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5 Tips on Lifelong Learning and Neuroplasticity for the Adult Brain


Learn­ing & the Brain is a con­fer­ence that gets marked on my cal­en­dar annu­al­ly because I always return home hav­ing either been exposed to new infor­ma­tion, or with a new per­spec­tive on an old top­ic. Last mon­th’s con­fer­ence in Cam­bridge, MA, themed Using Emo­tions Research to Enhance Learn­ing & Achieve­ment, was no excep­tion. As with pre­vi­ous con­fer­ences, in addi­tion to the many keynote ses­sions, I focused on the adult learn­ing strand, since so much of my time is spent pro­vid­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment for, and col­lab­o­rat­ing with adults. Here are five con­fer­ence cues as they relate to edu­ca­tion.


Aaron Nel­son stat­ed that our mem­o­ry starts to decline between ages twen­ty-five and thir­ty, or to phrase it a bit more pos­i­tive­ly, Sam Wang says our mem­o­ry peaks around age thir­ty. On the oth­er end of the age spec­trum, accord­ing to Ken Kosik, there is unequiv­o­cal evi­dence that edu­ca­tion pro­tects against Alzheimer’s. Both Nel­son and Kosik men­tioned the the­o­ry of cog­ni­tive reserve, which trans­lates rough­ly to the more we learn, the more con­nec­tions we cre­ate, and there­fore the greater the neu­ronal buffer we have to draw upon as we age.

Elkhonon Gold­berg of The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness stat­ed at last April’s con­fer­ence that “as one ages, the domain of the nov­el shrinks, and the domain of what is known grows”. He cau­tioned the audi­ence to beware of being on men­tal autopi­lot. Thus, the goal is not to sim­ply get bet­ter at doing more of the same. The type of learn­ing that makes a dif­fer­ence con­sists specif­i­cal­ly of new, nov­el chal­lenges. The result of such engage­ment is that we ben­e­fit as learn­ers, which in turn ben­e­fits our stu­dents as we both serve as role mod­els for life­long learn­ing, and are prob­a­bly more cre­ative and inter­est­ing in our roles as teach­ers. The more we stim­u­late our brains, the stronger our thinking~remembering mus­cle becomes.


As has been dis­cussed before in my review of Nor­man Doidge’s book, our brain can and does alter itself as new learn­ing occurs. Ken Kosik not­ed that adult edu­ca­tion, engag­ing in new and chal­leng­ing learn­ing expe­ri­ences as an adult, encour­ages brain plas­tic­i­ty. And if you haven’t already changed your mind on the the­o­ry of gen­er­at­ing new brain cells, it is time to take note that, as Nel­son said, there is neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis! Our brains do gen­er­ate new brain cells even as adults. Or as Wang stat­ed, the brain is a phys­i­cal organ that changes through­out life.

These cues togeth­er present a strong ratio­nale for a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment mod­el. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, most schools sup­port, encour­age, and some even require that fac­ul­ty con­tin­ue their learn­ing and train­ing with­in their fields of exper­tise. I have long been con­vinced. and these cues pro­vide addi­tion­al sup­port, that the best type of pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment encour­ages teach­ers to engage and chal­lenge them­selves in areas out­side their sub­ject area exper­tise.


Sam Wang gave an enter­tain­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing talk enti­tled Brain Lies: How to Over­come Your Stu­dents’ False Beliefs And Your Own. Per­haps you are famil­iar with A Pri­vate Uni­verse, a doc­u­men­tary pro­duced in the late 1980s about how stu­dents devel­op sci­ence mis­con­cep­tions. I could­n’t help but think of that video as Wang explained the anato­my of a false belief:

  • a mix­ture of T/F state­ments, such as rumors
  • has an emo­tion­al appeal
  • rep­e­ti­tion of the false state­ment

And here is the clinch­er, appar­ent­ly try­ing to rem­e­dy the false belief by pair­ing it with a dis­claimer often serves to make the false­hood stronger.

Each of us wit­ness­es an event or par­tic­i­pates in a learn­ing expe­ri­ence in our own man­ner. We can be exposed to the same expe­ri­ence, but we each process it dif­fer­ent­ly. What this tells me is we need to check and dou­ble check that our stu­dents under­stand­ing is accu­rate, and we need to do this on an ongo­ing basis spread out over time. This per­mits the cor­rect­ing of mis­in­for­ma­tion before it gets solid­i­fied, while reac­ti­vat­ing the neur­al net­work used in the for­ma­tion of the mem­o­ry, as Nel­son explained when dis­cussing behav­iors to aid with learn­ing and mem­o­ry.


One of Sam Wang’s tips for fight­ing false beliefs is to use visu­al evi­dence that trumps thebrain fitness and health newsletter false­hood because our brains process 40 to 60 per­cent visu­al­ly. As stu­dents progress through school, teach­ing tends to incor­po­rate more text and more notes, few­er pic­ture books, less draw­ing and few­er visu­als. Draw your own con­clu­sions from that!


John Ratey said it in his talk. Aaron Nel­son said it in his. And John Med­i­na wrote it in his book. Want to stave off child­hood obe­si­ty? Want to keep an aging body fit? Want to nour­ish a brain of any age? Want to fend off a vari­ety of dis­eases? Get up and move!

Exer­cise can lift a mood, stim­u­late think­ing, refresh the body and the mind, pro­mote sound sleep, enhance mem­o­ry, and help mod­er­ate weight, to name a few of its ben­e­fits. Both Ratey and Med­i­na note that aer­o­bic exer­cise stim­u­lates BDNF (Brain Derived Neu­rotroph­ic Fac­tor), a pro­tein that impacts neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Ratey says that think­ing is the inter­nal­iza­tion of move­ment. Indeed, exer­cise pro­motes brain plas­tic­i­ty and can help lessen the risk of devel­op­ing demen­tia. Giv­en what we know about the mul­ti­lay­ered ben­e­fits of exer­cise, it is beyond me why more schools and busi­ness­es have yet to adapt a move­ment men­tal­i­ty.


These reminders are straight for­ward. They are not dif­fi­cult to act upon. They sound like com­mon sense. It is real­ly just a mat­ter of choice. Although, giv­en the num­ber of books that have been writ­ten about choice and how we make deci­sions, per­haps choos­ing is not as sim­ple as one might think!

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels wrote this arti­cle for Sharp­Brains. She also writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram.” Lau­rie is the K‑8 Com­put­er Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­o­gy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­niz­er of Dig­i­tal Wave annu­al sum­mer pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & the Brain con­fer­ences.

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4 Responses

  1. wisdom says:

    I like to move it move it should be the them school for col­leges across the coun­try. No one wants demen­tia.

  2. Mike King says:

    Ah, this is just an excel­lent arti­cle on learn­ing with the brain. Love the site and just start­ing to explore more con­tent Thanks for this one! Great stuff.

  3. SB says:

    our brains process 40 to 60 per­cent visu­al­ly”

    Curi­ous minds want to know — how do we process the oth­er 60 to 40 per­cent?

  4. Hi SB,

    Approx­i­mate­ly 46% of peo­ple are visu­al learn­ers, while only 35% tend to be kines­thet­ic and just 19% are audi­to­ry.

    In terms of over­all pro­cess­ing, to para­phrase John Med­i­na in his book, Brain Rules (

    We process infor­ma­tion through mul­ti­ple sens­es, of which vision tends to trump the oth­ers. We are bet­ter able to remem­ber some­thing that is visu­al than oral, and even bet­ter at remem­ber­ing when the visu­al and oral are com­bined.

    I hope this begins to address your ques­tion.

    Cheers, Lau­rie

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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