The Surprising Neuroscience Behind How We Learn

In this post, I’m going to talk about the inefficiency and the problems with how we learn today, what neuroscience research tells us the solution is and how Synap fits in to that solution. I hope you find it interesting.

How We Learn Today

Over 95% of us (myself included) are guilty of cramming: putting off the studying you know you’re meant to be doing well in advance, until the last possible moment — often a Red Bull-fuelled night before the big exam. And when we finally do start studying, what we’re mostly doing is staring at a textbook over and over again, hoping that the information will eventually sink in.

Granted, a lot times we manage to just about get by with this method, but there’s a lot of times when we don’t, but either way it causes a lot of stress, and we swear that ‘next time, we’ll study *properly*’, and we believe it right until ‘next time’ comes!

Research into how the brain learns is now able to tell us why cramming is an inefficient revision method, and why it’s efficacy is mixed at best. It turns out that our short term memory has an incredibly limited capacity. In a famous and often-cited psychology study, researchers found that we can only hold 7 things in our short term memory at one time (9 at best). This is an experiment you can easily try yourself: write a bunch of words down on a piece of paper, turn it around and then see how many you can remember after just 30 seconds — it’ll be 7, give or take 2.

Prioritising Information

So short term memory is not the goal: when we’re studying or revising for something, we’re trying to commit it to our long term memory so that it makes an impact and sticks in our brain, ready to be recalled at some point in the future. There is virtually no limit to the amount of information we can hold in long term memory, but unfortunately getting it to stick in there takes mental effort. The brain has it’s own built-in priority system for information — things we come across just once are quickly discarded, but things we come across time and time again stick. If you think about it, this makes a huge amount of sense: we are bombarded with so much information every minute that if we were to store it all, we’d be full of irrelevant, disorganised ‘junk’ information. Have you ever tried to find something quickly in a messy room or a badly organised hard drive? The same rules apply in the brain, it’s a sieve or filter for information, and that’s a good thing. If we encounter something regularly, it must be important to us so we don’t want to forget it: how to make a cup of coffee, our date of birth, the year World War II ended.

The brain acts as a filter for information

The brain’s priority system depends on the strength of the connection between different neurons. Neurons are the main type of cell in the brain: whilst there are also other cells in there, neurons are really what makes the brain, ‘the brain’. Neurons have parts that let them connect with other neurons known as Synapses, and are what produces our thoughts and memories, which is why we chose Synap as the name of our platform. The average human brain has around 100 BILLION neurons, but what’s truly amazing is that each neuron can connect to up to 10,000 other neurons. That means that we potentially have 100,000,000,000,000, or 100 TRILLION synapses in our brain.

Multiple neurons connecting to each other via synapses

Mental Exercise

When we learn something, what we’re doing is exercising our brain in a specific way. Just as in physical exercise, it stimulates our body to strengthen and grow the part of the body being exercised. In physical exercise, we’re not making new muscle cells, we’re making existing ones stronger. Similarly with learning (which is basically ‘mental exercise’) we’re not able to make new brain cells, but we can create new connections between existing cells, and by re-visiting it later, and seeing the information in different ways, we’re strengthening this connection, helping us to understand it better and recall it in more situations. A good, although slightly geeky analogy here would be the webs Spiderman shoots from his hands. Spiderman wouldn’t be able to swing from building to building on just one thread of web: what makes the connection strong is that it’s built from multiple threads all joined together.

It’s multiple intertwined threads connecting to each other that makes Spiderman’s web strong!

So, in order to store something properly in our brain, we need to encounter it regularly — that’s the first thing. The second thing is, when we’re learning something new, it needs to be effortful. Learning is an active process where new ideas are being interpreted and challenging older ones we might have had, giving us new perspectives on things we’ve learnt and experienced in the past. We’ve all done that thing where we’re reading late at night or listening to someone, and have re-read the page or ask them to repeat themselves because, you suddenly realised that you weren’t really paying attention. The words were going ‘in one ear and out the other’ as the phrase goes, without any mental processing in between. You weren’t really thinking about what was going in, you just thought you were.

We can do the exact same thing when we’re studying, but unfortunately we don’t have the awkward stare from a disgruntled friend to remind us that we’re not focusing anymore. We can read every word of whatever textbook it is we’re using, and if we do it enough times we might convince ourselves we’ve ‘learnt a lot’ because you can recite a particular paragraph word for word, only to get to the exam and realise that most of the information has gone, and the ones that remain are just memorised passages, we don’t truly understand most of it.

Roundup

This, unfortunately is how the vast majority of us study and revise today, and it’s also how most universities teach: by throwing lots of information at us at once and expecting us to really take it in and use it. Fortunately, there have been some fascinating insights coming from fields like cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology about how the brain works, and how we can develop educational practices that take advantage of this, and at Synap our mission is to take these insights and build them into a mobile app that’s fun, intuitive and easy to use so that everyone can benefit from having the equivalent of a ‘personal trainer for the brain’ in their pocket. Synap isn’t part of the ‘brain-training’ fad; we’re not about training you to take abstract memory tests, Synap helps you to learn and retain the knowledge you need for your course, exams and career.

That’s probably enough for now! In this post I’ve talked about the problems with the way we learn at the moment and given you a hint as to how Synap can solve them. In Part 2 I’ll explain how exactly it’s going to do that, so please check back with us if you’d like to hear more

James is the CEO & Founder of Synap, an upcoming online education platform that uses neuroscience insights to help people to learn more in less time. It will be available for free, with optional paid features, in October this year on iOS, Android and Web.


Originally published at synap.ac on July 8, 2015.

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