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17-A. “Plastic” is the brain, and why we learn

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17-A. “Plastic” is the brain, and why we learn

Contradictory to common belief, cognitive development can continue until the day a person dies; nothing is set in stone. For example, our hippocampus (the librarian of the brain, at the root of our 'memories') is is now known to produce new neurons (neurogenesis) quite regularly. Moreover, as we peer deeper in the brain, we keep finding new areas of the brain with the capability of neurogenesis!

Neuroplasticity may be counterintuitive, but it explains how and why our some memories can be fleeting while we can concurrently be learning new languages and motor skills. As an extreme example, people who have had hemispherectomies (lost half of their brain) have learned to live normal lives — speaking, playing games, working and even being artistic (Immordino-Yang, 2007). The human brain is therefore remarkably plastic and no one should consider that they will be trapped in their current levels of cognition for the rest of their lives. In fact, the only reason we learn anything is because the brain is plastic. How does this work? A simplistic explanation: We crave dopamine, a pleasure chemical that is produced when we feel that we have come to a good solution regarding anything the brain might be working on. We feel good when we think we are correct. When we feel we have made a mistake, the dopamine levels drop down. Because we want to sustain the dopamine, we re-wire our networks in an attempt to produce better results in the hopes that that will avoid the dopamine drop (Thorsten et al., 2008; van Duijvenvoorde et al., 2008) -- this is 'learning'. Teachers should pay special attention to this maxim, for the sake of their students and for their own professional development.

Q. What does neuroplasticity have to do with learning?

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