SciTech

The brain becomes very ‘flexible’ as a person learns more

A sketch bisects the brain through its center. Our neural networks switch and flex as a person keeps learning. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) A sketch bisects the brain through its center. Our neural networks switch and flex as a person keeps learning. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The process of learning has baf ed scientists for many years. Previous approaches to studying how the brain works involved monitoring processes, such as synapse action and neuron firing, at the cellular level.

Scientists from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania are developing a relatively new field of neuroscience — network neuroscience. It focuses on study of the brain at a larger scale, looking at interactions between the neurons on a macro level.

Previously, scientists believed that connections regions of the brain formed amongst each other were relatively fixed and stable. New research, on the other hand, suggests that this connectivity might be far less fixed. The switching of connections, repeatedly and quickly, is called flexibility and is now considered indicative of how fast and well a person learns.

Danielle Basset, a network neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania, says brains that learn well also switch their connections quickly. This suggests that connections switching is the brain’s mechanism of accommodating more information.

This eld is in its infancy, so scientists have yet to fully understand how exactly the brain’s exibility corresponds to learning and other basic functions of the brain.

This methodology relies heavily on applied mathematics. Scientists use models to and exact numerical values to map individual neural pathways; the method is borrowed from other neural network fields.

Scientists are already racing for ways to boost brain exibility. This would in turn
improve people’s abilities to learn and process new information. This may even improve our understanding of mental illness, concussions, and age-related illnesses like Alzheimers.

It’s always been said that learning expands the mind. In a way it does, since the brain physically recon gures its neurons. More studies from this new sub eld should be expected over the coming years. It may even provide a much-needed cure.

The brain is hard to study. Studies have made much headway in mapping billions of neural connections, and determining which parts of the brain perform specific functions; yet, we do not know much about how the brain develops over time, and how it does so with respect to new information and novel mental connections. It is arguably the most misunderstood organ in the body — but, perhaps, not for long.