The Science of Learning Something New

Ever wanted to learn something completely new – like a new language, a new topic at work or in school, an instrument, a sport or some other hobby?

You might worry about how successful you’ll be at doing something you’ve never done before. In fact, your worry might cause you to hold off on trying this new learning altogether.

As you grow older, you can do very specific things to speed up your learning. And these strategies work specifically because of your brain’s neuroplasticity and ability to rewire, change and improve itself.

And once you know what those specific conditions are, you can be confident in approaching new learning!

Table of Contents

1. Make More Mistakes

2. Chunk Your Learning

3. Give Yourself a Strong Enough “Why”

4. Challenge Yourself Physically

4 Science-Backed Strategies to Rewire Your Brain and Take Advantage of Neuroplasticity

1. Make More Mistakes

The Science of Learning Something NewThe fear of making mistakes might be one of the biggest reasons holding you back from trying new things.

But mistakes are actually the best way to signal to your brain that it’s time for change!

Say you’re doing something you already know how to do – like playing a sport you’ve been playing for years.

This doesn’t create the conditions for neuroplasticity or unlocking your brain’s capacity to grow and adapt to new learning.

The more you play and practice, the more you reinforce existing neural connections – the pathways between your brain cells.

When you try something for the first time, and make mistakes, it signals to your brain that something is wrong.

The more you make mistakes, the more your brain hones in on the gap between what you’re trying to do, and what you’re doing.

And because it thinks something’s wrong, it starts trying to fix it by narrowing that gap.

So, the more mistakes you make, the more data your brain collects about this error margin. And the more data it collects, the better it’s able to adjust to narrow that margin!

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In fact, making mistakes as you try to learn something new creates the ideal chemical conditions to access neuroplasticity!

When your brain detects that there’s an error, it starts releasing neuromodulators that create the right environment for change.

Epinephrine, or adrenaline, spikes up when you experience the stress or frustration from making mistakes. This gets your brain and body ready for action, getting you highly alert and mentally and physically responsive.

It also stimulates your levels of acetylcholine, a neuromodulator that sharpens your focus. It helps narrow your concentration down to what you’re doing and block out distractions!

As these brain chemicals keep you focused and alert as you learn, the slightest bit of progress stimulates dopamine.

Dopamine is your motivation molecule. It gets you anticipating the reward of accomplishing what you set out to do, and drives you to keep going!

So, the secret is simple – don’t be afraid of making mistakes!

Yes, mistakes might be frustrating, but that frustration you experience helps stimulate the chemical conditions for neuroplasticity.

And when you are aware of this, you can consciously shift your mindset to a positive one. Because you know that you’re learning through your mistakes, the anticipation of reward from doing so boosts dopamine.

And dopamine greatly speeds up access to neuroplasticity!

2. Chunk Your Learning

The Science of Learning Something New

When you’re younger, you learn very rapidly. Your brain is extremely plastic and adapts to new knowledge and experiences very quickly.

As you grow older, your brain is less flexible, and less able to make huge plastic changes in one go.

But there’s a solution to this – you can add up the neuroplasticity you unlock in smaller bouts.

What does this mean?

Essentially, it means that you can better access neuroplasticity as an adult by chunking down your learning!

For example, say that you want to learn a new language.

If you’re learning French, one of the things you’ll encounter early on is verb conjugation. You’ll learn the meaning of the verb, as well as how it varies depending on things like gender and tense.

If you’ve never learned French before, this can feel pretty daunting. Not only might the words sound very different from their English counterparts but remembering how they vary depending on the situation might feel challenging to you.

And if you try to learn an entire list of verb conjugations in one go, it will be challenging.

In fact, you’re likely not going to remember most of what you’re learning.

This is because your brain is overwhelmed by all the different margins of error it’s detecting.

It can’t focus on narrowing down and eliminating a specific set of errors because it’s confused by all that information.

Instead, focus on learning one verb at a time, and practice those conjugations until you no longer make mistakes.

Then move on to the next set of verb conjugations.

You unlock smaller bouts of neuroplasticity like this. And these sum up with each learning chunk, to add up to a lot of plasticity!

3. Give Yourself a Strong Enough “Why”

The Science of Learning Something NewHere’s another secret – you can access as much neuroplasticity as you could when you were younger under certain conditions.

And these conditions involve having a strong enough “why” – in other words, having a really powerful reason for learning.

Think about it like this.

What would motivate you to get out of bed at dawn more? Catching a flight for work, or a casual trip to the mall?

Chances are, missing your work trip would have serious repercussions.

It might set you back for a promotion, lead to negative testimonials from your employers, result in unhappy clients.

There’s the risk that you might lose your job, or face conflict at work.

This induces a state of stress.

And you probably already know where this is going, right?

This state of stress creates that chemical cocktail you read about earlier. Epinephrine, acetylcholine, and dopamine circulate your system, getting you alert, awake, focused and motivated.

It creates the perfect conditions for neuroplasticity because you have a strong enough “why” for what you’re doing.

This is much more powerful than passively taking part in new learning.

Using the example of learning French again – which would motivate you more? Learning French as a hobby, or learning French because you’re moving to a French-speaking country, where you’ll need the language for everyday life?

The latter, right?

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The brain often responds a lot more powerfully to avoid pain than it does to seek pleasure.

You might put off your trip to the mall or skip your Duolingo lesson to sleep in a bit. But you’d probably not want to risk that if it was going to cost you your job, right?

So, when taking on new learning, give yourself a strong reason “why” you’re pursuing it.

How will it impact your life? How will it improve your life? In what ways will you be better off in the future with this new skill?

Write these down and keep these in the forefront of your mind as you get into new learning.

4. Challenge Yourself Physically

The Science of Learning Something NewThis is something kids are always doing – climbing trees, hanging off furniture, jumping and rolling and falling without care.

As an adult, you might feel like it’s too childish or risky to do these things.

And of course, you must absolutely not put yourself in danger to try and achieve neuroplasticity. Challenging yourself physically doesn’t mean turning into a daredevil.

Instead, try out safer things like new workout regimes over the ones you’re used to. Try mountain biking, hiking, playing sports you’ve never tried, and so on.

What happens when you do this is that you challenge your existing sense of orientation.

This is a great way of alerting your brain into thinking something’s wrong and it needs to fix it.

Your brain detects an imbalance in your relationship with gravity when you try these novel physical challenges.

And as a result, it releases acetylcholine, epinephrine, and dopamine, for the reasons you already know.

This opens up the door for greater neuroplasticity!

As you can see, neuroscience proves how you can continue learning throughout your life, as long as you know how.

With the science of learning something new, I hope you feel empowered to take on any new learning, at any time!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™. 

Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

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