Isn’t it ironic that we go to school to learn, but we are never taught how we learn?
My goal in this post is to share information, that I find fascinating and extremely valuable, about how we learn. I’ll also share the best scientifically proven method for learning information.
Disclaimer: the majority of the information presented is based on the work presented by Dr Andrew Huberman, from the Huberman Lab podcast. This blog post will be consolidating the knowledge that he so kindly shared, for free, on YouTube and other streaming platforms. The YouTube link to the specific episode is below if you want to go into more details:
Throughout this post, I will be using the terms 'neuroplasticity' and 'plasticity' interchangeably. Right, let's get straight into it:
What you need to know:
Lower Motor Neurons (LMNs)
We all have LMNs that are located in the spinal cord. These LMNs extend like a web of ‘wires’ into the peripheral nervous system and connect with various muscles in the human body. These neurons give the signal to our muscles to twitch and contract.
Fun fact: there is no such thing as muscle memory. Muscles don’t have a brain to think for themselves. It is the neurons and their firing patterns that control the muscle. Hence, it would be more accurate that your ability to get up and walk every morning is not an example of muscle memory but neural memory.
While LMNs are certainly smarter than muscles, they’re not the smartest motor neurones that we have. They're generally known as effector neurons. This means that they are good at following instructions given by another type of neurons:
Upper Motor Neurons (UMNs)
UMNs reside in our motor cortex, on top of the brain. These UMNs are responsible for sending signals for deliberate actions.
They send signals to the LMNs (effectors) which in turn signal (control) the muscles. UMNs are in charge of specific behaviours, not subconscious movements. For example, making a cup of tea is a specific behaviour, unlike breathing which we do subconsciously. What’s important to note is that, when we have a behaviour that almost becomes ‘automatic’ over time, this generally means that the set of behaviour in question has been passed off from the UMNs to the LMNs.
An example of this would be golfing. When you first start, you have to consciously pay attention to your movements in order to hit the ball and over time you rarely think about it. It becomes second nature.
Why are you telling me this? I thought this was about how to learn information?
When it comes to learning, we are essentially changing our neural patterns and pathways. If you want to make these changes, it is vital to know where in the circuitry changes are possible and you ought to know where the changes are most likely to occur.
You want to know how to signal to the brain and nervous system that change is needed. This brings us to neuroplasticity. This can be viewed as a general umbrella term that refers to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt throughout life and in response to experience.
As we have covered so far, that ability to change is accomplished through the growth and reorganisation of neurons in the brain. The term ‘neuro’ is referring to neurons and ‘plasticity’ refers to the ability to change.
How can we leverage the information above to open up plasticity? Here’s what’s extremely fascinating – to create a state of neuroplasticity, we need to create mismatches or errors in how we perform things.
The neural circuits enter a state of neuroplasticity when there is a signal that goes to the brain that says, “there is something wrong”.
💡Errors and making errors that are out of sync with what we would like to do is how our nervous system is cued through very distinct biological mechanisms, that signal to our brain that something is wrong. In response to that signal, certain neurochemicals are deployed to indicate to the neural circuits that they need to change.💡
If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it all makes sense. There is no reason for the human brain to change itself unless it becomes aware that it is doing something wrong and therefore change is needed.
It’s a bit of a misconception that everything we do and experience changes our brains. The brain changes when certain neurochemicals are released.
These chemicals are :
- (EAD is an acronym I use to remember them).
These neurochemicals are released in ways and at specific times that allow for neural circuits to be geared up for change. And then, the actual change occurs later during sleep.
The brain is incredibly plastic from about birth until about the age of 25. The human brain has evolved to customise itself in response to its experience. Then somewhere around 25 years of age, plasticity begins to decrease, and you need different mechanisms to engage plasticity. E.g. this is why it’s harder for an adult to learn a new language than a child.
However, this incredibly plastic brain can be a double-edged sword. The brain is incredibly plastic during childhood because it needs to customise itself efficiently in its environment for survival.
Unfortunately, this also comes at a cost since the impact of traumatic events on the neurocircuits is much greater in the young brain than in the adult brain.
This can also be an interesting factor that could explain why, in general, people tend to become more conservative in their views as they get older, but that’s maybe a discussion for a future post.
We tend to get understandably frustrated when we are trying to learn something that is difficult. Say, the piano or writing code and the frustration gets so overwhelming that we give up and say, “I can’t do it”.
The irony is that we don’t realise this exact feeling of frustration, these errors themselves are signalling to our brain and nervous system that something is not working, and change is needed. I guess the quote “failure is one step closer to success” couldn’t have been truer when it comes to learning.
