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How brain plasticity helps learning

Have you tried learning something like a foreign language, dancing or learning to drive? You have realized that the beginnings are often difficult and even sometimes very difficult. What’s wrong? Nothing! Know that a rough start is completely normal. It’s part of the learning process. It is true that depending on their profile, some will have more or less ease. The key is to persevere. The more we persevere, the more the brain will gradually make learning easier. Here are some useful conclusions for teaching and training and especially for pupils, for learners, who have learning difficulties. Dossier and article by Dr. John ARDEN author of the book “ The 5 keys to the brain – To maintain and energize it » Editions d’Angles

The brain changes

The brain is not immutable or programmed for life or only doomed to atrophy. On the contrary, it is endowed with great plasticity and constantly evolves according to the experiences one lives. Under certain conditions, new cells can even appear at any age. We often hear it explained that it is the genes that determine behavior, which could lead to fears that any evolution is impossible. In reality, the genes are content to structure the potentialities and the weak points of the personality, they do not dictate the thoughts, nor the feelings, nor the behavior. You can activate or deactivate them at will by changing your behavior and your environment. And in doing so, the brain changes. The old debate between innate and acquired, nature and nurture, has given way to a new model: cultivated nature. Just as the concepts of nature and nurture are too often mistakenly put in opposition, the mind and the brain have also been considered as separate entities. However, these are only two sides of the same coin. Any change in state of mind brings about a change in the brain, and vice versa.

Learning something new rewires the brain

We can maintain the brain by developing its potentialities and minimizing its vulnerabilities. In other words, we can modify our biology by our actions and our thoughts, within of course the limited potentialities of our species. You can’t live to be 200 or fly like a bird, but you can potentially live beyond the average lifespan by optimizing your health throughout your life. And you can keep your brain sharp into old age. Learning something new rewires the brain by creating and strengthening synaptic connections. For example, if we think of a beautiful landscape, like a village in the Cinque Terre in Italy, we build new synaptic connections between groups of neurons that store the image in memory. Each time we remember this image, we reinforce it. Hebb’s theory [1]“ neurons activated at the same time are neurons that bind together explains how the brain rewires itself when the individual learns something. The more you practice Spanish, for example, the more neurons “fire” and link together as you improve your vocabulary and pronunciation. And the more likely it is that these neurons will “fire” in the future with less and less effort. What happens when you stop practicing Spanish? The adage ” either we use it or we lose it applies here again and implies that synaptic connections weaken, in the same way that muscles atrophy when you stop exercising. The slope of the learning curve is always steeper at the beginning. Learning Spanish is more difficult in the beginning because, excuse the pun, we are in completely foreign territory. As one becomes familiar with intonation, vocabulary, and grammar, one builds a synaptic network infrastructure that supports knowledge. That’s why I often say that learning a new skill means “doing what you don’t feel like doing”. Just remember the era of vinyl records: if the one you were listening to was scratched, you had to get up from the sofa to go and move the stylus in order to pass the place of the scratch. Learning a new skill is like creating a new furrow or driving down a very snowy road in the tracks of another car. To make your own tracks and go where you want, you have to force the steering wheel; by returning to it later, it will be easier to follow the new tracks. This is how rewiring works: breaking out of old habits and creating a new and more positive path, and the more you take it, the easier it is to find it again. When neurons “fire” together, they do so faster and faster, and this improvement allows for more precision in the number of neurons needed to practice a specific skill. For example, when you learn to ski, you initially use a lot of muscles and neurons. When one improves, the muscular efforts and the number of neurons necessary decreases. We cannot say to ourselves: I have college degrees, so I have all the cognitive reserve I need “. You have to keep learning to keep it available. Remember the case of the jugglers. Or, to use another analogy, a garden must be continuously tended by tilling the soil, pulling weeds and watering, otherwise it will turn into a wasteland.

