I have been reading for a long time things like “It has been proved that Serious Games help you learn”. But usually this kind of sentences end there and give no further explanations. So I have been digging around to know a little bit more about how our brains work when we try to learn and this is what I have found:
Imagine that you have to drive from your home to your office. You will probably do it without further thinking. Now think about the route from home to that little shop you once went to and is in that neighbourhood you don’t really know well. You have created a pattern to drive to your office, but not one to drive to the shop.
Those mental paths that you create to go from one point to another, are similar to the neuronal paths or neuronal patterns that your brain creates to learn. Your neurons need to know where to go. The more you repeat what you are learning, the stronger the pattern is fixed in your mind. Imagine games like Tetris or Candy Crush. The more you practice, the easier you understand the game. Repetition is good for remembering things and when repetition is fun instead of boring, neuronal patterns are easily created.
When you do something you don’t like to do, your brain activates the same area that uses when you are in pain: this is called the insular cortex. This “pain” lasts just a few moments, but it is enough to force your brain to try to avoid what it is associating with something harmful. So when you focus in things like study, it becomes more difficult because… Your own brain is trying to distract you!! Playing video games don’t activate the insular cortex because you relate them with fun! So you will have one less difficulty to beat when you are trying to learn something
As we have seen, we have to create patterns. Patterns are created focusing in what we are learning, really really concentrating in it. That is what we have been doing all our lives to learn, isn’t it? So why scientists think that diffused learning is so important? When your brain is focused, your neurons act like… let’s say… robots. They obey tight rules to go where they need. This happens when you concentrate in a task and it has to be the first step when learning something new.
But, have you ever found out the solution to a difficult problem while you were taking a shower, running, driving or listening to music? When we relax, our neurons act like… dancers! They move around more freely and diffused mode is activated. This mean that neurons are able to do unusual connections that in the focused mode would have been unaccesible. When using Serious Games, learning content is just one part of the process. Playing is the core of the experience. And when you play, you relax and relaxing with all those new concepts fresh in your mind, your diffuse thinking helps you fix them deeper and deeper.
Why do kids learn languages easier than adults? Our brains work in different ways, but, in a more specific way, maybe adults try too hard!! A theory developed by a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, explains that some parts of learning are easier to learn when you don’t overthink them.
Think about grammar rules in that second language you are trying to learn. For Spanish speakers for example, learning how to use English phrasal verbs is just impossible. Get on, get by, get about, get off, get along, get away… (seriously… couldn’t you create different words…?) We memorize lists and lists but never use them properly. This is even counterproductive so it seems that effort is not the way to do it! Just leave it alone and enjoy music, books, movies… You will read them so many times that will become fixed in your brain and you will find that they just sound right the way they are. This kind of subtleties of languages (Morphology for example) are the ones that can be easier to learn by turning off your effort. Like kids do. Like Serious Games do.
If you are interested about how neurology and learning interact, I recommend you to take Coursera’s course “Learning to Learn” an engaging and fun way of better understanding our brains and habits.