The capacity to learn is one of the most distinctive traits of human beings, to the point of allowing us to learn about the very mechanisms that enable us to learn and providing us with awareness of our own knowledge (metacognition). At the same time, by living immersed in technology, we can witness the many possibilities and wonders of machine learning that humanity has accomplished. What’s more: by working in Tech areas, we use many tools for working with and optimizing ML applications. Despite all that, we may not be aware of the best techniques for taking the most out of the core of our own cognition and capacity to learn, create and imagine: our brains. So, how can we humans learn better? That’s the question we’ll explore in this text!
Before we start, let me give you some context: I am no expert on education, neuroscience, or cognitive psychology whatsoever (despite being a great enthusiast of all of them). As a matter of fact, I have been searching for strategies to help me learn better over the last few months. Eventually, I decided to share my struggles with some friends and colleagues. After hearing from some of them about Barbara Oakley’s course “Learn How to Learn”, I decided to explore a bit more about the neurological and cognitive basis of the learning process. It’s been a fantastic journey so far! So, I’m here sharing some of the things I have found out and tested throughout these past weeks.
Oh, and a quick side note: I assure you I’m not here to say you’ve only been using 10% of your brain’s capacity (unlike Hollywood’s Lucy (2014) (why, oh my…), we have plenty of serious sources debunking this absurd myth: SciShow (2014)), as there are simply no miracles nor silver bullets. Nonetheless, many valuable resources can help us adopt more effective and healthier strategies for learning. They all consider how our brain works and are based on good old scientific evidence. So, let’s go!
Here is the tour map. We will be discussing the following topics:
I’ve been talking about learning, but you may be asking: What do you mean by it exactly? What does it take to say we have learned something? Good questions! So, let’s start with a definition to guide our conversation. We will consider that having learned something implies I know enough of it to remember and use that knowledge.
As a matter of fact, this definition will apply to learning anything you can think of a new language, a subject from college, playing the guitar, being good at a game, cooking, moonwalking… Anything! (Fun examples here: Smarter Every Day (2015), Manual do Mundo.). Since I mentioned the example of learning a language, we’ll use it to go through the steps to mastery depicted below:
Great! Now let’s see how this happens in the brain. In terms of neurological processing, all the steps of the learning process demand the coordination between 2 systems:
• the Long-Term Memory (LTM) system, which stores in neural patterns the knowledge gained from past experiences, and
• the Working Memory (WM), which enables conscious mental processing or real-time thinking.
We can see this process described in figure 1 by researcher Efrat Furst (2018). It illustrates how LTM and WM interact throughout the flow of building knowledge. Underneath the learning steps, Efrat lists suggestions of appropriate learning strategies for each stage.
We can think of WM as the reception counter to a considerable archive (stored in LTM). It combines incoming information with retrieved knowledge from LTM, manipulating them to create an output. Usually, WM can hold about 4 chunks of isolated and unfamiliar items. The more you have stored in LTM, the easier for our receptionist to handle new data. Otherwise, our receptionist can become overwhelmed. (I didn’t tell you, but our receptionist is, in effect, an octopus. Too many unrelated things at once, and you’ll see her tentacles get crazy tangled!)
Complementing what is suggested in figure 1, some strategies can be worth trying (Nerdologia (2018), Veritassium (2022), Veritassium (2021)) to achieve better results. These tips are based on behaviors identified in people who became experts in various fields, like professional chess players, instrumentalists, athletes, professors, and others. So, learning like an expert consistently takes us to:
It is also important to remember that Learning is linking: it occurs by means of connecting new information with others you already have stored in your brain. As a matter of fact, learning can be boosted with chunking, which is the process of grouping things together (Veritassium (2017)). For example, when we see the sequence 4918, we may struggle a bit more to memorize it than with 1984 (which can be chunked as a recent year and is also the name of Orwell’s famous book — which you probably have stored in your LTM). So, the tip here is: help your memory by establishing associations or making up metaphors for the topics you’re studying.
Nice! So we have talked about how to learn in a more meaningful, effective, and deep way. Most of all, we want to get the most out of our study sessions consistently. Unfortunately, even when we are super motivated, it is easy to get frustrated or so tired that we are unproductive. We may even study for long periods with good resources and end up with the false impression that we learned, only to find out we were being fooled by the illusion of knowledge (Pilotti et al. (2019)).
To deal with that, I decided to try some strategies that have allowed me to have more fun while letting my brain rest the way it needs to. Learning deeply, while challenging, can (and should) be also pleasant and dynamic so that we keep ourselves motivated. In the following sections, we will see some tips for achieving and maintaining that!
Most of the suggestions I’ll show you were taken from the book “Learn Like a Pro” B. Oakley and Schewe (2021). It is a condensed and more recent version of her famous book “A Mind for Numbers” Barbara A Oakley (2014). Both books are very straightforward and fun to read.
There is no magic for learning, but the good news is that it can be a more sustainable and healthier journey than we think. One of the main secrets is knowing how and when to take breaks. Basically, you take the most out of your efforts by taking spaced breaks. First, you dedicate some time and effort to studying or exercise. Then you rest. And… repeat! One of the most famous ways of doing it is the Pomodoro Technique (See figure 3 for a more schematic view.). The Pomodoro is based on what Barbara Oakley describes as alternating between focused and diffuse modes. Doing this gives your brain a chance to process new information better, allowing it to form tighter links to other things already stored there.
Have you ever heard about Pomodoro? Haven’t you done it yet? So, give it a try. Already have, and it didn’t work? No problem, it is not supposed to work for everybody. But you can give it a second chance or try to adapt it. Whatever you choose to do, keep the following in mind:
• Giving your brain some breaks (even by alternating subjects you’re focusing on) allows it to activate the diffuse mode and create links with other areas of your brain.
