Understanding Neuroscience to Increase Learning Behaviors


Our brains are the most mutable parts of our bodies, and we can augment our brains by the way we use them each day. A strong memory is vital to an individual’s learning, therefore this paper will pay close attention to the neurological components of memory as well as other factors related to motivation and emotion. I will discuss the various brain structures and the molecular processes that are related to learning in order to better understand our cognition and memories that assist in the accumulation of knowledge. It is essential to focus on specific systems of the mind to understand the neural basis of learning through extensive research. This paper will examine the rewarding effects of knowing the neuroscience behind learning and injecting behavior modifications into our daily routines to maximize learning potential at the neurological level.

Neurological Structures Involved with Learning

In order to understand the neurological aspects of learning, we must define some of the brain structures that relate to learning. The prefrontal cortex is the cerebral cortex which covers the front most part of the frontal lobe. The function of the brain’s prefrontal cortex is a storage of short-term memory and is also the agent for the planning and control of behavior.(DeYoung 2010) There is also a group of nuclei in the temporal lobe above the thalamus referred to as the basal ganglia, which is connected to the cerebral cortex. The basal ganglia includes the subthalamic nucleus, substantia nigra, the globus pallidus, the ventral striatum and the dorsal striatum, and consists of the putamen and the caudate nucleus.(Roberts 1992) The basic functions of these nuclei deal with cognition, learning, and motor control and activities. The basal ganglia are also associated with learning, memory, and unconscious memory processes, such as motor skills and implicit memory.(Mishkin 1987) Obtaining an understanding of the functions and effects of the basal ganglia is critical in our neurological analysis of learning. The amygdala is located above the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe and helps control memory and emotional memory.(Robbins 2008) The cerebellum is a small structure at the back of the brain next to the spinal cord and resembles the cerebral cortex because of its bumpy surface.(Schmitt 2009) The cerebellum plays a role in the learning of procedural memory, and motor learning, such as skills requiring co-ordination and fine motor control.(Mishkin 1987) Examples of procedural memory skills include driving a car or playing the guitar, which gives us insight into why some people may have difficulties learning these types of skills. The hippocampus is a structure in the brain helps with memory processes and is a part of the limbic system.(Nauer ) The hypothalamus is located right under the thalamus and right above the brainstem.(Behbehani 1995) The hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms.(Fliers 2006) It seems to be beneficial to look at individuals that are masters of learning and memorization, such as chess players and mathematic geniuses, to find which brain functions are important in these functions. Gazzaniga conducted this research of memory experts and the results show that there are, but not limited to, six brain areas that are important in memory and learning: the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, right posterior hippocampus, right cingulate cortex, left fusiform cortex, and left posterior inferior frontal sulcus.(Collins ) If one wants to obtain a strong understanding of learning processes, it is vital they know these brain locations as they are extremely important to the various memory functions associated with learning.

Neurological Processes Related to Learning

The way we learn new behaviors is heavily influenced by specific neurotransmitters, namely dopamine because it is known to reward specific behaviors by making us feel good.(Yuan ) It is interesting to note the brain’s natural reward system affecting behavior and, more specifically learning. Through psychology and neuroscience, we know there are various forms of learning such as classical conditioning from Pavlov’s dog experiment and instrumental conditioning from the Skinner Box that showed the effects of reinforcement and punishment on behaviors. We now know that our brains must detect, decode, and respond to a change through various perceptual functions. For instance, visual stimuli trigger responses which form a magnitude of synapses in our brains. Our eyes are an example of a perceptual apparatus that takes in light in various forms of frequencies and amplitudes, which are then converted into electrical currents and travelled to the brain via the optic nerve through a large number of action potentials. The brain interprets these signals and responds to this perception of vision. Learning and memorization is the result of fostering neural efficiency through the creation of new synaptic connections or reinforcing the strength of existing ones.(Reinis 1986) When neurons fire together they are essentially wiring together, which is referred to in neuroscience as synaptic plasticity. A vast amount of brain research has been conducted over the last ten years to unravel the underpinnings of learning and memorization. Now, it is understood that learning is formed by changes in synaptic connections. Learning is affected most when postsynaptic neurons are affected by anatomical and biochemical alterations administered on axons.(Kumar ) Beginning studies on learning used electrical stimulation on the hippocampus. These studies revealed that the stimulation produced more long term potentiation. The findings of long term potentiation explained the process we use to remember in our brain.(Escobar ) Essentially, when a synapse continually activates as the postsynaptic neuron fires, changes will occur in the composition of the synapse which will strengthen it.(Blair 2001)

With advances in technology, researchers are now able to utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain. FMRI is a method of mapping brain function by tracking the signals of hydrogen nuclei which results in imaged brain activity. The use of fMRI is instrumental in figuring out which areas of the brain are most active in various conditions. An example of this procedure is how researchers revealed that grey matter increases in volume as a result of learning.(Hölzel 2011) Further, the process by which we create new neurons is called neurogenesis, which enables us to enhance our capacity to memorize and learn.(Zhang 2012) Researching the neural code in regards to learning is still relatively new, we do know that the formation of new neurons is mainly done in the hypothalamus, the area that deals with our long term memories.(Santarelli 2003) Another mentionable neural process is the function of mirror neurons which help us learn action tasks. These mirror neurons help us visually compare an observed activity with a remembered action in our procedural memory. Mirror neurons were discovered in the monkey premotor cortex in the an early brain study.(Acharya ) They are called mirror neurons since they fire both when an individual performs an activity and when the individual observes that same activity being performed by another individual. In psychology, mirror neurons are sometimes referred to as empathy neurons because they also help us interpret the intentions of other people?s actions. A notable protein relating to memory is the CREB protein that allows for short-term memories to be converted into long-term memories with activation.(Brightwell ) The molecular factors that cause the conversion of short-term to longterm memories are vital to understanding neurological learning. Inside the nuclei there are genes, which when activated, synthesize proteins that in turn strengthen synapses. The strength of signals, the frequency with which a synapse is used, and the passage of time allow this process to occur. Therefore, practice and repetition are major factors in whether a short-term memory becomes a long-term memory and, thus, learning.