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.

Relat­ed resources:


  1. wisdom on December 20, 2008 at 7:02

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

  2. Mike King on December 21, 2008 at 4:40

    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 on December 28, 2008 at 11:37

    our brains process 40 to 60 per­cent visually”

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

  4. Laurie Bartels on January 1, 2009 at 4:01

    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 (http://www.brainrules.net/vision):

    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

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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