In our work with students (and parents) the most common question we are asked is… “Can you teach me HOW to study?” The answer is of course YES but we also explain that a pre-requisite to being able to apply effective study techniques is a background knowledge and basic understanding of the important piece of machinery doing the work – the human brain!!
Fortunately we now know more than ever about the brain. In fact brain science has progressed at an astonishing rate over the past decade in particular. Not that long ago neuroscientists believed the brain did not change after childhood, that it was hard-wired, that the structure was fixed and incapable of any level of malleability.
More recently, study after study has shown the opposite is actually true, in fact our brain has an incredible capacity to be dynamic, to grow and to change throughout our lives. This finding, known as brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) has been heralded as the most significant neuroscientific breakthrough in over 400 years.
What happens in the brain when we learn?
Our brains have over 80 billion neurons (brain cells) that are all connected together. When we learn something electrical currents fire up in our brain, pass across synapses, between neurons and to different areas of the brain. The more we practice the faster the currents travel along their particular pathways, the deeper the connections and therefore the learning. That is exactly why practice (deliberate and directed) or in this case ‘study’ is so important for long-term retention. When we try new learning tasks our brains carve out new pathways and again these strengthen with practice. Our brains are therefore continuously changing in both structure and function.
Brain plasticity in action…
Researchers from University College London scanned the brains of 79 trainee London black taxi drivers prior to commencement of their rigorous ‘London Knowledge’ learning programme. As part of the process potential taxi drivers have to learn 25,000 street names and 100,000 landmarks and then complete a gruelling six stages
What the researchers found was fascinating… Throughout the process, changes to the trainees’ brains were mapped by regular MRI scans. Compared with similar scans from non-taxi drivers, those who had attempted the Knowledge had increased the size of the posterior hippocampus – the rear section of the hippocampus which is responsible for memory formation and spatial navigation.
The Professor who led the research, Prof Eleanor Maguire, said: “By following the trainee taxi drivers over time as they acquired – or failed to acquire – the Knowledge, a uniquely challenging spatial memory task, we have seen directly and within individuals how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation.” This is unquestionable proof of the potential of the human brain to change.
This research is very exciting not only for scientists but for educators and parents too. It certainly confirms what we have always thought in Amazing Brains…Your brain has an astonishing capacity and if you use it in an efficient way you can achieve well beyond what you thought was possible!!
Next step… decide on your task or skill, get to work through (deliberate, repeated and directed attention) and witness how your amazing brain can rewire itself.
Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.