Life-long learning is the human condition

It used to be thought that the human brain stops developing in adulthood. However, brain research has proven this theory wrong, as learning new things changes the structure of neurons every day.

The old saying is that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

This is because it was believed that in adulthood, the brain reaches a stable point after which it no longer changes. The assumption was that neurons destroyed in adulthood could not regenerate.

Structural changes in individual neurons were inconceivable at the time. Consequently, intelligence was also seen as a given.

Contemporary research has luckily proven these theories wrong. Even though learning certain things is easier at specific points of development, the capacity for learning is not restricted to brief periods of time. For example, it is easiest to learn the pronunciation of a language as a toddler, but it is not impossible later on. An older learner will just need to work harder and repeat things more.

It’s time to cast aside that tired old saying. In actual fact, the brain is constantly changing, and each new thing we learn changes the physical structure of our brain. The old dog can learn new tricks.

Plasticity is key

Neurons communicate with one another through connections known as synapses. The synapses which activate neurons are located in tiny bumps which are called dendritic spines. The size of the spines determines the efficiency and longevity of the synapse. When we learn new skills, we develop new spines. Meanwhile, unused spines atrophy.

These spines can be thought of as the brain’s memory blocks. By adding and removing them – and by boosting or lessening their power – the brain shapes itself. This way the brain stores new skills in the modified synapse paths.

Such brain plasticity is also important for recovering from a stroke. In a stroke, an entire area of cells can be destroyed. Luckily neurons can regenerate, and at least some of the destroyed cells can be replaced with new ones. These new cells can be connected to the existing neural network through new synapses. At the same time, the neurons in the healthy areas modify their connections to take on the tasks from the destroyed neurons.

Even though brain plasticity has been established in several scientific studies, many people believe that they cannot develop their intelligence. We have a persistent belief that intelligent is an innate, constant characteristic. We must let go of this way of thinking, as it stops us from developing our own cognitive abilities.

You can increase your intelligence

Studies conducted by the University of Helsinki's Centre for Educational Assessment have demonstrated that the problem-solving skills of lower secondary school pupils was most powerfully impacted by their level of effort. In the assignments, the pupils would consider whether one Formula 1 driver could be deemed superior over another if they drove the same car but with different tyres.

Less than one third of the respondents understood that the drivers could not be fully compared unless they had identical cars and tyres. The pupils who have the stamina to spend the longest thinking about the problem are typically the ones who have the most success in assignments like this.

In another study, in which upper secondary school pupils were given a similar assignment, the pupils who were most successful were the ones who did not believe that intelligence was innate. In neither study was it possible to identify a group of pupils who would have completed the assignments better or faster than others due to exceptional skills of deduction.

Current research suggests that any kind of brain activity develops the brain – the main thing is to use the brain. Learning difficult things is a challenge for everyone, but challenging ourselves is the only way to improve.

Exercising the brain is like exercising a muscle. We have to use our muscles so that they retain their function and don’t atrophy. The same goes for the brain: a neuron that receives no stimulus will die.

Cognitive capacity grows with practice

All daily activities, from chit-chat to listening to music, can be thought of as brain exercise. Straining the muscles develops them by increasing the number of muscle fibres. A similar process takes place in the brain: for example, learning a new language creates new connections, which in turn increase the cognitive capacity.

The more challenging the exercise, the greater the benefit. In physical exercise this means activity which momentarily leads to shortness of breath and discomfort. For brain development, equivalent activities include solving difficult problems, or learning, understanding and applying complex things. In these situations, it is normal to feel like the problem is insurmountable. Trying to solve it can even result in physical discomfort.

However, just as in learning to run, intensive training usually leads to running becoming easier. Likewise, challenging cognitive tasks increase intelligence, making previously difficult things suddenly seem easier and more simple. The learning process results in a feeling of things falling into place.

This means that we should challenge ourselves both physically and psychologically. Besides, physical training has been shown to also improve brain function.

Just like in sports, everyone can choose their level of intensity for cognitive training. What is difficult for you can be easy for someone else. And vice-versa.

Finally, it is important to remember that muscles need rest to grow. Similarly, the brain also needs sleep and rest to restore itself and not be overwhelmed by new information.

Risto Hotulainen

Associate Professor

Centre for Educational Assessment, University of Helsinki

Twitter: @CEA_HY

Pirta Hotulainen

Head of research group

Minerva Foundation Institute for Medical Research

Twitter: @PirtaHotulainen

From the Researcher’s Pen is a series of articles in which researchers describe their work. This article was produced by Uutistamo in cooperation with the University of Helsinki.