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

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This is the third 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 that they work together to absorb, interpret, and store new information. In the second part, we examined the specific mechanics typically involved when learning or practicing a new physical skill or ability. In this part, we’ll explore how the brain functions when it comes to learning new abstract or conceptual knowledge.

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How Our Brains Learn Abstract or Conceptual Knowledge

One example of abstract learning — which also comes from another hobby of mine — is learning about astronomy. I find the study of the cosmos fascinating because the beauty and vastness of the universe is truly breathtaking. But how does the brain process learning that is completely abstract, with little or no capacity for direct observation by sight, touch, or any other sensory input?

Suppose, for example, a student is learning that the stars are all suns like our own, and that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone. And that is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe. How does one even begin to attempt to process such a staggering epiphany?

Abstract Learning Depends on How Information Is Conveyed to Our Brains

A lot depends on how the information is conveyed. For example, if a student learns about celestial facts from a lecture at school, then the parietal and temporal lobes of the cerebrum will be hard at work interpreting and deciphering language; they will be trying to relate the concepts to existing knowledge and fit them into the student’s framework of the universe around us. If the lecture also happens to include a visual component, such as a diagram or chart, then the parietal and occipital lobes will also work together to interpret the visual cues that lend themselves to understanding these ideas.

Even without the presence of a tangible visual aid, however, the parietal lobe may be employed for its visual and spatial awareness abilities, but on a conceptual, rather than literal subject. In other words, the student might try to imagine in his mind the immensity of the universe, taking into account all of the vastness described with stars and galaxies.

In this sense, the student is “seeing” the concept through his mind’s eye. And the student’s spatial awareness, outmatched as it may be by the enormity of the task, might also be brought to bear on the problem.

Finally, the temporal lobe will attempt to commit these new concepts to memory for the sake of long-term recall. However, as with so much of the book knowledge students are expected to memorize during grade school, high school, and college, oftentimes the information isn’t reliably recorded to long-term memory due to a lack of a meaningful connection or practical application.

For example, a student might learn about the vastness of the universe and pause momentarily to reflect on how interesting these facts are. But then the student might quickly move on and never return to them due to lack of interest or usefulness. So what can be done to maximize the propensity for reliable and accurate long-term retention of new information?

In the fourth and final part of this series, we’ll look at tips and tricks gleaned from research into cognitive psychology on how we can optimize learning retention.

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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