And 6 Other Comforting Facts About Your Brain

After struggling with mathematics and science at school, Barbara Oakley became one of the most distinguished academics in the learning community, responsible for the notion of ‘Learning How to Learn.’ In her presentation on the science of learning, she discusses the key ways we can overcome learning hurdles.

1. Two modes of learning never work at the same time

Think about why you feel exhausted after a long planning session. That’s your brain telling you: “I need a break!” It turns out this break is a biological imperative that’s designed for your own good.

There are two key modes of learning which work together, but never simultaneously:

Focus Mode – intensive working

Diffuse Mode – recovery and relaxation

Focused learning is like using a spotlight to concentrate on one thing. Relaxed thinking is more like a broad beam when your mind can wander wherever it wants to. This mix helps us learn better, avoid fatigue, and boost creativity.

When your brain shuts down, recognise that it’s closed for business. When you get stuck, close up the laptop, walk, or do something fun. Factor recovery time into your job – then return to a task when your brain is ready to work again.

2. Focus on Time, Not Task

Procrastination is an addiction. We’re addicted to not doing things we don’t like. Studies have shown that when you study something you don’t like, your pain centres actually activate.

You can counteract this by using the Pomodoro technique to work for a set period, usually 25 minutes, followed by a short break, typically 5 minutes. Then, repeat this cycle several times. Breaking the work down into these short, timed “Pomodoros” is a powerful way to overcome procrastination and increase productivity. It will keep your focus sharp and reduce the mental fatigue that often comes with long tasks.

3. Waiting for that ‘Click’ of Understanding

When children start to learn new maths concepts, their prefrontal cortex gets heavily stimulated. They’re trying to grasp and pull together a lot of new material.

When they finally master all these strings of new information, their synapses start to relax. The information begins to come together as a single chunk, or a single “smooth ribbon” that settles into their working memory. They can then start to connect that chunk to other chunks, form new connections and solve new problems by building on their existing knowledge.

This is a really strong argument against memorising concepts without understanding what you’re learning. Memorising is a temporary hack, but you can’t build new knowledge on top of it the way you can when you chunk information the way you see above.

Understanding new concepts often involves persisting until that moment where everything ‘clicks’ into place. This moment is a critical sign learning is working.

4. People with Poor Memory are Actually More Creative

If you’re easily distracted by shiny things and terrible at remembering, that’s because you’re not able to hold ideas in your working memory. That’s because new things are always slipping in, a sure sign of creativity.

Did you know having a poor memory can actually be an indicator of high creativity? This trait suggests a brain that is less focused on retaining information and more inclined towards making unique connections and generating new ideas.

The good news is: You’re more distracted, but you’re also highly creative.

The bad news is: You have to work harder than other people to make up for that.

Rejoice anyway. You were born with a natural competitive advantage – all you have to do is train yourself to handle it.

5. Slow thinkers aren’t Stupid

Does it take you longer than everyone else to learn something new? Then here’s something you probably do better than everyone else.

Barbara tells the story of Santiago Ramon y Cagal. He was a Nobel Prize Winner and known as the father of neuroscience, but certainly didn’t think of himself as a genius. He was persistent and hard-working, but it took him much longer than usual to pick up new concepts. Others with “race car brains” would move fast and jump to conclusions, and often the ones they wanted to see.

Cajal would meander, deliberate and make his way through new material – and when something didn’t quite make sense he would say, “Hey, wait a second.”He was much more flexible in his thinking because he was in no rush to arrive at a conclusion. Like a hiker, he would stop and smell the flowers and be much more equipped to notice the details that didn’t quite add up.

Slow thinkers are just as capable of quick thinkers – they’re just taking the scenic route.

6. You can improve your learning just by memorising

If you were a bad test taker back in school, Oakley says there’s a good chance it’s because you didn’t know the material like you thought you did.

Most students who end up doing poorly on tests have only gone through a problem set once or twice, probably for homework. When they see questions come up in a different form, they panic. They don’t know how to answer any of this!

The ones who do well on these tests have been doing something differently: they’ve memoried key steps and facts. Essentially, they’ve processed large amounts of information into chunks – and all they have to do during the test is recall what they already know.

How? Through sheer repetition.

No other technique comes close. Not even hands-on learning can replace the value of memorisation. “Mind mapping and re-reading are not nearly as good as recall,” adds Oakley. “Practice makes permanent.”

7. You’ll learn faster if you teach it!

Think you’re not qualified to teach something? You’re probably right, but don’t let that stop you! Even if you have no idea what you’re talking about, teach your (hopefully kind) friend or colleague the task or concept you’re trying to learn. This helps you:

  • Test your own understanding
  • Get more confident about what you know
  • Internalise things better than you would through passive reading or highlighting

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