Rewiring your brain the easy way – and the hard way.
Learning something – whether that’s new knowledge or a skill – is a physical process that actually restructures the architecture of the brain. To understand why, we need to look at what’s going on in the brain when we’re committing something to memory.
Every experience we have is created by the simultaneous firing of millions of neurons throughout the brain. You could imagine it as an elaborate cat’s cradle of flashing fairy lights, constantly lighting up in different combinations. Unlike fairy lights, however, when neurons ‘light up’ together they undergo minuscule changes that prime them to fire together in future.
Most neural firing patterns occur just once because these changes are initially very fragile. Some patterns, however, are encoded by the hippocampus – a small, horseshoe-shaped structure deep in the brain. This encourages the encoded brain activity to recur. Eventually, if a firing pattern is repeated over and over again, the neurons within it extend tendrils which link them together to form lasting pathways. The network it forms is now a permanent memory.
Events that are novel, shocking, important or painful are encoded more easily than banal ones because the neural activity involved is more intense. Encountering a flame and getting burned by it, for instance, involves fast and furious firing of visual neurons (the sight), somatosensory neurons (the feeling) and limbic neurons (the horror). A subsequent glimpse of flame then triggers activity in the whole network, including the neurons that registered the burn. This memory, even if it’s not conscious, guides our response to the new situation: instead of touching the flame, the body recoils. A lesson has been learned. Networks of linked neurons break down and build up much more easily in young brains than in older ones, which is why children learn – and forget – things so quickly.
Some things are easier to learn than others. Walking and talking, for instance, emerge without much help, provided infants see it happening around them. Natural skills like these generally emerge within specific time frames, when children’s brains are genetically programmed to develop them. Newfangled skills such as reading and arithmetic, however, have to be learned deliberately, along with non-intuitive knowledge like the offside rule in football or the laws of thermodynamics. In each case, repeated practise and study will strengthen the neural networks associated with this knowledge and help commit it to memory.
Some types of learning are facilitated by so-called ‘mirror neurons’ – brain cells that become active in a person when they see someone else doing something. If you see someone lifting their arm, say, some of the neurons in your brain which would be involved in lifting your own arm start firing. Mirror neurons provoke automatic mimicry, which is particularly useful for learning motor skills – a dance routine, for example, or how to serve a tennis ball.
The hippocampus not only converts experiences into knowledge, but to some extent stores this knowledge too. A famous study of London taxi drivers who had acquired a detailed mental map of the city streets found that the back part of their hippocampus was considerably larger than normal. Another important brain area for learning is the ‘fusiform face area’. This patch of cortex, situated behind each ear, encodes faces, and has links to the language and emotional brain areas that generate names and feelings when you see a familiar face.
Tune up your learning
- Take notes and re-read them frequently. Repetition prevents information from being forgotten because it reignites and helps solidify the neural networks that hold memories. Try the Cornell note-taking method:
- Record the information of a lecture as notes
- Devise exam-type questions based on your notes
- Answer your questions aloud, without consulting your notes
- Reflect on your notes and your answers
- Review your older notes regularly
- Revise for an exam in a room scented with something unusual then put a bit of this scent on your wrist before the exam and sniff it if you are stuck. This is particularly effective if the material has an emotional component: in a 2011 study at Utrecht University, volunteers watched an emotionally engaging film in a room smelling of cassis (a fruity smell similar to blackcurrant). Later re-exposure to the smell triggered strong recollections of what they had seen.
- Break information into chunks. For example, turn the sequence 8,3, 2, 4, 9, 0, 1, 9, 8 into 832-490-198. This makes it easier to keep in ‘working memory’ – the brain system that keeps new information circling in a neural repeat loop until it is used, learned, or replaced by new input. Most people can only cope with five or so ‘items’ in this loop. In our example, chunking effectively turns nine items into three.