• Recalling: try recalling what you’ve been exposed to during your focus time. Try generating questions or explaining them to someone else.
• Avoid distractions: multitasking during focused mode interferes with memorization; however, you can have some environmental stimuli (like low background noise) because memory depends on attention and emotions!
• Spaced repetitions: learning takes time, and you must allow your brain to keep paving new pathways. Occasionally (perhaps weekly), return to the material and exercise more. Repetition is good!
• Putting your skills to the test: expose yourself to diverse problems. This will help you build a repertoire that helps you recognize patterns.
• Learning from your mistakes: feedback on your learning process is powerful. So, embrace the mistakes, they are more than welcome. When you make an error and reevaluate it through a correct answer or feedback, it gives your brain a chance to reinforce the correct neuronal links.
Extra tips: the first 20 minutes of a first session with a new or challenging material can be the hardest to overcome, but your brain will adjust after that, and the pain should reduce. Also, remember to use the breaks for doing short restful activities: so avoid using the cellphone! Instead, try going for a short walk, playing around with your pet, or stretching, for instance.
Our learning process doesn’t end once we close our notebooks. Our brains continue to work in the background dealing with everything that happens throughout the day. We go to sleep, but there will be a lot of activity and cleaning up going on that will allow us to retain information and stay awake and alert the next day. So, sleeping is absolutely essential.
According to a study reported in Science magazine (Herculano-Houzel (2013)), it is during sleep that the brain can restore its capacities as well as consolidate memories (and consequently learn!). It does so by cleaning out toxic waste products generated daily through metabolism.
Mental fatigue, poor decision-making, impaired learning, and a heightened risk of migraine and epileptic attacks ensue when we are sleep deprived […] Sleep, therefore, might be required for potentially toxic metabolites — the same results of a working brain — to be cleared from the tissue.
Trying to study without sleeping (even right before tests) would be like moving around a room stacked with garbage and mess. You’d feel stuck, having little space to bring in new stuff — and the little you manage to get in might disappear amidst the chaos. So, if you have a test, you may want to set some time to study before going to bed, then go to sleep and review your notes the next day. If you want to have an overall view of the importance of sleep, check out this video: Herculano-Houzel (2022).
So, essentially, we have seen that learning is built on our previous knowledge and that, even though it involves challenge and hardworking, it also demands something we all love doing: resting and sleeping well. And most of all, a great lesson is to work on consistency. For that, the recipe is to try and take one step at a time. Amazing, right?
Writing this text has been a great exercise for me. To get here, I tried my best to put into practice, challenge, summarize and explain all the information I came across these past weeks. This way, I could put my learning to the test and also find out what works best for me. More importantly, having to explain the concepts and explanations I was trying to learn as clearly as I could made me challenge my awareness of what I had understood (or thought I had). So far, it has been a significant improvement for me, and it made me eager to stay on this track.
Changing habits and internalizing these lessons are not trivial. But, as much as our brains can be stubborn and fall into many traps, they have an astounding capacity to adapt, change and learn. So, we’ve taken the first step here. Since much of the learning process, as we’ve seen, is about trying and improving day by day based on our errors, making mistakes is more than welcome. So, let’s take the next step and keep on learning!
Since we are here, let’s test your learning with a more active task:
• Turn your look away from the screen and try to answer in one short sentence the main takeaway for you.
• Try to recall the 4 steps to consolidate learning in your brain.
• What was the learning strategy you liked the most?
– Which ones of them have you tried? How was your experience?
– Which strategy would you say is the most challenging tip for you? Why?
• Could you think of any other strategies that were not presented here? (I’d love to hear! You can comment or drop me an e-mail at email@example.com.)
In case you want to learn more about learning, check the references below to take it further and have fun.
Thanks for reading! Now that your focused mode has done its job, I suggest you give your brain a little break and let the diffuse mode do some of its magic.
Belham, Flavia (2018). Introduction to The Neuroscience Of Learning. url: https://medium.com/ neuroscience-in-real-life/introduction-to-neuroscience-of-learning-3dd2042b181b.
Furst, Efrat (2018). Learning in the brain. url: https://sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/ learning-in-the-brain?authuser=0#h.h9ro08yp06v0.
Herculano-Houzel, Suzana (2013). “Sleep It Out”. In: Science 342.6156, pp. 316–317. doi: 10.1126/ science.1245798. url: https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1245798.
— (2022). Neuroscience Office Hour — Why do we sleep? url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=- 0HC6ZdHvMo.
Kaufer, Daniela (2011). Neuroscience and How Students Learn. url: https://gsi.berkeley.edu/ gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/neuroscience/.
Manual do Mundo (n.d.). DIY Channel — Manual do Mundo. url: https://www.youtube.com/ @manualdomundo/featured.
Nerdologia (2018). Como aprender melhor e mais f ́acil. url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= n5U83znAsbI.
Oakley, BA and O Schewe (2021). Learn Like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything. St. Martin’s Essentials.
Oakley, Barbara A (2014). A mind for numbers: How to excel at math and science (even if you flunked algebra). TarcherPerigee.
Oakley, Barbara A (n.d.). Coursera: Learn How to Learn. url: https://in.coursera.org/learn/ learning-how-to-learn.
Pilotti, Maura AE et al. (2019). “The illusion of knowing in college: A field study of students with a teacher-centered educational past”. In: Europe’s Journal of Psychology 15.4, p. 789.
SciShow (2014). Do I Only Use 10% of My Brain? url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= YxIS3XxfFS0.
Smarter Every Day (2015). The Backwards Brain Bicycle. url: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=MFzDaBzBlL0.
Veritassium (2017). The unconfortable effort of thinking. url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= UBVV8pch1dM&t=11s.