Learning happens inside our brain when new information connects with existing memory. When we are excited or enthusiastic our brain happens to do that much better.
In a famous experiment American psychologist, Hans Breiter put cocaine addicts into an MRI. The effect of the drug excited the addicts and the researcher saw a lot of activity in what’s called the Nucleus Accumbens. German scientists did the same experiment with young men and pictures of Porsche cars, which caused the same area to light up. When they did it with pictures of a Daihatsu.. it didn’t. What’s going on here?
As soon as we expect something nice to happen, the brain releases it’s happiness chemicals dopamine and endorphin as well as other neurotransmitters. While dopamine and endorphin delight us, the other neurotransmitters send information from A to B. This connects new information from outside the brain with stored memories inside… and that’s learning.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that everything “fun” helps us learn. Shopping, for example, makes us happy, but as German Neuroscientists Manfred Spitzer measured, it only lasts 10 seconds. Then the dopamine level drops and we have to shop more to bring it back up.
This happens because the brain releases neurotransmitters in anticipation of something nice. But once we get it, the dopamine rush ends and the information exchange slows. Accumulating new things, therefore, doesn’t make us happy, nor does it help us to learn. Being excited about something for a longer time or being surprised does.
For example: When we are excited to plan a trip with our friends or when we have an unexpected and inspiring conversation with a stranger, our brain releases neurotransmitters in abundance and we start recording with all our senses in high definition. The synapses add existing footage from the long-term memory to make it a creative and memorable experience. It’s like we turn on a learn turbo.
Neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Hüther even argues that young children can learn multiple languages and so many other things, mainly because of their ability to be excited. And most are excited about everything until they get held back to follow their interests by the expectations of their parents or schools.
When learning a new language in a boring class at age 35 however, we have little left to be excited about and hence we learn next to nothing. Prof. Hüther believes any 75-year old Chinese man, who falls in love with a young 65-year old British lady, will speak English very fast.
If you are able to constantly learn new things in an exciting way, the chemicals released in your brain are likely to outlive the pleasures of drugs or shopping. It seems as if happiness and learning not only come from the same region in our brain, but they also promote one another.
What is your experience? Is learning a side product of enthusiasm? Or can we learn without passion or interest? Share your thoughts in the comment below!