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How Memories are Stored in the Brain

Our brains are constantly changing. Everything we do, say and experience alters them in some way, but the most dramatic changes come when we learn. This is known as neuroplasticity- scientists talk about the brain being plastic, meaning it can change (think plasticine, rather than a plastic bottle or chair).

Stylised drawing of a neuron, or brain cell

But what exactly is it that changes in our brains when we learn new things? And how might learning about learning help students study more effectively? Read on for an explanation of the science of neuroplasticity, perfect for KS3.

Our brains are made up of various types of cell, but it’s the neurons, or nerve cells, which are most important for this process. So, what is a neuron? Neurons are strange shaped cells- they have a long part in the middle, called the axon, which can carry an electrical message from one end of the cell to the other. And they have frond-like dendrites at the ends, which allow them to connect up with other neurons.

If we zoomed in on the end of a neuron, we would see it doesn’t actually touch the next neuron- instead there is a gap, called a synapse. When the electrical signal reaches the end of the first neuron, it releases chemicals called neurotransmitters into this synapse. These filter across the gap, and are detected by receptors on the second neuron. Depending on the neuron and the chemicals, the detection of neurotransmitters can have different effects, but most commonly, they cause that second neuron to send its electrical signal. This is the basis of how information flows around our brain and body.

Animation of two neurons forming a synapse, passing a message by releasing neurotransmitter

Learning happens when you repeatedly activate the same pairs of neurons, over and over again, through repetition or practice. When this happens, the first neuron begins making and releasing more neurotransmitter, so when the signal comes in, there is more of the chemical that can be released. At the same time, the second creates more receptors, meaning it can detect the chemicals better. This means the signal can pass more quickly and easily between the cells. If you activate the pairs of neurons enough times you can even cause them to grow more dendrites, and connect up in more ways. This creates new pathways for the information to travel along. Basically, learning in the brain is the process of forming or strengthening the connections between neurons.

Ginny from Braintastic gesturing about the brain, on stage, in front of a large image of a human brain

I like to think of the brain as a bit like a really thick forest. The first time you do something new, it’s like walking down a new path in the forest. You have to push back branches and cut down brambles- it’s really hard work. But the more times you walk along that same path, the more open it becomes and the easier it is. And that’s what happens during learning in the brain. When you first try to ride a bike, your brain is doing all sorts of things it’s never done before- and it’s really difficult! But as you practice, the pathways involved strengthen, until the process becomes effortless.

So why is knowing this important? In order to learn most effectively, students need to develop their metacognition skills. Metacognition in classroom contexts means their ability to think about how they learn, and plan their own learning accordingly. Many of the most effective techniques to boost learning and memory are quite counter-intuitive, so when left to their own devices, students often go for easier and less effective techniques for revision. They focus on highlighting, copying out notes, and cramming the night before the exam rather than using strategies for active learning and spaced learning. By learning about learning, we can help students to understand why and how these revision techniques work, and make it more likely they will implement them in their studies. So why not share this explainer with your class, to help them understand how they learn? If you want to dive even deeper into the science of learning, we have a free learning and memory lesson plan available, or you can book us to come to your school and inspire your students directly with our shows and workshops about learning & memory.



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