Neuroplasticity and Adult Learning

"It's all about neuroplasticity" by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It’s all about neuroplasticity” by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

CONCUSSIONS IN SPORTS

Last month, the University of Michigan athletic department was embroiled in a major controversy when the Head Coach of the football team decided to play his quarterback after he suffered what appeared to be a serious blow to the head or concussion during the game. The incident came amidst lawsuits from former football players against the National Football League (NFL), alleging the league denied that concussions lead to brain damage and the debilitating disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). These reports have tarnished the image of the NFL and led many families to start thinking twice about signing up their children for youth football leagues.

Keith Olberman’s commentary below provides an interesting perspective on the disturbing effects of repeated concussions on a player’s mental health:

WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?

The fallout from this debate has led to renewed efforts on the part of scientists, psychiatrists and neuropathologists to study the brain and understand how to effectively treat brain injuries. One area of brain research that has received particular attention is “neuroplasticity”. Not only does neuroplasticity provide hope in overcoming brain injury, but it also has implications on the brain’s ability to develop, grow and learn throughout our lives.

Neuroplasticity is defined as the “constantly changing mass of cell connections” (Hill, p. 75) that facilitates the brain’s ability to change and rewire neural pathways. Our prior understanding of the brain suggested that it stops growing during childhood years. What research has now revealed is that the brain is structured in such a way that it can adapt to the changing conditions around us.

"Neuroplasticity" by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Neuroplasticity” by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0

NEUROPLASTICITY AND BRAIN INJURY

So how does neuroplasticity help those who have suffered brain injuries? Well, in the case of former NFL players, especially those with “impairment in the areas of general cognitive functioning, information processing, reasoning, and memory”(Buczynski, 2011), studies have revealed that neurons in the brain “compensate for injury and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment” (Hammond, 2010). Furthermore, if there is damage in one part of the brain, then the “responsibility for that function is simply rerouted to another part of the brain” (Hill, p. 76). Practitioners are now using these concepts of neuroplasticity and the application of noninvasive techniques to reverse brain damage in players who have suffered concussions from high-contact sports (Amen, 2013).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ADULT LEARNING?

Interestingly, neuroplasticity is not limited to issues of concussions and brain damage. This is why it has become an increasingly popular field of study for psychologists and educators alike. If neuroplasticity boils down to the ability of the brain to change, adapt and grow, then surely it has implications on the capacity of individuals to learn throughout different stages of their lives and particularly into adulthood. Considering the brain is more flexible than we initially believed, it can be argued that aging brains of adults are primed for learning. The correlation between aging and learning therefore proves that “lifelong learning is not confined to childhood” (Walker, 2010). As McGuckin (2010) cleverly comments, we ought to revise the old adage from “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” to the case of “use it or lose it” (p. 4). Her observations signify something more profound: that if the brain is able to continue rewiring and adapting as it ages, adults should expose themselves to stimulating experiences and opportunities for learning throughout their lives. If we fail to challenge ourselves, Walker (2010) insists there can be adverse effects on the brain: “the brain’s function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function” (Walker, 2010).

"Lifestyle changes" by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Lifestyle changes” by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0

NEUROPLASTICITY REQUIRES BRAIN ACTIVITY

For neuroplasticity to take effect and the processes of rewiring in our brains to unfold, experiences and environments must be engaging and conducive to learning. Hammond (2010) characterizes these experiences as “brain activity” and highlights it as one of the key principles for brain reorganization. Such activity can be achieved through “challenging intellectual environments, interacting in social situations, or getting involved in physical activities” to trigger the growth of brain connections (Hammond, 2010). In a sense, we must be creative in finding challenging activities and enriched environments that augment brain restructuring. This means looking beyond the traditional means of the classroom and instead, exploring opportunities which allow learners to “experience new things, learn new concepts and stimulate the brain”, resulting in a malleable or “plastic” brain (Walker, 2010).

The video below provides a neat explanation of how learning new tasks or experiencing different emotions cause new pathways to be carved in our brains.

