What are some of the most encouraging known facts about learning? From taking a walk to learning a new language, there are countless things we can do to improve the way we learn. Below we list fifteen steps toward a better brain:
1. Laughter boosts brain function.
Pam Schiller and Clarissa A. Willis, both PhD authors, speakers, and curriculum specialists, note that laughter not only increases one’s capacity to remember the humour, but also provides a feeling of security and contentment, both of which enhance learning and retention.
2. Personality is more important than intelligence.
Recent research at Griffith University has found that personality is more important than intelligence when it comes to success in education. Dr Arthur Poropat from Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology has conducted the largest ever review of personality and academic performance. He based these reviews on the fundamental personality factors (Conscientiousness, Openness, Agreeableness, Emotional Stability, and Extraversion) and found Conscientiousness and Openness have the biggest influence on academic success.
Dr Poropat says educational institutions need to focus less upon intelligence and instead pay more attention to each student’s personality.
“With respect to learning, personality is more useful than intelligence for guiding both students and teachers,” Dr Poropat said. “In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether the students are smart.”
Dr Poropat said the best news for students is that it’s possible to develop the most important personality traits linked with academic success.
Personality does change, and some educators have trained aspects of students Conscientiousness and Openness, leading to greater learning capacity.
3. You can improve your memory with one simple technique.
A learning technique that maximises the brain’s ability to make and store memories may help future students, say UC Irvine neurobiologists.
Christine Gall, Gary Lynch, and colleagues found that mice trained in three short, repetitious episodes spaced one hour apart performed best on memory tests. The mice performed poorly on memory tests when trained in a single, prolonged session–which is a standard K-12 educational practice in the U.S.
It’s been known since classic 19th century educational psychology studies that people learn better when using multiple, short training episodes rather than one extended session. Two years ago, the Lynch and Gall labs found out why. They discovered a biological mechanism that contributes to the enhancing effect of spaced training: brain synapses encode memories in the hippocampus much better when activated briefly at one-hour intervals.
“This explains why prolonged ‘cramming’ is inefficient — only one set of synapses is being engaged,” said Lynch, professor of psychiatry, human behaviour and anatomy, and neurobiology. “Repeated short training sessions, spaced in time, engage multiple sets of synapses. It’s as if your brain is working at full power.”
4. To be good at science, be good at art.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have become part of educational vernacular, as colleges, universities and other institutions strive to raise the profile of the areas of study and the number of graduates in each field.
Now a project from the University of Houston College of Education Urban Talent Research Institute encourages the incorporation of creative endeavors to attract more and better STEM students.
“The federal government considers STEM natural sciences, while the National Science Foundation includes social sciences,” he said. “Supporting STEM education should also mean increasing the quality of the graduate. That is where STEAM comes in.”
STEAM takes STEM efforts and incorporates art (the “A” in STEAM is for “Art”). Young’s research focuses on how to incorporate creativity into STEM education with the implication that doing so will increase the quality of STEM graduates. He says STEM studies are about problem solving, and creative endeavors are exercises in problem solving.
“When an artist is painting, he is trying to solve a problem — how to express what is being felt. He experiments with colors, technique and images the same way a scientist or engineer experiments with energy and signals,” he said. “There is more than one way information can be taught just like there is more than one way problems can be solved.”
“Creative thinking and problem solving are essential in the practice of math and science,” he adds. “Incorporating art into math and science will not only help students become more creative and better problem solvers, it will help them understand math and science better.”
People whose jobs require more complex work with other people, such as social workers and lawyers, or with data, like architects or graphic designers, may end up having longer-lasting memory and thinking abilities compared to people who do less complex work, according to research published in Neurology.
“These results suggest that more stimulating work environments may help people retain their thinking skills, and that this might be observed years after they have retired,” said study author Alan J. Gow, PhD, of Heriot-Watt University and the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Our findings have helped to identify the kinds of job demands that preserve memory and thinking later on.”
For the study 1,066 Scottish people with an average age of 70 had their memory and thinking abilities tested at the University of Edinburgh. The tests looked at memory, processing speed and general thinking ability. Researchers also gathered information about the jobs participants held. The job titles were assigned scores for the complexity of work with people, data and things. For example, complex jobs might involve coordinating or synthesising data, while less complex jobs might involve copying or comparing data. In terms of working with others, more complex roles might involve instructing, negotiating or mentoring, while less complex jobs might involve taking instructions or helping.
The study found that participants who held jobs with higher levels of complexity with data and people, such as management and teaching, had better scores on memory and thinking tests. The results remained the same after considering IQ, years of education, and the lack of resources in the environment the person lived in.
6. Bilingual brains process information better.
Speaking more than one language is good for the brain, according to new research that indicates bilingual speakers process information more efficiently and more easily than those who know a single language. The benefits occur because the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which to ignore, said Northwestern University’s Viorica Marian, the lead author of the research and a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Communication. When the brain is constantly exercised in this way, it doesn’t have to work as hard to perform cognitive tasks, the researchers found.
“It’s like a stop light,” Marian said. “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need,” she said.
fMRI scans showed that “monolinguals had more activation in the inhibitory control regions than bilinguals; they had to work much harder to perform the task,” Marian said.
Other research suggests efficient brains can have benefits in everyday life. For example, bilingual children tend to be better at ignoring noise and other distractions than children who speak one language.
“Inhibitory control is a hallmark of cognition,” said Marian. “Whether we’re driving or performing surgery, it’s important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn’t.”
The fact that bilinguals are constantly practicing inhibitory control could also help explain why bilingualism appears to offer a protective advantage against Alzheimer’s and dementia, said Marian.
7. Reminiscing can help boost brain function.
New research led by Cornell University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng shows for the first time that engaging brain areas linked to so-called “off-task” mental activities (such as mind-wandering and reminiscing) can actually boost performance on some challenging mental tasks. The results advance our understanding of how externally and internally focused neural networks interact to facilitate complex thought, the authors say.
“The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind-wandering,” said Spreng. “Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite: that engaging the default network can also improve performance.”
Spreng and his team developed a new approach in which off-task processes such as reminiscing can support rather than conflict with the aims of the experimental task. Their novel task, “famous faces n-back,” tests whether accessing long-term memory about famous people, which typically engages default network brain regions, can support short-term memory performance, which typically engages executive control regions.
While undergoing brain scanning, 36 young adults viewed sets of famous and anonymous faces in sequence and were asked to identify whether the current face matched the one presented two faces back. The team found participants were faster and more accurate when matching famous faces than when matching anonymous faces and that this better short-term memory performance was associated with greater activity in the default network. The results show that activity in the default brain regions can support performance on goal-directed tasks when task demands align with processes supported by the default network, the authors say.
“Outside the laboratory, pursuing goals involves processing information filled with personal meaning– knowledge about past experiences, motivations, future plans and social context,” Spreng said. “Our study suggests that the default network and executive control networks dynamically interact to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the pursuit of external goals and internal meaning.”
8. Higher vocab increases cognition.
Some people suffer incipient dementia as they get older. To make up for this loss, the brain’s cognitive reserve is put to the test. Researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela have studied what factors can help to improve this ability and they conclude that having a higher level of vocabulary is one such factor.
‘Cognitive reserve’ is the name given to the brain’s capacity to compensate for the loss of its functions. This reserve cannot be measured directly; rather, it is calculated through indicators believed to increase this capacity.
A research project at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) has studied how having a wide vocabulary influences cognitive reserve in the elderly.
As Cristina Lojo Seoane, from the USC, co-author of the study published in the journal Anales de Psicologia (Annals of Psychology), explains: “We focused on level of vocabulary as it is considered an indicator of crystallised intelligence (the use of previously acquired intellectual skills). We aimed to deepen our understanding of its relation to cognitive reserve.”
The research team chose a sample of 326 subjects over the age of 50: 222 healthy individuals and 104 with mild cognitive impairment. They then measured their levels of vocabulary, along with other measures such as their years of schooling, the complexity of their jobs, and their reading habits.
They also analysed the scores they obtained in various tests, such as the vocabulary subtest of the ‘Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale’ (WAIS) and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.
“With a regression analysis we calculated the probability of impairment to the vocabulary levels of the participants,” Lojo Seoane continues.
The results revealed a greater prevalence of mild cognitive impairment in participants who achieved a lower vocabulary level score.
“This led us to the conclusion that a higher level of vocabulary, as a measure of cognitive reserve, can protect against cognitive impairment,” the researcher concludes.
9. Taking a walk improves creativity.
When the task at hand requires some imagination, taking a walk may lead to more creative thinking than sitting, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking,” said Marily Oppezzo, PhD, of Santa Clara University. “With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why.”
While at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, Oppezzo and colleague Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, conducted studies involving 176 people, mostly college students. They found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects and coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas.
Students who walked in another experiment doubled their number of novel responses compared with when they were sitting. The 40 students in this experiment were divided into three groups: One sat for two sets of tests but moved to separate rooms for each set; another sat and then walked on a treadmill; and one group walked outdoors along a predetermined path.
To see if walking was the source of creative inspiration rather than being outdoors, another experiment with 40 participants compared responses of students walking outside or inside on a treadmill with the responses of students being pushed in a wheelchair outside and sitting inside. Again, the students who walked, whether indoors or outside, came up with more creative responses than those either sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outdoors.
“While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity,” said Oppezzo. Read more about the benefits of walking on learning.
10. Struggling to remember can be a good thing.
Making mistakes while learning can benefit memory and lead to the correct answer, but only if the guesses are close-but-no-cigar, according to new research findings from Baycrest Health Sciences.
