Does active learning contribute to brain health? You bet!


wired_headAfter listening to me talk about neuroscience, a new acquaintance of mine told me that he had looked up “neuroscience” just so he could better understand what I meant. What he discovered was that there were literally millions of references to the term neuroscience ranging from serious MRI-based technical papers to what I have come to call “junk” neuroscience – which is people making all sorts of claims that aren’t really supported by the literature.

He came back to me and asked me two questions:

  • – What exactly do you mean by “neuroscience?”
    – Is your definition really solid or is it junk?

Let me start with the second question. The neuroscience Cerebyte uses is very basic and well proven. We are also not making claims for how neuroscience will change a person’s life (though there is one area I will discuss below where we will stretch a little), but only how human brains respond to specific stimuli.

Now to the second question – what do we mean by neuroscience?

What we are focusing on is really the neuroscience of learning, which we break into two subcategories:

  • – The neuroscience of motivation
    – The neuroscience of sustained internalization of new attitudes and behaviors

The underlying principle of the neuroscience of motivation is that certain prompts and actions cause changes to the brain. Prompts that stimulate people to think about and visualize themselves making a significant contribution to a greater social good (i.e. they have a compelling purpose) causes the release of endorphins and a dopamine squirt. These neurochemicals promote a sense of passion, confidence and engagement. People feel good about themselves and are more open to new ideas.

The physical act of writing suppresses portions of the brain associated with fear and resistance to change. This happens because writing draws on language portions of the brain as well as requiring the intellect (the pre-frontal cortex) to be active in controlling the action. As a result, people are also more open to new ideas.

Guiding groups of people to interactively discuss a purpose, including anything they have written about the purpose, stimulates the release of serotonin and oxytocin, neurochemicals that promote a sense of collaboration and contribution to the group – people want the group to succeed. In turn, the confidence that comes from group support reinforces the passion and commitment from the endorphins and dopamine. Again, all of this is very basic and proven neuroscience.

The other aspect of neuroscience that is relevant to the neuroscience of learning is what neuroscience tells us about internalizing new attitudes and behaviors. The most fundamental building block of neuroscience is the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.” All learning is the rewiring of neurons. Multiple, frequent, practical, personal repetitions cause neurons to rewire causing “learning.” The key to effective long-term learning is guiding people to have enough of these repetitions to actually learn the new content.

This is very basic neuroscience. What makes what Cerebyte is doing unique is that few people, if any, have specifically focused on the implications of neuroscience for attitude and behavioral growth. Perhaps the closest have been the websites and games like Lumosity but they are really focused on maintaining brain health — and, as we talked about in an earlier post, have been debunked as ineffective.

So here is where we are going to stretch a little, again referring to my earlier blog about mental exercise and long term brain health, it appears (notice my hedge) that using the above concepts of the neuroscience of learning in daily life may actually contribute to brain health.

What is clear and completely solid “neuroscience” is that focusing on a compelling purpose and working hard to get better at something, supported by journaling and social discourse enhances people’s ability to learn.

Are you taking advantage of the neuroscience of learning?

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