“If I Had a Better Brain!”

Brain Health, Plasticity, Media and Learning can be a Perfect Storm

Posted Aug 20, 2013

                                   Luskin's Learning Psychology Series, No. 8              

                                                       “If I Had a Better Brain!”

                        Brain Health, Plasticity, Media and Learning Create a Perfect Storm”

                        By Dr. Bernard Luskin, LMFT


Understanding your brain can change your life

     Starting a new school term triggers thoughts about learning and student success. In 2002, I published “Casting the Net Over Global Learning.” The book included a chapter called, “If I only had a brain.” Following is new knowledge that has emerged reinforcing the notion that enlightened self interest is foundational and learning requires both an understanding of how the brain works as well as addressing how media and environment influence learning.

New knowledge

     We now know that the brain is remarkably plastic. It can be maintained and improved in middle and old age and can continue to adapt and learn throughout life. The concept of neuroplasticity, a theory that was born in the mid-1800s is now substantially better understood revealing new positive insights about learning. Today, we also know that Intelligence is not fixed. Intelligence can continue formation and adaptation throughout our lives. We can continue learning as long as we live. Learning and living are intimately entwined. New research findings in brain science increasingly influences the way we understand learning, personal development and improved performance.

What does Brain Plasticity mean for Learning?

     Neurologist educator Judy Willis, M.D. notes that neuroplasticity may be defined as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brains. We know now that when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks, i.e., groups of neurons that fire together, create electrochemical pathways that shape themselves according to that specific performance activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or "prune," the connecting cells that formed the pathways. Use it or lose it is a real phenomena in the health of the brain. On the other hand, learning psychologist’s assert that "cells that fire together, wire together.” We know that over time neurological links become thicker from repetition, establishing brain maps that link and network various parts of the brain. In learning, we know that practice increases the permanency of memory. The more times a network is stimulated, the stronger and more efficient it becomes. Since this is the case, it is important to understand that “only perfect practice makes perfect, and therefore repetition of imperfect practice indelebalizes imperfection. Imperfect practice is a negative. Perfect practice is a positive.

     Our brains are suffused with a vast number of independent and synergistic networks. All incoming information is processed through these networks. All information already stored in our brains influences how we think and learn. Learning is cumulative.

The Brain is a Learning Muscle

     Understanding the nature of brain improvement because of its neuroplasticity can have the effect of improving motivational learning. When learners understand that they can improve their minds through thinking, increased motivation occurs. Students who believe this do better.

      Your brain is both emotional (sensory) and cognitive (data centric). Each of these capabilities directly relates to learning. Another purpose here is to begin to explore how the internet and media affect the brain and facilitate learning. Inserting the internet and new media methods as a basis for discussion offers a new type of convergence leading to improved learning. My point is that those who conceive and design media and internet-centric learning systems will be wise to study brain physiology in addition to specific theories in learning psychology so they may build programs using the necessary fundamentals for effective learning products and outcomes.

Fast facts tell us that:

• Perfect practice, perfect practice, perfect practice makes perfect - Repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain. It is a form of brain exercise.

 • Context is key -  Learning requires the formation of new or stronger neural connections. It makes sense to prioritize activities that help students tap into already-existing pathways. For example, integrating academic subjects or creating class projects relevant to their lives improves understanding and recall. Discovery trumps rote memorization. "Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships" between concepts, reports Willis, "they generate greater brain cell activity and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval."

 • Breaking through the barriers - Dispelling the myth that intelligence is totally predetermined may ease students' minds and encourage them to use their brains. Willis notes that this is true, "Especially for students who believe they are 'not smart. The realization that they can literally change their brains through study and review is empowering."

Selected Key Concepts in Learning

1. Think of the brain as a muscle that can continue to maintain and improve itself through use.

2. Understand that only perfect practice makes perfect – you learn the mistake when you practice a mistake.

3. Repetition increases memory, so, repeat, repeat, repeat.

4. Visualization and imagining aids memory.

5. Mnemonic analogies aid learning. Many mnemonic techniques are available.

6. Psychovisualization is a way to visualize perfect behavior and is an asset in training.

7. Neurolinguistic programming, i.e., positive language, and self-talk using words and thoughts lead  to positive thoughts and behaviors and improvement. “You got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative. Don’t mess with mister in-between,” i.e., this song by Paul McCartney says it best.

8. Attention cycles are normal, physiological and are based on body rhythms. Cycling attention is normal. High attention increases focus, absence of presence diminishes memory.

9. Results of classroom learning or learning online are showing equal results.

10. The effective use of media in learning is increasing. See Professsor Saguta Mitra and "The Hole in the Wall" project: www.hole-in-the-wall.com/

11. Imagining the virtual classroom is one of the most significantly evolving learning metaphors of the 21st century.

Learning in the Virtual Classroom

     Many of us who are active in The Society for Media Psychology and Technology, Division 46 of the American Psychological Association are researching, studying and teaching about new developments in learning that uses media in the classroom, in online virtual classroom learning. We apply the media psychology of learning, and study the implications of social media in learning, each of which is at the forefront in identifying ways to improve education worldwide.

     As a learning psychologist, coach and educator, I urge those with whom I work to continually ask the question, “What needs to change and what needs to remain the same?” In examining media and learning, demographic and generational differences are now acknowledged. There is a difference between digital natives and digital immigrants, i.e., those who use media naturally and are born to it, and those who have had increasingly sophisticated media infused into their lives throughout the years. Assimilation of technique is different between natives and immigrants.

     A final purpose of this essay is simply to highlight the importance of understanding more about how we learn and share of what we know about learning with a wider professional audience. Brain Imaging, (MRI), new techniques of assessment of learning and behavior, advancing knowledge about the human genome and the fact that the internet and the cloud are beyond technology and may now be thought of as a worldwide web of thoughts, words and sentences is an advance in thinking. Our world continues to shrink. We are evolving in new ways. Knowledge is coming so fast that we must realize that we know more than we understand. It is important to be positive and realize that we are all pioneers in a wonderland of opportunity. Simple times are gone forever. The brain is the muscle of learning. Media can be an enhancement of choice. To create a better learning environment for all, we must continually analyze the question, “What needs to change and what needs to remain the same?”


Dr. Bernard Luskin is Chancellor, Ventura County Community College District in California. He is President-Emeritus of The Society for Media Psychology and Technology, Division 46 of the American Psychological Association, from whom he received a lifetime achievement award for contributions to the field of media psychology. Bernie Luskin has been CEO of eight colleges and universities, Chairman of the Board of the American Association of Community Colleges and CEO of divisions of Fortune 500 companies, including Philips Interactive Media and Jones Education Networks. He received two Emmys for documentary television programs from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and was executive producer of the first Sesame Street, Grolier’s Encyclopedia, Compton’s Encyclopedia and many other interactive CD’s. He is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and School Psychologist. His consulting company is: www.LuskinInternational.com, email: BernieLuskin@gmail.com.

Contributors: Thanks to Dr. Toni Luskin and Ms. Susana Bojorquez for your help in preparing and posting this article.


Luskin, B. J. (2002). “If I Only Had a Brain,” Casting the Net Over Global Learning (1 ed. Vol. 1). Los Angeles: Griffin.

Luskin, B. J., Friedland, L. (1998). Division 46 Taskforce Study of New Career Opportunities in the Emerging Field of Media Psychology, a Study of New Career Opportunities in the Emerging Field of Media Psychology. Los Angeles, American Psychological Association.

Willis, J. (MD), (2006). Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist/Classroom Teacher

Willis, J.(MD), (2007)Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom,