How your Brain Learns

How your Brain learns…

Obviously we expect that the brain is where we are going to store all that information we learn, but it is also important to appreciate the impact it has on our ability to learn.

So what do I mean by this?

Well, there are many (internal) things that impact on our ability to learn. This includes:

  • Your feelings about yourself, the topic, the teacher, or about learning itself
  • Your existing beliefs, assumptions and attitude around yourself, the topic, teach or learning
  • Your internal self-talk (e.g. “I can’t do this”, ” I am stupid”, “I’ll never….”)
  • Your mindset (Fixed or Growth – more about this later)
  • Your mental, emotional and physical health and well-being (including lack of sleep and any substances taken)

In short – your mind, body and emotions!

Learning involves change and change creates emotional reactions!

Sometimes, when we learn we are accepting that our previous knowledge or assumptions were different or incomplete. For some of us, this creates a challenge and a threat response.

On the other hand, it can also be perceived as exciting and fun (which actually makes the learning process easier).

What makes the difference is in HOW our brain (specifically our Amygdala) interprets the learning "event".

When we start a new learning experience, our Amygdala is trying to work out if what is happening is a threat or a benefit. It tries to find a similar past experience (it is closely linked to the memory center - the Hippocampus) to help classify the experience as good or bad. The default position is that it is bad - because that programming has helped our species stay alive throughout history.

Have you noticed? How we interpret an event is not about the event itself, but rather an interpretation based on something else that has happened to us in the past (or perhaps something we've heard/learned from someone else).

This gives us a great amount of power over our brains (and we'll learn more when we get the Mindset in Module 4). If we can teach ourselves or remind ourselves that our reaction is not a fact, we can give ourselves permission to release the tension created and open up to the possibility that it might be a really interesting or enjoyable learning experience.

Activity - Recognising and deactivating a negative response

  1. Listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
  2. Consider how you feel when you think about learning, or another stressful situation.
  3. Then try using the breathing technique demonstrated.
  4. Check in with yourself - are you feeling different? How?
  5. Where and when might this technique be useful?

Introducing our amygdala & limbic system

The Amygdala is part of our reptilian brain that is responsible for creating that fight, flight or freeze response.


Video Resource: To find out more about how this works and what you can do about it check out this short video below

So if we want our logical part of our brain to be open to learning (i.e. facts & figures), we need to reengage that part of the brain. If we can identify why we are (potentially) experiencing negative feelings about the learning experience, we can start addressing those underlying concerns before they put a halt to our learning.

Activity - Getting into reflection

This is a great time for some Self-Reflection.

What is your motivation to study?

If we don’t have a purpose, it’s hard to keep going when challenges arise.

Knowing your personal motivators can help build your resilience.

  1. What or who inspires you?
  2. What do you love doing?
  3. What excites you?
  4. What would be an amazing thing to do or experience?
  5. What impact or change would you like to see in the world?
  6. What do you love talking about?
  7. What do you love dreaming about?
  8. What would be awesome?
  9. What would you like to "give back"?
  10. How would you like to contribute to a better world?

Having trouble getting started with your reflection, or just zooming through? Here is a great strategy for developing your reflective skills – vital for becoming a self-aware learner!

Strategic approach : Letting Go of our Inner Critic

One of our biggest blockages when it comes to reflecting is ourselves. For this exercise, it’s time to let go. Don’t worry it it’s hard to get started, this is about forming a new habit in our brains. The biggest things to remember are:

  1. For your eyes only – no one else needs to see this!
  2. Have fun and be open to learning more about yourself!

Get started!

Grab a blank sheet of paper (preferably without lines on it- we want to free ourselves from rigidity).

If you can’t think of what to write, think about the topic and do some doodling.

Write down the words or draw the pictures that come to mind… and expand on them.

If you are thinking “this is so dumb”… that’s cool – but ask yourself why you think that… and write down your thoughts.

Circle things that jump out, add some connection lines… whatever is going to help you pull this apart and see it in a different way

Keep writing down more; and keep prompting yourself “Why” to try and get to the source of your feelings. Even random things that come to mind are worth jotting down.

This is just for you, no one else needs to see this, so don’t try to judge or limit it! Get it out, on the paper, and see where you end up.

Once you are warmed up and feel that you can’t explore that thought stream any longer… make a start at the reflective activity above.

