Mindshift Week 2: A Deeper Look at Effective Learning

The Value of a Poor Memory

We tend to discount certain attributes of ours as "bad". Last week, we saw the racecar vs hiker brain - we tend to value the racecar brain for its speed, but don't realise that it has its disadvantages too.

We also think that having a poor memory is bad. But like how the hiker brain has its advantages (such as not jumping to wrong conclusions too quickly), a poor memory also has a valuable side.

Research has shown (and this was covered in LHTL I believe) that the prefrontal cortex has 4 slots of working memory (not the lucky number 7 that has become pervasive). At any time we can hold up to 4 neural chunks of information.

Neural chunks can be simple (e.g. words or phrases in a foreign language), but they are also be developed with practice into more complex chunks that are like "ribbons", making it easier to pull related information into working memory.

With enough practice, we don't need to use working memory any more, and this frees up the slots for us to focus on other things. (Consider how we can walk without having to focus on it, unlike young children who are first learning how to do it.)

Let's get back to having a poor or good memory. Those with a good memory can be said to have a "steel trap" memory, and they can easily retain things in their working memory. This allows them to solve complicated problems more easily.

Those who have poor memory are more easily distracted, and they tend to lose a train of thought. But when something falls out of working memory, something else falls in, and this is where you have creativity. So, if you have a poor memory, you tend to be more creative.

Additionally, a poor working memory allows you to find simpler ways or shortcuts of doing things (if it's a concept, a simplification of it) - even though you may take more time initially to figure it out.

If you do have a poor working memory, you can use techniques like a memory palace or association to help. For associations, having motion in the visualisations will make it easier.

Regardless of whether you have a good or bad memory, it's useful to have a brain dump - write down things that you need to remember instead of trying to keep it in working memory.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Scientific research on meditation is still in its infancy. However, there are two classes of meditation broadly speaking:

  1. Focused attention
  2. Open monitoring

The focused attention type of meditation (e.g. repeating a mantra) help to enhance focused mode type thinking - that is, learning. This type helps to enhance concentration, and at the same time, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.

The open monitoring type of meditation (e.g. mindfulness) help to enhance diffuse mode type thinking, that is, imaginative and creative abilities. You don't focus on any one thing. In diffuse mode thoughts tend to wander (such as when we daydream), and it might wander to help us plan for the future. But the downside is that diffuse mode is affiliated with anxiety and depression because the brain might start to think about things that can go wrong.

Meditation can have very different effects, depending on the type.

Pomodoro Technique

This was introduced in the last video as a type of "working meditation". It was also mentioned in LHTL as a technique to combat procrastination.

  1. Turn off all distractions
  2. Set the timer for 25 minutes
  3. Focus during the 25 minutes. When distracting thoughts arise, don't push them away, just let them pass.
  4. Reward.

More on the reward portion: Once you are done for the 25 minutes. You can do what you want. Turn your attention off whatever you were focusing on. But it's best not to do related tasks during this break or you aren't really getting a break. (e.g. if you were writing a report, then you don't want to go to social media to post something new, since that's also writing - even if it's on a different topic)

Remember that we need to take our attention off whatever we are doing from time to time, since it's during this time in diffuse mode that we consolidate and make sense of the materail.

The reason for 25 minutes focused time? The pain you experience (thanks to your brain) when you don't want to do something tends to last for around 20 minutes, so the 25 minutes is to push you past that point and get into the flow. And if you really get into the flow, you may want to keep going as long as it feels good.

The breaks can also be longer if you are not in a rush, so 10-20 minutes is also acceptable.

Getting Past Procrastination

While the Pomodoro technique is useful when you are procrastinating, you should also take a look at the big picture when you realise that you are procrastinating.

Piers Steel has done research into why people procrastinate, looking at the motivators and demotivators of procrastination. He wrote a book on this called The Procrastination Equation.

There are three motivators/demotivators discussed.

The first motivator is expectancy. You are motivated if you expect to succeed and get a reward.

The second motivator is value. You are motivated if you believe that the the task is valuable and pleasant.

The third demotivator is impulsiveness. You are unmotivated if you get distracted or lose focus from a task.

Alex Vermeer came up with a helpful flow chart for defeating procrastination based on the ideas from Steel.

The whole chart is very big and there are many possible things that you can do, but they all focus on one of the three areas. But first, you should notice when you procrastinate, and understand why you are doing so - and you should be specific about the reason.

Then, focus on one of the three areas. The chart has actions that you can take and tips for the actions.

For example, to increase expectancy, realise that not doing anything guarantees failure.

