Lifelong learning and the plastic brain

Our brain is plastic and the neural connections regenerate as we learn, experience, and adapt. Prof. Zoe Korzi from the University of Cambridge with funding from the European Union leads a project called “Adaptive Brain Computations”, with the participation of scientists from fields such as behavioral sciences, computer sciences, pharmacologists, and neuroscientists, together with experts from industry, to examine how learning occurs.

The group, led by Prof. Korzi, uses a well-known image of an optical illusion called – the cafe illusion – because it was first observed on one of the walls in… a cafe in England in the 70s of the 20th century (pictured below). Black and white rectangles between perfectly parallel lines look slanted.

This is an excellent demonstration, says Prof. Korzi, of how the brain interprets the world beyond the signals received by the eye, but also in their context in space and time. The brain takes into account knowledge acquired from previous training and life experience to decipher a new situation.

Although neuroscientists recognize that brain plasticity is one of the fundamental properties that allow us to cope with an ever-changing environment at home, school, work, and play, little is known about how we can stimulate our brains to improve the learning process throughout life. “The process of ‘learning how to learn’ is the core of flexible human behaviors,” Kurzi explains. “This is how children acquire literacy and numeracy, and adults develop, later in life, work skills.”

Café Wall Illusion, Tony Kerr on Flickr

Other researchers also point to learning as one of the factors that may delay dementia.

A study published in “The Lancet” in July 2017 lists nine lifestyle changes that could prevent a third of future dementia cases. Academic achievements and lifelong learning were among the most important. In 2020, an update to the article was published – when the group of researchers, led by Professor Gil Livingston, added 3 additional risk factors.

“Today the idea that education strengthens the brain, meaning that you are less likely to develop dementia, is already quite common in most places. But for a long time, we thought that once you are an adult, nothing changes in your brain, or if it does, it only changes in a negative way. Now, we don’t think so.” Prof. Livingston says.

Mid-career people may become complacent, or even resistant to developing new skills or exploring new ideas: “We’ve always done it this way.” At any age, we can tilt to the tendency to stay on ‘autopilot’ – navigating our lives using skills learned when we were younger. At retirement age, we expected to slow down. Most people yearn for the day when they can slow down and try less – not knowing that this is probably the worst thing they could do.

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