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Biology 202
2006 Third Web Paper
On Serendip

If You Change Your Mind: The Effects of Learning on the Brain


Students at this time of year invariably come to a point where they feel that learning has become too difficult to continue. More than simply sleep deprivation, time stresses and the wealth of knowledge

The question is: does learning change the structure of the brain? Implications are far ranging if this is the case. For instance, the concept of learning could be changed to accommodate methods more productive towards changing the brain. Furthermore, natural predispositions towards certain methods of learning could be uncovered by exploring the structure of the brain. If the brain is changed by learning, it could be possible to artificially induce those changes or administer drugs to make the brain more malleable to those changes.

The ability of brains to physically adapt is called brain plasticity [1]. This can occur in two ways, either through "a change in the internal structure of the neurons...[or] an increase in the number of synapses between neurons." [2] Short term memory's ease of transfer into long term memory is a measure the plasticity of the brain. "One theory of short term memory states that memories may be caused by 'reverberating' neural circuits", that the synaptic impulses branch out and becomes widespread in the system. If the information survives a period of time, information can become more permanent or long term. The conversion into long term memory is associated with anatomical and biochemical changes. [2]

Infamously, a group of researchers from University College of London released a report that the brains of London taxi drivers were more developed than those of their ordinary citizens [3]. For this research, they would earn an Ignoble Prize [4] for Medicine in 2003. Their study showed that the posterior hippocampi of London were significantly larger. Since being a taxi driver requires high spatial representation, the results correlate with hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the world. Not only this, but it appears that the region can posteriorly expand and anteriorly shrink based on a higher demand for spatial representation.

Being a London taxi driver has demands not only for spatial understanding, but also to be able to process large amounts of information. Required to pass an extensive test where they must be able to immediately recall the route from any two points in London, the Knowledge [5] takes on average 34 months of preparation to pass. By physically practicing one of 320 standard routes on moped, future drivers are demanded to have impressive recall of exact details of routes, such as intersections, roundabouts, and landmarks. The longer that drivers have been doing these routes, the more their hippocampi posteriorly expand. This demonstrates that there is not a pre existing neurological difference, but that the area of the hippocampus is malleable enough to adapt to changing needs of the individual.

Learning new routes is an essential component of human existence since it carries a high survival value. An issue raised by the change in hippocamporal volume is that if there is not a need for spatial knowledge, this area of the brain could be severely underdeveloped. Learning in this model requires exposure, interaction and time. Time is needed so that the structure of the brain can physically change and accept new information. Imprinting knowledge is not enough to retain it. One must have the capability to retain it as well as the adaptability to do this.

Children have a great capability to learn, especially language. Language demonstrates the dynamics present in language acquisition of the adaptability of the brain and those qualities already understanding language. Aside from theories claiming that humans innately can distinguish between syllables [6] Infants may have an innate knowledge of the basic structural foundation of language, a sort of universal grammar. The knowledge of the universal grammar seems to disappear after childhood, and an adult can never achieve the same fluency in any new language. Yet adults are more adept at using "conscious study of a second language in a classroom setting" than children, most likely because adults have learned different heuristics, or short cuts, to use in understanding language.

Being bilingual changes the brain's structure. Bilingual speakers have more grey matter in the language region, with a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter and the age at which they became bilingual. Even learning a new language latter in life changes the brain by producing more grey matter, although it is not as elastic as before. The capability to change the structure of the brain seems to decrease with age. [7]

"The brain never stops changing and adjusting"[8] Although it may become more difficult to gain the proficiency of a native speaker, the brain still has the ability to adapt to new situations, such learning Braille after become blind.[9] The brain can adapt its language circuitry at any age. The use of specific brain exercises, however, can make the process of adaptation more expedient.[8] Thus the task of learning new languages is always possible, but the change must be directed to utilize the correct aspects of brain plasticity.

Learning does change the structure of the brain quite significantly. Whether with spatial knowledge or languages, the brain has a high degree of malleability throughout a person's life with which to adapt to new situations. Recognizing this is essential to how we treat opinions and information that people hold. People may value familiarity from a psychological perspective, enjoying the security that it affords, but they are not cemented into thought processes for the rest of their lives. If the brain is able to change, then issues must be dealt with on a cognitive level and approached with an understanding that learning is possible with time.

Web References

1) Neuroplasticity , general resource on Neuroplasticity

2) Brain Plasticity , overview with specific topics about brain plasticity

3) Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers UCL study on London taxi drivers

4) Ignoble Prizes: Past Winners the alternative Noble prizes

5) The Knowledge

6) Where are the boundaries between words How infants recognize syllables

7) Learning a second language changes brain

8) Brain Plasticity, Language Processing and Reading How brains are malleable throughout life

9) Old Brains, New Tricks Blindness and relearning

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