final answers, to questions of great interest to educators. There is growing evidence that both the developing and the mature brain are structurally altered when learning occurs. Thus, these structural changes are believed to encode the learning in the brain. Studies have found alterations in the weight and thickness of the cerebral cortex of rats that had direct contact with a stimulating physical environment and an interactive social group. Subsequent work has revealed underlying changes in the structure of nerve cells and of the tissues that support their function. The nerve cells have a greater number of the synapses through which they communicate with each other. The structure of the nerve cells themselves is correspondingly altered. Under at least some conditions, both astrocytes that provide support to the neurons and the capillaries that supply blood may also be altered. The learning of specific tasks appears to alter the specific regions of the brain involved in the task. These findings suggest that the brain is a dynamic organ, shaped to a great extent by experience—by what a living being does, and has done.


It is often popularly argued that advances in the understanding of brain development and mechanisms of learning have substantial implications for education and the learning sciences. In addition, certain brain scientists have offered advice, often with a tenuous scientific basis, that has been incorporated into publications designed for educators (see, e.g., Sylwester, 1995:Ch. 7). Neuroscience has advanced to the point where it is time to think critically about the form in which research information is made available to educators so that it is interpreted appropriately for practice—identifying which research findings are ready for implementation and which are not.

This chapter reviews the evidence for the effects of experience on brain development, the adaptability of the brain for alternative pathways to learning, and the impact of experience on memory. Several findings about the brain and the mind are clear and lead to the next research topics:

  1. The functional organization of the brain and the mind depends on and benefits positively from experience.

  2. Development is not merely a biologically driven unfolding process, but also an active process that derives essential information from experience.

  3. Research has shown that some experiences have the most powerful effects during specific sensitive periods, while others can affect the brain over a much longer time span.

  4. An important issue that needs to be determined in relation to educa-

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement