As I’ve said earlier, I’m studying the brain in one of my classes and I find this stuff fascinating. It almost makes me want to study Neuroscience when I’m done. Almost. Okay, not really. But I do think it’s pretty cool and helpful stuff. Have you ever heard that humans learn best by repetition? Ever wondered why? Well, I’m no neuroscientist (duh), so my understanding is probably flawed, but here’s how it makes sense to me. First, some background: The brain is full of nerve cells. The official name of a nerve cell is a neuron. Neurons don’t look like blood cells. They look more like the part of the tree where all the branches stick out. The branches are called axons or dendrites depending on whether they send or receive information. On the end of axons (the branches that send information) are terminal buttons. These terminal buttons let off chemical substances that act as signals to other neurons, called neurotransmitters. I had heard of neurotransmitters, but had no idea what they were. (in college-prep-speak, neurotransmitters : nerves as words : humans. If we’re following the same analogy, then terminal buttons would be mouths. They “speak” the information). The space between neurons where neurotransmitters are passed is called synapses. Neurons don’t really touch, (just think, it’s socially unacceptable to touch someone when you whisper in their ear). My definition of synapses was all wrong before I studied this stuff. Along the outside of the axon is a myelin sheath. Myelin sheaths are pretty cool. Not all axons have them. Myelin sheaths help “information” travel faster and clearer. It’s the brain’s way of saving cookies to a hard drive so that the internet page loads faster and better. The more the axon is used, the more myelin is created, the faster that information can be re-processed.
So… the more we access certain nerves of our brain, the more efficient that information becomes. Therefore, we have lessons repeated and repeated and repeated in order for our brains to be able to access that data faster and faster. I think this would also explain why some information is only available to our memory until the day after the test (we – our brains – don’t think the information is important enough to build a super-highway). It also explains why, when we are trying to reprogram our brain for GOOD habits, it can’t be done overnight. And why it is so hard to break a bad habit (sometimes I feel like the myelin sheaths are pretty thick around those). Oooh, let’s look closer at that. I’ve got some more definitions for you! (I know, you’re thrilled). Our body makes new and thins out old synaptic connections all the time. It plows new pathways from one neuron to the next. When our brains make new connections, that’s called synaptogenesis (makes sense. Synapto for synaptic. Genesis for creation). When our brains kill off old pathways, it’s called synaptic pruning. The thing is, it’s not as easy as just cutting off the pathway. The neuron still knows it’s there. First, we must re-direct traffic. We must convince our thought-cars to take a detour. With myelin speeding things up, it takes a while for our brain to even realize we’re trying to create a detour. Eventually, enough of those thought-cars have gotten the message to use alternate routes that our brain traffic in that area starts slowing down. From what I can tell, myelin sheaths don’t really disappear (except for in certain diseases), the whole road just gets “cut off.” And it doesn’t get cut off until it is mostly unused. How quickly that happens has a lot to do with age. Children grow tons of axons. Then their brains watch which ones get used and thin them out. There is lots of changing going on in a childhood brain. Most of the thinning-out seems to happen as a teenager, from what I can tell. It is still possible to thin out unused axons as an adult, but it is harder to do. Our habits are stuck harder. Why? because they’ve been used more (more myelination). Therefore, it’s much easier to break a habit as a kid or a teen than as an adult. I’m sure you already knew this, but now you know the science behind it.
So… the more you do a task poorly, the more difficult it is to do the task correctly. For example, I hold my pencil “wrong.” I put wrong in quotation marks because obviously I am stubborn enough to think that I hold it right or I wouldn’t hold it that way. But because I hold it incorrectly, I have a permanent flat spot on my ring finger. The nail grows funny and everything. I was informed of my incorrect pencil-holding in third grade and seriously remember thinking “so what!?! I don’t care. I’m NOT going to change the way I write now. You guys (meaning all teachers. I was a little snarky) taught me how to hold a pencil, so perhaps you guys should have taught me correctly (see, snarky)!” So, I’ve continued all of these years to hold my pencil incorrectly. If I were to go back and change how I hold my pencil now, it would take AGES to re-learn how to write. At third grade, sure, it would have taken some work, and my handwriting would suffer a little bit, but what third-grader has ideal handwriting anyway? It would have required much less work at 8 than at 28. It also would have had less dire consequences. An 8-year-old that writes like a 7-year-old is less dramatic than a 28-year-old that writes like a seven-year-old. The moral of the story is pretty easy: stop a habit in its infancy. Pretty sure I didn’t have to give you all that information for you to figure that out. So why do we benefit from knowing how the brai