How your brain learns how your brain learns

How Your Brain Learns

HBA sat down with the famed Neurosurgeon Dr Timothy Siu to chat about some things we wanted to understand a little better about our brain.

HBA: Tim could you let us know how the brain actually retains a fact?

Dr Siu: Even though speaking as a clinician who deals with brain disorders, I have to admit, we don’t fully understand the brain. What we do know is broadly speaking there are two types of memories. There is the short term memory and this is stored in the temporal lobe, this has limited storage capacity. Then there is the long term memory and this is generalised, it is not limited to a particular part of the brain and is hard wired for storage.

HBA: How is a practical skill learned?

Dr Siu: Our motor centre is located in the frontal lobe and its execution is modulated by other centres such as the cerebellum. This area is where we retain things like body balance and coordination. When we learn something new, new brain wiring forms, interconnecting different parts of the brain and becomes more efficient with time.

HBA: Why are some people smarter than others?

Dr Siu: It is to do with the ability to retain things in our short term and long term memory. Things move from our short term memory to the long term memory, with things such as repetition, with time and during our sleep, but the precise mechanism is still unknown.

HBA: What factors determine our IQ and does IQ equal intelligence?

Dr Siu: Intelligence is hard to qualify and quantify. Things like memory, emotional intelligence, age and experience all serve to form our intelligence. In a sense IQ does equal intelligence but really it is just a measure of one domain.

HBA: Why do we forget things?

Dr Siu: This is because things do not convert from our short term memory to our long term memory. Short term memory is an electrochemical transition whereas long term memory is a physical change to the brain. To convert memory from short term to long term you require an activity such as repetition.  Interestingly, some researchers claim that as long term memory involves physical changes in the brain, all memories are stored somewhere in the brain but we can’t retrieve them all, thus we forget things.

HBA: Why are some people left handed and others right handed?

Dr Siu: This is about which side of our brain is dominant. Over 90% of the population is left brain dominant which means they have the language centre located in the left frontal side of the brain; these people are right handed. The rest of the population is either right brain dominant or both.

HBA: What does each side of the brain do?

Dr Siu: The left side is the side that does things like math calculations – damage to the left parietal lobe can cause acalculia (the inability to do simple math tasks). The right side is where spatial orientation is centred – damage to the right parietal lobe can cause loss of imagery and visualisation of spatial relationships.

HBA: We have always said right brain dominant people are creative and left brain people are logical would that be correct?

Dr Siu: I suppose anecdoctally you could say that. However; this is difficult to prove scientifically.

HBA: What role, if any, does genetics play in intellect?

Dr Siu: There is the age old debate about nature vs nurture in influencing someone’s development and traits, including IQ and personality. Studies on twins have indicated that although there is a degree of inheritability with intelligence, even identical twins could develop differing intellectual abilities if they are brought up separately, indicating that environmental factors do play a role.

HBA: Trauma to the brain can cause physical immobility; does this affect the activity of the brain?

Dr Siu: Trauma or damage to the motor part of the brain will not affect your ability to think or retain information.

HBA: Finally, what is a headache?

Dr Siu: That is an interesting question. The headaches do not come from the brain rather it is the irritation of the lining around the brain or surrounding tissue that causes the headache. Things like constricted blood vessels will cause a headache.

HBA NOTE: If we consider one of the major changes to TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment from its predecessor, we note the requirement for the learner to have to complete an increased number of repetitive tasks eg. from 2 to 5 Assessment Plans etc. This aligns perfectly with Dr Siu’s comment regarding repetitive activity assisting information to transition from our short term memory to our long term memory.