How do we learn (what makes something stick)? How can we come up with new ideas (and stay creative)? What techniques can we use to remember a person’s name or memorize a list of objects (Lord knows, a new person’s name merely floats through my head during the one second it is told to me)?
Many questions like these were answered a month ago when I took an online course called “Mindshift and the Science of Memory” through McMaster University on Coursera.org.
They consider Mindshift a deep change in life that occurs due to learning. Furthermore, the teachers held that “It’s only when you are actively doing something yourself that the learning truly sticks.” This is called Active Learning. I support that thought – many of us can sit and listen to another speak all day, but unless we physically do it ourselves, often that learning does not stay with us. You can listen to, or read about how to throw a baseball, but until you actually do it and feel it, you won’t truly learn how to do it.
The instructors said there are two modes of thinking…focused and diffuse. Focused is when you are really concentrating on something (like what to have for lunch…just kidding!). That is the state of information input into your mind. Focus happens in our brain’s prefrontal cortex (front). We need focus to accumulate knowledge.
On the other hand, sometimes you are too tightly focused on an idea or concept, which puts you too close to it and chokes your thinking. At that point you may need to step back, give it a little room and open up your mind to allow the ideas to percolate or make connections with other thoughts. That is the diffuse mode of thinking – more of a resting state. Diffuse thinking allows us to make intuitive leaps and is more of a processing of information in the background. It uses many parts of the brain to make connections, not just the front of our brain. In the background it processes and organizes information – it is where creativity comes from. And yes, you can be creative in the sense of thinking, even though creativity is normally paired with the Arts.
The best learning and creative thinking come from a combination of focused and diffuse thinking. They work hand-in-hand to deal better with highly complicated information. Interestingly enough, the instructors said that a poor memory is not necessarily always bad – it can actually help you figure out simpler ways to do thing and get more answers. After all, simpler is usually better in all aspects of life. And in people with poor memories (why do I keep thinking they are talking about me, personally?!) when information is forgotten, it actually does open up room for something new to come in. They also say, “Those with poor memories are often more creative.”
The course explains that when focusing – using the prefrontal cortex, we can only hold around 4 chunks of information at a time. That is good and all for small amounts of numbers, notes and languages, but we can also use diffuse thinking to increase those chunks into larger neural “ribbons”, similar to strings of information, to retain something more complex. We can do this by consistent practice because we are creating those strings which leave the rest of your mind free for other processing.
It is similar to when you first learn to drive. At first, everything you do is concentrated on and a task in itself, from turning the car on to parking it. But with practice, before you know it, you don’t even think about the process of driving – which leaves your mind open to daydream or eat your drive-thru!
So, how can you focus better and improve your learning retention?
Following are some easy tips I learned in the Mindshift course and through other reading:
- Don’t use loud or disruptive music while studying – you use some of the same parts of your brain to process both, so you are not using your brain to its fullest. Personally, I have to either turn off music or play music with no words in it when I’m concentrating…otherwise, I will be too distracted by the words even if I am not truly listening to the words.
- Knock one back… coffee or tea, that is! – actually, caffeine is a mild stimulant and does help you focus. Strongest focus is between 30 and 60 minutes after you drink it, however, the energizing effects may last up to 8 hours.
- Close your eyes or gaze upwards when thinking – this may help you avoid some stimulus that may be right in front of you.
- Meditate – this helps open your diffuse thinking and can also help alleviate stress and anxiety. I have a whole post on how to meditate here if you want to give that a shot.
- Use the Pomodoro technique – Set a timer for 25 minutes, concentrate on your task for that time, then when the timer goes off switch your attention to something else for a bit. That focuses you for a period and then lets diffuse thinking have its way.
- Don’t just use your preferred style of learning – use multiple senses to better retain things. Some people prefer to learn through audio (lectures, listening to audiobooks…), kinesthetic or touch (physically doing something) or visual (graphics, reading a physical book). However, for the most successful learning to stick, it is said that using a combination of all three are the best. [More to come on this subject in another post.]
- Get up and exercise – physical exercise is one of the most powerful ways to produce energy and increase neural connections.
- Sleep tight – according to the sleepfoundation.org, the optimum amount of sleep for adults (between 26-64 years old) is 7-9 hours. Most of us undervalue sleep, which improves health as well as concentration.
So, hopefully that answers a few questions you may have had on learning as well as giving you a few tips for more effective thinking. There were too many other subjects in the Mindshift course that I may touch on in future posts.
As always, I’d love to hear any of your tips or comments.
– Happy Learning!