The Science of Learning: It’s Vital For Your Success
In order to learn anything, whether it is math, a foreign language, or how to dribble a soccer ball, you need to create and strengthen pathways in your brain. Think about the first time you tried to kick or throw a ball. Your first time doing it, you didn’t have a pathway for that movement in your brain. However, remember that feeling of when you have it down and don’t even have to think about it? That is muscle memory and a form of the science of learning principles.
Understanding the scientific process and neuroscience through which our brains learn helps you comprehend the best way by which you can assimilate knowledge and effectively apply it.
Evolution has made us the ultimate learning machine. We can optimize our ability to pursue a passion-struck life effectively by understanding the science behind learning and building our lives around intentional learning.
Let’s examine learning through the experience of Dr. Siddharth Warrier.
What it takes to learn: The Siddharth Warrier story
When Dr. Siddharth Warrier was thirteen years old, he started learning to play the guitar. However, he immediately began to face the challenges that people learning to play at that age had faced before him. His fingers were too small to play the strings, too weak to press them properly, and his hands were too untrained to move from note to note.
So, his first month of learning was filled with unclear, painful notes that sounded terrible. Then the second month came, and nothing much seemed to have changed. However, by the third month, something did change. His fingers had started to harden due to constant and repeated playing of the guitar, which made them not hurt like before. They were pressing on the notes a lot better, and the chords were actually sounding like chords.
Finally, he could play his first chord after three months of practice (this was the A-Chord, which is arguably the most straightforward chord to play). After six months of practice, he could play his first bar chord, which is relatively complex.
Learning to play the guitar actually rewired Siddharth’s brain over time and enabled faster access to the left cortex of his brain. As a result, his guitar playing wasn’t the only skill that got better. Other cognitive processes improved, including problem-solving.
Time went by, he grew older, and when it was time to choose a career path, he decided to become a doctor. He passed his entrance exams, got into medical school, and did quite well through his academic years studying Neurology before his medical residency.
When he entered his residency, he faced a challenge that thousands of neurology residents had faced before him: how to build learning into his routine. His practical medical knowledge and clinical skills were still developing. His clinical instincts needed sharpening to understand all the standard neurological procedures. Siddharth did not hone is time management enough to allow him to keep track and follow up on his patients.
It was like he was learning the guitar all over again, but now lives were at stake this time.
Siddharth required his preceptor’s experience to be a better clinician. At the same time, he needed to study to update his knowledge consistently. So he actively participated in activities to improve and broaden his neurological expertise and practiced medical procedures to hone his clinical skills. Soon enough, his efficiency started getting better.
William Osler, a famous Canadian physician who developed the system of clinical medical education, articulates this learning cycle of residency when he said, “to study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.”
After three to four months of residency, Siddharth recognized the patterns that emerged between different neurologic disorders and learned the time management skills necessary to track, care for, and follow up with his patients. He even discovered how to get a good night’s sleep on most days. Subconsciously something else was happening.
He discovered that just like learning to play guitar, becoming a doctor required him to have a beginner’s mindset, and he was gaining confidence. He also realized that the learning he would require to be the best in his field was a lifelong habit he would have to build. Like the beginning stages of learning to play guitar, residency is a strenuous time in a doctor’s medical career but only encompasses a short duration. The best guitarists and doctors make it a lifelong pursuit.
Most importantly, Siddharth was learning how to continuously learn and form positive habits, which equipped him to tackle whatever challenges the future could bring him effectively.
What is the definition of learning?
Learning is described as a change in brain structure in response to experience. It is the intake and storage of new information and the formation of new connections with existing knowledge.
In the case of psychology, the predominant definition Psychologists provide for learning is a somewhat permanent modification in behavior as a result of experience. The psychology of learning focuses on how individuals learn and interact with their surroundings.
Learning is something we spend a lot of time on. Almost all of our childhood and a significant part of our adult lives goes into the act of learning something, whether it’s a new language, a new skill, or a new concept. Learning is key to living a rewarding life.
The science of learning principles: the three aspects of learning
From a neuroscience perspective, there are three aspects of learning.
The first principle is known as intake.
This is the brain’s taking in new information through a sensory apparatus such as the skin, tongue, nose, ear, or eye to generate the sense of touch, taste, smell, sound, or sight.
For example, when you’re listening to a talk, the information reaches you through your ears. It hits your tympanic membrane, and the cochlea inside your ear converts it into electric signals. These electric signals are taken up into your brain in a place called the auditory cortex inside your temporal lobe. This is where these electric signals are decoded into information you perceive as sounds, words, and meanings.
Similarly, when watching a live show or video, the gestures and expressions of the performer or speaker reach your eyes, and images hit your retina, which is then converted to electric signals that are sent to your visual cortex inside your occipital lobe. Again this is where your brain understands these electric signals like images, shapes, and meaningful visualizations.
