How the Brain Learns

June 10, 2019 by Hannah
Image "Supertutor” Mark Maclaine is Tutorfair's Co-founder and Director of Learning. Mark is currently working on his new book which is based on a series of real life clients and the experiences he has gained over his many years of tutoring. This series looks at ‘Maintaining your memory banks’ and more specifically at ‘How the brain learns’.

With the volume of research now available to us, and greater understanding of the brain than we’ve ever had, there are some clear lessons for us tutors to take note of.

How does the brain learn?

First, the brain encodes our perceptions into electrical and chemical signals known as memory traces (which are fragile and easily altered).

Next, during consolidation, these traces are reorganised and stabilised ready for storage in the long term memory. Consolidation, which may take several hours, involves the brain subconsciously replaying the memory traces to itself, filling in any gaps, adding meaning and connections to past experiences. These connections are vital for future retrieval.

In the retrieval stage, the brain reconstructs memories from long-term storage. Since memories have been “compressed” to save space (more on this below), the process of reconstruction requires more effort than drawing them out of short-term memory. The speed and ease with which we access these memories depends on a number of factors, including context, how recently they were last accessed, and the number and quality of the neural connections leading to them.

Once accessed from long-term storage, in the “re-consolidation” stage, a memory is somewhat modifiable again. How many times have you thought you understood the rules of a game, or a complex concept, only to learn that you’d got it slightly wrong? Thankfully, our memories can be corrected here and ‘overwritten’ for later use. Moreover, since these memories are modifiable again, they can be further connected to new knowledge that has come along since.

It should be noted that when the brain stores memories, it uses linking as a way of ‘compressing’ information and speeding up later recall.

Say for example you’ve been given red roses a number of times over the last few years. Unless any bunch was drastically different to the others, the brain will attempt to link all recorded encounters with this flower so they share the same "image file" in your memory. When we remember back we tend to substitute the roses for variations on this one image. Imagine this image file were to be corrupted, or altered in some way, this would affect all memories containing roses. As far-fetched as this might sound, it is actually an important consideration when it comes to witness testimony. Data received after the fact can sometimes ‘rewrite’ memory, changing the way things happened, how things looked and even who was there.
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