Learning is what your brain does naturally. In fact, it has been doing it even waking minute since about a month before you were born. It is the process by which you acquire and store useful (and useless) information and skills. Can you make it more efficient?
The answer lies in what happens physically as we learn. As it processes information, the brain makes and breaks connections, growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons to their neighbors, or shrinking them back. When we are actively learning, the making of new connections outweighs the breaking of old ones. Studies in rats have shown that this rewiring process can happen very quickly—within hours of learning a skill such as reaching through a hole to get a food reward. And in some parts of the brain, notably the hippocampus, the brain grows new brain cells as it learns.
But once a circuit is in place, it needs to be used if it is going to stick. This largely comes down to myelination—the process whereby a circuit that is stimulated enough times grows a coat of fatty membrane. This membrane increases conduction speed, making the circuit work more efficiently.
What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them? The answer won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been to school: focus attention, engage working memory and then, a bit later, actively try to recall it.
Alan Baddeley of the University of York, UK, says It is a good idea to test yourself in this way as it causes your brain to strengthen the new connection. He also suggests consciously trying to link new bits of information to what you already know. That makes the connection more stable in the brain and less likely to waste away through underuse.
The learning process carries on for life, so why is it so much harder to learn when we reach adulthood? The good news is that there seems to be no physiological reason for the slowdown. Instead, it seems to be a lot to do with the fact that we simply spend less time learning stuff, and when we do, don’t do it with the same potent mix of enthusiasm and attention as the average child.
Part of the problem seems to be that adults know too much. Research by Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has shown that adults tend to learn a physical skill, like hitting a golf ball, by focusing on the details of the movement. Children, however, don’t sweat the details, but experiment in getting the ball to go where they want. When Wulf taught adults to learn more like kids, they picked up skills much faster.
This also seems to be true for learning information. As adults we have a vast store of mental shortcuts that allow us to skip over details. But we still have the capacity to learn new things in the same way as children, which suggests that if we could resist the temptation to cut corners, we would probably learn a lot more.
A more tried-and-tested method is to keep active. Ageing leads to the loss of brain tissue, but this may have a lot to do with how little we hare about compared to youngsters. With a little exercise, the brain can spring back to life. In one study, 40 minutes of exercise three times a week for a year increased the size of the hippocampus—which is crucial for learning and memory. It also improved connectivity across the brain, making it easier for new things to stick.
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