“Making random guesses does not appear to benefit later memory for the right answer, but near-miss guesses act as stepping stones for retrieval of the correct information — and this benefit is seen in younger and older adults,” says lead investigator Andree-Ann Cyr, a graduate student with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.
“These results have profound clinical and practical implications. They turn traditional views of best practices in memory rehabilitation for healthy seniors on their head by demonstrating that making the right kind of errors can be beneficial. They also provide great hope for lifelong learning and guidance for how seniors should study,” says Dr. Nicole Anderson, senior scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and senior author on the study.
11. You can control nature vs. nurture.
Were Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci born brilliant or did they acquire their intelligence through effort? No one knows for sure, but telling people the latter — that hard work trumps genes — causes instant changes in the brain and may make them more willing to strive for success, indicates a new study from Michigan State University.
The findings suggest the human brain is more receptive to the message that intelligence comes from the environment, regardless of whether it’s true. And this simple message, said lead investigator Hans Schroder, may ultimately prompt us to work harder.
“Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance,” said Schroder, a doctoral student in clinical psychology whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation. “In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning.”
In past research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, elementary students performing a task were either praised for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) or for their effort (“You worked really hard!”) after correct responses. As the task became harder, children in the first group performed worse after their mistakes compared to the group that had heard effort was important.
The MSU study, which appears online in the journal Biological Psychology, offers what could be the first physiological evidence to support those findings, in the form of a positive brain response. “These subtle messages seem to have a big impact, and now we can see they have an immediate impact on how the brain handles information about performance,” Schroder said.
12. Being a “genius” requires hard work, not talent.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Joel Chan and Christian Schunn used multiple hours of transcripts of a professional engineering team’s “brainstorming” sessions and broke down the conversation systematically, looking for the path by which thought A led to thought B that led to breakthrough C.
“We want to understand the nature of cognitive limitations,” Schunn says. “Why do we get stuck (on an idea), what kinds of things get us unstuck, and why do they work?”
What they found in the sessions they studied is that new ideas didn’t spring fully formed after massive cognitive leaps. Creativity is a stepwise process in which idea A spurs a new but closely related thought, which prompts another incremental step, and the chain of little mental advances sometimes eventually ends with an innovative idea in a group setting.
Channeling Thomas Edison’s dictum that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Schunn concludes that “inspiration creates some perspiration.”
So, thus far, the lesson seems to be that if you’re not making creative progress, don’t wait for a bolt from the blue; keep talking to your peers, and keep sweating
13. You can improve your learning by expecting to share it with others.
When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organised their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information,” said lead author John Nestojko, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL.
The study, published recently in the journal Memory & Cognition, is based on a series of reading-and-recall experiments in which one group of students is told they will be tested on a selection of written material, and another group is led to believe they are preparing to teach the passage to another student. In reality, all participants were tested, and no one actually engaged in teaching.
Findings suggest that simply telling learners that they would later teach another student changes their mindset enough so that they engage in more effective approaches to learning than did their peers who simply expected a test.
“When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organise information into a coherent structure,” Nestojko said. “Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach.”
The study suggests that instilling an expectation to teach may be a simple, inexpensive intervention with the potential to increase learning efficiency at home and in a formal learning environment.
14. To boost critical thinking, practice giving explanations.
Asking children to come up with explanations — even to themselves — enhances their cause-and-effect learning abilities, according to new psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, shows that young children who come up with explanations while learning are able to connect new ideas with prior cause-and-effect knowledge. By forming their own generalisations, learners can more efficiently understand novel information, says Cristine Legare, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study.
“The way children gather evidence through exploration and understand it through explanation provides insights into the development of scientific reasoning,” Legare says. “This strategy can help young children harness their potential for scientific reasoning and improve their critical thinking skills.”
15. Your brain changes when you have an idea.
A new University of British Columbia study identifies an important molecular change that occurs in the brain when we learn and remember.
Published this month in Nature Neuroscience, the research shows that learning stimulates our brain cells in a manner that causes a small fatty acid to attach to delta-catenin, a protein in the brain. This biochemical modification is essential in producing the changes in brain cell connectivity associated with learning, the study finds.
In animal models, the scientists found almost twice the amount of modified delta-catenin in the brain after learning about new environments. While delta-catenin has previously been linked to learning, this study is the first to describe the protein’s role in the molecular mechanism behind memory formation.
“Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function,” says Stefano Brigidi, first author of the article and a PhD candidate Bamji’s laboratory. “When we introduced a mutation that blocked the biochemical modification that occurs in healthy subjects, we abolished the structural changes in brain’s cells that are known to be important for memory formation.”
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Saga has built her writing and editing career at Tin House Books, Night Owls Press, and Dancing Moon Press. Along the way, writing education and education reform have become two of her primary interests. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, OR. @sagamilena