create systems. A common phrase in brain research is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Based on the levels and frequency of stimuli, neurons are triggered to fire and become associated to form networks that continue to fire together. Interactions across these associations give rise to behavior, thought, and consciousness, which is how scientists begin to explain learning.

In summary:

  • All input to the brain is through neurosensory experiences.
  • Neurosensory experiences create chemical changes at the synapses of the neurons
  • Potency (strength) and value (negative or positive) of the neurotransmission increases these chemical changes
  • Re-stimulation of neuro-pathways increases chemical changes
  • When strong enough, these chemical changes create permanent durable memory traces (i.e. learning)
  • Neuro-pathways are cooperative and form systems of networks

This means that as you have an experience and sensory stimulation enters into your brain, depending on how strong of an experience and how it triggers negative or positive emotions, chemical changes can happen to your neurons that can be permanent. These changes impact the neuro-networks and related systems that are connected to these neurons.

Neuro-pathway systems build complex interconnections that are cooperative, interdependent and multiplicative. As they build upon each other, some systems give rise to others. The earliest systems to be stimulated during an experience give rise to emotions, values and beliefs. These provide the intensity and potency to stimulate and re-stimulate the neurotransmitters and increase associations within and across networks.

These also provide the criteria by which reflection, assessment and judgment occur, which in turn provide the brain with the ability to make decisions and predictions. As the brain uses these systems to make decisions and predictions, the stimulation and connections increase even more, setting the brain up for its next experiences. The result reinforces or changes the beliefs, values and emotions, which in turn are part of the initial assessment of the next experiences. Therefore, the brain is constantly reforming and revising itself to test and predict the world around it; thus learning (creating durable memory traces) is a way for the brain to survive lifelong experiences. All learning is built upon experience.

Every experience begins with prior experiences. The brain “stores” prior learning to make judgments about the current experience. It asks of every new experience:  Is this the same? Is this different? Should I pay attention? Should I ignore it? If it is the same, do I ignore it because it is just more evidence of the same and therefore unnecessary for the brain to take up that extra energy to remember it, or is it different enough that this has some features that are important?

Let’s take a very simple example:

You’re walking through the woods and you see this long, skinny, black thing that has some curves in it and immediately you remember some other time that you were walking through the woods and you saw a SNAKE. You look at this object and jump: “YIKES, it’s a SNAKE!!!” The different networks in your brain are working together and the emotional impact of seeing a snake (you might have intense fear) give potency and value to the experience (strong potency and negative value). Other systems kick in to prepare your body to get out of that situation, fast. The information is being fired throughout all types of systems within the brain.

Because your brain is still taking in new information about the situation, you start to observe that this object is not moving. You also note that those aren’t real curvy things in there; they are more jagged, and there are some things sticking out of it. Soon the rational side of your brain starts to look at the different kinds of elements that show that this is different information than you originally thought. Your brain now incorporates these different aspects and you realize: “Oh, that is actually a stick, it is not a snake (silly me)”. You have just evaluated whether or not this experience fits the prior knowledge that you have, or if it is new knowledge that you now have to incorporate. Your brain makes adjustments based on its assessment to be prepared for the next time you are in the woods.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions. The pathways connecting these different sections have specific purposes. One section of the brain, called the thalamus, receives all sensory stimulus and directs which neuro-pathways are excited. Another section of the brain is called the amygdala. This is responsible for visceral or emotional responses and is connected to other areas of the brain that are connected to physical reactions (e.g., basal ganglia), including the speeding up of the heart and making the legs run (in case that stick had really been a snake). The pathway connecting the thalamus to the amygdala is short and information gets to the amygdala before any other section of the brain gets information from the thalamus. This is important because if we are in danger, we need to move and get ourselves safe.

The thalamus also sends messages to other parts of the brain (e.g., cortex, hippocampus), which look for established patterns (does it match known qualities of a snake or a stick?) and, based on these comparisons, the brain reinforces existing associations, adjusts these if needed based on new information, or creates new ones  that did not already exist. These different brain parts in turn send messages back to the thalamus to slow down its stimulation. As a result, our brain is always comparing present experiences to prior experiences to determine if the current experience is the same as previous ones, a variation thus resulting in adjustments in knowledge, completely new resulting in new pathways and associations, or completely familiar rejecting any differences and keeping status quo.

New emerging knowledge or ‘emergent learning’ represents the elements of the new experience, which are incorporated with elements of the prior learning.  The prior and emergent learning come together and converge into ‘convergent learning.’ The combination of what is prior and what is new now becomes combined into the same knowledge base. Convergent learning prepares for future learning; therefore, convergent learning becomes the prior learning to then be ready for future learning. The brain is designed to merge prior learning with new emergent learning to integrate and converge it, so that you are always prepared for the next experience.

