Do you want to supercharge your learning ability? Fortunately, there are some effective and science-backed ways you can do this, no matter what your age is.
There is a popular notion that with age, learning ability starts to decline and adults cannot grow new brain cells while their ability to create new connections between the neurons (aka learn new things) is limited compared to one of the children and youth.
The myth about grown-ups having this learning handicap is based on outdated research. Recent data confirm that older adults grow just as many new brain cells as young people.
Moreover, scientists say that the volumes of the hippocampus (a brain structure used for emotion and cognition) remains equivalent across ages. This is great news for enthusiasts of life-long learning and those who want to boost their learning ability.
So why people still believe that the adult brain is “hardwired”? Maybe that is because adults tend to be busier and less curious that the little ones. After we have done all the day’s work, we have neither time nor energy to explore the world around us. Can we do something about it?
Below are four things that will boost your learning ability, according to research:
Games have long been regarded as the most suitable activity for children and there is a good reason for that. Playing is probably the most ancient educational technique there is. Children play not only because they have all the time in the world and it’s fun. Their primary task is to learn about the world they are going to live in, and play is the most natural way to do it.
Lion cubs playing catch with each other in fact learn to hunt and fight for the territory. Humans, being social animals, have a plethora of role-playing games to prepare their little ones for adulthood. Some examples include house, shop, cops and robbers, tea parties with stuffed toys, etc.
Luckily for us in the XXI century, people have recognized the importance of games. So it’s now socially acceptable for grown-ups to play games throughout their entire life. This lets them boost their brain’s learning ability and enable the life-long learning process.
Gamification has been a buzzword in the educational community for quite a while now. However, sometimes gamification techniques borrow superficial attributes of games, such as reward system and competitiveness, overlooking the core values of play activity.
There are two main qualities that make games so good at teaching us new things.
First of all, they provide real-world experience: risk versus reward model, decisions, trade-offs, and consequences. Second, it encourages you to seek out and evaluate relevant details. The last but not the least, it positively frames your learning experience, creating engagement and fun.
Therefore, if you want to learn anything from foreign language to coding, don’t shy away from educational apps that are designed as games. At least try combining them with bare-bone theory.
One important thing, though. Make sure that learning new things is embedded into gameplay, together with decision making, problem-solving and role-playing. Some games just make you memorize something and let you play for a few minutes as a reward. These are badly designed edutainment apps that game designers call “chocolate-covered broccoli”.
Changes are always good for your cognitive abilities because they create a challenge and alert your brain to stand up to it. It is an old evolutionary mechanism. If your medium is changing, you will need all your brainpower to evaluate new situations, find the right solutions and generally adapt. This is how you activate your brain’s learning ability as well.
For example, when I have to write an article on a particularly challenging topic or strive to solve a complex problem, I hang pictures in my room upside down for a few days or move the furniture around. As it turns out, science backs up this habit.
In a series of experiments, laboratory rats that grew in a more complex environment performed better and made fewer mistakes compared to their counterparts who saw nothing but a barren cage prior to the tests. Thus, limiting your experiences you limit your brain’s ability to adapt.
If instead, you want more brain flexibility, the answer is obvious – mix up your routine. This may sound intimidating, but it does not mean you will have to do something drastic or wade way outside your comfort zone.
Try taking new routes when going about your daily errands. Try new dishes for lunch. Take up a new hobby. Listen to some new music genres you never appreciated before. Being open to new experiences is the key requirement for keeping your brain always alert and sharp.
Practice makes perfect, and this old saying is backed up by the latest research. According to the article in Nature Neuroscience, there is complex neurochemistry behind all this. To put it simply, our brain gets pliable when we learn something and stays plastic for some time after that.
If after a short learning session, we try learning something else, this new skill or knowledge “writes over” the previous one. As a result, it’s almost as if we never learned it in the first place! That is why you do not remember all those things you have crammed the night before the exam.
To prevent this from happening, you should overlearn. This means further practice, even if you are sure you have already mastered a skill or a topic.
Overlearning decreases the amount of glutamate, the chemical that makes your brain plastic and more adept at learning and increases the amount of GABA, a chemical that stabilizes the brain. When your brain is stabilized, it hardwires the skill and prevents it from being overwritten.
So, if you want to make sure you have memorized your speech for tomorrow’s meeting or that Paganini Caprice no.24 you’ve been practicing for a concert will last in your memory, learn, learn, learn. And when you’re done, go and learn for 20 more minutes.
However, some researchers suggest that you should pair overlearning with other techniques to get the most of your brain’s learning ability. For example, space out your learning sessions and mix up the topics.
Popular culture often contraposes intellect and physical fitness. For comic effect or appallingly in earnest, jock vs. nerd narrative populates sitcoms and young adult fiction. The notion that you either a sporty meathead or a weak and pale intellectual is not only far from the truth. It is also comparatively recent.
For years, people followed a balanced Platonic vision of harmonious human being who possesses the moral, bodily and spiritual virtues in equal measures.
Indeed, physical exercises and brain agility are connected. The general rule being “What is good for your heart is also good for your brain”.
Aerobic exercises, brisk walks, climbing stairs – everything that increases your heart rate and ramps up the blood flow in your brain stimulates the growth of the hippocampus, the area in your brain responsible for learning and verbal memory.
If you want a particularly powerful boost to your brain’s learning ability and other cognitive functions, choose exercises that incorporate coordination along with cardiovascular exercises, like dancing.
Exercises also have an indirect positive influence on your brain improving your sleep and mood. They have antidepressant-like effects due to the drop in stress hormones after a workout session.
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