Practice & Sculpting the Brain

Updated: May 31

Learning and memory are closely related cognitive functions. Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, skills, and behaviors while memory is the ability to encode, store, retain, retrieve, and express what you have acquired. According to MIT News “When the brain forms memories or learns a new task, it encodes the new information by tuning connections between neurons” (Trafton, 2015, para. 1). Understanding how the brain tunes connections between neurons – encodes and processes information – is important for educators and for students. Often heard is the adage, “Practice makes perfect.” However, when learning new concepts and moving from novice to mastery, the concept of “Practice makes progress” best aligns with the human learning process. As shared by Fields (2020), “Learning and memory require the coupling of information from many different brain regions. This activity alters the physical structure of myelin, the insulating material surrounding the wiring that connects neurons” (para. 1). Why is myelin important? The University College of London shares that myelin has an essential role in learning and retaining new practical skills (Caygill, 2014). Further research indicates that myelin has a critical role in learning since it affects the information transmission speed through neural networks. According to the McGovern Institute at MIT (2019), “A useful analogy is that if the axon itself is like an electrical wire, myelin is like insulation that surrounds it, speeding up impulse propagation” (para. 5). As shared by Fields (2020), “the volume of existing sheaths is increased in circuits that are activated repetitively during practice” (Fields, 2020, para. 17). Through practice, axon myelination promotes optimal transmission of information from one neuron to another making neural pathways stronger.

Figure 1

Neurons: Compare the two Neurons and Notice How the Electrical Impulse Travels Faster Along the Top Neuron with the Myelinated Axon (MIT, McGovern Institute)

Two neurons in which one has thick myelin sheath and the other none

For educators, a key component linking learning and myelination is “practice.” Practice may include activities, assessments, or assignments that support the acquisition of new knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Dr. Shauna Shapiro, a clinical psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University, shares in her research that “what you practice grows stronger.” In her TedTalk, The Power of Mindfulness, she states “Our repeated practices shape our brains. We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections based on repeated practice” (Shapiro, 2017). Through understanding the human learning process, educators can transform learning environments and design learning experiences that engage students in practice and interactions to promote neural connections, learning, and changing (sculpting) the brain.

In designing new courses, revising current ones, or pivoting across formats, the question to ask is: What’s in your course? Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with practice. Dr. Kristen Betts