Rewiring the brain (neuroplasticity)

Rewiring the brain (neuroplasticity) and causing the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) remains possible throughout life, if we do the right thing: – Neuroplasticity and learning are two sides of the same coin. – Neuroplasticity works with a slight degree of discomfort – you have to question yourself. – You can produce new neurons in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex all your life. – Aerobic exercise (which solicits and improves the body’s oxygen consumption) is one of the best ways to develop brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

physical exercises

. A Finnish study of 3,403 people [2] found that those who exercised two or three times a week were less depressed, angry, stressed or cynical. . A Dutch study of 19,288 twins [3] and their families discovered that those who exercised were less anxious, depressed, neurotic, and better adapted to life in society. The study of 8,098 people [4] conducted by Columbia University found a similar inverse relationship between exercise and depression. Studies conducted over the past twenty years [5] have shown that it would be good to prescribe physical exercise before any psychotherapy and medication to treat depression. Thirty minutes three times a week, in the form of a brisk walk or a stationary bike, is as effective as antidepressants like Zoloft containing sertraline. Patients who continued to exercise during the ten-month follow-up were more successful in preventing symptoms from returning after their depression ended. Results from 14 studies showed that aerobic exercise in patients with mild to moderate depression was more effective than antidepressants and as effective as psychotherapy [6]. To achieve such a result, it is necessary to do brisk walking or running three times a week for a minimum of five weeks.

Exercise offers physiological benefits that help treat depression

Exercise provides physiological benefits that help treat depression. For example, it improves the effectiveness of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters associated with the reduction of depression and which are the target of the main antidepressants. As opposed to medication which causes bothersome side effects like insomnia, weight gain and sexual problems, exercise has positive side effects such as better sleep, better weight management and improved sexual vitality. This is why I often ask the question: Which do you prefer, positive or negative side effects? Many studies have shown that people with anxiety and depression who exercise regularly (often just walking) begin to feel better almost instantly. Exercise reduces anxiety and increases positive feelings because it releases endorphins, which are neuropeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and have powerful pain-relieving effects.

Daily physical exercise

When I haven’t been able to exercise enough for a while, because of an intercontinental trip or a series of meetings for example, my body cries out for it, and as soon as I arrive at my destination, I do a long walk, which allows me at the same time to sleep well. When I’m too busy during the day to learn anything and feel intellectually starved, I manage to find time in the morning to read and learn something new. When I don’t have enough contacts, I feel it, so I schedule time to spend with my family or friends. The importance of social relationships is something we share. It is not necessary to always limit oneself to the same people and for the same activity.

Team sport

When you exercise, add other things to it, such as sport together, whether it’s tennis, badminton, volleyball or basketball. All share the physical effort and you get to know your partners or get to know them better. Not everyone plays at the same level and yet everyone is encouraged and applauded when they land a tricky shot. It thus builds a team spirit that leads to social ties and brings the relational factor. After the game, everyone can share a good laugh and a healthy meal. Everyone has worked up an appetite and enjoys the conviviality of a lunch or dinner together.

File and text: Dr John ARDEN

[1] Donald O. Hebb Organization of Behavior » 1949. See also Hebbian theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebbian_theory

[2] Hassmen P, Koivula N, Uutela A. Physical exercise and psychological well-being: a population study in Finland » Prev Med. 2000 Jan:17-25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10642456 [3] De Moor MH, Beem AL, Stubbe JH, Boomsma DI, De Geus EJ. Regular exercise, anxiety, depression and personality: a population-based study » Prev Med. 2006 Apr;42(4):273-9. Department of Biological Psychology, Vrije Universiteit, van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. mhm.de.moor@psy.vu.nl – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16439008 [4] , , , and Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen Preferences for Exercise as a Treatment for Depression » Ment Health Phys Act. 2016 Mar; 10:68–72. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4955620/

[5] Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D. and Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed » Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004; 6(3): 104–111 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/

[6] Bartholomew J.8., Morrison D., ciccoro JT, “ Effects of acute exercise on mood and well-being in patients with major depression », Med sci sports Exerc, 37, 2005, p. 2032-2037.

Dr John Arden is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. He is the director of the Brain Stimulation Program at Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers. He also works there as a psychologist. He has written several books, including the bestseller Improving your memory for Dummies published by First.

 
 
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