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

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This is the final article 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 a human being learns or practices a new physical skill or ability. In the third part, we explored how the brain functions when it comes to learning new abstract or conceptual information. In this final part, we look at what research in cognitive psychology has taught us about how we can maximize retention of information.

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Learning and the Long-Term Retention of Information

It turns out that the study of learning science has produced a number of powerful observations about circumstances that optimize learning and the long-term retention of information.

First, researchers have discovered that learning new things actually causes physical changes to the structure of the brain, including the density of gray matter and its connections. So increasing the frequency and intensity of brain activity helps expand learning and retention of knowledge.

Additionally, scientists have found that memories can be formed from all kinds of inputs. And emotions help strengthen memory, so if a learning experience can involve using multiple senses and experiencing emotional reactions to information — such as happiness, sadness, or even frustration and anger — these feelings can help to cement memories associated with the learning.

Fear or a Sense of Novelty Can Increase Learning in Our Brains

Of specific note, the role that fear can play in learning should not be underestimated. Fear can be a double-edged sword in learning situations.

On one hand, if it is overwhelming, fear can distract from important lessons to be learned from the experience. However, if fear is processed as a motivating factor, it can actually help the learner to be more observant and bolster the learning that takes place.

Finally, we know that our brains are wired to seek out novelty. So anything educators can do to increase the extent to which learners are put in new and unfamiliar situations while learning is highly likely to engage natural curiosity and maximize the likelihood of accurate, long-term retention.

There are a lot of moving parts in the inner workings of the human brain. And in each unique learning context, the constituent parts of the learner’s brain will play varying collaborative roles. But whether we are learning physical abilities or concepts and ideas, there are steps — such as using our emotions, using multiple senses, or seeking novelty — we can take to create learning conditions that are likely to lead to accurate, reliable retention of information in long-term memory.

These strategies are derived directly from research in the field of cognitive psychology, and our understanding of these strategies helps to support future research into how humans learn. If we follow these breadcrumbs and continue to explore the mechanics of information analysis and processing in the brain, we give ourselves a huge helping hand in facilitating effective learning.

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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