The Learning Brain

Course No. 1569
Professor Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 1569
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover the "SCoRe" learning process.
  • numbers Unearth the most effective study habits.
  • numbers Master the four factors of motivation.

Course Overview

One of the most complicated and advanced computers on Earth can’t be purchased in any store. This astonishing device, responsible for storing and retrieving vast quantities of information that can be accessed at a moment’s notice, is the human brain. How does such a dynamic and powerful machine make memories, learn a language, and remember how to drive a car? What habits can we adopt to learn more effectively throughout our lives? And how do factors like traumatic injuries, stress, and mood affect our grey matter? The answers to these questions are merely the tip of the iceberg in The Learning Brain.

These 24 half-hour lectures offer in-depth and surprising lessons on how the brain learns and remembers. You begin your journey by focusing on which parts of the brain are responsible for different kinds of memory, from long-term memory for personal experiences and memorized facts to short-term memory, and how these memory systems work on a psychological and biological level. You’ll acquire a new understanding of how amnesia, aging, and sleep affect your brain. You’ll also discover better ways to absorb and retain all kinds of information in all stages of life. This course is chock full of valuable information whether you’re learning a new language at 60 or discovering calculus at 16. If you need better study habits, struggle with learning a new skill, or just worry about memories fading with age, The Learning Brainprovides illuminating insights and advice.

Map Your Brain’s Memory Areas

You’ll discover that the brain acquires, retains, and recalls information in several distinct ways.

  • Explicit Learning refers to learning information that is consciously available and can be put into words. One example is “semantic memory,” which involves impersonal fact-based memories, such as the distance from the Earth to the sun or the capitals of different nations.
  • Implicit Learning, by contrast, is learning that is unconscious and harder to put into words. One particularly important type of implicit learning is “procedural learning,” which is the learning of new skills such as playing the piano or playing golf.

As you learn new information and skills, you also put your working memory to use. Working memory is the cognitive system we use to hold on to information for just a few seconds or minutes at a time. For example, adding two two-digit numbers in your head or remembering the next step of a recipe while preparing a meal both utilize working memory.

While distinguishing the different learning systems that we use every day, Professor Polk also explains which regions of the brain underlie these various functions. Scientists use modern technology like fMRI and PET scans to see which parts of the brain are activated during different types of learning. By mapping out the brain in this way, doctors can isolate and treat brain damage, specific learning disabilities, and behavioral anomalies better than ever before.

Tackle Sensitive Psychological Issues

Specific learning disabilities are also common in children around the globe, and they can be detrimental as well as disheartening. Professor Polk covers a number of both common and lesser-known roadblocks to learning that result from these impairments. While primarily focusing on dyslexia, Professor Polk discusses how learning disabilities affect children in school and how such disabilities are manifested in the brain.

Can learning sometimes be more harmful than helpful? The answer is yes. While Professor Polk delves more deeply into bad habits with his previous course, The Addictive Brain, here he briefly covers the effects of addictive substances on your brain and how drugs of abuse can hijack the very mechanisms that allow us to learn so effectively. Specifically, all addictive drugs lead to the release of abnormal amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which fools the brain into reinforcing drug-taking behavior, even though it’s harmful. With repeated drug use, this reinforcement can lead to irresistible cravings and to the downward spiral of harmful behavior associated with addiction.

Professor Polk presents the latest scientific evidence on these conditions. You’ll find a cornucopia of valuable information to better educate yourself, whether you or a loved one struggles with a learning-related problem, or whether you’re simply seeking to better understand how the brain works.

Learn to Learn

Haven’t we all stayed up until dawn cramming for a test, at some point in our life? Or, haven’t we all read and re-read the same paragraph in a book or in a speech we have to give, assuming we’ve memorized it, only to fail to remember it the next day? As it turns out, there are several popular studying habits and learning methods that range from helpful to harmful, and Professor Polk untangles this web in several lectures throughout the course.

  • Learn how to “SCoRe.” That is to say, Space out your practice, Challenge yourself at just the right level of difficulty, and Randomize your studies.
  • Master the four factors of motivation. Discover “self-efficacy,” or your confidence in your ability to learn; “perceived control,” which is the extent you believe you control how much you learn about a subject; “intrinsic motivation,” defined as wanting to learn something; and finally “value,” or how much you believe that what you’re learning truly matters.
  • Unearth the most-effective study habits. From highlighting and underlining key phrases in books to using flash cards, from staying focused on one subject to testing yourself, not all study techniques are created equal. Find out which ones work best—and worst.

