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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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