HOW WE LEARN — DETAILS

The different brain hemispheres have different jobs when we try to learn something new. As beginners, we start off using both sides of our brains, looking at everything we could possibly need to get the job done. By the time we’ve become an expert at the task, we are only using the parts we need, stored on the left side of our brain.

So to learn something new, our brain has to:

Left HemisphereRight Hemisphere
 1) take in a lot of new information
 2) see what the overall goal is
3) figure out what’s important 
4) then put the correct bits together to get the job done. 

We do this process over and over again. Each time we go through the process, we get better at remembering which bits are important and which bits we can ignore. The more we practice, the more often our brain neurons fire together, the stronger the connection, the better we get. This is why practice is so important in mastering a skill — we are teaching our brain neurons to fire together in the right pattern.

It’s like our brains create little apps that run when you want to do something. Psychologists call these scripts.

Experts Switch to Left

As the skill becomes automatic, our brains cut out the first two steps in the right hemisphere, then the third step, on the left. By the time the process is automatic, the brain just uses the bits needed by running the script in the left hemisphere.

With the bits that are important stuck together in the left side of our brains, the expert left hemisphere limits options or possibilities. Limited options means more time for details of other stuff.

Think of it this way: when you wanted to learn to text on a cell phone, you had to

            Left HemisphereRight Hemisphere
 1) see all your options
 2) figure out the best way to do it, then
3) put the steps in the correct order and 
4) practice until you got it right. 

At first, you weren’t very good. But you practiced the skills over and over again. It took a lot of time and effort. But now, when you want to text someone, you do it without thinking about it. Fast and efficient.

When you master the skill, the bundle of steps becomes one smooth action. You don’t have to think about each step every time. In fact, if you stop and think about a skill that you have mastered, it slows you down, and you make mistakes. Try thinking about every step of texting now, and you won’t get very far very fast.

Most of the things we do in life follow these scripts. Brushing your teeth, walking to gym class, riding a bike — all follow scripts.

Once we learn the scripts, our brains go to them first. We don’t think about the individual parts of the script, because it will mess us up.

The little brain apps work really well most of the time. And they leave the brain enough processing power to have a conversation with your friend as you text.

There’s a lot to learn out there. Schools are places where teachers try to get as many scripts as possible into their students memories. They are trying to teach you the scripts as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Published by Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...

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