Edwin Powell Hubble once said, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science” (The Nature of Science, 1954). Hubble’s message is simple: the human brain attempts to understand the world around it through the five senses. For decades, educators have known that teaching to multiple senses, also known as a learning style, is important, but few discuss the link between long-term memory and neural connections (brain pathways) in this learning process. It is the connections made between multi-sensory learning experiences and brain neurons (special nerve cells) firing up that create a powerful relationship that governs what is stored in long-term memory for long-term learning.
By design, the brain is constantly synthesizing and processing information through our senses. We see, smell, hear, touch, and feel as a means for the brain to absorb, store, and consolidate new information with old information in order to determine if new data should be discarded or stored. When prior knowledge is activated with the new sensory information, a series of neurons (nerve cells) activate and the brain quickly determines if the new information makes sense.
Experience teaches us that every person has their own unique way of engaging their senses to learn. Science teaches us that the more senses we stimulate during the learning process, the more neurons light up to interpret the experience. It is this orchestrated effort between our senses and our memory that makes all the difference in connecting learning. When these neural connections are ignited the brain quickly determines if the new information is worthy of long-term storage.
Understanding the memory process is key. Cognitive scientists have determined that there is one memory system that divides into multiple parts. Three significant parts are sensory memory, short-term memory (STM), and long-term memory (LTM). Sensory memory retains an exact copy of what was seen or heard and stores this exact memory for 300 milliseconds. Sensory memory has unlimited capacity, but is very short in duration. Short-term memory (STM) processes information in 30-60 seconds and selectively attends to what connects logically to prior knowledge. STM stores about 7 items at once and, in milli-seconds, processes, organizes, and consolidates information to determine if new data should be transferred to LTM or discarded. Long-term memory (LTM) stores information for extended periods of time on the basis of what is meaningful and/or important, but has a limited storage capacity.
A closer look at long-term memory indicates that it stores information in interrelated neural networks of prior knowledge called schemas or mental models of how we perceive and interpret the world around us (Anderson, 2004). One schema can activate another schema that links information together. These schemas are extremely important because they determine if information is relevant and how this new information will be stored and recalled. As more information embeds into a schema, the learning experience becomes deeper and more neurons activate. This tells us that “the better something is learned” the longer it will stay in LTM.
In order to determine which information gets stored or dismissed, the brain uses prior knowledge as a critical factor because it provides a neural network “home” for storage. The more often that location is activated with multiple senses, the more automatic the memory becomes. This leads to the mastery stage of learning because new information, by design, embeds with old information. The more engaged the senses are in the learning process, the more powerful the lesson. So the next time you hear someone say, “connect the dots” in order to learn something, just remember that these connections are sensory driven neural connections linking old and new information in order to deepen understanding.
Jen and Pam have been studying and learning about the brain-memory and sensory connection. They will be presenting on this topic at the Courage to Risk Conference in January 2016. This information and science directly connects and supports Learning Foundation’s teaching tactics of helping students through the basis of their learning style. If you want to learn more about this topic, check back soon for the video presentation, drop us an email (email@example.com), or check out the rest of our website. To learn more about the conference, you can go here: www.couragetorisk.org
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