The Adult Brain Makes New Neurons and Effortful Learning Keeps Them Alive

The title of this blog post is the same title as an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science 2014 23:311 (DOI: 10.1177/0963721414540167) by Tracey J. Shors of Rutgers University.. The healthymemory blog has posted many pieces emphasizing that new neurons continue to be developed until we die. The hippocampus produces thousands of new neurons each day. Unfortunately a significant number of them die and do so within just a few weeks after their birth. So the critical question is how to save these neurons from an untimely death.

As the title states the answer is effortful learning. Although the cited research did not involve human subjects, two important facts need to be remembered. It is difficult and expensive to conduct similar research with humans. And findings from the vast majority of research using non-human subjects do generalize to population of humans.

It has been noted many times in the healthymemory blog that physical exercise facilitates neurogenssis. However, many of these new cells do not survive. It takes effortful learning for there to be a lasting preferential effect on the survival of these new neurons.

Fortunately Dr. Shors concluded the article with a discussion of the relevance of these findings for humans. Here are four recommendations:

  1. spacing trials of training or learning over longer periods of time. (which has been discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts).

  2. Self-testing (which has been mentioned on previous healthymemory blog posts).

  3. varying the conditions of training or learning

  4. interleaving different topics and/or skills within the same training session.

The fourth item on interleaving different topics or skills might sound like a contradiction of the many healthymemory blog posts warning against the dangers of multi-tasking. The difference here is the time laps between switching. Here the time laps are substantially longer than those commonly done in multi-tasking.

The four recommendations provide vice on how to do new learning. The two important points for the survival of new neurons are:

  1. Learn new knowledge of skills.

  2. The learning should be effortful, requiring mental effort.

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