Never Stop Learning

Friday Learning Notes

Within you is the most complex structure in the known universe.

It’s even more complex than an entire galaxy. It’s your brain. With over 100 billion neurons that are each connected directly with 10,000 others — there are some 100 trillion nerve connections inside your head.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form when within thee the universe is folded?” -Baha’u’llah

Here is another way to think about how far reaching the connectors in your brain are: if each neuron of a single human brain were laid end to end, they could be wrapped around the Earth twice over.

This wondrous thing — your brain — is why you never stop learning. It begs the question: are there limits to human potential?

Last week we talked about Omidyar Network’s Learning for Impact Cycle that can improve our decision making and allow us to have greater impact.

As we choose the sometimes difficult path of contributing to system change and implementing learning cycles, it helps to realize that all of these efforts also benefit our brains.

This week, I would like to share three amazing advances that neuroscience is discovering about learning.

Our brains are very adaptable

For a long time neuroscientists believed that parts of the brain were “wired” to do only one thing (like speech) and that brains can’t grow new neurons. This implied a set limit to how much we can advance and how much new knowledge we could acquire.

We now know that even though some functions may be generally localized in certain parts of the brain, when needed, the brain can rewire and build new pathways. A great example of this is a woman from Virginia named Michelle Mack, who is able to live a fairly normal life despite being born with only half of a brain. The remaining half of her brain adapted to assume a whole brain’s functions.

The brain has far more “plasticity” than anyone imagined, and not just in extreme circumstances. Our brains encourage creativity, and our neurons can move to new locations as we learn.

For more info check out this book: “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge

Learning is a lifelong activity

The brain has the potential to NEVER stop learning. In fact, people whose jobs require interacting with other people tend to have longer-lasting memory and thinking abilities compared to people who do less complex work.

For more information on this subject you may like “How We Learn and Why It Happens” by Benedict Carey

Meditation and mindfulness have real effects on the brain

Brain before and after 10 minute meditation

Neuroscientists are discovering meditation and other mindfulness techniques can change both the size and structure of the brain. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar, a researcher from Harvard, found that meditation thickened four important regions of the brain.

In her 8-week study, participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day (some only a few days a week) practicing meditation at home. This mindfulness served as a form of mental exercise that increased the volume of the participants’ brains including the left hippocampus, which is the region associated with learning and cognition.

By systematically building in learning challenges and reflection into our work we are in fact enhancing our brains — which have far more potential than anyone can fully grasp. So here are some questions for reflection:

  1. Have the insights shifted your understanding or assumptions about the capacity of the brain? If so, how?
  2. How do you keep your own brain healthy?
  3. Are there limits to human potential?



“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” — Henry Ford

Our Friday Learning Notes series is designed to share insights from Omidyar Network’s journey to become a best-in-class learning organization. Grab a cup of coffee and start your own Friday morning learning journey! *warning: side effects of regular reading may include improved mood, upswing in dinner party conversation, and/or increased desire to cultivate learning for social impact