You may have heard people refer to the brain as plastic. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow as you navigate the world around you. These brain changes underlie learning.

You have more than 80 billion neurons in your brain. And when you encounter or interact with something in your environment, some of those brain cells will become active, or “fire.” That firing results in the neuron sending a message across the synapse, or space between brain cells, to its neighbour.

Think of learning as the creation of new connections between networks of different brain cells. So, as you learn to walk, learn to read, or even learn the dreaded chain rule for calculus class, your brain cells are simply sending messages to other brain cells. Over time—and with practice—the connections between those cells become stronger as you master that skill. It’s like you’ve established a Wi-Fi link between the cells to make it easier for them to communicate, and those conversations guide you as you engage in a particular task.

Of course, it is also possible to weaken these learning networks. The less you engage in a particular task or skill, the weaker those connections between neurons become. Once you put that college calculus book down, it’s likely that the connections that were between cells will degrade as more time passes between derivative worksheets, and if you need calculus later in life, you’ll need to do more practice to get those skills back up to speed.