If you’ve spent any time at all wondering how your brain works, how it learns the things you’re interested in learning, or why you behave the way you do in a number of situations, this post might be boring to you. You may very well have had some of the same thoughts I’ve had, and perhaps you’ve already had the somewhat recent epiphany I’ve come to discover about the way my own brain seems to function.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to teach myself whatever I put my effort into learning. That may sounds like some sort of grand claim, or that I’m tooting my own flute, but the reality is actually far more mundane and ego-less.
As a child, I would enjoy following my thought-streams as they appeared without restraint. Mostly, because of my interests and inquisitiveness when it came to reading comics and science-fiction novels, I’d think in a relatively narrow area of topics. Ships, lasers, dinosaurs and engines were my particular drug of choice. I would spend hours staring off into comic books. I love the freedom their constructs and constraints created. This curiosity extended into playing with Lego, breaking things down and building bigger, better things and later, remote controlled cars, combustion engines, computers, digital marketing campaigns and computer programs.
Stick with me, I’m getting to the point…
Recently, I’ve been making my way through Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ and I think I’ve connected two parts of my mind together which has somehow unlocked a piece of the learning puzzle.
As I mentioned earlier, learning was never really an issue for me, though my handicap has always been that I absolutely had to be interested in the subject matter for it to be retained. I just am not going to learn about fashion. I will however read a detailed explanation of how best to feed a sourdough starter, read about AMD’s latest processor technology or study up on how to get some Python code to run faster.
This led me to think about WHY this happens. Why does it take energy to find focus? Why does this seemingly mysterious force elude us? Is focus what we’re really experiencing when we learn?
Why can it be so f***ing hard to learn sometimes…?
In Barrett’s book, she discusses the concept of prediction. A behaviour our brains perform continuously, with multiple systems working as a unit or something like a concert if you’re more of a romantic. As a kid, I used to simulate concepts in my head ad nauseam, attempting to challenge my ability to hold an entire Lego Technic model in my head before I began constructing it. Mentally tiring and in some ways a confrontation with myself, but ultimately mental-muscle building.
We’re all familiar with the way in which our brains work to a certain degree. We’ve all had weird weeks where we find we’re stuck in a single train of thought we just can’t seem to shake. Perhaps a song has been stuck in your head for day’s on end, or you just can’t stop thinking about a single scene in a film you just saw.
These happenings are all related in that they are all experiences our brains are attempting to understand and contextualise. But how do these relate to learning?
Learning is, to put it simply and in my own opinion, the ability to harness the brain’s natural tendency to simulate possible outcomes of the current moment, fed and validated or disproved by the current moment’s present stimulus.
The key word to me in that paragraph is simulate.
This is the connection I needed to make between my younger self’s sometimes relentless pursuit of imagined things with my older self’s pragmatism. I believe that there is little use knowing something unless it can be used. To know something is easy, you can read it, memorise it and regurgitate it.
To understand, however, is a completely different happening. Understanding is a different function of the brain entirely. Where committing something to memory requires the ability to remember, to understand something requires the ability to blend and overlay perspective, context and experience into an amalgamation your brain understands as truth.
TLDR: YOU LEARN BY DOING
Imagine this activity: knife throwing.
What is required to throw a knife into a dart board? You need a knife and a dart board. Hold those objects in your minds eye. Imagine standing in a field with the dart board mounted to a wall about 10 meters from you. Hold the knife in your hand and feel its familiar weight in your fingers. How are you going to have to throw the knife so that it flies straight and embeds itself into the dart board point first?
Up until now, you’ve created an easy to understand scenario in your imagination. Now, do you feel your brain begin to simulate how you’re going to throw the knife? Have you already thought of a number of different ways you’d try? Which one seems to be the “best” option?
Now you’re simulating. You’re teaching yourself without actually having the knife or the dart board as part of your current reality. You’re building neural pathways you never had before, all with the power of thought.
To me, this is one of the most valuable skills you could develop as a learner. The ability to simulate reality enables you to better prepare for almost anything you’d like to be doing. I often use this to reinforce a habit I’d like to adopt, or whether or not a cooking technique I’d like to try would work given my understanding of how my kitchen equipment works.
I also like to do this when imagining how digital marketing funnels are going to work for my clients.
Its application is virtually endless, and by adopting this way of operating I believe you could change almost any part of your life to be more like what you imagine you’d like it to be like.
Secondarily, I’ve had some additional profound realisations as a result of connecting the dots:
- My emotional state is much calmer because I now better understand where my emotions are coming from. Just like the understanding of intellectual concepts requires investigation and first-principles approaches, so does the understanding of emotions. Emotions are intrinsically linked to the mind, and indeed consciousness. Thought and emotion are in many ways the same thing, they originate from the same essence; the predictive power of your brain. Simulating sadness fires neural pathways which may or may not have existed before hand. You feel what you felt when you were previously sad because you validated one of your brain’s predictions, etching its evidence into your brain’s structure in the form of neurons as part of an intricate neural network. STOP THINKING YOURSELF DEPRESSED.
- I have much more ease prioritising healthy thought patterns over habitual rumination. Don’t know what rumination is? Basically, deep thought, though I think a better descriptor would be something like ‘the thoughts you have when you endlessly think about an emotion or state you’re in as a result of a decision you’ve made’. Regret, for example is a personally powerful instigator of deep rumination, a behaviour I now closely link to my personality disintegrating into more unhealthy versions of itself. I have now begun to actively nurture neural pathways away from rumination. That isn’t saying I don’t think deeply about things, I most certainly do, it is just that now I don’t allow emotional simulations the power to direct my current thought-streams, and ultimately my current emotional state, too.
- I am more present. I have found a drastic reduction in my day-dreaming. I remember having this weird, profound state of disconnectedness overcome me, especially as a child. My imagination would draw my awareness so far from myself that I’d need to almost consciously return my focus back to the passing moment. I am sure that some of that “ability” is lost as you age, but it still used to occur up until recently. Presence, at least in the common way to which it is referred, while a bit “woo-woo” and “ungrounded” for my liking, is definitely a better way of existence. I have patience for the present moment now, where previously I simply did not. I would want the future to come, no matter how far or near it was to my present moment. I believe that this behaviour is directly related with your ability to influence your emotional state. Want to be patient? BE patient. Train yourself to move into the state you desire to be in and you will be able to call upon that state on demand, at least most of the time. This has particular value when learning as there is definitely an optimum learning state to put yourself in.
- Practice gratitude. Watch this.
Remember: Every thought you have is an opportunity to guide the next. Why not guide your thoughts where you’d like to go? Energy follows focus, focus on what and where you want to go, how you want to feel and what you want to think about. If you have patience, put in effort and take action, your mind has the capacity to solve almost any problem thrown at it. Influence your emotions by changing your old behaviours, soon your trauma responses will slow down and be replaced by current emotions reinforced by modern behaviours.
dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today
Give it a shot?