Neuroscience, Not Brain Surgery

Even with no prior experience in psychology, by taking this course you’ll soon have a working knowledge of how we make and retrieve memories, learn new skills, and get better results from studying, all from the vantage point of psychology, neuroscience, and biology. With a renowned psychology professor as your guide, The Learning Brainoffers facts, techniques, and practical knowledge with real-world applications. Whether you are a student in school, a student of life, or just curious about how your own mind works, this course not only improves your understanding of learning, but it also can help you become a better learner yourself.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Learning 101
    Beginning with a clear, working definition of the concept of “learning,” Professor Polk eases you into a course overview with simple examples of some of the topics that will be covered, including how scientists study learning, the neural basis of learning, and effective learning strategies. x
  • 2
    What Amnesia Teaches Us about Learning
    In the 1950s, a Connecticut man named Henry Molaison became an unfortunate but invaluable source of information about how learning is implemented in the human brain after an experimental brain surgery led to profound amnesia. Studies of how he could (and couldn’t) learn—and what those studies uncover about how the rest of us learn—are detailed in this revealing lecture. x
  • 3
    Conscious, Explicit Learning
    In this lecture, we discover that we can remember visual information better than verbal information, and that we remember vivid images better than ordinary ones. We also discover that how much you already know about a topic can have a profound influence on how easy it is to learn new information about it. These examples demonstrate conscious “explicit learning.” You may even learn how to memorize your grocery list better. x
  • 4
    Episodic Memory and Eyewitness Testimony
    Any fan of courtroom drama has seen the powerful influence that the testimony of an eyewitness can have on legal proceedings. But how reliable is our memory for events that we personally witness? In this lecture, we learn that much of what we remember is often a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened, rather than an accurate memory of what actually happened. We also discover just how susceptible eyewitness memories are to distortion, and how being asked seemingly innocuous questions can lead to substantial errors in our memory. Married couples, enter at your own risk. x
  • 5
    Semantic Memory
    How do you know the distance to the Earth from the Sun? With no first-hand experience, we use “semantic memory”—impersonal, fact-based memory—for world knowledge. Semantic memory also includes our grouping or categorizing of information—but how do our brains do that? Professor Polk makes short, easy work of the subject. x
  • 6
    The Neural Basis of Explicit Learning
    Take a fantastic voyage into your brain to uncover the physical mechanisms involved in forming explicit memories. The voyage begins in the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped structure in each temporal lobe, where explicit learning begins. It continues out to the cerebral cortex—the grey matter on the outside of the brain—where memories eventually become consolidated and integrated with other memories. x
  • 7
    Strategies for Effective Explicit Learning
    Set your highlighters and pens down and stop re-reading your material! These are actually two of the least-effective study techniques. Professor Polk explains why these old techniques don't really work and offers four different, and more efficient, approaches to studying, which have been scientifically demonstrated to work more effectively. x
  • 8
    Controversies in Explicit Learning Research
    To wrap up the course’s section on conscious, explicit learning, Professor Polk delivers an enticing “myth-busting” talk about controversial topics in the field. Do different students have different learning styles and, if so, should we tailor our teaching methods to match the learning styles of individual students? Can playing Mozart increase your baby’s intelligence? Do people repress traumatic memories and can such repressed memories later re-emerge? Professor Polk cuts through the hype and lays out the actual scientific findings related to each of these controversies. x
  • 9
    Unconscious, Implicit Learning
    In this lecture, The Learning Brain switches gears from explicit to implicit learning, that is, learning that is unconscious and hard to verbalize. Discover non-associative learning, like learning to ignore a fan blowing in a room, as well as associative learning, such as conditioning, through which positive and negative reinforcement can shape behaviors over time. x
  • 10
    The Psychology of Skill Learning
    Compare the first time you tried to tie your shoes to your present-day, shoelace-tying mastery. How did you come such a long way? Practice alone doesn't begin to cover the intricate process of your brain learning a skill. See which stages are involved in acquiring skill-based knowledge and how you put them all together, with this insightful discussion. x
  • 11
    Language Acquisition
    Learning a new language is labor-intensive and complicated, so how do toddlers do it so easily? This lecture details how our brains progress from single-word associations to forming full, original sentences, as well as how babies learn to overcome obstacles like learning irregular past-tense verb forms (look/looked versus run/ran, for example). x
  • 12
    The Neural Basis of Implicit Learning
    Turn again to the neural components of learning to better understand how unconscious, implicit learning occurs in your brain. You actually have more connections between the neurons in your brain than there are stars in our galaxy, and learning involves strengthening and weakening these connections in very specific ways. Explore how your brain does so, how it learns to predict rewards, and the role that dopamine plays in the learning process. x
  • 13
    Strategies for Effective Skill Learning
    Beginning the second half of this course, we return to more practical applications of learning science. Care to step up your tennis, golf, or typing game? This series of sometimes counterintuitive, yet wildly effective, tips and tricks will surprise you. As always, proven studies and examples abound. x
  • 14
    Learning Bad Habits: Addiction
    How can learning go wrong? Using the knowledge you've been taught so far, you can unmask the dark side of unconscious associations and reward-seeking behavior: addictions to drugs and alcohol. Professor Polk delves into the psychological, chemical, and neural mechanisms underlying addiction to help understand this serious and delicate subject. x
  • 15
    Introduction to Working Memory
    Begin with an overview of working (or short-term) memory, which is vital to rational thought. This lecture introduces you to the idea of working memory and discusses one of the most important mechanisms involved, the “phonological loop,” which we use to store language sounds like words for brief periods of time. x
  • 16
    Components of Working Memory
    Several important components of working memory are covered here: the visuospatial sketchpad, which retains images from both recent perception and from long-term memory; the central executive, which decides which cognitive functions to perform and when to perform them; and the episodic buffer, which links information from other working memory components into integrated wholes. x
  • 17
    The Neural Basis of Working Memory
    Diving back into the brain itself, this lecture explores the neuroscience behind working memory in much the same way earlier lectures examined explicit memory and implicit memory. Are different parts of the brain responsible for storing visual information versus verbal information in working memory? Prepare for an illuminating ride. x
  • 18
    Training Your Working Memory
    Psychological elements of working memory? Check. Neurological elements? Check. Next, we learn about the controversial topic of improving your working memory. Some scientists believe that training your working memory can improve your overall intelligence and reduce ADHD symptoms; others disagree. Both sides of these widely debated controversies are discussed. x
  • 19
    How Motivation Affects Learning
    Enjoy this eye-opening discussion about our drive—or lack thereof— to learn, and the enormous impact our motivation can have. Our personal interest in a subject, our belief in our own ability to learn it, and several other factors profoundly impact what we retain about that subject. Improve your learning ability today with this practical lecture. x
  • 20
    How Stress and Emotion Affect Learning
    Ask almost anyone where they were when they heard about major events like the 9/11 attacks or the Challenger explosion and they remember immediately. Why, psychologically, do those memories remain so vivid? And do short, quick moments of stress versus chronic stress affect our memories differently? How? These answers and more await you. x
  • 21
    How Sleep Affects Learning
    If you think “getting a good night’s rest” is the only way that sleep affects learning, think again. Our brain is often just as active during sleep as it is while we’re awake, and what happens at a neural level during sleep has a profound impact on what we remember, and what we forget. Furthermore, different stages of sleep influence different kinds of learning and memory, and that’s just the beginning. x
  • 22
    How Aging Affects Learning
    Here’s another fascinating surprise: Aging does not inevitably lead to learning and memory problems. In fact, there are substantial differences in how aging affects different cognitive functions and in how it affects different people. Fortunately, Professor Polk demonstrates several proven—and enjoyable—methods of maintaining and even improving our brains as we get older. x
  • 23
    Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities
    In this, the fifth and final lecture on factors that influence learning and memory, several common learning disabilities are defined and explored. Learn about dyslexia, the most common learning disability, including its symptoms, the neural mechanisms that underlie it, and how difficulty in recognizing and manipulating phonemes—the set of basic sounds that get combined to form words—plays a large role. x
  • 24
    Optimizing Your Learning
    Professor Polk wraps things up by discussing five strategies that can make you a better learner. These strategies draw on and integrate some of the key themes that have appeared throughout the rest of this Great Course. And, putting them into practice in your own life can help you to become the best learner you can be. x

