One of the physiological mechanisms that underpins the learning process has been called the ‘formation of neural pathways’. A neural pathway is like a specific software program; when an electric impulse travels along a specific ‘pathway’, it results in a specific action. In simple terms, the development of certain neural pathways, which in turn account for our ‘learned responses’, take place like this:
- pathways consist of a series of neurons beginning in our brain
- there are gaps between these neurons called synaptic gaps
- when we repeat or rehearse actions and behaviours the gaps become smaller
- the gaps become smaller because a substance called myelin gets laid down over the end part of the neuron, called a dendrite
- imagine the myelin dripping across the synaptic gap bit by bit, until it closes
- once the gap becomes closed, the electrical impulse travels faster and more easily along the pathway
- the more the action or behaviour is repeated, the more ‘embedded’ the pathway becomes
And now for the interesting part - studies have shown that when our body begins secreting the adrenaline hormone, more myelin is laid down along the end of the neuron than usual. In other words – learning can take place at a faster rate.
This makes sense when we think about it. During life threatening situations, our ancestors would have experienced ‘adrenal dump’ and would have made very strong associations with those experiences. Water-hole – crocodile – beware! For example; if our ancestors were slow at learning about life threatening situations, we may well have never been born. Remember, each of us is the end product of a long line of survivalists who lived long enough to procreate. To some degree we can all thank Adrenaline for our good fortune. Adrenaline is our friend.