How We Learn pt. 2 : Expanding the Super Highway of our Mind

This post takes a deeper look at the neural anatomy behind our ability to learn. There are three ways that we can consciously strengthen the neural pathways that codify our ideas- repetition, expansion, and the experience of dramatic stimuli. To join the discussion you can read How we learn pt 1. Neural Anatomy and the 15 minute Teapot by clicking here.

A repetitious action, like centering clay on the wheel, creates muscle "memory". This "memory" is the record of the movements our body has undergone to manipulate the spinning clay around the central axis of the wheel. Everything from our hand position, to our engaged stomach muscles, to the watery feeling of slip on our fingers is recorded in chains of connected neurons. In the brain each series of movements looks like a storm of electrochemical impulses shooting down jagged pathways.(Click here for another explanation of this process.) The more a pathway is used the easier it is for the impulse to travel. Think about this like a needle wearing a groove in a record. With more repetition the needle is less likely to jump out of the groove. The mental equivalent to repeated action is memorization. During memorization thought patterns are repeated in the hope that we will retain information. The successful ability to recall information is a reflection of deepening connections between neurons.

One fascinating aspect of learning is that we revise our neural pathways based on the success, or failure, of our actions. In both mental and physical action we adjust our efforts to accomplish the goal (center the clay, remember the fact, etc.) in the most efficient way possible. Our brain records the learning process by strengthening the neural pathway that corresponds to the most effective method for achieving our goal. In addition, when our pathways are strengthened we no longer have to consciously think to be able to complete the action. What once seemed foreign now becomes second nature. Where it used to take ten minutes to center a lump of clay it now only takes one minute.

Photo by Alex S. Maclean

Expansion of a neural pathway happens when we connect ideas into larger hierarchies of information. Think about this as building new side roads on the super highway of your mind. As a teaching tool expansion is extremely effective because it uses what the student already knows to explain a concept that is less familiar. The use of metaphors is an example of the practice of expansion in the classroom.

A metaphor that I frequently use compares pottery to spoken language. I explain that it is helpful for the parts of a pot (lip, body, foot) to communicate one idea within the same form language (angular, volumetric, gestural). I reinforce this by explaining that it would be hard to understand someone who explains an idea starting in English, before switching to Spanish, and concluding in Chinese. The student's prior experience with languages helps their understanding of ceramic form language.

Another way to strengthen a pathway is to learn under dramatic circumstances. This is not to say that universities should move their class rooms to the sides of cliffs in the hope that the student's fear will make them retain information. (Wait... What am I saying... This is a great idea! How about we teach art history while hanging off the edge of El Capitan? I bet you could remember the dates of the Tang Dynasty if your life depended on it.) As we experience dramatic stimulation our awareness broadens to assimilate more information in a shorter amount of time. We can thank our ancient predators for this trait because it evolved to keep them from eating us. When we were running from the bear in the forest we had to quickly decide if it was better to climb a tree, throw a rock, or jump in the nearby river.

We will however reach a point where too much stimulation is negative. We have a fail safe that makes complex thought more difficult if our bodies are filled with hormones like adrenaline. During extreme circumstances our thought process shifts from testing mode to a more direct approach. "Which rock is best for killing the bear?" turns into "Throw any rock right now!". (To test this try to balance your check book the next time you have a heated argument with your spouse. Simple tasks are amazingly hard when you are filled with adrenaline.) As the fear threshold is passed our adrenaline shifts to enhance our physical strength while weakening our ability to make decisions and retain information. Now that we have eliminated our predators a small amount of dramatic stimuli can increase our awareness and be used for learning purposes.

My next post will focus on how we can use knowledge of neural anatomy to make us better teachers and students. Check back later in the week for the next installment.

The series How we Learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.


  1. I don't know if you got the email I sent you after the first installment of this series you are doing, but I wanted to say how interested I am in this discussion.

    The issue that stands out for me is the huge discrepancy between what we learn to do through honing a physical ability and how we cognitively understand what we are doing, how we talk about it, think about it, and remember it.

