What Have You Learned Lately?

Living in the information explosion that is our modern world, it’s easy to forget that there’s a big difference between acquiring information and genuine learning.There’s also a dynamic that occurs in a roomful of others who share our curiosity that can’t be duplicated on our own.
Several years ago, Kevin Byrne, an adult learning coordinator, shared some scientific evidence for continuing education. “There is evidence that learning something—anything—new will cause our brains to make structural changes. These changes allow us to solve more complex problems and to make connections that seem inspired. We are literally smarter when we take up a learning activity.”
Byrne goes on to share a story about Dr. Marion Diamond’s research on rat brains. A professor of anatomy at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Diamond spent two decades studying the effects of learning environments on rats.  When they were taken out of typical laboratory cages and placed in enriched environments—lots of rat toys and rat puzzles—the very structure of the rats’ brains changed in as little as four days.  These enriched rats solved mazes and puzzles faster than they could before landing in the toy-rich cages. By every measure, they got smarter.
There’s an equally interesting downside: when the enriched rats were placed again in ordinary cages, their brains changed again. They got dumber.
Age didn’t matter. But the type of activity mattered a lot. Diamond’s rats had to be actively involved with their enriching toys and puzzles to gain the higher I.Q. Just watching other rats playing did nothing at all for the brains of the spectator vermin.
Byrne says, “Of course, rat/human analogies are always somewhat suspect, but if Dr. Diamond is correct taking German Language or even French Braiding can actually make you smarter than watching 100 hours of NOVA.”
If brain fitness comes from the process of learning, rather than what is actually learned, it just makes sense to learn something new as often as possible. This is a participatory, not a spectator, undertaking.
Not only will you be a more interesting person, you’ll be a more successful entrepreneur, parent, citizen. And, of course, your brain will love you for it.
Barbara Winter is a long-time teacher at CFU.