Consultant Neuroscientist PMR Consultants
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Neuroscience: techniques to help you learn more effectively

By understanding more about how the brain works, we can create the optimal conditions for learning – and ensure we retain what we’ve learned more effectively. Discover here why we are 'BLESSED' in our ability to learn (and some tips that come with the acornym!)

4th Oct 2019
Consultant Neuroscientist PMR Consultants
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As someone that has the privilege of spending my days reading the latest neuroscience and then working out how to apply these to real life situations, I have been lucky to have developed techniques that help me learn effectively.  

Many of the strategies that I use to learn have come directly from my reading, and so I would like to share some of these here.

The first thing that I’ve found really helpful is the knowledge that my brain is a learning machine that has evolved to acquire and store new information that might be useful to me.

Believe you can learn

Research has demonstrated that we store new knowledge and skills in networks of cells (neurons) in the brain.

It is not just the individual neurons that are important to learning but also the connections between them. Each of the billion neurons in your brain can make connections with as many as several thousand other neurons. Importantly, these connections are not fixed.  As many as one in ten of these are lost and replaced on a daily basis.

This means that, each day, our brains have the capacity to partially rewire our neural networks in order to store new information. If you always do what you have always done, the network will remain the same and the capacity to learn will be wasted.

Since I believe I can learn, I think about what I will learn each day in order to use the capacity of my amazing brain for learning.

Learning systems

The second trick I bring to my learning is knowing that there are many systems in the brain for learning, and so I don’t always have to learn the same way.

Knowing that there are many learning systems makes it more interesting, since I can vary how I learn. This also allows me to celebrate confusion, since this is the first step in understanding. Before confusion, there is only ignorance.

State Neural system Function How to?
Curiosity Reward system Reward in anticipation of knowing more Ask questions, take tests
Celebration Arousal system Increases motivation to learn Find ways to celebrate new learning
Confusion Stress system Indicates confusion and need to learn Take time to pinpoint areas of confusion then ask
Confidence Sense of self Increases self-esteem so willingness to try harder Teach someone else and notice your understanding 
Calm Reflective system Reflecting on learning makes it stickier Sit quietly away from books and reflect on new learning

Emotional intensity

The area of the brain that stores the addresses of our memories (the hippocampus) is closely linked to an area of the brain that is important in remembering our emotional states (the amygdala).

We remember events that had high emotional intensity (both positive and negative) because these are important to learning what to do in the future.

We repeat the events that were intensely positive and avoid the events that were negative.

I use this by adding humour, disgust, surprise or other emotions to my learning, so that it becomes more sticky.

Space your learning

If an event is not emotionally intense, we remember it better if it is repeated.  

There is, however, a right and a wrong time to repeat learning – we have to space our learning.

If we wait to repeat the learning at a time when it is almost forgotten, we basically have to learn everything again from scratch. If, however, we revise the learning before it is forgotten, we can increase the strength of the learning.  

Learning a little and often is better than learning a lot then forgetting it all. To make use of this, I look over notes for a new course well before I forget the content.

The self-referential effect

If you reflect on what you remember easily, you might find that these are often events from your own life, or facts about you.  

The ease at which we remember information about ourselves is called the self-referential effect.  

I tap into this memory aid by making learning personal to me. What does this mean for me or someone I am close to?

Encoding

So far, these tips are about how to code memory well, but we also need to be able to retrieve our memories.

I know that the more senses I use when I am coding, the more likely it is that I will see, hear, feel something that reminds me of the learning and so helps me to retrieve the information.  

Encoding our memories well makes them easier to recall.

Deep processing

I have often watched people ‘studying’ by highlighting parts of a passage that they think might be important to learn.  

This is not a great way to learn since it does not provide a reason for remembering.  

Instead, when I want to learn something, I start with a question – what might be useful about knowing this? How might I want to use this learning in the future? What, precisely, do I want to know?

By reading with a question in mind, it is easier to process the information in a way that will make it more memorable. This is a form of deep processing.

To summarise my tips for learning, I learn better when I use my:

  • Belief that I can learn
  • Learning systems
  • Emotional intensity
  • Spaced learning
  • Self-referential effect
  • Encode with many senses
  • Deep processing

Through this, I am ‘blessed’ with the ability to learn (oh – and the odd acronym helps my memory too).

Interested in this topic? Read Closing the knowing/doing gap: how to use neuroscience to apply learning on the job.

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