How does the brain learn?


Ana Luisa Monteiro. Clinical and Organizational Psychologist. Freelance trainer at InTense.
The brain is a huge amount of nervous cells, called the Neurons. A Human Brain has 100 billion of these amazing cells, which communicate with each other by sending electric or chemical signals, creating a dense network of string trails. This communication between brain cells are called synapses, and it is now known to shape our brain, and modify our physiology. However, we can reshape our brain, as well as rewire our own chemistry.

How? It´s simpler than it sounds.

There are several areas that are going to be triggered by new inputs. Simplifying it, structures like the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the thalamus play a major role on learning. These structures are all part of the Limbic System, our emotional brain. And because it is emotional, this system is the place of value findings that we make, frequently at an unconscious level, but that guide our behavior tremendously. We learn by excitement, something new that will create motivation, and curiosity to absorb new knowledge. By activating our emotional brain, we are setting the learning process for success!

We receive information from the world by our several sensors. That information is going directly to the brain, to be processed. And, if that data is alluring to the brain, because it is fascinating or innovative, attention is captured, and the amygdala is going to judge it – is it safe? Is this useful for storage? If the amygdala finds it dangerous, unsafe, menacing (or, by the way, boring) it is going to send a stream of signals to our reptile, quite primitive brain. This is our first brain, which helped to maintain a homeostasis of our basics needs. The reptile brain is in control of our instinctive and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns, warranting survival. It is also responsible for the Fight-Flight automatic response, and so when this system is activated our reactions are purely instinctive. Once triggered, the only behaviors we are displaying are instinctive, because we’ve reached our Panic Zone, by all the red flags our brain read. It is true that we can learn by painful experiences; though, it is more likely to remember the pain that we’ve felt, than the learning itself.

To enhance learning, making it effective, Neuroscience Research suggests that learning should involve all the senses to stimulate the emotional brain, through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities, and games, to make it more productive and sustainable. We call it Experiential Learning, and it works because it adds pleasure to the process, upraising the attention and curiosity that our amygdala needs in order to promote the necessary drive to learn. Also, by associating previous experiences to new information, the learning process will be smoother. New inputs, different from old personal paradigms or behavioral patterns are going to challenge what we already know. Nevertheless, our brain will rush into finding the why of this divergence, called cognitive conflict, generating new road maps – meaning, new synapses that will reshape our brain and change the physiology our entire body.

Here is where the Hippocampus plays a major role. This brain structure is decidedly involved in the storage of long-term memory, which includes all past knowledge and experiences. Above all, the hippocampus is foremost relevant in declarative memory, which is the kind of memory we use to deliberately remind things – the aware and alert mind of matter. Via the Hippocampus, with training and repetition, the new learnings will become part of the information on our neocortex. The neocortex is malleable, possessing immeasurable learning skills. This is the part of our brain that allowed human cultures to progress. And is where the higher functions, such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language. Therefore, the learnings and information we want to accumulate here must be worthy.
Experiential learning together with continuous, sustainable training will create synapses that build the new prolific road maps. After that, the information is stored. And the changed has occurred.

Over the past 25 years, InTense has trained, coached and guided more than 100,000 employees of companies around the world towards a reinforced mindset regarding safe and healthy work, exemplary behavior and safety leadership.