As time and technology have progressed, humans have developed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world and universe around them; why the sky is blue, how ecosystems work, even mapping out far regions of the universe. So why is it that we have such little understanding of our brains and how they work?
In such a short chunk of time, our understanding of the human brain has shifted significantly. We used to believe that after childhood, our brain was fully developed and no longer changed, but modern research indicates this is not at all the case. By now, we have all heard about neuroplasticity, but what exactly is it? What impact does it have on how we learn?
A Brief History of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity, being all the rage now, actually had it’s first mention, ‘neuronal plasticity’ back in the early 1900’s, from Spanish neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. He is known as the father of modern neuroscience and won a Nobel prize in 1906 establishing the neuron or nerve cell1.
However, the first use of the term ‘neuroplasticity’ was coined by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948 who used the term to describe changes in the structure of neurons2. Following this, increasing research was taken up from the 1960’s onwards, to form our understanding of neuroplasticity today.
“Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired.” 3
How does it work?
Neurons and neural networks can change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction4. As we grow, our neurons sprout branches and form synapses (the space between cells where electrical signals pass through)5.
These pathways can be strengthened over time, when messages are meaningful or reinforced or weaken without consistent usage. The brilliant part is how our brains can change and adapt. With new information, completely new pathways can be created, or we train our brains to take different neural pathways through targeted learning.
“Every time we learn a new fact or skill, we are changing our brain.” 6
What does this mean for how we learn?
When we learn, we create new neural pathways, strengthen old pathways or lose old pathways based on our new understanding. There are three key things that happen in our brain when we are learning:
- The increased production of chemicals improves short term memory of new learning.
- Our brain alters its structure, changing connections between neurons which helps us commit learning to long term memory.
- We alter our brain functioning, the more we use a region in our brain, the more those parts of the brain become activated7.
Why does it matter?
The implications of neuroplasticity are that we now understand we need to foster lifelong learning skills and we need to understand what is neurobiologically happening in learning to design learning in a way that takes advantage of this learning process.
In the Wyda game, one way we apply this understanding is to utilise learner’s emotions in learning. When an experience is considered meaningful, norepinephrine is released in the brain, which strengthens the connection between neural8 pathways. By including learning that evokes emotions, we utilise the neurobiology of the learner to create learning experiences that are memorable and meaningful. This engages the learner and helps them to commit their learning to memory.
Keep an eye out to learn more about emotions and learning and how to integrate this into learning experiences. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!
1. Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Sun. 15 Aug 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1906/cajal/article/
2. Ackerman, C. E., MA. (2021, February 5). What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains [+14 Exercises]. PositivePsychology.Com. https://positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity/
3. Bergland, C. (2017). How do neuroplasticity and neurogenesis rewire your brain? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201702/how-do-neuroplasticity-and-neurogenesis-rewire-your-brain
4. Neuroplasticity. (2020). In Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
5. Penttila, N. (2019, August 26). What Happens at The. . . Dana Foundation. https://dana.org/article/qa-neurotransmission-the-synapse/
6. Boyd, L. (2015). After watching this, your brain will not be the same. [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE [Accessed 16 Aug. 2021].
7. Boyd, L. (2015). After watching this, your brain will not be the same. [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE [Accessed 16 Aug. 2021].
8. Tully, K., Bolshakov, V.Y. Emotional enhancement of memory: how norepinephrine enables synaptic plasticity. Mol Brain 3, 15 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1756-6606-3-15