    I liked it when you point out that "when our pathways are strengthened we no longer have to consciously think to be able to complete the action. What once seemed foreign now becomes second nature." Muscle memory, body knowledge, intuition, and instinct all seem to have this deeper level of performance. The stuff that is second nature is somehow fundamentally different from how we consciously think about things. We don't have to think in order to breathe, we just do it. Nor do we need to understand it.

    The part from the podcast about Clive the amnesiac was so revealing in that regard. His lack of memory was so severe, but he recognized his wife every time, he knew he loved her, and significantly he was able to get up in front of that choir and conduct. And of course language use was also not effected. Does it mean that certain abilities like that are somehow different from memory? That loss of memory and loss of ability are not necessarily related?

    This seems like an important point. Is an education that focuses on memorization and cognition radically different from an education that focuses on physical skill building? Knowing how (in the sense of being able) to do something is obviously not the same thing as remembering how to do it. (For instance, driving a car, getting to your destination, but having no memory of the trip) And knowing is much deeper, the neural pathways more securely linked, than mere memories. The first part of the podcast said something interesting in that regard when it suggested that the most true memory is the one least recalled. How counter intuitive that the more we remember something the LESS it actually has to do with the original circumstance, the more fabricated and invented it is!

    Of course an education has to employ both cognitive and physical training. Most pottery students need to be reminded over and over again about things like not leaving too much water sitting in the bottom of their pots (etc.), but eventually they learn to remove it automatically. Their hands eventually know what they need to do without any prompting. Their hands can safely take over and their conscious cognition can take a back seat.

    And because of this separation between cognitive and body knowledge sometimes we can also let our minds interfere with our hands. We can let our minds intrude and complicate things to our detriment. We can sabotage ourselves by thinking too much or the wrong thoughts at the wrong times. Our minds can jump in where they don't belong. We can wrongly convince ourselves that we don't know how to do something, we can psych ourselves out. And we can also let our ambitions overrule our abilities. We can imagine projects that are unrelated to the abilities we have or are likely to ever have. We can dream of flying having lived our whole lives with feet firmly planted on the ground. Isn't that just fascinating!

  2. Hello Carter,
    Thanks for the comment and the insight. I'll try and address your comments one-by-one.
    Our brains are wonderfully complex. As I read your comment I am picturing my brain firing the neural pathways that are necessary to understand the text you wrote and then respond to it.Reading, writing, remembering, speaking, hand skills and other physical abilities originate in different parts of the brain. (Check out this site for a brain map http://www.neuroskills.com/brain-injury/brain-function.php) The specificity of the way our brain functions points towards a long slow evolution towards the modern brain.
    Even with the compartmentalization of functions in our brain our thoughts and actions feel cohesive. For instance I can throw, lecture and think about what I’ll say next at the same time. Three different activities simultaneously occurring without any perceived separation in my head. From the inside all these things just feel like “me” expressing myself. Isn't it odd that we associate our identities almost solely with the brain which is an organ that no one else ever sees? (Interesting link is that one part of our brain is responsible for self identification. I think it’s the frontal lobe. This region helps us perceive ourselves as separate individuals functioning in the world.) This is a little counter-intuitive because our skin is the organ people interact/see the most. When we scrape our knee we don't feel like we have lost part of ourselves but when we start to forget something we say "I am so forgetful". It is almost as if we perceive brain function to be the totality of our experience.
    The more I learn about the brain the more I see the things I thought were “me” are just the idiosyncratic quirks of a human organ. For instance I would describe “myself” as focused but flighty when it comes to most tasks. I will often start working on 3 things and partially complete two before I focus solely on the third. I think of this as an individual personality trait but it is probably closer to an ADHD type of brain function. There is no “me” in the equation in the same way that there is no “me” in my kidneys doing their job correctly. I think we turn to the brain as an identifier because it is the organ that has the most localized control. As the "hard drive" we place it at the top of the organ hierarchy.
    Getting back to your comments. “The issue that stands out for me is the huge discrepancy between what we learn to do through honing a physical ability and how we cognitively understand what we are doing, how we talk about it, think about it, and remember it. “ I often wonder about this because I teach pottery in a different way than I make it. I was trained as a production potter and during that time I developed many short cuts. These habits help me throw faster , thinner, etc. but they are all based on subtle flexibility in movement. As an educator this subtlety is very hard to quantify/explain and even harder for the students to grasp. Descriptive language for these types of movements is often inadequate. When I teach beginners I want my students to learn steps that are precise and easy to replicate. After they learn the basics I find it more successful if they make up the subtlety of the advanced movements by themselves.

