Neurosurgeon Says to Keep Learning in Order to Stay Sharp during Pandemic

keeping the brain thinking differently can help us stay sharp

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Dr. Sanjay Gupta said trying simple new things can keep our brains cobweb-free, NPR reported. The coronavirus pandemic has stunted our ability to engage in social activities like parties, group sports, and concerts, but small brain teasers can help us stay sharp. Studying learning began in the 19th century.

Paper cutout of brain concept
Originally, the study of human learning was conducted through the field of philosophy; in the 19th century, the study of brain mechanisms began in the fields of neuroscience and biology. Photo By SewCream / Shutterstock

According to NPR, even the smallest shake-ups to life in lockdown can help us keep our brain on its metaphorical toes. “Interested in learning a new skill in the new year? CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says that will also improve your brain health,” the article said. “The new can be simple; if you’re right-handed, try eating with your left hand—or vice-versa.

“No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to develop new brain pathways.”

The study of human learning through the science of learning is a well-established discipline that looks at acquisition and retention of new skills and memories.

Revolutions in Learning

For most of human history, the idea of studying learning was restricted to philosophy.

“In fact, up until the 19th century, most scientists and philosophers probably didn’t think that learning could be studied scientifically,” said Dr. Thad Polk, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. “Mental processes like learning and memory were seen as fundamentally different than the natural phenomena of chemistry and physics.”

So what changed? In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published the book Über das Gedächtnis, which translates to About Memory in English. Dr. Polk said that Ebbinghaus was trained in philosophy and, inspired by recent scientific studies of other human perceptions, he decided to apply the scientific method to the study of learning and memory in regard to people.

He used just one test subject: himself.

A Date with the Man in the Mirror

How could Ebbinghaus objectively study himself to further the field of human learning?

“He wanted to study learning in a way that wasn’t contaminated too much by what he already knew, so he decided to try to learn lists of meaningless syllables,” Dr. Polk said. “What he did was to study a list until he could repeat it back twice without any errors. Ebbinghaus plotted his performance as a function of the delay and produced what are now called forgetting curves.”

Ebbinghaus’s “forgetting curves” examine how well we remember learned information after different periods of time not studying or using it. As expected, the longer Ebbinghaus waited after studying the nonsense lists to try and reproduce them, the poorer his performance. However, the drop-off wasn’t continuous at one steady rate. Most of Ebbinghaus’s forgetting happened within the first two hours.

“Ebbinghaus also studied how much he learned as a function of each repetition,” Dr. Polk said. “And like the forgetting curve, he found that the first repetition led to the most learning, the second repetition to a little less, and so on. And Ebbinghaus’s findings have been confirmed in countless experiments since then.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Thad A. Polk contributed to this author. Dr. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a BA in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary PhD in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.