How Do We Learn? Effects of the Brain

Learning. It’s an activity that children are sent off to school to do. It’s also an activity that builds knowledge and improves skills. However, learning is something that doesn’t end. Learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

For instance, Pew Research Center’s findings show that 73 percent of adults identify themselves as “lifelong learners.” This includes both personal and professional knowledge. Despite the desire to learn, there’s still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the human brain. Leaving us to to ask:  how do we learn?

A look at some neuroscience can help!

Defining Learning

Before beginning to understand the science behind learning, it’s helpful to define the act of learning. Connie Malamed of The eLearning Coach offers 10 definitions of learning. While the definitions and applications vary, they all share the key tenet that learning is a process. This process can lead to:

  • Change in capabilities, knowledge, or behavior
  • Acquisition or mastery of something already known
  • Extension of an experience
  • Improved performance and future learning

How Do We Learn?

In Time Magazine’s “Brilliant: The Science of Smart,” author Annie Murphy Paul details the complexities of learning. Paul explains how for decades social scientists were confused by learning and retention. Further, she writes how learning can be successful:

“Everyone can learn more effectively. Successful learning doesn’t require fancy schools, elaborate training sessions, or expensive technology. It just takes an understanding of how the brain really works.”

Further, the human brain can greatly impact the way we learn. How information is presented and even the amount of sleep you get all affect our perception. When perception is affected so is learning and retention. This infographic explains how the human brain affects learning:

How Do We Learn - How the Human Brain Affects Learning

Retrieval and Distributed Practice

Science shows that we forget exponentially over time. The speed of forgetting can be mapped to the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. One way to retain information is through retrieval practice. Retrieval practice helps to overcome the forgetting curve and shows an increase in performance.

Likewise, try some of Lifehacker’s tips to get the most out of retrieval practice. Spread practice out over time and be sure to choose appropriate times.


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