The learning brain

Brain 5

There are a number of books that not only taught me something but helped shape the way I think and opened up a whole new world. One such book was Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter, not as you might imagine a book about mind mapping but the Brain. Rita Carter is a science journalist rather than a neuroscientist and understands that it’s not about what she knows but what she can explain.

Having a better understanding of how the brain works will help do far more than improve your grades in a biology exam, you will develop insight as to why something works not only that it does. As a result, you can be confident you are using the most effective brain friendly learning techniques.

The infrastructure Brain 2
Rita Carter provides us with an excellent description of the brain, that it is as big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the colour of uncooked liver and consistency of firm jelly.

Imagine a cross section of the brain, taken from the side, alternatively look at the diagram opposite.

The cerebrum or cortex is the largest part of the human brain and is associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. It is divided into four sections.

  • Frontal lobe – associated with reasoning, planning, some speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
  • Parietal Lobe – associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe – associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe – associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

The cerebellum coordinates movements such as posture, balance, and speech. Next to this is the brain stem, which includes the medulla and pons. These are the older parts of the brain and evolved over 500 million years ago. In fact, if you touch the back of your head and bring your hand forward over the top towards your nose, this effectively maps the ages in which the brain developed.

The Limbic system is largely associated with emotions but contains the hippocampus which is essential for long term memory and learning.

Synaptic gap – Cells that fire together wire together (Hebbian theory)
Although learning is complex, a large amount takes place in the limbic system because this is where the hippocampus sits. Here our memories are catalogued to be filed away in long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex.

What comes next is important because it’s here within the hippocampus where neurons connect across what is called the synaptic gap that learning arguably begins. Synaptic transmission is the process whereby a neuron sends an electrical message, the result of a stimulus across the synaptic gap to another neuron that is waiting to receive it. The neuron’s never touch, the gap is filled by chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters examples of which include dopamine and serotonin. These are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.

Learning is making new connections, remembering is keeping them

When the stimulus is repeated the relationship between the neurons becomes stronger and so a memory is formed and learning has taken place. The whole process is called long term potentiation (LTP).

How does this help?
All a bit technical perhaps but very important as it explains so much. It is the reason that repetition is so valuable, for example, if you are reading something and it’s not going in, you need to fire those neurons again but perhaps using different stimulus. Try saying it out loud or drawing a picture alongside the text.

Don’t forget the blog I wrote in January 2018 that explained brain plasticity and how the brain changes as those new neural connections are made, a process called Neurogenesis.

The neurotransmitters, those chemicals released to fill the synaptic gap are also important as each one is different. For example, in addition to making you feel good, it’s likely that when you feel anxious your brain is releasing high levels of serotonin.

Although it’s fair to say there is still much we don’t understand about the brain, I  hope the blog has helped remove some of the mystery of learning, it’s not a magical process but a scientific one.

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Dedicated to my dog Jack – our family dog and best friend

Mind Mapping – Tony Buzan, Learning leader

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It was with some sadness that I read of the death of Tony Buzan last week. It’s possible you have never heard of him and yet will be familiar with the technique he discovered to help students learn, Mind Mapping. He was born in the UK in 1942 studied Psychology, English, Mathematics and Science at the University of British Columbia.  In addition to his lifelong association with Mind Mapping he worked for Mensa, set up the World Memory Championships in 1991 with Raymond Keene, and found time to write over 140 books. Two of which sit on my bookshelf, both furthered my knowledge and fuelled my interest in learning, memory and how the brain works. These are Use your Head and The Mind Map book.

Curiosity  

When Tony Buzan was at Junior school his curiosity was sparked by a boy who had an excellent knowledge of nature, in particular birds but repeatedly failed tests that were set in school. This led him to question what intelligence was. And although I hadn’t read this at the time it was something I had also been interested in. Society had/has somehow lost sight of the fact that people are different, falling into the trap of praising and promoting those that were “clever” and pitying those that were not. It seemed far more sensible to break intelligence down into a series of biological/neurological qualities, and in 1983, when Howard Gardner published his book on Multiple Intelligence Theory this made perfect sense to me and provided evidence that Buzan was on to something.

Mind Mapping – does it work?

According to Tony Buzan, “Mind Mapping is a two-dimensional note-taking technique with which a Mind Map is made using all the relevant knowledge about a specific subject.”

I have written about how to Mind Map before, so please follow the links if you want to find out more – Mind Mapping unplugged – The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams.

Remarkably there is little evidence to prove that Mind Mapping works, academics have focused instead on Concept Mapping, a hierarchical diagram that links conceptual knowledge, but the principles that underpin Mind Mapping are consistent with much of what we know is effective in learning.