To increase value, you can find meaning: take some time to think about your major life goals, and how what you are doing aligns with it.

And for decreasing impulsiveness, you can set goals and create routines and habits. If a 25-minute pomodoro seems too hard, do a 5-minute "dash".

If you are learning something new and difficult, it's a very bad idea to procrastinate. It takes time for your brain learn something. There are only so many new neural synapses that can form in a single day.

However, there is a time for "productive procrastination". This is for tasks that require preparation, and you are synthesising information, such as in writing a book. It's a problem if you try to immediately dive right in without having the right information first.

If it's overwhelming, just remember 2 things:

  1. Focus on one thing
  2. Keep track of what works best

The Value of Procedural Fluency and Deliberate Practice

Conceptual understanding is important, but practice and repetition with some memorisation is just as important in learning.

Despite what most believe today in Western education, conceptual understanding is not the golden key to learning. Practice and repetition are equally important.

In the past, for many thousands of years, it was thought that memorisation was the key to learning. But of course, we know that it isn't everything.

Unfortunately, what has happened in Western education is that things have been taken to the other extreme - overemphasising conceptual understanding and conveniently neglecting that some memorisation and (deliberate) practice on the hardest portions is needed.

Memorisation doesn't just reinforce your learning; it also allows you to gain a deeper and richer understanding. If you were memorising an equation, you will understand it better especially if you are trying to figure out what is going on while memorising.

Some educators like to say that you can always look up the equation and you don't have to memorise it. But consider this: Can you say that someone knows a language, if they had to look up words every time they were needed?

Practice and memorisation helps you to chunk key concepts. When you first learn something, it occupies a lot of your working memory. Your pre-frontal cortex is working very hard. But once you have it chunked (that is, understood and practiced), it becomes like a long, smooth ribbon that you can easily pull into working memory. You free up your other working memory slots to hold other related information, that you can "hook" together to form more advanced thoughts.

Procedural fluency is the term used to describe when you have a concept well-chunked.

Some "test anxiety" is a result of not having studied well enough. Only when the test is in front of you, do you look deeply enough to realise that you don't know the material, and panic as a result.

The Value of Mental Tricks

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said:

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”

Unfortunate events happen to everyone, but how you react makes a difference. If you react inappropriately, you put stress on yourself which may impact your health negatively - leading to disease.

The context in which you view something matters. If you see a snake in a cage, no big deal. But if it's outside the cage, that's very different.

Similarly, if you put your brain in a "cage", which is a better frame around stressful thoughts, it can greatly help. These mental tricks are for reframing negative thoughts into more positive ones.

Learning to Reframe

The first trick is to put a label on your feelings when you encounter a setback. Doing so forces you to use words to describe your feelings, which shifts your thinking from the emotional part of the brain to the more rational part. This automatically tones down your emotions.

The field of cognitive therapy has a list of common cognitive distortions (developed by Dr. David Burns in his book The New Mood Therapy). This list is helpful as it provides labels that you can use to describe how you are feeling.

  1. All or nothing thinking - For example, thinking you are a total failure because you failed a test (and despite the fact that you are a success in other areas).
  2. Magnification - Overemphasising the impact of one failure.
  3. Overgeneralisation - Seeing one failure as a part of a series of failures, forgetting the things that you have done well.
  4. Mental filter - Focusing only on what you did badly at and ignoring everything else.
  5. Discounting the positive - Forgetting about all the good things in your life.
  6. Jumping to conclusions - Thinking that one failure will lead to things going badly from now on.
  7. Mind reading - Thinking that others think badly of you, when you don't know what they think.
  8. Emotional reasoning - Thinking that something is negative just because I feel it is negative.
  9. Shouldy thinking - Thinking "I should have..." This only leads to guilt, anger and frustration.
  10. Pejoratives - Calling yourself names like "idiot", "stupid", etc. that only causes you to feel bad about yourself and makes you angry and frustrated.
  11. Personalisation and blame - Blaming ourselves and shouldering responsibility for errors that we didn't make, or blaming others inappropriately.

When you feel bad: Think about what is bothering you, look through these labels and think about how your mind is tricking you. Then develop a rational response.

The other trick is to find positive ways to think about a negative experience.

If you experience a failure in business, think of it as a great learning experience.

If you didn't get a job you wanted, you have the opportunity for a better job next time and it's a signal for you to use this time to upgrade your skills.

If you did badly on a test, think of it as a hint that you need to relook at your study habits.

Reframing isn't just mental trickery - it actually extinguishes the negative emotions from the fight-or-flight center of the amygdala. When you find a way to change the way you interpret your experiences, there's fewer stress-related neurotransmitters released by the amygdala.