Of course, the brain and nervous system don’t understand the frustration. The brain only understands the neurochemicals that are released. Let’s talk about these 3 neurochemicals in a bit more detail:
Epinephrine increases alertness and acetylcholine increases focus.
When acetylcholine is released, it creates an opportunity to focus on the error margin: the distance between what it is that you’re doing and what it is that you would like to do. And then the nervous system starts to make changes almost immediately to try and get the sought-out behaviour right.
Then, when you start getting it even a little bit right, that 3rd neurochemical comes into action and is released: dopamine. This allows for the plastic change to occur very fast.
Now, this is what all happens very naturally in young brains. But in old brains, it tends to be pretty slow, except when certain conditions are in place.
💡So let me just say this, if you are uncomfortable making errors and you get frustrated easily, if you leverage that frustration toward drilling deeper into the endeavour, you are setting yourself up for a terrific set of plasticity mechanisms to engage. But if you take that frustration and you walk away from the endeavour, you are essentially setting up plasticity to rewire you according to what happens afterwards, which is generally feeling unhappy.
According to the Knudsen Lab experiment, in the adult brain (>25), we need to make the increments of change smaller, as plasticity becomes slower.
Therefore, as an adult, incremental learning becomes extremely valuable.
The key is shorter sessions of focused learning, containing smaller bits of information. It’s a mistake to try and learn a lot of information in one long learning session as an adult.
What the Knudsen Lab and other scientists have shown, is that the adult nervous system is fully capable of engaging in a huge amount of plasticity, but you need to do it in smaller increments.
Anywhere between 10 minutes to 30 minutes of focused learning session is enough to engage neuroplasticity for learning for an adult.
Now, there is a trick that the Knudsen Lab revealed for getting the same amount of neuroplasticity when you were young but as an adult: setting a serious incentive for the learning. The subjects had to find food that was displaced in their visual world by making them wear prism glasses. They were tasked to find the food and there was a noise blasted through speakers in the location of the food through an array of speakers.
The finding was that if the subjects had to adjust their visual world, to get food, the plasticity will eventually occur, but it was very slow as an adult. But, if they had to hunt to get any food at all, the rate of plasticity was much faster. This suggests that plasticity in an adult can be just as dramatic as in young persons provided there is a serious incentive for the plasticity to occur.
This was an important finding because it showed that how badly we need or want to accomplish our objective, is linked to how fast we will arrive at the plasticity needed to learn and succeed at the said objective. How important something is to us, affects the rate and magnitude of plasticity. This is exactly why just going through the motions, or just getting our reps in, is not sufficient to get the nervous system to change.
This study, therefore, shows that if we need to accomplish something to eat, to get an income, or to achieve something very important to us, we will reshape our nervous system very, very quickly.
We can use this knowledge from the experiment above to leverage plasticity and this brings us to dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when we think we’re on the right path.
When we’re working towards an external goal, a little bit of dopamine is released, and it tends to give us more motivation towards that goal.
Although dopamine is released according to subconscious things that are wired into us like food, sex, warmth when we’re cold, cool environments when we’re too warm etc., it is also a molecule that is fascinatingly subjective. What releases dopamine from one person to the next can vary significantly based on what each person believes is good for them. That’s what makes it so powerful if it’s being used correctly.
What you need to do:
Learn to attach dopamine, subjectively, to the process of making errors. When you get frustrated trying to learn something, that feeling is a crucial cue that should ring a bell in your head. Having feelings of frustration means that epinephrine and acetylcholine will be very high, but if you can subjectively associate that experience with something good and that you want to continue down that path, as opposed to quitting when you hit that frustration point, then you start to create a synergy between the dopamine that’s released and errors.
We all have a certain period throughout the day when we are going to be much better at tolerating the frustration of the errors that we will be making and be much more focused on what it is we’re trying to do. Chances are, you’re unlikely to be focused to the same degree at 10 pm vs 3 am.
Therefore, find the time or times of day when you naturally have the highest mental acuity. That’s really when you want to engage in these learning sessions. Then, get to the point where you start making errors and keep making errors for 10 to 30 minutes. Just keep making errors and push through it. You’re almost seeking frustration because that’s your cue.
The active recall learning method boils down to the following:
- Go through the content you want/need to learn.
- Make relevant questions and answers based on the area(s) you don’t know.
- Practice answering these questions by making sure the answer is not visible until you’ve had a try at answering. (See how this is linking to making mistakes?)
- Repeat practising these questions every couple or so days.
- Use a colour coding system to help you focus on your weakest questions so that next time you know where to focus most. Be efficient in your learning!
There are numerous methods for using active recall, but I like to use Notion. If you’re interested in how I use Notion for learning and/or studying for exams, then drop me an email or comment on this post.
Thank you for wanting to learn more today, than you did yesterday. - Stephen West