In addition to preparing for future learning, the interconnections of neuro-networks form relational learning. When your brain looked at the stick as though it was a snake, it was first connected to the emotional side of your brain; but, it was also connected to other parts of your brain linking to other attributes stored from previous experiences (such as size, shape, color, and other qualities) that are used to define the existence of something in the brain. These interconnections are building relationships that are stored together. The more the brain sets up relationships across knowledge, the easier it is for the brain to retrieve the information. The more tightly the networks develop into coded relationships, the more economically and efficiently the brain functions.

Let’s take another example. Throughout your life you have gotten to know what your grandmother looks like. From childhood into adulthood you maintain this information because you have coded clusters of attributes that come to be known as ‘Grandma.’ You do not need to recreate these attributes every time you see her, but in an instant you are able to assemble the information and identify who she is, because of the way that the brain clusters and associates information. One day, Grandma walks in the room dressed for a costume party with big glasses and a cigar. That is a first for you, but you still know its Grandma. Why? Because you have bundled your relational learning so that your brain doesn’t have to work hard to know who this person is to you. By clustering attributes, the brain can quickly identify features in associations. The brain links clusters in different ways, so that when one gets stimulated, those other clusters that are linked in relationship to it are also stimulated. These clusters can be associated to many other clusters, which is why one thing reminds you of another.

So what does this mean to you as a life-long learner?

Your experiences matter. They are the foundation of how your brain has set up its mental models of the world around you. They provide your brain with stimuli that change the chemical composition of the neurons, which results in connections between neurons that build systems that are interconnected and associated. Your brain has created clusters of information with cues that trigger certain neurons to fire, which manifests as memory and knowledge.

Because the brain is always changing based on new experiences, it evolves over time. Your brain is a reflection of your experiences. As you move into new work experiences, you will be creating new neural connections. As you take more courses or workshops, you will be creating new neural connections. As you move through your life, you will be creating new neural connections.

The powerful thing about the human brain is its ability to have consciousness. As the systems connect to each other they also have the ability to reflect upon and build upon each other. The layers of systems give rise to consciousness. Consciousness enables the brain to reflect, make assessments and judgments, and make decisions and predictions. These in turn add potency and value to future experiences.

Consciousness evolves; it forms from the need to categorize, discriminate and hold onto memory for survival. But, it also evolves with high-order organization that allows separate levels of consciousness of the “I” in experience and the “I” as observer, reflector, and judger. In other words, your self is engaged in an experience and at the same time can be observing and making commentary and judgments of what is happening in the experience. The brain is designed to take the immediate experience and lift it into patterns and reflect on the patterns, but also to have a monitoring capability that can make adjustments to the responses during the experience. The “I” of the immediate can be controlled by the “I” who is observing and directing the responses.

You can purposely tap into this ability and use it to learn more. The more you focus on something, the more your brain changes in response to it. This means that you can shape and change all kinds of things about yourself as you find that you need to. You can boost your own confidence and self-esteem by giving your brain patterns of experience that support you, such as telling yourself that you are capable and worthy, as well as breathing deeply to help your brain know that you are okay, even if you are nervous in a situation.

The way we think about ourselves can make a big difference in our experience, so it is important to know that we can shape how we feel about ourselves just as we shape our experiences and our learning, all of which are changing the brain. The more your system networks are connected, the more you are able to take advantage of what has been coded into your brain. For example, you have the ability to solve problems. You have learned how to solve problems all your life. You have experiences of solving problems in school. You have experiences of solving problems in your life and from working in different settings. With your brain’s connections, you can make a conscious effort to look across these different situations and settings and find patterns on how to solve problems. You can even start a problem solving process that can be tested and refined each time you use it. The more you pull on all of your experiences and incorporate your new ones, the more useful your processes become. That is what makes an expert.

Questions to ponder:

  • What does it mean to your learning to know that your brain makes new neurons and is always changing?
  • Have you had situations where you believed something regardless of other evidence? Was there an event that changed your perspective? In what way was it changed? What can you learn from this shift? How could that experience help you in future ones?
  • If experiences change the way that the brain functions, how can you take advantage of this?
  • How can the “I” (actor) that is experiencing the situations and events of the moment and the “I” (director) who is editorializing and influencing the results be used to augment each other? How can you take advantage of these relationships in new settings and situations?
  • How can you use what you have learned about your brain to learn a topic or a new job?

Used with permission.