The Brain in Learning Mode: How to Use Neuroscience in Practice

Brain in Learning

The question “Can the brain be made to learn?” is not at all as simple as it seems. Moreover, this formulation is misleading – after all, it is assumed that there is an organ that can learn, which is responsible for higher nervous activity, and there is an “I” that can force it to do something.

In fact, science is still at a loss to answer who controls whom: consciousness by the brain – or vice versa. Strictly speaking, neither philosophers nor psychologists, who investigate this problem the most deeply, still cannot determine what consciousness is and whether it exists at all!

But we do know something about the brain – for example, that it is impossible to “force” it: it does not lend itself to direct force. This is why “right” advice like “just sit and focus” works if you already have no problems concentrating (which means you don’t have to force yourself). And they do not work if such difficulties exist, because they are a feature of your brain, and you have nowhere to take another. But the good news is that by knowing these nuances, we can create conditions in which the brain will function as we want (or, in any case, better than before).

The Brain is Constantly Changing and Learning

The brain is created by nature to be in the learning process all the time. Its ability to transform, gaining this or that experience, and to maintain these changes is called “neuroplasticity” – a term that emphasizes the difference between today’s view of the problem from the previous one.

Until recently, it was believed that the brain is a thing in itself, like a precisely tuned and programmed independent mechanism. Like a black box inside the skull that you can’t get to. Then scientists began to find evidence that this organ is not born “ready”, but actively interacts with the environment while it is being formed.

First of all, this was evidenced by the studies of the so-called Mowgli children: abandoned in the wild, without hearing human speech, they could not master the skills of socially accepted behavior and improve their intellectual abilities to the state of an adult, lagging behind in development all their lives (usually not very long). It soon became obvious that the child’s brain is plastic, the period of such compliance was called “critical”, because it is no longer possible to make up for the lack of education at this time in the future.

In the middle of the last century, experiments on mice showed that development in an environment enriched with all kinds of toys and activities makes the cerebral cortex thicker, and in those rodents that grew up in a boring and poor environment, such changes were not observed.

The neuro-picture of the world finally changed when it was proved that the brain, learning, is able to grow in adults as well. A classic example that confirms the validity of this statement is the results obtained in a series of studies of London taxi drivers. The drivers memorized detailed maps of the huge city for the exam: the more the subject knew, the larger his hippocampus, the department responsible for memory, was.

Thus, modern science has come to the final conclusion that the brain is capable of changing throughout life, and therefore learning is its natural and permanent state. Therefore, you do not need to force anyone – you just need to create conditions in which the brain will learn what you yourself want to learn (otherwise it will learn something useless, like another bad habit).

In order for this to happen, several components are needed (besides the brain itself): motivation – to activate its resources; attention – to draw him to a certain subject; memory – to assimilate the learned; creative freedom – to allow the brain to build new connections. And the absence of obstacles in this complex process.

How to Find Motivation and Enjoy Learning?

Motivation is what motivates us to take action that will help meet our needs. So, the brain always has such a stimulus!

Exploratory behavior is an innate human need associated with survival, the same as sleep, procreation, and getting food.

If we do not have the ability to discover new things around us and study it, we may not notice the danger or not figure out how to protect ourselves from it in advance. And where there is an evolutionary need, in most cases there is a desire to satisfy it. This process, in turn, gives us a sense of pleasure by activating the dopamine reward system. This is how the brain encourages us to do things that are really important for the continuation of life.

Simply put, we are pleased to learn, as they say, by definition – if only this process is rationally organized, and not the way it was at school.

Having fun is essential to staying motivated, and you can enjoy more than just the exploration itself. The dopamine system rewards us when we learn, and it is within our power to reward it in the learning process in order to create a more sustainable connection between this activity and pleasure.

Incentives can be short-term or long-term. The former is effectively used, for example, in the gamification of learning, when the process is divided into stages, for the completion of each of which a reward is given. We are more willing to learn new knowledge, skills and abilities, competing in a group for all sorts of points, badges and other candy wrappers.

But even if a person learns alone, the reward for each passed stage, valuable specifically for him, can greatly speed up the process. For example, for a music lover, the promise to buy a rare record after every 250 new words of a foreign language learned by him is a good motivation.

Don’t just use as short-term reward something that disrupts the dopamine system: sugary and fatty foods, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs – such techniques can, on the contrary, break your reward mechanisms, and even form painful habits in you.