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Video DVD
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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 264-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 264-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos and illustrations
  • Suggested reading
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Thad A. Polk

About Your Professor

Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Professor Thad A. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the...
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The Learning Brain is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 47.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome book Excellent book! The topics are on point! I will definitely recommend this to anyone I know! Lot’s of knowledge!
Date published: 2020-06-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More practical usage The course would have been more useful if the sessions on how to learn and remember effectively had been emphasized further, with less description of the experiments that led to particular findings.
Date published: 2020-04-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The brain is an organ that we do not know significant signs and symptoms as when we need help or how we can improve the functioning on our benefit. Aging is not easy and I am in the group of over 60. It is not easy to remember where I place the car key or other items that I used frequently if I do not place it in the same place where I usually do. This course is beneficial to me because the professor talks about different diagnosis and techniques to learn and remember more effectively. The lessons description are very informative to me . Always the price was a reason why I did not buy the course before. I will look for different courses if the prices are with in my budget. Thank you
Date published: 2020-02-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Have not vompleted but it is interesting very pleased so far. Have not finished it yet, will be reviwing it several times.
Date published: 2020-02-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots of good information As a parent, counselor and educator, I have always been interested in learning styles and the neurobiology of learning. As a visual learner, I find the background behind the professor very distracting; it is too busy, and takes away from the message and the learning experience. The course content and professor are very good. Maybe someone who is not as visual as I am, will do just fine with the content.
Date published: 2020-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great information!! I like the format of the lectures. The information is really helpful to me both personally and professionally. I like that I can watch when it's convenient for me.
Date published: 2020-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So far impressed. Have only done a few lessons on 3 different courses. Like the content, but occasionally gets a bit too much with history (art). But basically happy!
Date published: 2020-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Waste of money This course really was kind of useless. No relevant information.
Date published: 2020-01-23
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