But to give your question a more thorough answer, there are many areas of the brain involved in study, if not the entire brain! First let's look at what studying is. You decide what material you want to study, you intake it (read a book, watch a youtube video, or listen to a podcast), you analyze the data to determine the material worth remembering, then you remember. Don't forget to focus! Your brain also has to maintain attention, this involves deciding to ignore other things around you that are not important to the task at hand.
After you have taken in the information you must prove to yourself or someone else that you have mastery over that material. That involves selective memory, logical processing, and some form of communication, be it verbal, written, or interpretive dance.
As you can see, there is a lot involved with studying.
Let's break some of these things down.
The obvious place to start is the input phase. How does that piece of data get in to your head? Let's say you are reading. Your eyes have little neural networks in them that process edges and color differences. This information is sent through the optic nerve to a part of the Thalamus called the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus. This area takes the somewhat processed data from the eye and processes it further before sending it on to the Visual Cortex. Here the stream branches into two pathways, both diffused through the cerebral cortex. One pathway (dorsal) deals with the "How" or "Where" qualities of the visual information (such as how to safely get that chip into your mouth), while the other (ventral) deals with the "What" (wait, is that a chip or a leaf?). These pathways also feed into the Wernicke's region, which is known mostly as a language center but is also chiefly responsible for what we understand as consciousness.
Lastly this information feeds into the Visual Association areas of the Cortex. Here, your brain makes connections between what it is seeing now and what it has seen before. When reading, this involves associating letters and words with concepts already understood, where the learning occurs when new pathways are formed in the Associative Cortex such that “apple” goes from meaning just “food” to meaning “food” and “apparent source of the concept of gravity”. The concept of pattern recognition and associative memory is very important in consciousness at it's basic levels but especially when studying.
The next important aspect is the memory itself. This isn't fully understood. There is a common misconception that memories are stored in the nerves themselves. Nerve cells should not be thought of as containers of information. At our current level of understanding they more resemble logic gates, where certain stimuli up-regulate or down-regulate expression of some downstream process. Thus memories are in many ways the result of neural networks developing in response to extreme or repeated stimuli. As stimuli comes in, it is interpreted by the Amygdala for emotional content, goes through the Associative Cortex and Wernicke's region to identify it, then the Hippocampus coordinates with the Entorhinal Cortex and other areas of the Cerebral Cortex to develop memories through a process called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). This process is largely mediated by NMDA glutamate receptors but also occurs through secondary messenger systems which alter gene expression, receptor density, protein/enzyme production, and even the size and shape of the neural connections themselves. Another phenomenon called Neural Pruning occurs in development and to some extent throughout life, where excess projections are produced and connections are strengthened or cut off based on their general activity levels. Thus, we begin to see that memory, while not fully understood, is becoming understandable through associative neural networks, their connections, and potentiation of individual nerve cells.
The last function we will explore today is arguably the most important. This is the Executive Function. It encompasses most of the more “human” characteristics of our consciousness. That is, reasoning, judgment, anticipation, conflict resolution, decision making, selective attention, working memory and planning. These higher order functions, as they are referred to, are primarily processed within the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) with parallel processing occurring outside of and feeding back to the PFC. The PFC essentially acts as the pilot of the brain, steering activity towards certain networks or others resulting in vastly different behavioral expressions based on “decisions” made within the PFC. These executive functions are significant for many reasons but for now let's look at how they contribute to studying.
As we said earlier, a large part of studying consists of selecting the appropriate data and paying attention to it despite car horns or annoying siblings, etc. This is accomplished through judging sensory input streams, resolving conflict between competing input, using selective attention and working memory to ensure only the relevant sensory inputs are committed to memory, and then using anticipation and planning to decide how to use the newly incorporated information in future situations. All of these functions occur as a result of influences the Pre-Frontal Cortex exerts over other areas of the Cortex.
The most important aspect of this is selective attention. The ability to maintain focus on an issue despite competing stimuli is what makes the human mind the power house that it can be. This is one main reason I advocate meditative practice. Far from being a mind clearing activity, meditation only clears the mind through practicing one pointed awareness. That is, focusing on one thing, the breath, a candle, or whatever, for as long as possible. This is important for many aspects of life but the benefits to studying at this point should be apparent.
We haven't even talked about how the brain requires oxygen, nutrients, and a steady circulation, and how other parts of the brain regulate these functions, among other less intuitive ones, which all work together to produce the behavior we call “studying”.
Either in an update, or some other future post, I can talk about these and other things such as how studying goes from learning to mastery and expression of that mastery. Hope you enjoyed this “lesson”!