Do you ever think about how you think? Do you ever wonder how your brain works? Have you ever wondered how things are stored in your memory? Do you ever worry about losing mental sharpness? Do you want to maintain a strong, active mind? King David must have thought about things like that when he wrote, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14 Psalms 139:14I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works; and that my soul knows right well.
American King James Version×).
The human brain is like an amazing personal computer—but it’s far more complex than any computer that has ever existed. The functioning part of the brain is made up of billions of neurons. The actual size of a neuron is about 1/100th the size of the dot at the end of this sentence. Neurons are the brain’s nerve cells. Think of a neuron as a sun with rays extending out from all sides—thousands of them—these rays are called dendrites. Dendrites form on the neurons as a result of learning.
Dendrites are like branches. One of them is longer than the others and is called the axon. The dendrites between neurons don’t touch each other. They are separated by a tiny gap, known as a synapse. Electrical impulses travel along the axon, cross the synapse and are received by the dendrites of another neuron. An impulse can travel all the way through a person in ⅕ of a second!
A fatty substance known as myelin coats the axon. This acts as insulation and increases the speed at which impulses travel. It is interesting to note that myelin is thicker around the axons that are used more often.
Researchers have now discovered the brain does generate neurons in the part of the brain that stores learning and memory. It used to be thought the brain cells could not regenerate.
As we get older, the number of neurons we have may decrease, but the brain can continue to build new connections (dendrites) on the neurons. When you learn something new, your brain begins to build new connections. Repeating a new skill makes the connections stronger. If you are required to perform a very difficult skill, a greater number of dendrites are built on the neurons, which results in more places for learning to be stored.
A walk can help
For the brain to perform well, it needs several important things. One of these is oxygen. We all know exercise is important in maintaining our physical health, but did you know it is also important in order to keep your brain working at an optimum level?
The human brain is like an amazing personal computer—but it’s far more complex than any computer that has ever existed.
Physical exercise increases blood circulation, which then increases oxygen in the brain. Even small amounts of moderate exercise, like taking a walk, will increase the amount of oxygen in your brain. Mental sharpness is directly linked to the amount of oxygen available to the brain. Higher levels of oxygen increase mental performance, which translates into faster reactions, better memory, clearer thinking, higher concentration and reduced stress. Simply put, the more oxygen—the better the brain performs.
Exercise not only delivers oxygen, it stimulates the brain and enhances learning. The brain improves with exercise much like the muscles do. The implications of this are that both adults and children need physical exercise every day in order for their brains to function well while learning.
So can mental exercise
However, insuring your brain will perform at a higher level involves more than just exercising your body. You need mental exercise and stimulation, as well. Mental exercise involves repeating something we have learned and mental stimulation involves experiencing something new. The brain craves novelty and needs the stimulation of learning new things. Mental exercise actually helps the brain to build new connections between the neurons.
Repeating a new skill or a new learning thickens the coating around the axon and makes the brain pathway for that skill more efficient. This is where memory comes into play.
The implications of this are that both adults and children need physical exercise every day in order for their brains to function well while learning.
Learning is how we get knowledge—memory is how we keep it. We can learn something like a grocery list, store it in short-term memory and then lose it when it is no longer needed. In order to store something in long-term memory, it must initially be repeated many times, and then reviewed again over a longer period of time. There is very little long-term memory of new learning if it is not reviewed and repeated.
We have to be actively engaged mentally while we are learning in order to remember what we learn. This means we are concentrating on what we are learning and not distracted by other sights and sounds around us. The more our senses are involved in learning—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell, as well as movement and emotions—the more attention we pay to what we are learning and the more we remember.
Review, repeat, remember!
We also need review and repetition to remember what we learn. If we take notes during a lecture, review them several times, think about and evaluate what we learn, we will remember more than if we just sit back and listen. Active mental and physical participation while learning is far more effective than passive learning.
Most of what we do each day is habitual. In effect, we have memorized much of our daily routine. We do many things without even thinking about them. Similarly, as we repeat a new skill or activity, it becomes more and more automatic until we perform it without really thinking about it, like driving a car or riding a bike. We exert very little brainpower when doing things that have become habits. Repeating new learning strengthens the pathways along which brain impulses travel. The more an action or thinking is repeated, the more automatic it becomes. Over time, it becomes a habit. Your thinking becomes who you are. Solomon wrote, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 Proverbs 23:7For as he thinks in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, said he to you; but his heart is not with you.
American King James Version×).
It is important to learn good habits to begin with because unlearning and relearning habits is very difficult. Learning a new skill takes much more brainpower than repeating an old one. However, when you diligently practice a new skill over time, the likelihood it will become a permanent habit is greatly increased.
Challenge your brain
Your brain is designed for constant growth—both physically and spiritually. When things become routine, you need to challenge your brain by learning something new.
Most of what we do each day is habitual. In effect, we have memorized much of our daily routine.
How do you exercise your brain? What can you do to stimulate your brain and help it to build new connections? Do something new. Read an interesting book, take a class, go on a trip, go out to a different place for lunch, learn a new skill or hobby, join a club, take a different route home, explore a tourist attraction in your hometown that you’ve never been to, do volunteer work in your community or even teach something you know to someone else. New activities stimulate the brain. Repeating those new things builds new connections in your brain.
If you have children, teach them new games and read books to them that are above their reading ability. Talk to them about “what if,” “why” and “what do you think about…”
Read stories about people in the Bible to your children, then talk about the choices those people made and the results of those choices. Ask them which of the Ten Commandments were kept or broken. Ask your children to think about what they would do in a similar situation. Teaching your children to think about cause and effect will sharpen your thinking skills, as well as theirs.
New brain research shows your brain does not have to slowly die year after year.
New brain research shows your brain does not have to slowly die year after year. It can continue to grow and learn throughout your lifetime. Each of us has an active choice in whether and how much that happens. Your brain needs oxygen gained through physical exercise and it needs mental stimulation gained through learning new things to keep it sharp. You can maintain a strong and active mind. Go out and learn something new!
If you want to learn more about how your brain works, check out one of these books:
* David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns (second edition), 2001.
* Eric Jensen, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 1998.
* Lawrence C. Katz, Ph. D., and Manning Rubin, Keep Your Brain Alive, 1999.