New Study Shows that Life Experience Could Help us Learn Better  

By Roy Krebs

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Do you remember back in primary school when your parent(s) would nag you to practice your music, or homework, or sports?

I do -- and I remember how, at the time, I didn't really understand it. It just seemed annoying!

Even now, we all know that “practice makes perfect,” but researchers may have found a new factors that influences the way we learn. 

A new study, published in the May 2018 volume of Neuropsychopharmacology, suggests that we may be better at learning if we have done a lot of it in our past -- and not necessarily traditional classroom-style learning.  

The study discusses the concept of “metaplasticity.”

You may have already heard of the term "plasticity" (or neuroplasticity), which refers to our brains’ ability to change over time, namely by forming new neural pathways.

Metaplasticity refers to the concept that, in brain activity, the previous activity of synapses influences how they behave now.    

This means that current actions build upon each other and influence things like long term potentiation (the strengthening of synapse patterns over time) and long term depression, which is linked to a weakening of synapse patterns. 

Research on lab mice shows that a special type of brain receptors (NMDA receptors) are involved in memory formation.

For this study, naive mice (mice who had mostly only lived in a lab) were given a shock when put into a certain environment, thus "teaching" them to be scared of that environment.

When NMDA-blocking drugs were given, they didn't "remember" to be scared the next day. 

But experienced animals -- those who had lived in the wild -- showed that they were responsive to the shocks even with the NMDA-blocking drugs. 

What does this mean for us?

Researchers working on the mice found that experienced mice had more excited sets of neurons, and that these activated neurons contributed to memory formation.

Moreover, during the time that the mice's neurons were “excited,” new tasks were given to the mice and the “excited” neurons were reactivated. 

This experiment points to the quite likely conclusion that the way the experienced animals were "learning" was via different brain processes. 

The "street smart" mice seemed to be using different receptors than their sheltered counterparts.   

My Thoughts  

In a way, the above information isn’t new: when we have more life experience, we are probably just more well-versed at adapting to new environments. 

But the interesting part of this study is that it also suggests that our brains are probably more prone to learning when they’re already “switched on.” 

So perhaps, in order to learn more, feel better, and be more productive, we need to deliberately keep our brains active by, for instance, pushing ourselves into different environments and situations.  

When we keep our brains challenged and active, they are more likely to form new neural pathways, and the more often they do this, the easier it is for them to keep going. 

I have experienced this myself: if I’m feeling a little low, I just don’t learn as well and when I try to learn, I just don’t remember things. 

I’ve used a few different supplements to help me kick start my brain when I’m not feeling it.

The key here is that action begets action. The more we experience and the more consistently we use our brains, the more likely they are to stay active, alert, and forming new memories.

It makes sense that keeping our brains active by learning and experiencing different things is likely to offer us serious brain-strengthening benefits in the long term.

This is metaplasticity in action!

Have you ever experienced a time where you just felt your brain was more aware because you had been using it a lot in the past?

Do you tend to adapt to new situations more easily than your peers?  

Leave your comments below to share your experiences.   

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