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How Do Our Human Brains Learn and Function for Us? (Part II)

This is the second in a four-part series on the anatomy of the human brain and the way in which its different structures collaborate to accomplish learning.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the different parts of the brain and the way they work together to absorb, interpret and store new information during a learning experience. In this part, we’ll look at the specific mechanics typically involved when a human being learns or practices a new physical skill or ability.

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How Our Brains Learn a New Physical Skill or Ability

When learning a new physical skill or ability, the structures of the brain that engage in communication with the body and its senses play a central role. For example, when I take my dirt bike to my local motocross track and practice, my brain and its various constituent parts are in high gear, assessing and rapidly processing information.

First of all, in any physical activity, and particularly with high-intensity extreme sports, the brainstem plays a routine but nonetheless critical role in maintaining proper respiratory and cardiovascular functions while the body exerts itself, sometimes to the very limit of what an individual can handle.

The key input structures that are hard at work include the cerebellum and the cerebrum, and more specifically the parietal and occipital lobes. These two centers share responsibility for interpreting visual input. And given that we rely most heavily on our sense of sight for assessing our environments, this is one of the heaviest lifts. When racing motocross, riders are rapidly moving forward and backward, side to side and up and down, all the while traveling at intense speeds, so spatial awareness is absolutely critical.

In addition, the parietal and temporal lobes collaborate to interpret auditory inputs. Hearing is essential in any racing situation, because it allows the competitors not only to hear the other racers around them, but more importantly, they can hear the RPMs of their own engine. This information is vital to managing gears and power while navigating the course.

Learning Involves More than Just Interpreting Inputs

Of course, the process of learning physical skills isn’t just about interpreting inputs. It’s also about executing decisions and evaluating how good or bad the judgments were in hindsight in addressing the challenge.

For example, after assessing the situation in a given second in time on a motocross track, a rider will make judgments about what a racer needs to do. He’ll think about how to position his body on his bike to maintain balance. He’ll think about gripping the motorcycle to avoid losing control. He’ll assess how much clutch versus brake versus throttle is needed to maximize speed without losing traction. And then, in an instant, the rider’s brain will execute the commands that have been drafted based on these split-second assessments.

The cerebellum will assist with a lot of work in terms of calibrating the rider’s posture and balance on the bike. But the cerebrum — particularly the frontal lobe — will handle fine motor skills, such as those the rider uses to work the controls and make subtle adjustments along the course.

Finally, after the race the rider conducts a post hoc analysis of the results of these decisions. Did they work? Did the choices he made result in effective management of the race course? Were his lap times as fast as he wanted them to be? Or did he crash as a result of a mistake?

If he crashed, the parietal lobe of the cerebrum will interpret pain inputs from the various bumps and bruises. But if the choices made were effective, this too is valuable recorded feedback.

There might be feelings of relief or elation stemming from the accomplishment, all of which will ultimately be processed as emotions by the frontal lobe. Then the temporal lobe will help commit these sensations — both the pain and pride — to long-term memory for learning. The rider remembers to do the things that worked, and he remembers not to do the things that didn’t.

Learning new physical skills and abilities — or honing existing ones — is obviously a very complex mental task that requires great involvement from all areas of the brain. But what about learning new conceptual knowledge that does not have a physical or corporeal component? In the next part of this series, we’ll explore the brain mechanics of learning abstract information.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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