Long-term motivation is possible due to the fact that our brain is in a sense blind and deaf and does not quite understand what is really happening and what is not. By assigning ourselves the goodies that we get if we cope with our tasks, we stimulate the dopamine system, especially when we use the power of imagination and visualization. Abstract fantasies are less attractive to our brain, but it, on the contrary, perceives more concrete ones as reality, not always seeing the difference.

When your learning is built into a dream that you fuel your imagination, your brain will have more motivation to learn. It is best if the new skill is associated with the desire to be evolutionarily successful: to make a career, find a good partner, gain status and fame, move to a country with a high standard of living, earn a comfortable old age – something survival.

Every time you conjure up this image, your brain releases dopamine, which motivates you to get what you want.

How to Manage Attention and Learn to Concentrate?

Attention is the focus of perception on the object of study. It is this that allows us to choose something from the whole variety of the external world, concentrate on it – and lose sight of everything else.

The notorious time management is actually not time management (we have no control over it), but attention. It is how it is distributed that determines how many minutes and hours we spend efficiently and how much we waste.

Neuroscience still cannot answer the question of which process is more important for directed attention: enhanced processing of signals from the object on which we are concentrated by the brain, or muffling of “noise” – therefore it is useful to understand which is which. It is in our power to minimize exactly the “noise” by closing unnecessary browser tabs, turning off your smartphone or finding a more secluded table in a cafe. Concentration can only be improved by regularly practicing this art.

The corporate cult of multitasking leads to the fact that we already consider it quite natural to constantly be distracted from the subject of our study by a dozen messengers and social networks. It is understood that a person can simultaneously concentrate on several processes and be equally effective in each of them. This is actually a myth.

There is no multitasking – there is switch ability, when first we focus on one subject and ignore (as much as possible) the rest of the surrounding information, and then – on another, which was previously among the “noises”, and extinguish signals from the first object.

Such a switch takes time and resources – and the more often and haphazardly this change of focus occurs, the more the brain gets tired. Because the longer you work in multitasking mode, the worse the results of your work.

Today, people are already talking about situational attention deficit disorder, when healthy people, due to the fact that they are constantly distracted, show the same symptoms as those who suffer from ADHD from birth: inability to concentrate and complete a task, increased fatigue and irritability – and as a result, depression and lack of faith in oneself. Usually, acquired attention deficit is corrected by prioritization and unidirectional concentration training. The latter also takes a lot of energy and sometimes tiresome more than physical exertion, but still this “skill” can be “pumped”, and not only with the help of meditation, but also regularly performing special exercises.

The best option is to find your threshold for fatigue with unidirectional concentration and make it a temporary unit of work.

This principle is at the heart of the Pomodoro method: the workday is divided into several blocks, consisting of four 25-minute periods of continuous concentration and 5-minute rest intervals between them. After each block, a big break is made for half an hour. Someone will be able to maintain unidirectional concentration for only 20 minutes, while others are suitable for intervals of 1.5 hours. But the principle is the same – nothing should distract you. During breaks, on the contrary, you need to let yourself relax and switch to something that does not require tension: look out the window, lie down with your eyes closed, and at the “big break” – take a walk in the fresh air. This method is suitable not only for independent study, but also for work, as well as solving creative problems.

The habit of turning off notifications on social networks and messengers while working may seem cowardly and retrograde – but in fact, from a biochemical point of view, this technique allows you to use all the “pleasure hormone” for motivation. We’ve already written about how social media stimulates the dopamine system: any notification promises us a bit of social recognition – like or a message – so every time a smartphone squeaks, dopamine is injected into the brain and tickles us until we stop the itching and check the incoming. This takes away from us the joy we have formed by concentrating on our subject, imagining the treasures it will bring us, and expecting a little reward for the stage we have passed today.

How to Remember Material and Then Find It in Memory?

Knowledge in the brain is not stored in a separate place, like jewelry in a box. Moreover, getting into our heads, they lose their integrity and, as it were, are scattered bit by bit along associative zones, existing in a semi-disassembled state in the form of neural networks.

Information about subjects that you study at the same time is saved in the form of links. And when you then remember one of them, you immediately fetch information from your memory about the other.

