“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
We are all learning machines. The process of evolution has dictated that we are programmed from the very moment we are born to be curious about the world around us. To learn from our mistakes. To seek pleasure and avoid pain.
It’s Darwinian Theory in it’s most pure form.
When we pursue and attain rewards, special pathways in our brain become activated and this leads us to seek out more rewarding stimuli in a phenomenon which is known as reinforcement.
When we avoid pain — even if that is mental pain such as completing an assignment for work — this can often manifest itself as procrastination, which is the enemy of learning and progress.
Humans as a species have always required the ability to pick up new skills and adapt quickly in a dynamic environment. But, the rate our environment is changing is much faster now than at any previous time in our history.
A skill that is increasingly important in finding and keeping a job is the ability to continue learning throughout our lives.
Companies today are embracing learning as a core skill and focusing on “foundational skills” like creativity, problem-solving and empathy and have begun to put increased emphasis on “learning velocity”
Startups who live at the coalface of innovation see the need for their employees to embrace and master the latest and greatest new technologies even more so.
So how do we take advantage of all that we as a species have learned over the last few decades to become faster and more efficient learning machines ?
Recent Progress in Neuroscience and Education
It is only in the last 10 years or so that we have really started to understand the fundamental processes driving how learning works in the brain.
But these advances have not yet filtered into modern pedagogy (for many complex and varied reasons which we don’t need to go into here).
That doesn’t stop you acquiring and leveraging these skills and techniques yourself right now, however.
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.”
— Lao Tzu
To begin there are a few key concepts that you need to know about….
1. Ebbinhaus’ Forgetting Curve
Our brains are naturally wired to forget. Our senses process billions of bits of information every second. But the brain can only process a fraction of this and then filters out what it decides is most important for consolidation into longer term memory.
See a previous post for more on how memory works here:
The Amazing Neuroscience and Physiology of Learning
A brief introduction to the hardware that runs your most important software
In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus collected data to plot a forgetting curve. Ebbinhaus’ forgetting curve predicts the decline of memory retention and shows how information is lost over time — if there is no attempt to retain it.
2. The Hippocampus
This area of the brain determines what is and is not worth remembering and plays a central role coordinating how it gets stored in our long term memory. If we understand how the hippocampus works we can “trick” our brains into remembering things much more efficiently — and for longer
3. Hebb’s Law
“What Fires Together, Wires Together”
Donald Hebb was a Canadian psychologist who stated in his 1949 book “Organization of Behaviour” that neurons that get activated at the same time in different parts of the brain become connected. The more densely connected a memory is to other memories, the stronger it becomes — and the more likely your brain is to give it priority.
4. Mental Models and Chunks
- The working memory in your prefrontal cortex is very limited — it can only hold about 4 concepts at any one time. By breaking information into small groups of about 4 things, you make it easier for your brain to remember information.
- As your brain begins to store away information about a task into longer term (procedural) memory, these tasks no longer need to take up space in working memory and can be accessed on demand as “chunks” when necessary.
- Basically, a chunk means a network of neurons that fire together so you can think a thought or perform an action smoothly and effectively.
- If you create mental models then each of these “subroutines” can become a concept in memory — so the more sophisticated these become the more complex the mental tasks you can complete in a given time
- Examples are playing golf, learning a language or playing an instrument. By breaking each task down into subtasks or “first principles” and mastering each one you can then combine them together like blocks of lego.
- Experts are defined by the range of mental models they have created, stored and can access on demand from their long term memory.
You can learn more about mental models and mindsets here:
5. The Picture Superiority Effect
This refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words. This is thought to be due to the fact that they generate a verbal and image code (dual encoding) in our brains, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code.
We can leverage this knowledge to use images to help us process and remember way more information — and much faster.
6. Spatial Awareness
Our brains are insanely good at remembering locations We do this completely autonomously and unconsciously.
This ability would have been a crucial survival adaptation for our distant ancestors to allow them to find their way back home in a hostile and very dangerous environment.
By knowing about this we can use it to our advantage to memorise almost anything we want.
7. Focused vs Diffuse Thinking Modes
Researchers have found we have 2 distinct modes of thinking — Focused and Diffuse thinking. As far as Neuroscientists now right now you can only be in one mode at a time.
The brain’s two different thinking modes, focused and diffuse, each helps us learn, but in very different ways.
Think of a pinball machine analogy for our brains and the diffuse mode thinking has less of the round rubber bumpers so they are spaced further apart than the focused mode. Because of this, there are fewer interruptions for these new thoughts.
When you are learning something new, especially something that’s a little more difficult it can take time. This is because your mind needs to alternate between the two different learning modes as it grapples with and assimilates the new material.
Why it matters: Accelerated Learning
Learning involves creating mental models of the world around us.
Whether that is when learning about advanced calculus and using the building blocks of elementary algebra or when learning a new language and building sentences from the first principles of grammar and words.
So gaining an insight into how our neurobiological and psychological constructs work together with the explicit use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies can be leveraged as a framework to enable us to learn faster and more effectively.
In future posts, I will be diving into more detail on how to implement these individual strategies as well as exploring the topics of working memory, motivation, fluid intelligence and mindsets and the pivotal roles each play in learning along with the best tools available for you to use right now.
In the meantime why not head over to www.optimizme.com and sign up for early access to the platform we’re building to harness the power of all of these accelerated learning strategies…
I’m really excited for you to join us as we embark on this journey to build and validate the first part of our platform — the world’s best online course aggregator and discovery portal.