CRITIQUES OF NEUROPLASTICITY

Like many developing areas of research, the study of neuroplasticity faces a number of criticisms. A common critique is that neuroplasticity is susceptible to negative effects on the human brain. If the human brain is malleable and can be rewired, then negative factors in our environment can also affect the function and structure of the brain. The brain may be vulnerable to influences such as “ambitions and excesses of others, whether they are misguided parents, well-meaning cultural trendsetters or despotic national leaders” (Zuger, 2007). Another criticism is that if brain damage is extensive and the brain is unable to repair itself and reorganize its lost function, neuroplasticity has no relevance. Some critics cite “neuroessentialism” as another shortcoming of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that referring to the brain is an intellectual trend and people bring it up only to make their arguments sound more scientific. Finally, research in the field of neuroplasticity is relatively new. It is still too early to draw any major conclusions from its study. Researchers are still analyzing the science and the behavior of neuroplasticity, and therefore, basing educational theories and teaching practices on findings of neuroscience is premature (McGuckin, p. 5).

IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS

Despite the criticisms and shortcomings of neuroplasticity, its implications and future considerations still deserve due consideration. Clearly, brain injury is a serious matter and until the research in this field is developed further, the severity of concussions should not be overlooked. Officials in high-contact sports leagues, like football, hockey and boxing, must continue to consult the latest research and decide safety protocols for athletes. Although research by neuroscientists like Dr. Amen has shown an “improvement in brain function and cognitive performance” of former NFL players (Amen et. al, p. 5), further study is needed to determine the full impact on human development and the possibility (and extent) to reverse damage.

In terms of adult learning, it is clear that new research and knowledge of the brain “dispels forever the notion that adults have difficulty learning” (Hill, p. 78) and instead reinforces the idea of lifelong learning. This new knowledge has shaped my thinking in regards to adult motivation to learn. Adults can overcome feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of trust, and prior negative experiences based on the ability of the brain to continuously learn.

Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health” by A Health Blog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS OF ADULT LEARNING

In light of my revelations on neuroplasticity, I have learned about several prescriptive and useful recommendations for practitioners of adult learning. There is much to gain from the work of professionals who have been focusing on victims of brain injury. For example, Dr. Amen’s approach with former NFL players has shown how professionals can successfully work with retired athletes to alleviate some of the difficulties they face upon retirement. His rigorous program includes a “revised diet, regular exercise, limited alcohol use, eliminating drug use and cigarette use, getting enough sleep, as well as nutritional supplements…” (Amen, 2013).

In terms of adult learning, introducing the concept of a “growth mindset” to learners can help overcome feelings that we are not talented or smart enough. Practitioners can encourage adult learners to understand that change is possible and that we can do things that we thought could not be done before. Of course, practitioners of adult learning need to be mindful that effort and struggle are required in order to make progress. Unique experiences and inspiring activities are necessary in order to stimulate brain reorganization. Brain fitness, mental exercises, physical activities, volunteer work and educational travel are all examples of opportunities to promote lifelong learning in innovative ways. Practitioners of adult learning have a vast number of resources available to them to motivate adult learners and to advocate lifelong learning.

References:

Amen, D.G. (2013, February 2). Study Shows “Reversing Brain Damage” Among NFL Players Is Possible. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.amenclinics.com/latest-news/study-shows-reversing-brain-damage-among-nfl-players-is-possible-with-a-targeted-brain-healthy-protocol/

Amen, D.G., Wu, J.C., Taylor, D. & Willeumier, K. (2011). Reversing Brain Damage in Former NFL Players: Implications for Traumatic Brain Injury and Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43:1, 1-5.

Buczynski, R. (2011, April 13). Terry Bradshaw, the NFL, and the New Brain Science Research. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/terry-bradshaw-nfl-brain-science-research/

Hammond, K. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/wordpress/2010/06/neuroplasticity/

Hill, L.H. 2001. The Brain and Consciousness: Sources of Information for Understanding Adult Learning In S.B. Merriam (Ed.), The New Update on Adult Learning Theory (pp. 73-81). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGuckin, D. & Ladhani, M. (2010). The Brains Behind Brain-Based Research: The Tale of Two Postsecondary Online Learners. College Quarterly, 13:3, 1-7.

Walker, S. (2010, April 23). Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.scilearn.com/blog/lifelong-learning-brain-plasticity

Zuger, A. (2007, May 29). The Brain: Malleable, Culpable and Vulnerable. The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/health/29book.html?_r=0

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One thought on “Neuroplasticity and Adult Learning

  1. This is excellent and so relevant to our context. I was at a gathering the other day with some colleagues and a game was playing in the background. One of my colleagues commented that they couldn’t enjoy football in the same they could before they knew the brain injury that often results from play. As educators, there are many factors we need to be aware of that impact students abilities to learning and develop. You did a very nice job of weaving in the readings alongside other information on neuroplasticity (including the videos).

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