How the Brain Learns

How the Brain Learns
Our brains construct skill patterns or schemas for everything we know how to do. As central to the human nervous system it weighs approximately three pounds, is about 1131 cubic centimeters in volume for females and 1274 cubic centimeters for males, with billions of neurons. Every human brain is unique in its ability and the way it learns. Although brains may differ slightly based on the dimensions of a person’s head, the size of a brain is not related to the intellect of a person. The way the brain receives new information, transfers information with its neurons, associates with previous knowledge already stored in the brain, and the frequency a person uses the brain all contribute to how the brain learns new information.

The Brain
The brain is a soft mass of tissue and nerves attached to the spinal cord. The cranium, which is part of the skull, covers the brain, protecting it by encasing it in a framework of bones. Cerebrospinal fluid flows around the brain and the spinal cord as lubrication and to prevent shock. Nerves from the brain are connected to areas of the body controlling mobility, personality, senses, and functions. The brain consists of three parts, the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. The cerebrum is the large outer part of brain which makes up 85% of the mass of the entire brain. It is divided in half with two hemispheres. The left and right hemispheres each control opposite sides of the body. The left controls the right side of the body and the right side of brain controls the left side of body. The cerebrum controls speech, emotions, movements, senses, short-term and long-term memory, language, learning, thinking, and reasoning. The cerebellum found at the bottom of the brain controls the body’s balance and coordination. The brain stem is the bottom of the brain which connects the cerebrum to the spinal cord. Besides being a connector to the human vertebrae, the stem of the brain controls the functions of the body such as breathing, movement of the eyes, blood pressure, and heartbeat.

The brain is divided with an upper and lower brain. The upper brain, or prefrontal cortex, controls the reflective part of the brain where learning, memory, and decision making occur. The lower brain controls the body’s functions both with its reactive and involuntary responses. It also triggers reactions to the body in emergency situations. The amygdalae serves as the communication between the upper and lower brain and directs information to where it belongs in the brain structure. When information is received to the brain, the amygdalae decides if it belongs in the upper brain or lower section of the brain.

Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, dendrites and axions help transfer information within the brain. When you are happy, dopamine is released in the brain causing positive feelings. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine brings pleasure and satisfaction. It can also increase drive or motivation. This is why learning is best while relaxed. Stress relievers such as laughter, listening to music, or having fun release dopamine causing the brain to receive information better and increases motivation and openness to learn. Having a positive mindset and noticing successes, helps with learning. Even if learning is challenging at times, recognizing small achievements along the way as stepping-stones can help show progress and increase motivation. Dopamine helps transmit positive energy to the neurons relaxing the brain and relieving stress making it easier to learn.

How the Brain Operates
The brain has billions of cells called neurons. As you learn, fibers, called dendrites and axions, grow from these neurons. Acting as neurotransmitters, dendrites and axions are extensions of neurons which send and receive information to and from other dendrites. The information is transmitted across a liquid area between the dendrites called a synapse. Dendrites continue to multiply from existing dendrites, creating more dendrites, as you learn.

At the beginning of the learning process, sensory information enters the brain filtered in by the reticular activating system (RAS) found in the lower part of the brain. The information is transmitted by synapses through pathways of neurons to an area for short-term memory. Here information is compared to previous knowledge stored in the brain and then travels through neural pathways to be stored in long-term memory. This happen instantaneously. Information is transmitted between neurons. If the neurons are familiar with interacting, information is passed along more easily. If it they are not, it may cause information to be forgotten or not remembered completely.

The brain continues to learn throughout the life-span of a person from the time of birth until the time of the death of brain cells. The ability for the brain to continue to develop a neural network responding to stimuli is called neuroplasticity. The more neural connections there are, the easier it is to learn and at a faster pace. The more times the brain is used for learning, the brain’s circuits become stronger making it easier for a person to learn.

How the Brain Learns
When you learn something new, sensory information is directed by the amygdala into the hippocampus. This information which is received is connected to prior knowledge already stored in the brain. The brain loves patterns. Use of patterns and repetition help connect the new information to what is already known and predict what is next. Using repeat patterns to remember will help retain information. Stimuli which use the senses for sight, sound, smell, touch, and hearing also helps with learning. New information remains in short-term memory until it is understood and applied. It is then stored in the long-term memory area of the brain.

Good Health
A healthy lifestyle helps with learning and keeping the brain working to its best ability. Taking care to get enough sleep, reduce stress, and eating healthy are all important  Eating healthy and drinking plenty of fluids is essential to caring for the brain. The brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and requires nutrients from a healthy diet and hydration to keep the brain functioning. Food which are high in anti-oxidants, caffeine, vitamin C and K, zinc, magnesium, copper, iron, and omega-3 help with brain development, keeping the mind sharp, assist with memory, transporting oxygen to the brain, and healing the brain. Nutrients also help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Healthy Foods which Help the Brain Function and Learn
Some examples of food which are good for the brain and learning include: Fish which contain omega-3, such as salmon, have fatty acids that help keep blood vessels clear and nerves functioning at a high level. Omega-3 helps to keep the brain sharp and prevent Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson disease. Coffee and tea are also good for the brain as the caffeine causes the brain to be alert and helps with concentration. It also boosts serotonin which increases your mood. Coffee as well as blueberries and dark chocolate are high in anti-oxidants which keep oxygen flowing to the brain. Anti-oxidants fight stress, are anti-aging agents, and prevent disease. Nuts and eggs support memory and brain development. Broccoli, a good source of Vitamin K, helps with having good memory, protect the brain against damage, and builds sphingolipids, or fat found in brain cells. Oranges and strawberries are high in vitamin C help mental decline and fight off free radicals which damage brain cells. Nutrients found in vitamins and foods such as zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron are important for brain health. Pumpkin seeds contain all of these. These nutrients help with nerve signaling, prevention of disease, migraines, epilepsy, and depression. Turmeric is also good to help the brain heal itself and relieve stress.

Article written for Zealousness, Issue 15, Q1, 2020

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