Neuroscientists say “the brain is like a muscle”, and that learning skills can be exercised and improved. But what does that really mean?
Let’s look at it in more depth. Since the 1990s researchers have been able to look deep inside the brain with fMRI and other advanced types of imaging. The images are highly detailed and can highlight different brain areas.
It means we can see the neural pathways in the brain and see what makes them connect and grow stronger. It also means that we can now compare images and measure the effectiveness of different methods to improve learning.
Collaboration between related fields of study is now increasing. The Science of Reading for example, is a body of research involving neuroscientists, educators, linguists and cognitive psychologists. It brings together researchers from all over the world, to study what happens when the brain learns to read.
What they’re finding is so interesting!
You may not think about it, but the skill of reading is not something our brains evolved to do. The human brain loves language, and has a bias toward building neural pathways for us to communicate with each other. It's how we thrived as a species.
As we moved from the 'herd mentality' into tribes, people who communicated and co-operated, survived and passed down their superior brains to the next generation. Like a tribe where warriors kept watch and then much centuries, learned how to buildwalled cities for protection.
It was only a mere 5,000 or so years ago that we started to read and write, and only in the last 100 years has literacy become so common (in developed countries anyway). Our brains did not evolve to understand the meaning of thousands of ‘squiggles’ on a page. It’s very remarkable that more of us don’t struggle to read. It's only the years of practice you’ve already put in that allows you to decode, process and extract meaning from the words that are written on this page.
Have you ever wondered why you can’t read, write or understand a language you’ve never used before? It’s because you didn’t hear the sounds of that language repeating as a baby. Your brain hasn’t been tuned nor have you gone through the physical process of saying those sounds. Let alone match those sounds to letters and then learn to write.
It's that repeating demand we place on our brain to read thatmakes it read, otherwise it can’t. The repetition builds and connects neural pathways in the brain which then get stronger and stronger. Hence the comparison to how the brain is ‘like a muscle’. That’s why it takes years of practice to become a proficient reader, and why those of us who struggle with it, need more practice. Remember, our brains may not have evolved to read, but if we keep practicing, those neurons we use for reading will get stronger and faster.
And it’s also interesting to note that if we didn’t learn toread, the neurons we use to connect the sounds of language to letters on a page,would otherwise be used to recognise faces.
Think of a baby who learns to walk with a wobble, and beforelong is running. Or a child learning to play the piano and makes awkwardgestures until practice refines all that unnecessary movement. It is the repeated practice that makes us proficient at anything we choose to do.
When learning challenges are present, it’s more complicated.When a child realises they are not “as smart” as other children in the class,they feel unworthy. Before long, they take on behaviours to either “mask” or hide their symptoms as best they can. They avoid and refuse to do school work.
Or even strike out at others to protect themselves. They’ll do whatever theycan to survive the brutal years of school.
This is where the latest brain research can be so helpful.There are now online programs available that make the brain’s neural pathwaysfor learning grow stronger and faster. Specific exercises target the four key areas of learning:
Attention: the ability to focus on the task at hand andignore distractions, so that new information can enter the brain to beprocessed and filed.
Memory: the ability to hold onto information, both short andlong term, for confident retrieval when required.
Communication: the ability to process and sequence languagesounds. Allowing the four domains of language – listening, reading, speakingand writing to be more effective.
Mindset: the ability to move out of your comfort zone todevelop new skills. The latest brain research, or neuroscience, will benefitmany children. With or without a diagnosis, improving challenges by exercisingneural pathways with an evidence based, online program is a significant shift in the way we can help them.
By accessing these programs, parents can begin to improve their children’s ability to learn before all the negative psycho-social effects set in.
As we begin to explore how COVID and lockdown has affected our children’s learning, it’s good to know that scientists themselves arelearning more.
What’s best about neuroscience, is that it is helping peopleto improve their ability to learn.
And that's exciting for so many people.