The Pitfalls of "Learning Styles"

You should make use of all your senses when learning - visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or whatever else there is out there.

A 2015 research conducted by Beth Rogowsky and her colleagues found that there was no statistically significant difference in the relationship between your ability to comprehend the material when you use your preferred learning style or not.

These learning styles also kind of restrict you by putting you in a box. More accurately, you may put yourself in a box when you subscribe to the view that you are a particular type of learner.

If you think you are an auditory learner, and you start to shun visual material, it means that you get less exposure and less practice with using your eyes to learn. But realise that reading is important today - the majority of tests are written, for example (unless it's a listening test for a language).

Yes, research has shown that everyone receives and processes new information in different ways. But this doesn't extend to "learning styles" (at least, based on the current research). In fact, it seems that we learn best when we integrate and use all of our senses when we learn.

Think of yourself as an all-inclusive type of learner, and you will learn much better because of it.

As a note, realise that there is a whole industry behind this "learning styles" movement that is financially-motivated. There's much money to be earned from creating and administering the tests to determine the type of learner you are, and conducting workshops. Be aware that there is this driving force behind it, even when there is no scientific evidence that these theories about learning styles are true.

Learning Too Much

The experience of Ana Belen Sanchez-Prieto: She started taking a MOOC to learn about how to create her own MOOC. She realised that she had to learn more about effective teaching, so she enrolled in an education MOOC, before deciding to complete the specialisation.

She went on to take every education-related MOOC that she could find. When she realised that she could take MOOCs on subjects of interest that she'd not had the chance to learn before, she started to take them all.

In a nutshell, she got carried away. This led to stress because she still has work - her own classes. Her social life was impacted. But the worst thing is that she realised she wasn't really learning, but rather the goal was to finish the course and to get the certificate.

The takeaway is that there are many interesting things to learn about, but she had to choose.

Taking on too much can suck the joy out of the experience.

I'm adding my own commentary here, because this is starting to resonate. I think this video is especially true now, given that many online education tools have been made freely available in this time of a global pandemic. I've been feeling this thirst for knowledge. I see so many opportunties to learn, and I begin to wonder if I'm loading on more on my plate than I can humanely handle. I started with this MOOC, but I'm already taking another college-level class. I found another interesting MOOC, then yesterday, I discovered that Pluralsight has April free. The day before someone told me about Google Cloud Platform having free training too, and giving away swag for completing 'quests' in Qwiklabs. Before that, I also knew that Unity was offering a few free months...

2019 was a 'bad' year for me, in that I didn't achieve much in terms of my own learning and also at work. I hated myself for that. But I think I landed in the state I was in in 2019 precisely because I was overworking myself in 2017, and by mid-2018 I'd burnt out, and never recovered but it got worse in 2019. It's a cautionary tale in my own life. I have to fully evaluate the options and choose what is a priority, and what is meaningful personally to me.

Ultimately, it's important to have a balance.

Your Social Brain

You behave differently depending on who you are around.

Google's Project Aristotle set out to discover what made teams successful. What they found out was that psychological safety predicted how well teams innovated.

Psychological safety means that members of the team are comfortable with taking risks and sometimes failing. There is interpersonal trust among the members and everyone is comfortable being themselves.

The most successful teams had more empathy.

Now, the drug Ecstasy (yes, the drug people take at parties) enhances empathy. How it does this is that it causes a massive release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurochemical messenger found in the brain of vertebrates. The brain stem consists of neurons that manufacture serotonin. Serotonin is projected widely, meaning that it has an effect on many billions of neurons in the cerebral cortex (the "most highly evolved part of the human brain").

As we all know, you shouldn't take Ecstasy because there's a downside. Ecstasy released just about all of the available serotonin in the brain, depleting the available supply. What this means is that afterward, and for weeks after you take it, you become more withdrawn and less social, until your supply of serotonin is replenished.

Prozac, which is used in treatment of some types of depression, also increases serotonin activity by blocking the re-uptake of serotonin by neurons. Prozac takes a much longer time to have an effect, but its effects also last longer.

The environment plays a role in the amount of serotonin in your brain.

Lack of maternal care in non-human primates have shown to result in reduced levels, greater agression, and more anxiety-like behaviours during adolescence.

The low levels in stressed brains are also a tripwire for extreme and unpredictable violence.

Although the levels of neutromodulators such as serotonin are determined during development, and depend on your experiences when you are young, they can be changed when you move to a new environment.

Work with the right sort of people who will support you positively.


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