It is this feature of our brain that underlies all mnemonic devices – for example, an unconnected sequence of words is remembered much worse than their chain in which they are combined into some kind of story. The method of organizing data in the form of block diagrams and tables works according to the same principle: information is graphically duplicated, and the arrangement of geometric objects allows you to connect visual associations to memorize relationships between abstract concepts.

The linking of neurons is the most important stage of memorization, and therefore the best way to keep any fact in your head is to “connect” it with an associative bridge with another one, well known to you and often used. Such information is more likely to remain in your memory than abandoned, unrelated (we often call them “useless”). This is another property of neuroplasticity: what is not used by the brain disappears from it along with the neural pathways.

Therefore, aerobatics in self-study is to include it in your routine, connect it with your profession, work or everyday life, integrate it into your usual way of life and make it a part of it. Then your brain will have no opportunity to “throw out” everything you have learned as unnecessary.

Forgetting can be an important part of memorization. At the physiological level, the strongest are the neural connections of the knowledge that is used regularly with interruptions, when you have time to “forget” a little what you have learned. But information about even a carefully studied subject can be lost in the transition from short-term to long-term memory, if it is not stirred up from time to time. Conclusion: it is better for those who study the material little by little and regularly, no matter how hopelessly boring it may sound.

The brain also loves patterns very much, which is why silly rhymes and primitive songs are so well remembered. Sometimes this can be very useful – for example, many at school were saved from the pitch-blacks in the Russian language by a verse list of exception verbs: “Drive, breathe, keep, depend, / See, hear and offend, / And also endure, twirl and watch”.

How to Get the Brain to Get Creative with Tasks?

In order to synthesize interesting discoveries and original ideas from the knowledge gained, it is necessary to give yourself a break in the consumption of information.

When we are focused, the prefrontal cortex, or the executive system of the brain, works. This is the rational and consistent, but a little boring part of it, it helps us do what is right.

In order to activate our creativity (when we act and think not quite “correctly” and rationally), this structure must interact with the so-called passive brain mode system (SPRM). The very state in which we wander with our eyes, doze, mindlessly twirl something in our hands, or simply “stick it up” and count a crow with an open mouth.

As always, it’s all about balance: creative insights are possible when, after a good load of the executive system, the brain switches to a passive mode. Mendeleev saw in a dream a periodic table, but if he had not thought about it all day long, until he reached a dead end, he would have dreamed of all the usual nonsense. The key to starting this passive mode is a short nap, a nap in a chair, walking and meditation – but always after very intense work.

What Prevents the Brain from Learning Effectively?

There are not so many obstacles to the efficient functioning of the brain, and their removal is only joyful.

Lack of Sleep

Regular sleep deprivation slows down the speed of our thought processes, which are disturbed in a sleepless person, as in a drunken person. When we are in the arms of Morpheus, the brain does not rest at all – sometimes it can be even more active than during the day, but it is not yet known for certain what exactly is happening in the head at this moment. However, it is clear that sleep is not only important for good brain function in general, but also provides better memorization and assimilation of material. The rule “no one will take eight hours of sleep from me” may seem selfish and blasphemous in modern life with its frantic rhythm – but have you always wanted to resist the system? Here’s a reason.

Poor Circulation

Intellectual activities often involve a sedentary lifestyle – and in fact, paradoxically, it is he who badly affects mental abilities.

The brain is a part of the body, it does not have a separate circulatory system, and if you do not move, then blood with glucose and oxygen does not flow to it well. Therefore, during the break, it is better to pay attention to your body and do a little warm-up. What’s more, regular physical activity promotes the growth of the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. There are athletes like Wendy Suzuki among neuroscientists – learn from her.

Stress

Stress, especially long-term and uncontrollable stress, negatively affects our cognitive abilities, so it is very difficult to study productively in this state all the time. The stress hormone cortisol in the chronic form causes thinning of the hippocampal neural tissue – that is, it simply impairs memory.

Poor Nutrition

The brain consumes up to 20% of the calories burned per day, and intellectual exertion intensively lowers the level of glucose in the blood – and when it becomes too little, we begin to make mistakes. In general, all substances entering the bloodstream should be inspected if you are having difficulty concentrating, and even more so if you observe signs of ADHD. The first contender for exclusion from the diet (or, at least, for limiting its amount) is sugar, an excess of which loosens the dopamine system and prevents the prefrontal cortex from doing business. The same goes for stimulants like coffee and cigarettes, which can interfere with your studies, increasing your anxiety.