Has anyone ever teach you how to learn? Strange question, right? I did the same puzzled expression but as I thought about it I came to an easy answer: no, nobody ever taught me how to learn. For me learning is almost like an instinct, something that we’re born with and that we can’t directly control such as breathing or sleeping. No need to worry about learning about it. So I was really intrigued when I saw the online course offered by University of California, San Diego called “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. After checking out what it was all about I was convinced that it wouldn’t hurt to take the online classes. When I decided to enroll on the course I still didn’t know I was going to walk 120km and get married during the same period but I still managed to participate. And the course was quite cool! I indeed learned many things about learning so I’m here to teach you some of my favorite findings.
Two distinct modes of thinking
We rarely notice it but we do think in different ways in different situations. Researchers have found that we have two fundamentally different modes of thinking. The first time I encountered this concept was in 2013 when I read the best selling book “Thinking Fast & Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. On Kahneman’s book, he calls it System 1 & System 2. On the course it’s called Diffuse and
Focused modes respectively. Barbara Oakley and Daniel Kahneman both talk about the same general concept but I prefer Daniel’s approach more. In this post I mash them together to get an even depper understanding.
When we have to manually multiply 2 big numbers we have to pay close attention to all the steps involved in the arithmetic operation, recall easier multiplication values, sum numbers and so forth. We do all that on the Focused mode of thinking, a.k.a. System 2. It is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. You can tell if a person is really engaged on this mode of thinking by observing their eyes: just note how dilated their pupils are. They call it Focused to give this sense of gathered organized thoughts.
But this mode has three big disadvantages: it requires a lot of energy, it gets tired and it is really lazy. And before we notice we already switched to another mode of thinking.
A.k.a. System 1, our fast, automatic, intuitive, creative and largely unconscious mode. It detects hostility in a voice and effortlessly completes the phrase “bread and. . . . ” or “2 + 2 = ?“. It’s so fast and so effortless that we use it most of the time and we usually do just fine with it, we even let it fool ourselves by it. And that’s great! Imagine if you had to worry and focus on every single banal activity or situation that you encounter in your life like deciding which hand to use to open a door when you have both hands free and perfectly fine. We would live in constant stress, depleting precious limited energy that could be used for more important tasks. So relying on the Diffused mode of thinking is more relaxing.
The course also teaches us another very important role that this mode of thinking has: making new brain cells connections that forms new creative ideas. It has happened to you and me many times: when we least expect it a crazy thought pops into our mind. Most of the time it’s something totally useless and silly like “What if popcorn grew on plants?” but sometimes it could lead to the birth of a new scientific discovery “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?“. This is the wonderful background workings of Diffused thinking, called that to give the sense of a more disorderly, spread out thoughts.
Knowing how differently both ways work is important so that we know when and how to use them. A big fallacy is to not use enough of Diffuse thinking and abuse Focused thinking. Just relax your mind and move your body for some minutes, this way you give time to your brain to recharge Focused Mode and use Diffuse Mode.
Now this is actually an answer for something that I wondered myself many times: why the heck do we sleep so much?! We’re so vulnerable and useless while sleeping and it’s such a waste of time considering the short lifespan that we humans have. It’s not like I’m a tortoise that can live for centuries! Alas, a good answer.
Brain’s waste cleanup scheme
When we’re awake, the brain produces toxins, byproducts of its own activities, which accumulate and degrade it’s functionality. Our mind becomes murky so it’s harder to concentrate, remember and construct rational thoughts. So it’s only when we sleep that the brain switches to cleaning mode: the brain cells shrink a little, a fluid called Cerebralspinal Fluid (CSF) flows through its cells, around all the blood vessels, removing all the toxins. The CSF then dumps the toxins into the blood stream. Our mind is now refreshed! This is a very elegant solution, unique to the brain. The rest of the body has the Lymphatic System, another set of vessels with fluids that runs throughout our bodies, that drains the byproducts of other organs. So it’s important to always have a good night’s sleep before an important test.
In fact, getting too little sleep doesn’t just make you do worse on tests, too little sleep, over too long of a time, can also be associated with all sorts of nasty conditions. Avoid sleeping dreprivation at all costs!
Sleep to learn and understand
But sleep does more than just allow our brain to wash away toxins. It’s actually important part of the memory and learning process. It’s seems that during sleep our brain tidies up ideas and concepts we’re thinking about and learning. It erases the less important parts of memories and simultaneously strengthens areas that we want to remember. During sleep our brain also rehearses some
of the tougher parts of whatever we’re trying to learn, going over and over neural patterns to deepen and strengthen them.
Sleep has also been shown to make a remarkable difference in our ability to figure out difficult problems and to understand what we’re trying to learn.
It’s as if the complete deactivation of the conscious you helps other areas of the brain start talking more easily to one another, allowing them to put together the neural solution to our learning task while we’re sleeping.
Of course, we must also plant the seed for our diffuse mode by first doing focused mode work. If we’re going over what we’re learning right before
going to sleep, we have an increased chance of dreaming about it. Dreaming about what we’re studying can substantially enhance our ability to understand it.
So sleep well and dream about what you want to learn. It will make the process much easier.
Illusions of Learning
Having the source material easily available for access, like having a textbook at hand or Google open right in front of us, creates the illusion that the material is also available in our brains. There are many ways to fool ourselves that we’re learning something, creating only illusions. Many techniques are very inefficient or just plain useless and we should be very careful and avoid them.
What to avoid
Here’s a list of things that are very inefficient and that should be avoided:
- Re-reading: The only time rereading text seems to be effective, is if you let time pass between the rereading, so that it becomes more of an exercise in spaced repetition.
- Glancing at a solution that is not yours: we need to know how and why of every step of the solution and practice it. This way we make sure that the underlying neural circuitry is created. The information must be persistent in our memory.
- Mindless highlighting and underlining: it can even be misleading! Keep highlights and underline to a minimum, one word or sentence per paragraph only.
What to do
If you want maximum learning efficiency and avoid illusions of learning this is what you should start doing and doing a lot:
- Recalling: after reading a material, look away from it and try to recall as much as you can or at least the main ideas presented. Research has proved that this is much more effective than re-reading and mind mapping.
- Synthesizing notes: writing synthesizing notes on the margin of the book or on other places is a great way to force ourselves to think deep about a concept and simplify it in a smaller, easier way to memorize and understand. The whole process requires a big mental effort which also strengthens our new neuron connections.
- Test yourself: it will force you to recall even harder and will give you the right opportunities to make mistakes. Making mistakes is important because every time you do it, you have to think even harder to fix it which strengthens the neural connections needed for learning the material. A test is a safe environment to make mistakes.
- Change your learning environment: we unconsciously take visual and mood queues from our surroundings when we are studying and this affects our memory. The more varied the environment where we study, the more diverse our queues are and so we’re more prepared to recall something somewhere different. It’s specially helpful to study on the same place where you’ll be taking a test.
As you can see there’s a lot to learn about learning that nobody teaches us. There many techniques to learn that are very effective for learning new things, as there are special techniques for breathing while singing or running. Even tough it’s something almost instinctive, we can still tweak it and improve it. And many researchers are working hard, making new discoveries on how the brain works and it will help us to improve our learning skills so we must always keep learning how to learn.
For further reading, check out the official text book called “A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)” by
Personally, I strongly believe that the most valuable and powerful skill someone can have is the ability to learn new things. It makes us more adaptable and prepared to face new challenges whatever they may be. After taking this course and learning all that I have seen, I believe that I made a great decision. And I hope I motived you to try it too.
Happy learning and Cheers!