  3. This points to the question Which aspects of learning are more effective with language and which are more effective with action? Is the disconnect between the styles of learning because language learning and action learning are registered in different ways in the brain? It seems like the language learning function of the brain is set up to be linear where the action learning function can be tangential, circular, or linear. The ability of action learning to go in all directions lends itself towards subtlety and a more personal level of learning. This points to the belief that our brain developed as we interacted with the world around us. Our physical learning crafted the brain, which then crafted language. We put verbal language up on a pedestal but it arrived relatively late in the game. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_language)
    "Is an education that focuses on memorization and cognition radically different from an education that focuses on physical skill building?” This separation between cognition and skill building frequently pops up as a student transitions from undergraduate to graduate school. While they are not mutually exclusive I think of undergraduate being more focused on skill building and graduate school being more focus on cognition/analysis. It is interesting to me that the struggle to learn how to do something is sometimes easier than the struggle to communicate about it. Cognition in the form of verbal communication seems to be harder than physical creation. This might be due to the fact that physical action has direct rewards that are often greater than communication. We don’t celebrate when we accurately describe an idea but we do rejoice when those ideas are turned into physical form. I think students need both types of education but if I absolutely had to give one up I would cut out cognition. I would rather have a student have skill based muscle memory. (This might not fly in an art world where the artist statement rules the roost.) A better way to say it is that in teaching a technical subject like ceramics I would rather have the student create muscle memory first. Cognition will follow...or not.
    "That loss of memory and loss of ability are not necessarily related?" I think I have experienced this myself. Muscle memory seems to out weigh recall in many areas of my life. I haven't played soccer for more than a decade but I guarantee I can do a throw-in with no problem. It is a complex series of movements that has been burned into my brain. In contrast I would not be able to recall most of the things I studied in the classroom at the same time. Why does one part of my brain remember the throw-in while another does not remember the hours of studying that I did during the same point in my life? I think the answer is that cognition and physical skills are so compartmentalized in the brain that they are only loosely related skill sets. We need a neuroscientist to clarify this for us. Where is Oliver Sacks when you need him?

  4. "Our minds can jump in where they don't belong. We can wrongly convince ourselves that we don't know how to do something, we can psych ourselves out." This is another thing I have experienced many times. Beyond self confidence in a pop psychology sense there is also the link between belief and physical strength/ability. I had an experience rock climbing where my fear zapped my strength. I was climbing an overhang that looked dangerous but was actually very easy. My partner had led the climb and was above me when I had a crisis in confidence. I froze under the overhang and couldn't move. The solution was a simple one. He started telling me an unrelated story about his childhood school. He advised me to listen to him and just try to do the climb. Essentially I had to focus on his voice and let my body do its thing. 15 minutes later I was above the overhang and we where laughing about how easy it was. I experience this same thing as a teacher. I have had students sink into frustration when some difficulty seemed overwhelming. I usually talk to them about the problem for about 5 minutes, making sure they have expressed their feeling of fear and anxiety. I then subtly change the conversation to focus on how cool so and so's ( insert ceramic hero) work is. As we talk about the other person's work I direct them back into the process they are afraid of. Inevitably the conversation ends when they realize they are having success in the thing they thought was impossible. This again points to the idea that cognition and physical skill don't have to work in concert.
    I'm signing off for now but I look forward to more discussion. I will finish up the series on learning in the next few days and i'll be glad to hear your response.