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How Your Brain Changes As You Learn a New Skill

Learning new skills is one of the best ways to make yourself both marketable and happy, but actually doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. The science behind how we learn is the foundation for teaching yourself new skills. Here’s what we know about learning a new skill.

Our brains are still a bit of a mystery. We’ll likely be learning about how our brain works for years to come, but we are starting to get a better idea of how we learn new things. To that end, let’s start by talking about what happens in your brain as you take on a new skillset before moving onto some of the scientifically effective ways to learn.

Every time you learn something new, your brain changes in a pretty substantial way. In turn, this makes other parts of your life easier because the benefits of learning stretch further than just being good at something. As The New Yorker points out, learning a new skill has all kinds of unexpected benefits, including improving working memory, better verbal intelligence, and increased language skills. Likewise, as you learn a new skill, the skill actually gets easier to do. Cornell University explains what’s going on:Specifically, training resulted in decreased activity in brain regions involved in effortful control and attention that closely overlap with the frontoparietal control and dorsal attention networks. Increased activity was found after training, however, in the default network that is involved in self-reflective activities, including future planning or even day dreaming. Thus, skill mastery is associated with increased activity in areas not engaged in skill performance, and this shift can be detected in the large-scale networks of the brain.

Essentially, the more adept you become at a skill, the less work your brain has to do. Over time, a skill becomes automatic and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill. Scientific American breaks it all down like so: Many different events can increase a synapse’s strength when we learn new skills. The process that we understand best is called long-term potentiation, in which repeatedly stimulating two neurons at the same time fortifies the link between them. After a strong connection is established between these neurons, stimulating the first neuron will more likely excite the second.

In addition to making existing synapses more robust, learning causes the brain to grow larger. Optical imaging allows researchers to visualize this growth in animals. For instance, when a rat learns a difficult skill, such as reaching through a hole for a pellet of food, within minutes new protrusions, called dendritic spines, grow on the synapses in its motor cortex, the region that allows animals to plan and execute movements.

The more connections between neurons are formed, the more we learn, and the more information we retain. As those connection get stronger, the less we have to think about what we’re doing, which means we can get better at other facets of a set of skills.