In this article, we are going to see why and how to improve your way to learn.
We are living in a constantly changing world. In this moving environment, the need to learn fast and efficiently becomes more and more obvious. When it comes to Data Science or Software Engineering, for example, big concepts remain but technologies are evolving so fast that you have no choice but to constantly update your knowledge.
So I wanted to learn more about… how to learn. I fortunately found a great course given by Barbara Oakley from Oakland University and Terry Sejnowski from the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory of Salk Institute. The course provides keys to understand the different learning processes and how cognitive and neuroscience findings can help you to hack your way to learn. Interested? Let’s deep dive in your brain.
I. Get started
There are a million billion synapses in your brain where memories are stored. The old view of the brain is that once it matures, the strengths of synapses can be adjusted by learning, but the pattern of connectivity does not change much unless there is brain damage. That’s why you probably eard a lot of people saying that they were too old to learn something new. But now we know that brain connectivity is and remains dynamic - even after it matures -, so it’s never too late.
b. Hack your brain
When you look at something that you really rather not do, observations show that you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. But researchers discovered that not long after people start working on what they didn’t want to, that neurodiscomfort disappeared.
To manage to get started, which seem to be the difficult part of the process, you could consider the Pomodoro technique. All you need to do, is set a timer to 25 minutes, turn off all interruptions, and then focus. The only last important thing is to give yourself a little reward when you’re done.
II. Body analogy
a. Brain behaves as a muscle
Think of your neural structure like your muscle mass. If you plan to grow and build an athletic body, working out for ten hours once a month won’t work well. Building muscle mass requires short and effective workout every day, allowing you to learn motion patterns and to gradually overload your sessions. So building an effective neural structure requires this little work every day to build an appetite for learning, and to gradually get better at what you’re studying.
The power of repetition and constancy
When you’re learning, what you want to do is study something. Study it hard by focusing intently. Then take a break or at least change your focus to something different for awhile. During this time of seeming relaxation, your brain’s diffuse mode has a chance to work away in the background and help you out with your conceptual understanding.
If you don’t do this and try to learn by cramming, your knowledge base might end up confused and confusing.
Also, research has shown that if you try to glue things into your memory by repeating something 20 times in one evening for example, it won’t stick nearly as well as if you practice it the same number of times over several days. If you don’t leave time for the mortar to dry, that is time for the synaptic connections to form and strengthen, you won’t have a very reliable neuro-structure.
b. Mens sana in corpore sano
Recent research found that key neurons fire more slowly and weakly when you’re tired. Consequently, your attention and concentration abilities decline and you fail both to get the work done and to handle new information. It is highly recommended to sleep at least 7 hours a day and to try to stick to your natural sleep pattern (you might have noticed that you’re naturally tired at 22h for exemple, don’t try to resist and enjoy your sleep !).
Concerning your alimentation, you have to make sure you have enough water, carbs, proteins, unsaturated fats, and ensure you eat sufficient micronutriments (vitamins, minerals).
The most important micronutriments for your brain are PhosphatidylSerine (PS), Vitamin D3 and B12, Omega 3 (DHA/EPA), and Carnitine. There are some powerful aliment such as mackerel that will highly help you to get that nutriments.
Finally, sport improves your overall blood circulation, including your blood supply to the brain. It also allows you to free your mind, letting what you recently learned work in the background, as we mentionned before. Moreover, take this little break can often let new ideas pop up to your mind. In this case, do not hesitate to quickly note them on your phone so you can remember.
III. How to learn in the 21st Century
a. Intelligence in the big data and web era
I tried to figure out what definition we could give to intelligence in an era of fully available data and knowledge. In my opinion, we could think modern human intelligence as your own knowledge plus your ability to find out how to solve a problem on Google in let’s say… 30 seconds. So learning how to learn is necessary, but you’d also better learn how to make researches to take advantage of the massive and increasing knowledge available online.
Let’s going through why you should:
- Focus on understanding the concepts,
- try them in a tool/project with the help of Google to solve your problem,
- so you can be able to quickly scale your knowledge to any other tool.
b. Focus on understanding the concepts…
I think you should focus on understanding concepts first. The idea is to get that transversal knowledge that can scale to any tool. However, it’s often difficult for some people to get the idea behind mathematical concepts for example. The main reason why is that most of these concepts are abstract. Moreover, we cannot experience them like we would for other abstract concepts like love or pain for example. Still, the neural patterns you are creating are real and concrete. Consequently, Maths can become kind of real to you if you practice and keep coming back to the notions.
c. …but try to implement in a little project and assess your knowledge
It is also very interesting to learn with a tool, as you can try to implement what you’re learning in a little project. It allows you to assess your knowledge and to show the world your way to use it - strong of your personal background.
That’s why I would advice any people willing to trully get a concept to build something with it. And if you managed to build something, try to write a little documentation to explain it and its underlying concepts. It’s often a good way to make sure you understood what you made and to force yourself to structure your tought in order to be understood!
Whatever is well conceived is clearly said, And the words to say it flow with ease.
– Nicolas Boileau