The human mind is an intricate marvel of complexity and adaptability. Yet there are undertakings that seem relatively easy to some people, but prove to be a tremendous challenge to others.

What determines if a new task is easy or difficult to learn? In NLP, we draw on existing, familiar, internal resources and apply them to the currently learning process. The following research reveals that this is a good strategy.

Featured as a cover story one the August 28, 2014 publication of Nature, a team of scientists has conducted a study that examines how the brain’s neural patterns respond during learning activities. The end result: they may have uncovered the secret behind successfully learning new skills.

The researchers conducted a series of monitored experiments to record brain activity under controlled learning simulations. They discovered that when a subject is given a learning task that is related to something they are already familiar with, the brain more readily accepts and assimilates the new instruction.

However, for completely unrelated learning tasks, where the subject had no previous comparable knowledge, learning was challenging and difficult.

The difference between the two types of learning is that the first involves recombining patterns that the brain already recognizes, to encompass a new goal. The second, learning tasks that are unrelated to the subject’s existing knowledge, means there are no existing patterns to lean on for support.

For example, someone who plays guitar will likely be able to learn to play the clarinet as well. Although one is a string instrument, whereas the other is wind, the basic musical concepts are part of the brain’s existing learning patterns.

These patterns are more readily adjusted to learn something completely new, such as a different instrument.

However, if the same person was also asked to learn how to change the oil in a car, but had no previous mechanical knowledge, it would prove to be an enormous challenge for them.

With the support of the National Institutes of Health’s branch department, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, researchers were able to make remarkable gains in charting exactly how the brain responds to the learning process.

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