brain graffiti

the science of learning

Despite the persistent myth that we only use 10% of our brains, our cognitive abilities—the processes involved in learning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem solving—do have limitations. We are able to store copious amounts of information, however our “working memory” only has the capacity to juggle an average of 4-7 items at a time. If we are forced to overload our working memory with too much information, we may begin to make mistakes. For example, if you are lost on your way to meet a friend at a new restaurant, it will most likely be difficult to pay attention to the road, enter directions into your GPS system, call your friend on the phone to tell them you’re running late, all while listening to your favorite tunes on the radio. It’s possible to do all of the mentioned tasks at once, but at the risk of missing an important turn, not listening intently to your friend on the phone, or running a red light. Most of us will adapt the situation to hone in on only a couple of tasks in order to perform them efficiently; we turn down the radio and put our phones on handsfree mode to make it easier to focus.

How does our brain decide what information “sticks” and how information flows in and out of our working memory? How do we prevent cognitive overload?


One way humans have adapted to learn large amounts of information is through a technique called “chunking.” By observing patterns in large datasets, chunking is a way of methodically grouping related items into a more streamlined set of information. Mnemonic devices are a prime example of this concept in regards to working memory. It’s a learning and teaching device that originated in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and is still used by students and organizations worldwide today.

While the majority of brain cells are developed by adolescent age, recent research suggests that the development of new brain cells (neurogenesis) still occurs in adults. Neurogenesis is closely linked to the idea of neuroplasticity—the ability for brain cells to make new connections throughout an individual’s lifetime. This allows us to learn and adapt to changes in behavior, environment, and emotions.

Another way our brains reason with cognitive overload is through the affinity for acquiring information through a preferred “learning style.” Some of us claim we are visual learners, others do well listening to lectures, while others assert that they need “hands on” experience to make the information stick in their memories. However, scientific research does not necessarily support the idea of preferred learning styles. Rather, data suggests that successful learning stems from the evolutionary demand to seek out success/reward.

pavlov dog

We are all familiar with the concept of positive reinforcement as shown in Pavlov’s dog experiments. Similarly, the human brain responds to success through the chemical release of dopamine in the brain. Performing a task successfully is beneficial for a person’s well-being. When we find a method of learning that works for us, we feel successful and our brain is rewarded through a surge of dopamine. These pleasure-inducing chemicals stimulate the amygdala—a small almond-sized region of the brain involved in processing emotion and memory. When stimulated with dopamine responses, the amygdala passes information through neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex, where higher cognition processes occur. When we enjoy the process of learning, our cognitive centers become more active and establish connections that will reinforce a desire to learn more in that same manner.

The potential for learning benefits from an interdisciplinary approach. We respond positively to engaging content and creative ideas; this fulfills our need to make analyses of information, think critically, and recognize bias. Our brains find pleasure in discovering patterns and making connections. This is why the collisionarium exists. By sharing science through an interdisciplinary lens and multimedia approach, we hope to create a community of life-long learning through engaging and creative ways—to experience and encourage a spirit of curiosity for learners of all ages.

Featured image by Flickr user KylaBorg licensed under CC BY 2.0
Animated GIF via X-men:The Animated Series opening theme
Dog image by Flickr user Nan Palmero licensed under CC BY 2.0

Published by

Mariel Mohns

By day, Mariel is a science writer at a research institute. By moonlight, she is a freelance science writer for various web-based outlets. She has a habit of collecting hobbies in her spare time, but mostly enjoys movies, TV binges, video games, and knitting.

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