In his book SPARK, John Ratey presents the biology of what happens in the brain as a result of exercise. He described the process so clearly that I wanted to sit down and draw pictures of the brain to represent his words. (Ah, perhaps an exercise for March vacation…) He begins by stating the “the brain is flexible, or plastic in the parlance of neuroscientists–more Play-Doh than porcelain.” If you have been reading Neurons Firing, you already know this, as I’ve written extensively about brain plasticity. Play-Doh seems the perfect analogy, as it is malleable but not without initial effort at kneading and working the dough.
Ratey describes three benefits of exercise on learning.
- Exercise “optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation.”
- Exercise “prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information.”
- Exercise “spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.”
He goes on to clue us in that “you can’t learn difficult material while you’re exercising at high intensity because blood is shunted away from the prefrontal cortex, and this hampers your executive function. … However, blood flow shifts back almost immediately after you finish exercising, and this is the perfect time to focus on a project that demands sharp thinking and complex analysis.” (Stationary cyclist sculpture, Nassau Country Museum of Art)
There are chapters specific to a number of issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. But before any of these are discussed, Ratey talks about learning. It is in this chapter that he both explains what happens in the brain as we learn and provides study after study to support what he shares. I leave you with a paragraph from the learning chapter. Please note that the links below take you to posts I’ve written about specific parts of the brain. The two prefrontal cortex links will take you to two different posts.
A lot of the research I’ve mentioned in this chapter revolves around exercise’s effect on the hippocampus, because its role in forming memories makes it vital to learning. But the hippocampus isn’t off by itself somewhere, stamping out new circuits on its own accord. The learning process calls on a lot of areas, under the direction of the prefrontal cortex. The brain has to be aware of the incoming stimulus, hold it in working memory, give it emotional weight, associate it with past experience, and relate all this back to the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex analyses the information, sequences it, and ties everything together. It works with the cerebellum and the basal ganglia, which keep these functions on track by maintaining rhythm for the back-and-forth of information. Improving plasticity in the hippocampus strengthens a crucial link in the chain, but learning creates bushier, healthier, better connected neurons throughout the brain. The more we build these networks and enrich our stores of memory and experience, the easier it is to learn, because what we already know serves as a foundation for forming increasingly complex thoughts.