Reflections at 23

In April, 2005, I was in the audience for Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s workshop An Introduction to the Brain and Neurosciences for Educators and Clinicians. Mary Helen’s presentation was part of the Learning & the Brain conference that takes place twice a year in Cambridge, MA. If you want to soak up neuroscience atmosphere and be exposed to current research and practical applications of that research, then this is the conference to attend!

Up till now Neurons Firing has been a basic primer on the brain, providing general brain stats, discussing the hemispheres and the cerebellum (my favorite part of the brain), and moving along to neurons and neurotransmitters. To be sure, there are many more named parts of the brain to chat about, and they will each eventually wind up with their own entry. For now, though, let’s think generally about what goes on in the brain.

Mary Helen explained that a mental event occurs with the firing of many neurons in organized patterns, which are called neural networks. This communication between neurons, which produces synaptic change, is the mechanism of all learning. In other words, learning is the result of changes in the neuron’s connectivity and firing characteristics. The brain’s neurons are busy beavers, with constant activity taking place even while we sleep.

With many activities it is possible to do something in more than one way; so it is with the brain. The same task can be done in a different way and wind up recruiting different areas of the brain. Often, when you first learn something it takes a lot of effort, involves more planning, and usually less efficiency. As the action becomes more intuitive and rote, activation of that activity becomes more specific and focused to the task. The brain learns to fine-tune its responses.

Luckily, our brains have plasticity, which means that our neural networks reorganize themselves based upon life experiences. Neuroscience for Kids has an excellent description of Brain Plasticity. More good news is that research shows plasticity continues throughout our lives; our brains do not stop learning. The Society for Neuroscience brain brief discusses Brain Plasticity, Language Processing and Reading. Indeed, the kind of thinking you do can change the way you do the process.

The brain is a fascinating, complex learning and memory-making organ. As a teacher, parent and individual, I want to better understand these processes in cultivation of a learner-centric environment (instead of a teacher-centric one). In the final analysis, we are all learners, so we can all benefit from understanding how our brains function.

p.s. The title of this post, Reflections at 23, is most fitting for this just happens to be my 23rd blog entry and our oldest son turns 23 this June. 🙂

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