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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
tions are sculpted in other ways, for example, to allow one to see patterns. By overproducing synapses then selecting the right connections, the brain develops an organized wring diagram that functions optimally. The brain development process actually uses visual information entering from outside to become more precisely organized than it could with intrinsic molecular mechanisms alone. This external information is even more important for later cognitive development. The more a person interacts with the world, the more a person needs information from the world incorporated into the brain structures.
Synapse overproduction and selection may progress at different rates in different parts of the brain (Huttenlocher and Dabholkar, 1997). In the primary visual cortex, a peak in synapse density occurs relatively quickly. In the medial frontal cortex, a region clearly associated with higher cognitive functions, the process is more protracted: synapse production starts before birth and synapse density continues to increase until 5 or 6 years of age. The selection process, which corresponds conceptually to the main organization of patterns, continues during the next 4–5 years and ends around early adolescence. This lack of synchrony among cortical regions may also occur upon individual cortical neurons where different inputs may mature at different rates (see Juraska, 1982, on animal studies).
After the cycle of synapse overproduction and selection has run its course, additional changes occur in the brain. They appear to include both the modification of existing synapses and the addition of entirely new synapses to the brain. Research evidence (described in the next section) suggests that activity in the nervous system associated with learning experiences somehow causes nerve cells to create new synapses. Unlike the process of synapse overproduction and loss, synapse addition and modification are lifelong processes, driven by experience. In essence, the quality of information to which one is exposed and the amount of information one acquires is reflected throughout one’s life in the structure of the brain. This process is probably not the only way that information is stored in the brain, but it is a very important way that provides insight into how people learn.
EXPERIENCES AND ENVIRONMENTS FOR BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
Alterations in the brain that occur during learning seem to make the nerve cells more efficient or powerful. Animals raised in complex environments have a greater volume of capillaries per nerve cell—and therefore a greater supply of blood to the brain—than the caged animals, regardless of whether the caged animal lived alone or with companions (Black et al., 1987). (Capillaries are the tiny blood vessels that supply oxygen and other nutrients to the brain.) In this way experience increases the overall quality