Learn How to Learn
The human brain is an amazing thing. This three-pound organ—more than 75 percent of which is water—can process more information than even the most advanced computer. (At least for now: That could very easily change soon.) It continually modifies itself throughout a person’s life, as neural networks rearrange according to experiences with new external stimuli. And when it comes to these encounters, more is better. They drive the development of the brain, as reorganization causes the number of brain cells to grow, as well as communicate with each other with greater frequency and complexity through a chemical neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (the “car”) and nerve fibers known as dendrites (the “highways”). This phenomenon is referred to in neuroscience circles as plasticity, which relates directly to the twin pillars of learning—cognition and memory.
Everyone is born with the ability to learn, and the brain’s capacity for absorbing new skills and knowledge is at its height roughly between the ages of five to 12. They don’t call them the formative years for nothing: This is when people most easily learn about language, mathematics, the sciences and the performance of various kinds of physical tasks. Most will develop personal and professional interests during this period that will last their entire lives. Hopefully, they’ll also cultivate good learning habits in this time span, so they’ll continue to accumulate new knowledge and enhance their brainpower.
Some people, though, never really learn how to learn and therefore have difficulty taking on new tasks and skills throughout their lives. The human brain is such that it will always gather information—a great deal of it, in fact. But if it isn’t really learned, then random bits of data will simply drift in and out of the mind to little significant effect. To comprehend and retain knowledge that can be meaningfully applied time and again, individuals have to understand how to study something and then place it in a larger mental framework. Here are just a few ways to boost the brain’s learning faculties:
- Teach your brain new things as often as possible: As with the body, the mind needs exercise to develop. Going back to the plasticity concept, when you expose your senses to new situations and settings, your brain cells move around and form a new structure, which makes them grow in number and enhance your mental capacity. Although learning a new programming language or designing a new application would certainly qualify as ways to train the brain, it doesn’t have to be that complicated or involved. Simply using your left hand (or right hand, for you southpaws out there) to write or eat would be sufficient. Also, recreational experiences such as traveling to new places or meeting new people at parties can help you expand your mind—literally!
- Figure out how to handle stress: I was going to title this point “Avoid stress,” but that just doesn’t seem likely for professionals in this industry. Instead, you should work out ways to manage the strain that invariably comes with the territory. Why? Well, continual discharge of large numbers of stress-related hormones called cortisol can prevent the brain from creating new memories and accessing old ones. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline during brief periods of severe stress, which can be great for dealing with these situations. However, if these conditions are sustained for very long then cortisol is released into the brain, which damages the hippocampus, the section of the organ that creates new memories and more or less controls learning. In addition, too much cortisol can shut down the brain’s ability to retrieve long-term memories, which helps explain why some people “go blank” during a big test. If you want to learn and retain information, then steer clear of excess stress.
- Learn less and retain more: You want to learn as much as possible, right? Not exactly. Studying voluminous amounts of information can actually interfere with learning, as the brain can only handle so much new data in a given period of time. For example, a study of American and German high schoolers showed that the mathematics textbooks used by the former covered close to twice as many topics. Yet the German students surpassed their American counterparts on math exams. Because they were able to concentrate more of their mental energy on fewer topics, the German high schoolers were able to apply the knowledge much more effectively. Hence, when studying for an exam or trying to learn a new skill, focus first on the most essential topics. Then when you’ve got those down, let your knowledge branch out further into tangential spheres.