Random or not so random facts:

10 useful things to know about how the brain works:

  1. The more you do something, the stronger the neural pathway, the easier it becomes (Practice and Apply your Learning within scenarios)
  2. You can’t just “get rid” of an unwanted or undesirable neural pathway (but you can weaken them by not using them)
  3. You can develop new pathways – in fact you do this every time you learn or do something new or even slightly different
  4. Change is hardest when it affects strong, regularly used pathways
  5. Our Amygdala activating can indicate that we are feeling threatened in some way – but it may not be a rational reaction (e.g. it could relate more to a bad experience you had as a child, but your brain is trying to find a related situation which is what is setting off an emotion)
  6. Asking ourselves a question reignites our brains (activates our frontal lobe by bringing blood back into our brains) – eg. “What part of my brain is currently thinking?” or “What is causing me to react this way”
  7. Slow and deep breathing calms the body and brain
  8. Change is more likely to succeed if we focus on just 1-3 key changes at a time (and being able to relate new information to existing knowledge reduces the scale of the change and makes it easier)
  9. The body, our emotions and our thoughts are all interconnected, so when we can align all of these in a positive way, we are not only more open to learning, but it is also easier and can enable more connections to be found. (Ah Ha moments)
  10. We learn best when new knowledge or skills uses existing knowledge and skills as a basis. Essentially it not only reaffirms our previous knowledge but builds on it (think incremental rather than huge leaps)

AND possibly the most important things for our brain are sleep, water, healthy meals and exercise!

Introducing the concept of scaffolding

Scaffolding is where we build on our existing knowledge. This could be by incremental learning (slowly building up knowledge), or finding and creating linkages between new and existing knowledge.

What does all this mean for learning?

To change from our existing knowledge and beliefs we need to create a new pathway. Consciously reminding ourselves through practice or repetitive review and application of new knowledge – until (much like riding a bike) it becomes unconscious knowledge.

It is easier to scaffold knowledge (incremental growth) using existing knowledge than trying to learn something completely new … so the sooner you can retrain your brain, the easier it is to build upon and expand your knowledge base.

Scaffolding is essentially about using existing knowledge to learn new knowledge or skill.

Scaffolding example 1: Being able to count to 50 enables you to count to 10 five times and discover the total is 50
Scaffolding example 2: Once you know that animals need to eat, and you understand dogs are animals, you are able to make the connections that dogs therefore need to eat

Scaffolding is more than just learning across our own lifetime. It is also done through social learning (where others share their knowledge), and also intergenerationally.

Our ancestors (both recent and distant) discovered and learned skills and knowledge that has been passed down through generations, which we can build upon rather than having to rediscover ourselves.

  • The creation of the circular wheel allows us to have wheeled vehicles;
  • Learning which plants and animals are edible (and how they need to be prepared for safe eating) means that we can grow or buy foods without having to devote time to discovering what is safe or healthy ourselves.

By sharing our knowledge (teaching or explaining what we are learning about to others) activates different parts of our brain to increase our understanding of a topic and to remember it at a deeper level. Exploring knowledge together helps us to learn and also question the learning and to make more connections than we might make on our own.

Indigenous cultures are a great example of how knowledge is passed down and shared in a living way - through story, observation and lived experiences.

Activity: Reflect on what you are studying or about to study.

 What experiences have you had that could help you, and how? (Brainstorm ideas for a minimum of 10 minutes)

For example, if you are studying Information Technology, how have you used it in the past? Playing games? Using different interfaces? What have these taught you about what IT can do? What experiences as a user or customer have you had?

If you are studying nursing – what experiences have you had as a patient or patient carer? What work have you done which involves one-on-one customer service? How do you manage the emotions of others? How aware are you of the impact your feelings, thoughts and behaviours have on others around you?

Record them in your journal.

Topic 1 Checklist – have I:

  1. Watched the video?
  2. Completed reflecting on and planning alternative actions for my learning emotional “triggers”?
  3. Reflected on the existing skills I bring to my course?

When you are ready, click below to start the quiz and progress to the next topic.

Why a quiz?

One of the most effective strategies for learning is revision... which is why mini quizzes are a great way to reflect and recall the information covered.

Go on, see how you go!

Complete and Continue