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The Learning Machine The Human Brain

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The Learning Machine The Human Brain

If you must learn how to learn, you need to know how the learning machine the human brain works.

It is indisputable that you can learn or process any information, either real or imagined, because you have a brain. To master the skills needed to learn therefore, you have to be accustomed with the way the machine used in the learning process works.

The Human brain is the most complex computer that has ever been created. William F. Allman puts it well and according to him, “the brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess.

Its billions of nerve cells—called neurons—lies in a tangled web that displays cognitive powers far exceeding any of the silicon machines we have built to mimic it”.

So, in as much as you have a brain you have an amazing complex machine in your head and all you need to be an excellent learner is to know how to use it to the maximum. I repeat, you are not a dullard, so far, you have a brain, the only difference between you and that smart kid in your class or that professional in your place of work is input and how to get that adequate input is what we are here to teach you.

The Brain Structure

On average, the adult human brain weights approximately three pounds. Before we continue, let us have a brief sketch of your brain structure.

First, make a fist with both hands. Now place them together such that your knuckles touching like you are giving yourself a honk.

human brain size sketch

Sketch for human brain size

This is roughly the size of your brain with your two fists representing the right and left hemisphere respectively.

It will interest you to know that although the brain is only 2% of our body weight, it consumes up to 20-25% of your body energy resources. What this means is that 20-25% of what you take in daily is used in keeping your brain working properly. Invariably, what you eat affects your brain.

The overall health and function of your brain depends on what you take. So the first step to learning fast and well is “eat healthy” (click Healthy foods for the brain; improve brain functionality. for more).

Without ado, your brain is divided into three major parts namely; the Brain stem (survival instincts), The limbic System (emotions) and Neocortex (Higher thinking brain).

The Human Brain

According to neurologists, these three brains evolved over time as we evolve to be humans but to keep it brief, we will not dwell too much on the intricacies of the functions of the brain and how it evolved. We will only dwell on the aspect related to learning.  


Your brain stem as seen above is the part of the human brain that controls survival instincts. It is located at the base of the skull and it is also known as the reptilian brain because it is the part of our brain that we share with lower animals especially reptiles.

Although the brain stem controls autonomic bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, its aspect connected to learning is its control of fight and flight.

Have you ever felt blank in an examination hall you vigorously prepared for? Have you ever lost information you wanted to share at an event because you are agitated?

Here is why, your brain stem is responsible because it got the signal that you are under duress and it switched to fight and flight mode. Our brain stem is the part of the brain that takes over the bodily activities when we face anxiety. When the brain stem is in charge, we have little or no access to the complex part of the brain that thinks. All the brain is concerned with that time is survival.

Once the brain stem kicks the survival mode, adrenaline rushes through our body, and the brain downshifts to survival mode. Good bye learning. Hello panic. The implication of this is that, fear, anxiety, stress or threat hinders learning because under these acts we have little access to our higher order thinking parts of the brain.

So, as a teacher or guardian, you must not teach your child or learn yourself under stress or anxiety. Learning is fun, it must be made enjoyable.


This part of the brain is the part we share with other mammals and it is responsible for more complex activities like regulating the immune system, sexuality, mood, feelings and emotions.

The parts of the limbic system relevant for learning are the Thalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. To start with, the Thalamus acts like a kind of switch board for our brain. When information are coming from our senses, the first point of contact is the thalamus.

Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information from our senses get to the thalamus and the thalamus usually sends them to either of the two directions connected to it depending on what the information contain. The first direction leads to the sensory Cortices: the visual, auditory and somatosensory cortices. These cortices are found in the Neocortex. There they are analyzed, interpreted and stored.

The second direction leads to the amygdala which is the emotion control center. The amygdala usually analyses incoming information for emotional significance and determine if it should initiate a freeze, flight or fight response.

In short, anytime your amygdala senses emotions such as fear, anxiety, stress or threat, it quickly sends signal to the brain stem which will take over the body by initiating a survival mode.

As said earlier, goodbye learning, hello panic. The hippocampus is located at the middle of the brain just below the thalamus. Just as we have in the case of thalamus and amygdala, we have one hippocampus each in the two hemispheres.

The major reason the hippocampus is important to learning is that it is the memory control center of the brain. It’s work is to store short term memories and determines which is to be encoded to long term memories. After encoding, it sends the memories back to the sensory cortices they came from to be stored. Auditory memories go to the auditory cortices and visual goes to visual cortices.

The hippocampus is also responsible for retrieving these information when they are needed in the future. You must note this: as Joe McCullough rightly said, “the fact that the limbic system controls both emotions and long term memory storage has an important implication for learning.

Things involve strong emotions are very well remembered. You can think of emotions almost like post-it notes”. By implication, positive emotions like excitement, fun, joy are important for learning. Make every learning therefore like a new experience. An experience of creating new memories of new knowledge and skills. Incorporate positive emotions into the learning process. You will be amazed at the outcome.


The Neocortex is the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking, language and ability to conceive abstractly. It makes us most human in contrast to other living organisms.

The Neocortex is divided into different lobes which are responsible for speech, vision, hearing and touch. The part relevant to our discussion here are the visual cortex, auditory cortex and the Somatosensory cortex.

Visual information are taken to the visual cortex and are also stored there if coded for long term memory by the hippocampus.

Hearing is taken to the auditory cortices and Somatosensory does the same for everything we do with our body ranging from temperature, texture, body position and pain. As noted earlier when we were dealing with the limbic system, impressions made on the brain with strong emotions last long.

Also when information gets to you through the three cortices on the same topic, there is every tendency for you never to forget it. You will attest to the fact you can easily recall almost every scene in your favorite movie.

You will also notice that when you read a novel and then see a movie version of it, it sticks to memory better.

Here is the truth; we create stronger memories when we store information in our brain using all our senses.

A major key to learning then is that we engage the entire senses when learning. Before we close this discussion we have been having for some time now on the working of our learning machine: the brain, there is one last aspect of the brain very crucial to learning that we must know about. The Brain Waves .

If you want to learn adequately either by yourself or with the aid of a tutor, you need to understand how to consciously make your brain waves serve your interest of learning.


Read Also Improving Your Learning Skill


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