Most of us know that the brain has an impact on our learning, but did you realize that our learning affects our brains? When we learn, our minds grow, both figuratively and literally, for the better.
Before we can become passionate about pursuing life-long learning, it may be beneficial to understand how the brain is positively impacted by learning. If we understand the significance of learning, we’ll then become more intentional about pursuing and incorporating it.
When we learn the actual structure of the brain changes. When you learn something new and continuously review and practice it, the brain changes the structure of its cells and increases the number of synapses between the cells (neurons). These changes in brain structure prove to be beneficial in areas such as memory, processing, and brain plasticity (Amen, n.d.). Learning essentially helps the brain change so that it can receive and store more information.
Protect Against Mental Decline
Learning offers many protective benefits for the brain. Research suggests that engaging in activities such as reading, playing brain games, learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, and other activities like these work to decrease the risk of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and slow cognitive decline associated with aging.
A 2014 study from the University of Edinburgh pointed to a correlation between the slowing of mental decline linked to aging and the learning of new foreign languages (Bak et al., 2014).
There’s also research that points to the fact that people who continue to pursue either formal or informal learning whereby the mind continues to be stimulated then see lower rates and slower rates of mental aging (Oz, n.d.).
Enhanced Processing Speed
As mentioned above, learning changes the neurons in the brain and increases the number of synapses between these neurons, which allows them to receive and send information faster.
This means that the brain becomes able to receive more information and assess that information more effectively and efficiently. This lets us tap into the brain’s innate plasticity so new skills can be obtained, and further information can be successfully analyzed. Ultimately, this keeps the mind sharp and alert, even as aging occurs.
There is a lot of research that supports the idea that learning has a significant impact on memory. When we learn, our mind gets more robust and our memories last longer. Studies show that reading, a form of learning, works to improve our overall memory in addition to enhancing our comprehension and increasing our vocabulary (Beers, 2017).
Neuroscientist Dr. Denise Park from the University of Texas at Dallas studied nearly 200 older adults to look at the impact learning had on their memory. Participants were assigned various activities and were tasked with spending 15 hours per week for three months learning the new skill. Memory tests were then given and compared to several control groups.
The results, which were published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that those who learned the new skill saw drastic improvements in memory, which were sustained even a year later, as participants were tested again at that benchmark (Silverman, 2014).
When we learn, the cells in our brains that send out and take in information related to the task grow more efficient. Over time, with continued review and practice, it takes less effort for the cells in the brain to signal other cells. And with even more analysis and training, a person can also get to a place where it takes little or no mental effort to recall information or perform a task.
This can be seen with experienced athletes and musicians who can often perform complicated drills or play intricate music pieces without exerting mental energy (Learning rewires the brain, 2019). They’ve studied and learned the task so frequently that the brain has become more efficient at processing the task, so it essentially becomes second nature.
It is apparent to see how beneficial learning can be for the health of our brains. We not only get smarter, but we get better and tend to remember more over a prolonged period of time when we pursue learning. Thus, we should aim to make learning, whether formal or informal, a consistent part of our lives so that we can be our best selves at all times.