This quote from Tony Buzan offers a deeper insight into why it works.

“I used to take formal notes in lines of blue, and underline the key words in red, and I realised I needed only the key words and the idea. Then to bring in connections, I drew arrows and put in images and codes. It was a picture outside my head of what was inside my head – ‘Mind Map’ is the language my brain spoke.”

In this narrative there are three important principles identified. Firstly, use only key words, this process of reduction is hugely valuable in learning. When the brain has to select one or two words it engages in a process of reflection and review, reading and re-reading asking which one word should I pick, and why. Secondly connections, it is well accepted that the brain finds storing unrelated chunks of information difficult, a Mind Map requires the student to link information and in so doing forces a connection. And lastly, arguably one of the most powerful, the use of images. The brain appears to have a limitless capacity to store pictures, the brighter, more colourful and stranger the better.

In summary, it’s not that Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan and before we knew little about the best techniques to aid learning, what he did was pull together much of what we now know to be effective using as inspiration the drawings of the Leonardo de Vinci and created a tool that requires the student to know little of the theory behind how it works but by preparing one engages them in a series of very effective techniques that will help them learn.

Critics

It would be wrong to suggest that everything Tony Buzan said or did was correct, he has been responsible for promoting what many now recognise as pop psychology that has since been proved to be incorrect. For example

“Did you know that you use less than 1% of your brain? The good news is that Mind Mapping can help you to access the other 99%.”

However, he also said

“Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.”

And in this world rich with information, AI and robotics, this may be the only thing that will keep us ahead of the game.

Listen to Tony Buzan talking about Mind Maps

RIP Tony Buzan learning leader.

 

 

 

 

Sleep, studying and Circadian rhythms

Circadiam - sleepThe brain is truly astonishing, if you disagree with that statement it’s just possible you have never heard of circadian rhythms.

Your circadian rhythm is best thought of as a body clock, a 24-hour cycle that tells you when to sleep, get up in the morning and eat. In biological terms the clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. The SCN is a tiny part of the hypothalamus which is situated directly above the pituitary gland in the centre of the brain.

 

 

Your body has a clock
Do you wake in the morning naturally or is it the result of a stark shrill from your alarm? If its naturally then this is your internal clock at work. Interestingly it can be pre programmed, you will have done this many time, waking before your alarm goes off for example. We are not talking about 10 minutes before, so accurate is your body clock you can wake 1 minute or even seconds before it is due to go off. Jet lag is an example of what happens when you disrupt the internal clock, your entire body struggles to adapt, affecting your ability to concentrate, eat, rest and sleep.
Interestingly Circadian rhymes exist in all living organisms, including plants. The external stimulus is natural light. However even without light the 24-hour cycle will continue, this has been evidenced by research with people who are totally blind. Although their circadian rhythms are often said to “free run” and extend slightly longer than 24 hours, they continue independent of light.

Why is this important for studying?
One of the reasons for going into so much detail is to illustrate how complex we are as human beings and that what may seem a relatively small change in your behaviour e.g. studying late into the night, can have a significant impact on your ability to function, in this context concentrate and remember.
Pulling an all-nighter to prepare for an exam is a badge of honour that many students will wear with pride. It is perceived as a measure of how committed and mentally tough you are. And on one level the effort and difficulty of the task should be rewarded, but given that examinations are a test of cognitive ability anything that reduces your chances of doing well should be avoided. If Hussain Bolt ran the 100 meters in a record time, having been out on the town the night before, waking up with a hangover and only having two hours sleep he would be a hero. But if he lost, he would be a fool. Why would someone who had invested so much of their time put that at risk?
In simple terms you need to help your brain perform to the best of its abilities.

Circadian rhythms and memory
A little more technical detail to illustrate a simple point, if you don’t follow your natural sleep patterns your ability to memorise and retain information will be affected. Retention appears to hinge on the amount of a neurochemical called GABA which inhibits brain activity. And it is the Circadian clock that moderates the amount of GABA produced. In fact, in an experiment using hamsters where the circadian clock was effectively disabled the hamsters were unable to remember anything.

Mental health types-01There is a far more sinister side to the disruption in your circadian rhythm, ongoing research has identified a direct link with mental health disorders such as depression. This is of particular interest given the rise in reported levels of depression amongst students. One area that is being investigated is screen time be that mobile phones or computers. The artificial blue light emitted from these devices could well be confusing your circadian clock.

Why we sleep is still uncertain but it is believed that deep sleep helps the brain consolidate all the experiences from the day, including what its learned. When you shut down your computer, it may say “do not turn off during this update” – that sounds like  good advice.

And if you would like to find out more

Circadian Rhythm and Your Brain’s Clock

How Your Circadian Rhythm Tunes Your Health