new evidence from researches learning and brain responding

Many people, both young and old, enjoy solving problems. It’s something we do for
relaxation. As children, many of us assembled jigsaw puzzles or solved word games. Even the
name “word games” implies that it is something fun to do. Many adults enjoy working on
Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn 13
I used to think that the human brain was the
most fascinating part of the body and then I
realized, ‘what is telling me that?’
Erne Philips
crossword puzzles or other intellectual
challenges (the current popularity of Sudoku
attests to this). These observations suggest
that the human brain has a fundamental need to
solve problems and understand its
surroundings. Essentially, we are born with a
desire to learn, but the need for learning is not limited to children or young adults in the
classroom. It is a lifelong occupation. Although we are by nature lifelong learners, what do we
really know about the process of learning in the human brain? Quite a bit, it turns out. In the
past few decades there have been significant advances in our understanding of the brain and
science of learning. A recent book published by the National Research Council (NRC 2000)
provides a fascinating overview of new research on the brain, mind, and processes of learning.
Studies of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, learning science, and
neuroscience have converged on a new understanding of the workings of the brain (NRC 2000).
Key findings include: 1) learning changes the physical structure of the brain, 2) 

organizes and reorganizes the brain, and 3) different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at
different stages of development. During development, the “wiring of the brain” is created
through the formation of synapses, which are the junctions between neurons through which
information passes. At birth, the human brain contains all the neurons it will ever have, but has a
relatively small portion of the large number of synapses that it will eventually develop. New
synaptic connections are added to the brain after birth in two ways: 1) by overproduction and
loss, and 2) by synapse addition. Overproduction of synapses occurs in different parts of the
brain at different rates during childhood and early adolescence. Those synapses that are unused
through experience are “pruned” during later stages. In other words, brains initially have an
extensive neural network, but only those parts that are used are retained. The second method of
synapse addition occurs throughout life and is “driven” by experience. In other words, activity
in the nervous system associated with learning experiences somehow results in the formation of
new synapses and “re-wiring” of the brain. 

The increasing complexity of neural networks that
results from sensory experiences is the physical explanation for the theory of constructivism
(described above).
Experiments on laboratory animals have demonstrated that experience increases the overall
quality of functioning of the brain. “Experience” equates to learning. Additionally, research
suggests that the gross structure of the brain is altered both by exposure to opportunities for
learning, and perhaps more importantly for this discussion, by learning in a social context. Think
about it, that’s pretty cool stuff! The brain is a dynamic organ. Learning in individual and social
contexts actually results in new patterns of organization (the physical structure) and improved
functioning of the brain. It’s also worth noting that we test our learning through action.

 That is,
our brain gets feedback about our thinking when we put ideas into action (e.g., speak, write,
draw, play an instrument or sport), hence the importance of not neglecting the psychomotor
14 Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn
Education is what survives when what has
been learned has been forgotten
B.F. Skinner
domain (described briefly above). This is also a good reason for learning in groups; learning in
social environments results in richer neural networks.

 Studies of memory and brain processes indicate that people’s memories of images are far
superior compared with people’s memories of words (NRC 2000). This has implications for
how we teach and learn. Research also indicates that the brain does not simply record
information as it arrives. Instead, the brain reorganizes information for more efficient recall and
later use. In fact, the structure of information in the brain is one of the primary features that
distinguishes “novices” from “experts.” 

Our new knowledge of brain development and learning comes, unfortunately, with new
responsibilities to continually “exercise” and nurture the brain. Educational institutions and
instructors are faced with the awesome responsibility of designing curricula and learning
experiences that will stimulate and guide re-wiring in student brains. Students bear
responsibility for nurturing and engaging their brains during this important developmental
process. Ed Nuhfer at Idaho State University has recently compiled online overviews of “brain
foods” (Nuhfer 2005; 2006) that promote brain functioning and synapse development. We’re not
talking gimmicks here;

 this is about sound nutrition and the importance of water, protein, amino
acids, glucose, vitamins (especially B-6), and minerals for learning. It turns out that breakfast
really is one of the most important meals, especially for developing brains.
Caring for our brains also involves making other lifestyle choices. Recent research (e.g., see
review by Butler 2006) sheds light on the neurobiological effects of alcohol, and the evidence is
sobering (no pun intended). A number of studies have shown that even moderate amounts of
alcohol cause significant cellular damage (even after the effects of alcohol have worn off) to the
forebrain and hippocampus regions of the brain. These structures are crucial for learning that
involves integrative processing (e.g., decision-making, questioning, discrimination, and goalsetting) and memory. Studies of laboratory animals at Duke University have observed
drastically suppressed activity of chemical receptors in the hippocampus due to alcohol. 

effects are not just short term; there are also significant long-term cognitive consequences from
excessive drinking of alcohol during adolescence. A 1998 study at the University of California,
San Diego examined test results of verbal and nonverbal memory in teenagers. They observed
significant cognitive deficits in teens that reported even occasional excess drinking. Another
study found that alcohol-abusing teens exhibit different brain activity compared with nondrinking peers when accomplishing spatial tasks. The forebrains of the alcohol-abusing teens
were too damaged to complete these tasks, so some “forebrain” tasks had to be conducted in less
damaged regions of the back cortex. These examples illustrate the delicate nature of the brain.
Apparently, much of what we do has a physical affect on the development of our brains.

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