Learning, Practicing and the Brain

  In my last post, on Malcom Gladwell‘s Outliers, I mentioned that practice is one of the factors that makes us good (or really good) at performing a task. Today, I’d like to explore with you how the brain adjusts to our learning. 

For years it has been thought that the human brain stops developing around adolescence. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the brain continues to grow and change beyond the 20-year mark, and up until mid-twenties. The particular area that becomes more complex after the teenage years is the frontal lobe, which is crucial for thinking processes, such as planning, problem solving, reasoning, and for attention.

English: Brain viewed from the right side show...
English: Brain viewed from the right side showing the 4 major cerebral lobes. This is a digitally enhanced version of an illustration from Manuel de L’anatomiste, by Charles Morel and Mathias Duval, published in 1883 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          Hence, it can be concluded that our ability to think and pay attention expands after adolescence is over. 

There is, however, research that seems to attack this theory, not by opposing it completely, but by expanding upon its affirmations. This research has shown that our brains do NOT reach full maturity before we are 30; rather, they continue their development up until late in our 40s. Particularly, it is the prefrontal cortex (responsible for abstract thinking and analysis) that has been shown to change its shape on brain scans.

               What does it all mean?

What this new information suggests is that brain capacity broadens  as we mature, and it is notably our thinking that improves as years pass.

                How is this connected to learning?  

Learning happens when the brain has changed in a manner that allows for faster connections (synapses) between the brain cells (neurons), or when the structure of neurons has changed from within. As the brain develops, learning is easier simply because these changes can occur faster.

Compare this idea with molding clay that is warm and soft (in our case, the brain as it is developing), and molding it when it is hardened (the mature brain).            

              How does practicing come into the picture? 

When you practice a certain skill, a set of neurons in your brain begin firing. The more you do that particular task, the faster the neurons are at forming connections with one another, and hence, the better and faster you become at doing that it.  Moreover, if you keep repeating that task, or using the skill, the brain part in charge of that will change in dimensions, increasing in order to accommodate for the new synapses formed.

There you have it! Practically, our ability to perform a skill is translated as the ability of our neurons to form connections between them. Once we have repeated something enough times, we become better at it because the neurons have learnt the road they have to take in order to help you perform.  

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