So what actually happens in the brain when we learn something new? Well, from the perspective of your brain, learning comes down to a process called synaptic plasticity.
Synaptic plasticity is, in essence, what makes your brain flexible. It is the process through which the brain is able to grow and develop over time in response to your life experiences. This was obviously critically important when you were young and your brain was passing through childhood and adolescence, but the same fundamental process of plasticity continues throughout your adult life. How else would you be able to adapt and adjust to all the people, situations and events you experience every day?
Well at any moment of time your brain exhibits a particular pattern of neural connections, and synaptic plasticity is the biological mechanism by which these connections structurally change and adjust themselves based on your life experiences. These connections are called “synapses” and they are the point at which two neurons join together. And when we are talking about synaptic connections in the brain, we aren’t talking about a few thousand, we are talking about trillions.
What’s more, science has shown that there is a fundamental rule which defines how these connections work. This rule states that the connections that you use more frequently are the ones that stay around in the brain and get strengthened, while the connections that you don't use as frequency get weakened or lost. So the well known mantra of use it or lose it, (or in science terms - cells that fire together, wire together) really does stand when it comes to synaptic plasticity and learning.
When you learn something new, you can create new connections between brain cells that weren’t previously connected, or you can strengthen or fine tune existing connections to reflect the new knowledge that you have taken mentally on board (or both). What’s more, you can actually see this synaptic plasticity in action when you look at the brains’ of people who have a specific expertise. For example, some musicians, taxi drivers or even master perfumers have greater brain volumes in the specific regions which are necessary for their expertise, as they have denser connections between the neurons within those regions. So as the person becomes more expert, the plasticity of those regions allows their brain to structurally adapt and grow to reflect their growing expertise and newly learned knowledge. But of course this does just apply to taxi drivers, musicians and perfumers, it applies to all of us where the process of learning and becoming an expert in something over time visibly (well at least with a brain scanner) changes the structural wiring of your brain.
But there is another side to synaptic plasticity and that is a process called neurogenesis - the creation of completely new neurons. This process predominantly happens when you are a child as you might expect, but in a few places in your brain, neurogenesis is thought to continue throughout adulthood. In particular, your hippocampus, a region that is critically important in learning and memory, is thought to be a key region of the brain where neurogenesis can happen during adulthood.
So next time you are learning something new, think about the amazing changes that are going on inside your brain. How your neurons are shifting around. How new connections are forming. And how you are strengthening your knowledge networks.
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