Brain basics: Learning

Last update: May 15, 2023
Reading time: 2 minutes
By Brain Matters

Every day we learn something new; facts, actions, routes, people, recipes, stories, etc.. For example, I am currently learning to play the guitar. But that’s a slow process. After watching one YouTube video, why can't I just replay the song right away?  

Our brains are made up of neurons that together form a network (see brain basics). The connections in a network could be compared to roads. If you want to learn something new, a new road must be built in your brain. When you first do or learn something, you have to make your way through a dense forest, but the more often you take the same route, the more passable the path becomes. And over time, with recurrent practice of the skill you want to learn, the forest path can turn into a highway. The synapses between neurons strengthen, this is called long-term potentiation. Vice versa it works the same way, by not using the highway anymore (for example, by not playing guitar for a long time), the highway will overgrow and become a forest path again (aka the synapses between neurons weaken and you forget the skill). These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity

There are several ways the brain does "road construction". The brain can simply create new neurons (neurogenesis), but in adults this happens rarely and only in specific areas (in the hippocampus and olfactory bulb). Much more common is that the postsynaptic neurons create more receptors as a reaction to the increase of released neurotransmitters caused by recurrent practice. This allows the postsynaptic neurons to pick up more neurotransmitters released by the presynaptic neurons. The connection between pre- and postsynaptic neurons therefore strengthens. The neurons can also create new dendrites, creating whole new synapses. In this way, the pathways of the brain network can change.  

Neuroplasticity requires a lot of repetition and consistency. This is why you cannot succeed in imitating a song flawlessly after watching one youtube video (except in very exceptional cases) and why it takes years of intensive training to become very good at something. If you want to learn something new, it is especially important to practice a lot, so that the forest path in your brain becomes a highway. Practice makes perfect!

Author: Pauline van Gils

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