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What happens in the brain when learning?

This guide will help everyone who wants to know what happens in the brain during learning and why we can remember some facts better than others. Much of the information absorbed by the brain is lost after a few seconds. Short-term memory is only achieved by those that the brain can link to stored prior knowledge. But many of them are also deleted after 20 minutes at the latest. Everything that we still kept after an hour has already moved into long-term memory. But what actually happens in the brain during learning, and how do we really keep information and learning content in memory for a long time, even for longer than an hour? 

What happens in the brain when learning?

External stimuli trigger the activation of the synapses via the sensory cells. The information is then passed on from nerve cell to nerve cell via this. The more synapses and nerve cells are activated, the more deeply the information is anchored in the brain. The brain stores between 80 and 90% of the perceptions that are recorded simultaneously through hearing, seeing and experiencing, right from the start. Whoever hears something forgets it - whoever sees and hears something remembers - whoever does something understands it! 

Sustainable learning through imagination 

By repeating while learning, the following happens in the brain: The synapses are regularly reactivated. This strengthens the contacts between the nerve cells. Not only memorizing something once but repeating it every now and then, promotes long-term storage in the memory. It's even easier if we combine learning with stories, pictures or anecdotes and show real interest in the topic. This is because our brain can better remember the content that we focused on intensely while learning and that we can imagine. Therefore, examples relevant to everyday life and creative aids are ideal as really sustainable methods of learning for students. When children work out the solution by trying them out on their own, this creates an experience that the brain won't forget anytime soon. We bring to light through other learning methods than dull memorization also favors the long-term storage of the information in the memory. 

Emotions and associations make Learning easier.  

Do you remember the most exciting book you have ever read? Is there any book that really captivated you? If you are emotionally immersed in a plot and story, you will not be able to forget it anytime soon. According to psychologists, the information is often associated with different perceptions, feelings and memories. This makes it possible to store newly learned knowledge in long-term memory. In addition, the emotional connection with a story or its fictional people has an effect in the subconscious and also supports the secure storage of knowledge such as when you are sleeping and dreaming. 

Learning while sleeping:

 In an experiment on spatial learning, Israeli and American researchers observed what happens in the brain during sleep and found that our brain processes new learning content during a dream. This is confirmed by sleep researcher Jan Born, who studies the relationship between sleep and memory. During sleep, the time when the external stimuli for the brain are switched off, the brain processes and filters new information. The learning process works “like in sleep”. 

How the brain learns by observing

“You have to be a rower before you can hold the rudder, have kept the bow and observed the winds before you steer the ship yourself. Aristophanes' aphorism (The Horsemen, 424 BC) has not aged a bit. It summarizes two of the main pillars of learning: experience and observation. Observation of others, in particular, is one of the cornerstones of children's development. Children learn not only through their own actions, as Jean Piaget had shown, but also by observing others: they imitate in particular what to do and what not to do, notes Olivier Houdé, professor of psychology. This is the theory of social learning, put forward by Albert Bandura of Stanford University." This ability to learn by imitation exists in babies from birth, showed the American psychologist Andrew Meltzoff in 1997. But also in animals, from flies to birds, including monkeys and cats. 

Major evolutionary advantage

Why is this skill so popular? This is mainly because it is very risky to learn to recognize a threatening stimulus by experiencing it yourself. Because such an ordeal - meeting a predator or consuming toxic food, for example - is life-threatening! ”This ability to learn by observation confers a major evolutionary advantage for survival," says cognitive sciences professor Kay Tye. This innate aptitude, very conserved, would also be the basis of more complex behaviors such as empathy and altruism. His team published a remarkable study in the journal Cell. These researchers have succeeded in identifying the brain circuit that allows mice to learn a reflex by observing their peers.

Notably, this circuit is distinct from the brain networks mobilized in mice, which learn this reflex by experiencing it themselves. Researchers first taught mice to associate an electric shock with a sound, by administering a small electric shock to their tail at the same time as the sound ("conditional stimulus"). When these rodents next heard the sound, they would freeze in place, even in the absence of an electric shock - a conditioned fear reflex. Then the authors showed that mice having observed their congeners going through this experience also learned this reflex: the next day, they too froze when they heard the conditional sound. 

How does the brain learn a language?

Did you know that whatever the language, our brain works the same way to decipher what it reads? However, understanding and speaking a foreign language do not necessarily go hand in hand. Depending on the age of learning a second language, the brain forces itself to activate areas, which requires great effort. In this regard, neuroscience is shedding more and more light on the process of acquiring a second language. Different areas of the brain are activated to allow us to assimilate a foreign language. 

How does the brain react to learning a language?

We talked about it in an article on genetics and learning a foreign language, and the brain activates two main areas.

- The Broca area which manages the production of language and its expression.

- Wernicke's area which deals with comprehension.

The Broca zone compartments the different languages ​​learned except for children who are born and grow up in a multilingual environment. However, researchers at Berkley University managed to create a brain map showing that according to the different words, the brain activated hundreds of areas, regardless of the subject's language. For example, words like "victim" or "kill" activate an area on the left side of the brain. At the same time, words like "child" and "parent" activate an area at the top of the brain.

What all the subjects have in common is that the same zones for the same words in a different language were triggered. So, we can understand that the neural trigger patterns are similar for different languages.

The same holds true for the meaning of a sentence, according to a study from Carnegie-Mellon University. Our brain deciphers a sentence with the same meaning in English and Portuguese in the same way.

Our brain, therefore, has a universal mapping. However, he must be able to memorize what he receives as information in order to be able to hope to speak another language. 

How does memory work to retain a new language?

Our memory simply works in 3 clear steps:

1. It creates memory traces which are the information learned and retained by the brain.

2. Then, it stores this information.

3. Finally, it restores them when the memory traces are recalled by our brain.

However, the plasticity of an adult brain is not the same as that of a child. Much denser young, it makes it easier to learn from the youngest age. This is the reason why, after puberty, it is almost impossible to learn a foreign language without an accent. With reduced plasticity, the brain absorbs certain information less well. Despite everything, it remains flexible enough to allow humans to learn to read at any age. 

Memory can cover three different forms: procedural memory, semantic memory and personal memory. Semantic memory is that which allows us to learn a language by creating a semantic and lexical repertoire in the Wernicke area. There is, therefore, no storage limit. We can, therefore learn words endlessly, whatever the language. 

How to optimize the brain to learn a foreign language?

Neuroscience proves that classical learning doesn't work. You will be able to learn all the vocabulary you want if you don't practice, so you will never be able to express yourself. You must, therefore stimulate your Broca area!

Immersion is often put forward. It allows assimilating a language naturally. In addition, you keep in memory for a long time the neural patterns created by the practice of the language except that immersion is not necessarily possible for everyone.

Local immersion, therefore, seems to be your best option. The Middlebury College, recognized for language learning, using a simple method for learning to speak a language

- speak it at all times

- use it for a specific purpose such as organizing a project or practicing an activity

- use the digital tools and raw media made available such as podcasts, films, videos in the original version

- exchange with others 

Researchers in language learning ultimately retain that the best learning method is the combination of current digital tools and discussion sessions with teachers.

Like the flipped classroom, learning must go through a funlearning, and the immersive part alone to then be shared with the teacher.

Author: Vicki Lezama

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