Learning and Neuroplasticity – How You Can Learn More

My apologies for the subtle undercurrent of cynicism. However, it is only partly in jest. Most of what I speak can be positively affected by one thing (I don’t include the political commentary – that can only be positively affected by one other thing!) Learning. Though to give further thought to the political commentary, maybe both sides of the divide (or is it all five sides these days – a political Pentagon? – that’s a scary thought) could make better decisions (or actually make a decision) by way of learning new and different things? To do that they need to open their minds and listen to other points of view. To attempt to understand those different points of view. To listen. With purpose. No, sorry, not possible! Again, apologies. Let me continue with Learning. The way our brain learns is one of those scientific marvels that should amaze us – and stimulate further learning. In short, by the power of our thoughts we can change the physical structure of the brain. We learn when our brain develops new connections – called synapses – between brain cells (neurons), that develop into larger and larger networks as we practice new skills or attempt to recollect information. If Beauden Barrett wants to get better at kicking goals (and he does!), what does he do? He practices. Again and again. What happens in Beaudies brain (I hope) is the repetitive actions of a goal kick develop more and more synapses in his brain that are linked to activities in the muscles and nerves around those parts of his body that are involved in kicking goals. At the same time the coating around his nerve fibres (Myelin) grows thicker (Myelination) ensuring the electrical impulses travel faster. The result – goal kicking becomes automatic and the network of synapses, nerves, muscles etc work the same every time. He gets better and misses less often. It is only when stress is introduced and he thinks about what he is doing that the automatic processes are interrupted (happens to him a bit!) If we want to learn something, our brain is really keen to use some synapses that are already there but are not too busy. So we learn best when we can associate any new learning with some stuff that was already there. When we read some new information and a week later can’t remember any of it, we shouldn’t be surprised. The brain will learn (create more synapses) when we attempt to recollect previous knowledge that we tried to put in. So we don’t learn what we put in, we learn what we try to recollect. Link that to when we were at school – we learnt most effectively when we tried to remember stuff when tested on it. If that only happened when sitting exams we had a problem! So mock tests were the things to do. When you read the Blog today, how much of it will you remember in a weeks time? In 6 weeks time? If we don’t use it we lose it. If Beaudie stops practicing, that network of synapses begins to atrophy. He misses more. If we don’t try to recollect what we have read or understood, we will forget it. To come back to the topic today – the Human Brain is Plastic. It can be changed and re-shaped. When we learn new things we physically change the very structure of our brains. Neuroplasticity is the description of the process around learning. And as a conclusion, when we grow into our senior years we have a tendency to think less. To not do as much as we used to. To debate less. To question less. To be more set in our ways with less ability to want to understand others’ views. The consequence? Our synapses atrophy. Our brain gets lazy (even more lazier than usual). We stop using it so we start losing it. The scientific evidence linking the lack of brain activity and exercise to dementia is overwhelming. So keep arguing, thinking, questioning. Be well, keep focused and grow more synapses Cheers Phil Pickford

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