The Brain and Learning

Our native curiosity is driven by our brain’s inherent search for the unusual in our environment. – Dr. Donald J. Ford

How long has it been since you rode a bike? What are the chances that you forgot and needed to re-learn how to do that all over again? I found two very interesting articles on the brain and learning that I would like to share. The first article is called “How the Brain Learns” by Dr. Donald J. Ford (, 2011). It talks about the cerebrum being the most important area of the brain because that is where high-ordered functions like memory and reason occur. As learning happens through a network of neurons, researchers at the University of California Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory proved that when neurons frequently interact, they form a bond that allows them to transmit more easily and accurately, but when neurons rarely interact, the transmission is often incomplete, leading to faulty memory where you seem to remember only half the story or you have no memory of the experience at all. How does this relate to you? Think about something you do all the time, which is so routine, you don’t really give much thought to it, like driving to work, going to your favorite restaurant or even the park. It is so ingrained into your memory, that the neurons that control that particular memory have formed a tight bond.

So one day, you decide to move from you current residence to a new location. Now you are taking a new path to get to your job and since this is all new, you have to pay attention and new bonds need to form with the neurons in your brain so that you can remember this new path like you did the old path.

In the second article called “How Does the Brain Learn Best? Smart Studying Strategies” by Ingfei Chen (, 2014) it talks about how forgetting is a powerful spam filter as you try to recall a word or fact, the brain actively works at suppressing or forgetting competing information. So there you are on your new route to work that you now have memorized like the back of your hand. If you leave at a certain time it takes you exactly 12 minutes to get to work. You mention this to a co-worker one day and during your conversation someone overhearing your story chimes in and suggests you should take an alternate route that includes the highway and it would save you 2-3 minutes on your commute. As you stand there quietly acknowledging their suggestion, you know that you have looked at all the maps, did your research and found the best way that works for you. As your mind tussles with this new, competing information, what do you think happens?

The article continues and talks about how the brain is a foraging learner building knowledge continually while it keeps things that are important to you and adds to your thoughts about those items subconsciously as it tunes in to any relevant information you see or hear around you. Dr. Ford in the first article How the Brain Learns touches on this as well from a study that mentions if we both see and hear something, we are more likely to remember it than if we hear it only. If we experience an emotional reaction to something, then that emotion becomes part of the memory and strengthens it dramatically. In recalling memories, subjects who had experienced an emotional reaction were far more likely to remember the event and with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed an event without any emotional attachment.  That explains why highly emotional events such as birth, marriage, divorce and death become unforgettable.  When it comes to learning, we need to make sure we engage all the senses and tap into the emotional side of the brain through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities and games. As an instructional designer of online courses, how could you use this new information to make your courses unforgettable?

As a way to assist the brain in remembering information while in a school environment, I conclude with four (4) examples by Ingfei Chen:

  1. Break up and space out study time over days or weeks compared to lumping everything into a single session.
  2. Study class material in a café or garden rather than in a library or try listening to background music as it can help to reinforce and sharpen your memory of what you are learning.
  3. Take breaks! If you have been working at something for a while and get stuck, the interruption can allow for flashes of insight.
  4. Quiz yourself by reciting the material out loud from memory or explaining it to a friend. This is a powerful way to master the material rather than just re-reading it over and over again.