Kids, Language & Brains


The Value of Overlearning

In the usual situation in which you stop training on a new skill immediately after you've mastered it, the area of the brain related to the skill remains plastic, still in a ready-to-learn state. Imagine that you now have the choice of training on another new if similar skill or of continuing to train on the first skill beyond the point of mastery.  If you want to maintain that first skill, you need to choose the second option.  Why?  Because the brain is so adept at learning new tasks that if you train on a second similar task while your brain is still in a plastic state, it appears the first skill will be overwritten. In this study, Takeo Watanabe, professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, one of its authors, focuses on the brain's flexibility and its ability to learn.   He found that overlearning causes the amount of glutamate in the brain to diminish, and it is this chemical that keeps the brain plastic, primed for learning.  At the same time, GABA, a chemical that stabilizes the brain, increases with overlearning.  This information is important for teachers who need to understand the value of establishing a good foundation on a basic topic before moving on to more complex but related elements of that topic.   Robert Goldstone, distinguished professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and not part of this study, urges discernment when deciding for or against overlearning.  He agrees overlearning has its benefits, but he cautions overlearning by itself is not enough; other learning techniques are also needed for reinforcement.  Kendra Pierre-Louis, Brain in the News, March 2017.

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