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  • January 2015
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Some insights about brain and the process of learning

During last four weeks, I have been enrolled in the course on “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects’. The course was designed and delivered by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, and is available on Coursera. I have found the entire course very well designed, engaging, and I recommend to everybody who is interested to improve his or her learning ability. There were three crosscutting themes that I find appealing and useful for practically anybody who enjoys learning and cares about keeping his or her brain well-functioning for as long as possible.

Some insights about brain and the process of learning

During my years in high school, the common understanding was that functionality of the brain has limits as the number of the neurons in each brain is fixed. Dr. Sejnowski summarized in the course the old view of mature brain as follows: While the strength of the synapsis can be adjusted by learning, the pattern of cognitivity doesn’t not change much unless there is a brain damage. Most of the neuron connections are created prior to the maturity, but with age many connection’s die, so there is a shrinkage of the cortex in the aging brain. It was a ‘good excuse’ for not being able to learn, isn’t it?

Well, the more recent discoveries of neuroscience proved that brain dynamically evolves even after it matures and new synapsis are constantly being formed as other are disappearing. And there is more: In 1998, Professor Fred (Rusty) Gage and Peter Eriksson demonstrated that in the brain area called the hippocampus, new neurons are being born even in adulthood (1). What a relief! It was also found that physical exercise is increasing the number of the new neurons that are being born. But there is a catch: these newly borne neurons don’t survive long if they are not needed. Now, the obvious question is: ‘What can be done to enhance new neurogenesis (creation of new neurons in the adult brain) and at the same time to assure that they don’t die soon’?

Experiments with animals (principally rats) shown, that an ongoing learning experiences (not surprisingly especially training of visual-spatial memory – see post on Memory) and enriched environment (exercise and interactions) stimulated formation of more and stronger connection with other neurons, but also increased the survival of neurons (2).

In conclusion:  Even as adults we need to live in an enriched environment – it is healthy for our brain to be surrounded by stimulating, creative company and actively participate in events happening around us.  And do physical exercise – that is also increasing the number of the new neurons.

But there is more what I have learned about process of learning:
According to Barbara Oakley (3), one of the course facilitators, our brain has two principal ways of thinking – so called focused mode and diffuse mode.

Focused mode is that time of focused concentration of our attention, essential when we are working on problems that require the use of rational, sequential and/or analytical approaches. Focused mode activity is located principally in the pre-frontal cortex. The brain is trying to use an existing neural connection pattern that helps to understand what we are learning. However, when we encounter totally new problem or new concept, there may not be any helpful existing neural connection pattern. Instead, a new one needs to be created. To be able to create such neural pathway, brain needs to switch to a different way of processing the information – to diffuse mode thinking. In this mode, the problem can be analyzed from a broader perspective without being limited by the existing neural pathways. Diffuse mode is when our attention is relaxed; we are for a moment ‘absentminded’ letting our mind ‘wander’. There is no specific area of the brain, where diffuse mode would be located. The diffuse mode rather allows our unconscious mind to connect with many different parts of the brain and return valuable insights.

Apparently, the brain cannot consciously be in both thinking modes at the same time. What seems to be happening during effective learning or solving complex problems is continuous switching back and forth between these two thinking modes. Indeed, learning process is surely much more complex than just switching between the two thinking modes, however understanding these two different thinking modes is very useful to set up effective learning approaches, but also clearly justifies the need for short breaks at work to remain productive during the whole working day (4).


(1) Eriksson PS, Perfilieva E, Björk-Eriksson T, et al. Neurogenesis in the adult human hippocampus. Nat Med. 1998;4:1313-1317. doi:10.1038/3305.

(2) Klemn B. New Neurons: Good News, Bad News. SharBrains. 2008. http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/04/25/new-neurons-good-news-bad-news/. Accessed January 25, 2015.

(3) Oakley B. How Pinball Helps Explain Ways We Think and Learn. 2014. http://www.sciencefriday.com/blogs/09/04/2014/how-pinball-helps-explain-ways-we-think-and-learn.html?series=33. Accessed January 25, 2015.

(4) Seiter C. The Science of Taking Breaks at Work: How to Be More Productive By Changing the Way You Think About Downtime. 2014. https://open.bufferapp.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work/. Accessed January 27, 2015.

(5) Oakley, B., Sejnowski, T. (2015). Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough
subjects. Lecture videos & presentations. Coursera, UC San Diego. Accessed January 28, 2015, from https://class.coursera.org/learning-003


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