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How do we learn? And why do some of us learn things more easily than others?
These are some of the questions that have driven Dr. Lara Boyd, a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia, to better understand the inner workings of the brain. In her Ted Talk, “After Watching This, Your Brain Will Not Be The Same,” Boyd describes how neuroplasticity gives you the power to shape the brain you want.
She notes that the knowledge we were once given about the brain is either incomplete or entirely incorrect.

What we know about the brain is changing at a breathtaking pace, and much of what we thought we knew and understood about the brain turns out to be not true, or incomplete. Now some of these misconceptions are more obvious than others. For example, we used to think that after childhood the brain did not, really could not change. And it turns out that nothing can be farther than the truth.

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Another misconception about the brain is that you only use parts of it at any given time and silent when you do nothing. Well, this is also untrue. It turns out that even when you are at a rest, and thinking of nothing, your brain is highly active.

Boyd notes that technological advances like MRI have given her the tools to make such discoveries, as well as many others. But the most intriguing fact regarding the brain she has come across thus far is that, every time you learn a new fact or skill, your brain changes. This is called neuroplasticity.
Boyd says that there are three contributing aspects of neuroplastic change: chemical, structural, and functional:

So your brain can change in three very basic ways to support learning. And the first is chemical. So brain actually functions by transferring chemicals signals between brain cells, what we call neurons, and this triggers series of actions and reactions. So to support learning your brain can increase the amount of the concentrations of these chemical signaling that’s taking place between neurons. Now because this kind of change can happen rapidly, this supports short term memory or the short term improvement in the performance of a motor skill.

The second way that the brain can change to support learning is by altering its structure. So during learning the brain can change the connections between neurons. Now here the physical structure of the brain is actually changing so this takes a bit more time. These types of changes are related to the long term memory, the long term improvement in a motor skill. . . .

Now the last way that your brain can change to support learning is by altering its function. As you use a brain region it becomes more and more excitable and easy to use again. And as your brain has these areas that increase their excitability the brain shifts how and when they are activated. With learning we see that whole networks of brain activity are shifting and changing.

Perhaps even more intriguing is that, according to Boyd, these three aspects that are happening across the entire brain can occur in isolation from one another, as well as, and more commonly, in unison. And together, they support learning, and are happening all the time.
And so, we must come to terms with the astonishing reality that the human brain is not just incredibly malleable in infancy, but well into old age as well. This exciting knowledge takes away so many judgements and boundaries we have created.
Norman Doidge, M.D., a Canadian-born psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, has been fascinated by the very same topic as Boyd. “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself,” he says.
But if we know how neuroplastic our brain is, why can’t we learn anything we choose with ease? Why don’t we succeed at everything? Why is it so easy to forget things?
Boyd says there is no one size fits all for these answers, as our individual uniqueness can determine the impact of interventions.

…neuroplastcity can work both ways. It can be positive, you learn something new and you refine the motor skill. And it also can be negative though, you forgot something you once knew, you become addicted to drugs, maybe you have chronic pain. So your brain is tremendously plastic and it’s being shaped both structurally and functionally by everything you do, but also by everything that you don’t do.

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The second lesson we’ve learned about the brain is that there is no one size fits all approach to learning. So there is no recipe for learning. Consider the popular belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to learn and to master a new motor skill. Now I can assure you it’s not quite that simple. For some of us it’s going to take a lot more practice and for others it may take far less. So the shaping of our plastic brains is it’s far too unique for there to be any single intervention that’s going to work for all of us.

And now this realization has forced us to consider something call personalized medicine. So this is the idea that to optimize outcomes each individual requires their own intervention. And the idea actually comes from cancer treatments. And here it turns out that genetics are very important in matching certain types of chemotherapy with specific forms of cancer.

These new understandings open the door for new theories about the entirety of human experience — from creativity and love, to addiction and obsession, to anger and grief. All of them may, indeed, be the outcome of specific electrical connections that are manipulated by the brain itself, as well as the brains of others.

Boyd notes:
Behavior’s that you employ in your everyday life are important. Each of them is changing your brain. And I believe we have to consider not just personalized medicine but personalized learning. The uniqueness of your brain will affect you both as a learner and also as a teacher. And now this idea helps us to understand why some children can thrive in tradition education settings and others don’t. Why some of us can learn languages easily and yet others can pick up any sport and excel.

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