This first step of learning, though relatively effortless, is very crucial. The more information you intake, the more you get to learn.
The next aspect of the science of learning is information synthesis.
The brain combines all the received information to make complete sense of it at this stage.
Like the auditory and occipital, every primary sensory cortex has a secondary association cortex that arranges all the pieces of information back together and forms a big picture.
Here the brain constructs a three-dimensional view of the world around us and what we perceive as reality. It then derives meaning based on this perception and context of the information pieced together.
But it is not enough to just let information in and process it. The synthesized information must also be stored.
This brings us to the third aspect of the science of learning, known as memory.
Memory is the glue that holds reality together and links each moment to the next. Memory creates the existence of the uninterrupted feeling of time passing.
There are two main types of memory.
- Immediate or short-term memory
Also known as the working memory, the immediate memory is stored in the prefrontal cortex, which is in your frontal lobe. A great example of this is being in class and seeing a teacher write on a chalkboard. Short-term memory is when you go through the process of remembering what you just read on a board and writing it in your notebook.
- Long-term memory
The hippocampus, located deep within the temporal cortex, comes into play here. It uses practice and repetition to turn short-term memories into long-term memories and makes complete learning possible.
Most of the information we get is subconsciously processed and lost in our daily routine. This information only stays in our working memory for a second or two before fading away. As a result, we must be deliberate in paying attention to any information we want to store in our long-term memory.
How does the brain learn new information?
When a new piece of information enters the hippocampus, one thing that happens is the formation of a new synapse. [A synapse is a connection between two neurons]. But a new synapse is fragile and can easily break, or rather that memory can get lost unless it is strengthened.
Repeated firing of that synapse leads to Long-term Potentiation, which is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. With this repeated firing, the synapse gets stronger and stronger, needing progressively less effort to fire until you’re performing that action without much thought.
This is how practice leads to habit formation and eventual intuition.
What concepts are associated with the science of learning?
Over the last few decades, a broad range of brain regions and cognitive processes have been discovered associated with learning, including memory, logic, decision-making, and reward processing.
For learning to be complete, certain concepts have to be in place. These concepts include;
Motivation drives you to seek knowledge and information in the first place. Without the desire to learn, it will simply not happen.
Attention enables you to concentrate on receiving information and understanding it enough to be stored.
And memory, as earlier mentioned, makes learning possible by storing, representing, and reactivating information when needed.
If there is no memory to store what we’ve learned, we will simply be unable to use them.
How do you help others learn better?
When teaching or giving information that you want others to retain, keep in mind that the individuals you’re interacting with have unique brains that interpret information differently. Also, realize that the brain has limited computational power and attention span.
It can’t process a vast amount of new information at once. Instead, it takes up a fraction of data over time. Recognizing this, you should aim to give practical and understandable information to them. You need to provide the information in a brain-friendly way that focuses on the aspects of learning I have discussed. Also, understand that different people each have their own unique ways of learning.
When using learning examples, be aware of the context in which you present them. Recognize that no piece of information exists in isolation. Everything you know is connected to something else that you know. The brain is constantly looking for patterns so that every new piece of information fits into a pre-existing pattern to be understood.
The details of what you teach and how you prepare it make a difference in how people remember what they learn and how they can apply it.
Can stress facilitate learning?
Often we think of stress as a negative trait, but stress is also a sign that your brain is taking a lesson seriously.
If a new piece of information does not elicit any stress, it might not register long enough to be converted into long-term memory.
However, it should be minimal, as too much stress can trigger anxiety and panic, which is a detriment to learning.
Understanding the science of learning principles helps us all uniquely learn better.
The former first lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, once said, “Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” Her statement emphasizes the need to seek knowledge and make intentional learning efforts consciously. As with every worthwhile thing in life, learning is improved only by practice and consistency.
We can see the evidence of this in the case of Dr. Siddharth Warrier, who, with enough focus and practice, got better at playing the guitar and in his chosen medicine career.
We all learn differently, and understanding the science of learning principles helps us all uniquely learn better. And the more we know, the easier it is to learn and understand new things.
Regardless of your profession, we all have in common that we are always learning throughout our lives. There are strategies you can use to improve how you learn as well as what you retain and how you apply what you have learned.
Finally, please realize that the value of learning is found in its application. So, make constant learning an intentional choice and effectively put your acquired knowledge to practical use. In doing so, you will be bettering yourself, those around you, and the world at large by extension.
- Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? I discuss where you invest your love; you invest your life in Episode 104
- I explain why materialism is impacting your success and happiness in episode 96.
- Do you know the science of healthy habits? I explore this in-depth in Episode 108.
- Suppose you missed my interview with Jen Bricker-Bauer on Everything is Possible. Don’t panic! You can catch up by downloading it here.
- How do you strengthen your relationship with your best self? Explore episode 110.
Click on a category below to view all articles