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Decoding The Brain

AaronDski
・5 min read

Disclaimer I am not a Medical Professional. This information is my own deduction on how the brain functions, when we learn something new. Links to my sources are below.

Learning a new language can be more difficult than some people might realize. Or is it? There are a number of reasons, excuses and justifications that we all can use to avoid learning a new language... to say that, "it's just too hard." I, for one, am guilty of this unhealthy mindset. Is this the way things are always going to be?, I thought, Is there no way of escaping the fact that there are just some things I won't be great at (or even mediocre, by some standards)? I needed to know, and so I did some research.

It turns out, when you try to learn something new--like skills, sports, languages, coding, etc--there are many things happening simultaneously in your brain. I'm going to point out a few that stuck out to me.

Neurons

Neurons--you have around 85 billion of them. A neuron cell acts as a messenger, sending information in the form of nerve impulses (like electrical signals) to other neurons. This is how our brains access memories, operate our motor functions, and direct our speech, etc. So what does that mean when we are learning something new? Well, for everything that we already know, there are set pathways for our neurons to follow, but for things we haven't previously learned, a pathway has not yet been created.

This is the case when we don't know something: we "draw a blank" or just simply can't find the answer. In the event when we can come up with an educated guess or solution to something haven't learned, it is because our brains are trying to find a pattern or some common ground with something else we already know--a relative pathway for the information to move through. Say when you can't find a pathway, what does you brain do? It makes a new pathway, of course! You can think about making pathways like blazing a trail in a forest. Now we have a new pathway for the info to work with, but it's not that strong of a connection, (not a well-groomed, obvious trail). How do we make this connection stronger? Easy: use that pathway more. This is why repetition works so well to make things stick in your brain. Ever seen a cow trail? Same basic concept.

BLC (Bilingual Language Control)

There has been a joint study on BLC done by Marco Calabria, Albert Costa, David W. Green, and Jubin Abutalebie.

This BLC ability is now established as the architecture of what our brain is assessing when it decides what language to use. This complex system involves cortical and subcortical (different areas of the brain) structures, each responsible for particular cognitive processes, such as goal maintenance, conflict monitoring, interference suppression, and selective response inhibition. Our brain will separate the 2 languages, so that they don't interfere with each other. Switching between languages is very hard at first, but the more you do it the less taxing it becomes. It is incredible to think that, without our instruction or even awareness, our brain is able to switch to a completely different way of thinking, in a matter of nano seconds.

I would surmise that this is applicable not only to spoken languages but to coding as well. Why not? They are "languages," after all.

Dopamine

Dopamine is released in the brain when we do something that we enjoy; it's the chemical that makes us feel good. Simple enough. But what if we need to learn something that we don't really enjoy, or that we don't even remotely like? Well it certainly makes it harder to listen to someone teaching on the topic. What if you had to learn that thing you had no interest in, but there was a large sum of money waiting for you once you had mastered the topic? Would you be more interested then? I know I would be.
There is a very simple tactic we can use to motivate ourselves: set small objectives that can be achieved daily, which help to move you toward your desired destination. By doing this, we are not only establishing self-discipline, but we are creating miniature, daily "wins" by achieving goals, which makes us feel good (Dopamine), and produces motivation in us... and we may even then start to enjoy the topic or task at hand. (Disclaimer: there will always be subjects/projects that are not enjoyable).

Dopamine is not only a great way to find things that we enjoy, but it is also a very helpful tool in the learning process. When there is more dopamine involved in your studying, your brain will find ways to reference those memories or thoughts, thus reinforcing what you just learned. So if you are on a topic that you don't particularly like, find a "carrot" to dangle in front of you. You will be amazed at what the brain is capable of, when it has a reason to learn.

Healthy Habits

A.) Work well with others.
Collaboration and collaborative learning have been a part of our human nature for as long as we know. We are inherently social beings and social learners. When collaborative learning techniques are used to support instruction, students tend to be more engaged, retain information better, and have better outcomes than those who prefer to be "solo learners."

B.) Don't be stagnant.
Be constantly learning new things, even if they are small things. When you learn, you are increasing/maintaining good and healthy neuroplasticity. In a way, our brains are like Play-Doh. If you don't use your Play-Doh, it gets hard and dried out. Our brains don't literally dry out, but you get the point. Use it frequently, or your brain will begin to lose functionality.

C.) Rest.
Good sleep is one of the (if not the) greatest ways for your brain to replenish, re-energize, and heal. A tired brain can't accomplish much.
Additionally, taking breaks is more beneficial than you might realize. Spacing out your study time with small breaks (15-20 minute beaks every 2-or-so hours of studying) is very helpful in not getting "burnt out," because your brain is able to "take a breather between legs of the race" (as it were).
My hypothesis is that it gives the brain time to strengthen and consolidate the connections between your neurons, and sort through necessary information.

This greater understanding of how your brain functions and the use of supportive learning strategies and can now allow you to help your brain to better learn!

Side note: Stay hydrated! Maintain a consistent intake of water... trust me! Your brain will thank you.

Resource Links

BLC
(https://repositori.upf.edu/bitstream/handle/10230/44011/calabria_nyas_neur.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y)

Group Learning
(https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~bmclaren/pubs/Wiley-ColaborativeLearningWhitePaper-2014.pdf)

Healthy Practices
(https://www.powerofpositivity.com/researchers-explain-learn-something-new/)
(https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2020.00054)

Learning Styles
(https://bau.edu/News/types-of-learning-styles/)

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