How we learn — Summary

Learn to learn, this book will teach you how to become a better learner

We all have to learn in life, whether we go to school or not, every day is a new opportunity to learn. Why should we learn? Because doing so can radically improve our lives. Just imagine how awesome it would be if you don’t repeat that error which bothers you anymore. Well, to not repeat it you have to learn from it first.

But why is it that we often put so much effort into learning but don’t seem to make a good progress? Often it is because our learning method is not the best. Learning is just another skill like riding a bike. Then why not learn how to learn? That would be a double win! This book will show us how to get the most out of our learning. Let’s start by looking how memory works.

Memories are formed through connections of different neurons

When we form a new memory, our brain creates new connections between different neurons. Neurons are the cells which send information signals through the brain.

These connections are called synapses, every memory, for example, your first day at school, is a network formed out of neurons and synapses.

Each time we recall a specific memory, those synapses grow thicker. That’s why retrieval is so important in the learning process. Having thicker synapses means our recall of that memory is faster and clearer.

Different types of memories are stored in different areas of the brain. Conscious memories, like the name of your pet, are stored in a region called the hippocampus.

But people whose hippocampus has been removed are still able to remember older memories, which means they are stored somewhere else. That region is called the neocortex. The neocortex is further divided into areas that control how wee move and how we process what we see.

For example, if you have a visual memory, the sunrise of a special day or the face of an old crush, those memories would be stored in the visual processing section of your neocortex.

Memories associated with different stimuli — smells or sounds for example — are located in different regions of the brain. So what’s the implication? The more details you have on memory, that is, the more different types of stimuli that memory is associated, the easier it will be for you to recall that memory.

Sleeping is essential for recall

While the use of sleep for our bodies and brain is still not completely understood, research suggests that it helps us with comprehension and memorization of information.

Studies have shown that individuals who slept before performing a memory task scored 93% instead of 69% of those who didn’t sleep.

However different types of sleep aid different mental activities. The first hours of sleep are important for retaining facts, but creative thinking requires more REM sleep. REM sleep is what happens in the early morning hours, so it is ok to get to bed late of you need primarily creative thinking.

Variation aids recall

Environmental cues can help our memory recall. A study found that participants who studied a list of words while listening to music were able to recall much those words better when they listened to the same song they were hearing while studying than no music at all.

So the natural thing to do would be to recreate your study environment while you take your exam, that, of course, is not necessarily possible. Instead, change your study routine, try to create some variation. Perhaps study outside one day and inside the next, or study with background noise one day and without the next.

These variations will ensure that information you learn is stored in different parts of your brain which will help your recall of those memories later, thus increasing retention.

Intervals help with long term memory

Do you like to study the day before the exam? Did that bring you good results? Perhaps it will have worked for the test. But you will likely have forgotten everything the next day or within a week. Why? Because our brain does not store long-term memory from just a single study session.

You need the spacing effect. The spacing effect produces effective memorization. When you are studying the same facts over and over in a short period (1 day), your brain gets bored.

Only by recalling or restudying the same thing days later will your synapses gradually be thickened. Instead of spending more time studying, try spacing out your study time. Instead of studying 10 hours the day before your exam, study 1 hour for 10 days.

Quizzes (recall) helps cement what you learned

You probably know that the process of teaching and explaining a subject to someone helps you to understand it better yourself.

That is because when you explain something, new connections are being formed between neurons as well as thickened, resulting in easier and faster retrieval.

One study at the University of California showed that when students were asked a few questions about a topic, and they had to answer related questions at the end of the semester in their exam, those who answered the questions scored 10% higher than the rest.

Interruptions can help with insight and learning

Procrastination plagues everyone, but it indirectly may help. Most people think it is better to get something done fast, yet completing a project over a long time can lead to better learning.

More time gives more opportunity for reflection and developing new ideas. Also, the spacing effect aids our learning. And after all, don’t we want to get the most out of a project?

More time leaves more room for interruptions, and one study showed that subjects who were interrupted remembered best the task they were unable to complete.

More memory retention also leads to the creation of new ideas, as explained in the book Where good ideas come from, new ideas are formed out of eclectic environments (memories).

Furthermore, breaks can lead us to see problems from a new perspective. You probably experienced a situation where you were unable to solve a problem. You went out to do something entirely different, and suddenly the solution to your problem came to your mind.

Variety is the spice of memory

When memorizing something, we often resort to repetition. But repetition isn’t the most effective way to learn. Variety is more effective than narrow focus.

A study found that children who tossed a beanbag blindfolded, performed better when they had to hit targets at different distances. And here is the interesting part, they even did better than the group who practiced with a target within three feet, even though they practiced only with targets which were two and four foots away.

The variation made them put in more effort and thought, resulting in superior skill gains than those who only performed repetition.

You can apply this in your studies by learning more context about a subject. Instead of only studying a mathematical formula, learn about its application also.

Perceptual intuition helps you filter out relevant information

When we first learn a new complicated skill, we often feel overwhelmed by the information. A novice pilot will feel confused by sight at his instrument board. There is too much new information hitting his perception, but once he goes through hundreds of hours of practice, he will instinctually know where to pay attention to and what the instruments are telling him.

Perceptual learning can be aided by perceptual learning modules consisting of pictures or videos. In one study, medical students had to quickly identify dermatological problems  — which to the non-expert eye seemed indistinguishable — in pictures they were shown. That practice eventually helped them to become experts at an intuitive identification of dermatological problems.

You can build up perceptual intuition about whatever you want with enough practice.

Short Summary: There are many tricks which will help you to become a better learner. It totally makes sense to first master the art of learning to reap the exponential results later.

Get the book here and start improving your learning capacity!


Also published on Medium.

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