How Your Brain Learns and Why it Matters

Your brain is an intricate and complicated product of thousands of years of evolution. Even today we still do not understand so much of how the brain does what it does, leaving mental and neurological disorders to be of such high prevalence with limited treatment options.

Although, certain mechanisms of the brain have been thoroughly investigated and some critical findings have been made with regards to neural functioning. These findings play important roles in how we approach various neurological components from disease and disorder to focus and memory. To grasp the basic gist, it’s important to understand a little bit about neurobiology.

What is a neuron?

A neuron, simply put, is a specialized cell found in the central nervous system that has special communicative capabilities. This is primarily done through chemical signals (and occasionally electrical) called neurotransmitters. There are dozens of different types of neurotransmitters, but about 10 of them do almost all of the work.

These neurotransmitters allow the brain to send signals to organs, muscles, etc. in order to execute basic functions such as digestion and walking. They also work the opposite way, allowing your sensory organs such as your eyes and ears to receive sensory information and relay it back to the brain to decipher and determine how to respond.

Neurons come in three varieties: sensory neurons, motor neurons and interneurons. Sensory neurons are responsible for transmitting incoming information to the brain, motor neurons are responsible for orchestrating movement and muscle flexion externally and internally, and interneurons play a middle man in this communication circuit.

What is plasticity?

You may have heard the term “neuroplasticity”, or maybe even that the “brain is plastic”. Plasticity refers to the brains ability to adapt and store new knowledge. Extreme examples of neuroplasticity occur in individuals that lose their vision and often develop superior hearing. This is because the occipital lobe, the portion of your brain responsible for visual input and comprehension, comprises nearly 20 percent of your brain.

Instead of simply going unused since the eyes are incapable of receiving visual information, the brain repurposes the occipital lobe to orchestrate other functions, in some cases auditory processing which leads to a superior ability to hear since more energy and resources are sourced in that direction.

The brain does this to compensate for damage and injury, but also to grow and incorporate new knowledge.

How does the brain actually learn?

Because the brain is plastic, it can spawn new connections thus retaining new information. This happens at the level of the neurons. Neurons that send signals to the same target cell repeatedly develop stronger connections, in that more neurotransmitters are more readily available and released more efficiently.

For instance, the first time you touch a stove that’s ignited it may take several moments for your sensory neurons to relay feedback to your brain that your hand is burning. However, the next time you accidentally touch a stove the same neurons are stimulated and fire the information to your brain releasing more chemical signals. The connection then becomes stronger and your brain learns quickly not to touch the stove when it’s on. Ultimately, you learn that the stove is very hot and can hurt your hand if you touch it through the strengthening connections of neurons.

Why does this matter?

So now that you have a very elementary understanding of how the brain learns new information, how can you use this to help you? You can start by recognizing that the brain can only learn properly when it has access to all the nutrients and proteins and resources it needs. Neurons utilize myriads of proteins to help generate and release the chemicals and send electrical signals. Further, certain signals require an insulated sheath surrounding the neuron in order to transmit the message without disruption, which requires even more proteins and nutrients.

Therefore, in order to maintain a functioning brain and thus overall well-being, it’s imperative to eat a diet rich in a diversity of nutrients and macromolecules. This way, your nervous system will be properly fueled and able to execute the complex interactions necessary for learning to take place.