Monday, December 2, 2019
How the Brain Learns: A Short Guide for Law Professors
Below is a short description of how the brain learns, and how this relates to teaching and learning. It is from some materials I wrote for college students. You can find a more detailed discussion with endnotes in Chapter One of my book How To Grow A Lawyer: A Guide for Law Schools, Law Professors, and Law Students (2018).
Here is a simple explanation of how learning works:
"Brain cells [neurons] fire in patterns." This process is both electrical and neurochemical. Neurons pass on electrical charges to other neurons that are connected to them by synapses. The firing neuron sends a chemical signal called a neurotransmitter across the synaptic gap to other neurons. These signals either excite the neurons by increasing their electrical activity (causing them to fire) or inhibit their activity. Neurons interact to create complex representations, concepts, and processes.
"Learning is a relatively permanent change in a neuron." Because neurons are changed by electrical activity, "learning occurs when the firing ability of a neuron is changed." Similarly, the synapses change with each firing, and linked neurons firing together strengthen the synapses. Importantly for learning, "Neurons grow or die and neural connections are created or eliminated based on which ones are active." In addition, practice gradually thickens the myelin coating of the axons ("long extensions connecting neurons from one area of the brain to another") "improving the strength and speed of the electrical signals, and, as a result, performance."
In other words, you should adopt study habits that help your brain learn effectively: 1) strengthen neurons by firing them, 2) strengthen synapses by using them, 3) create more synapses (connections) among neurons, 4) thicken the myelin coating of axons. On the other hand, if you do not use information, the neurons and synapses will weaken or disappear. (If you don't use it; you lose it.)
Based on the above, here are five rules of learning:
- New learning requires attention.
2. Learning requires repetition.
3. Learning is about connections.
4. Some learning is effortless; some requires effort.
5. Learning is learning.