How Learning Happens in Your Head
It may help, first of all, to understand the process that has to take place in your brain in order for you to learn something. In How Learning And Memory Happen In Your Head, I explain:
Learning (or the opposite, forgetting) occurs in your brain through what’s known as the information processing system. All incoming stimuli, everything you see, hear, or smell, goes first into short-term memory (STM), which is similar to your email inbox. Information is held here for a matter of seconds before it’s either attended to by working memory (WM) or discarded. Unless you make a specific effort to notice and record information, a large portion of what’s taken in by your brain is never processed and learned.
Info that you attend to gets moved from STM to WM, which is the active part of the information processing system. This is where conscious thinking and remembering happen. In about 5 – 20 seconds, your WM screens and decides how to handle the stimuli. Information must be processed before it can be transferred into long-term memory (LTM).
Information enters LTM from WM and must be classified, organized, and stored. It can then be committed to LTM through repetition, such as studying for a test or repeatedly going through the steps of tying your shoes, or associating it with material already in LTM. The three main activities of LTM are storage, deletion, and retrieval. Information retrieval can take the form of recall or recognition. In recall, information is reproduced from your brain. With recognition, you know that you’ve seen the information before and are familiar with it.
The AGES Model of Learning
The Neuroleadership Institute, an organization devoted to using science to advance leadership potential, came up with four principles, derived from years of research and hundreds of studies to allow anyone to consciously recall what they want to remember.
They call the method, the AGES model of learning, which is an acronym for:
- Attention: When learning, you need to maintain a single focus with complete and undivided attention.
- Generation: Just listening attentively isn’t enough. You have to make the effort to do something with the information you want to retain. Making it meaningful to you will increase the likelihood of retention.
- Emotion: Strong emotions lead to strong memories. If you can build an emotional connection to what you’re learning, you’ll have better recall.
- Spacing: In order to grow your memory, you have to build in brain breaks when learning.
In this digital age with cell phones dinging notifications every few minutes and overflowing inboxes, focusing your attention can prove difficult. I read that you now receive five times as much information every day as the average person did in 1986.
Your brain’s parietal cortex is like a steering wheel pointing your focus in a general direction and zeroing in on a single target. The prefrontal cortex then kicks into action and is responsible for holding your attention (or not) on that one spot. Just as you can lift weights to build muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills.
One way to do this is meditation. In How to Train Your Brain to Pay Attention I write:
One study showed that three months of meditation practice support the notion that mental training can significantly affect attention and brain function. One type of meditation in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Here’s how you do it:
Most of what you think you committed to memory was never learned in the first place. Just paying attention isn’t enough. Unless you intentionally take the time and effort to notice and record information, a large portion of what’s taken in by your brain is never processed and learned.
You have to make a specific effort to give what you want to retain meaning and associate it with something else already in your memory. Doing this encourages neuroplasticity. Learning and memory are neuroplastic processes in your brain, meaning the number or strength of connections between brain cells changes as information gets written into memory. The greater the number of associations that are formed, the easier it is to retrieve the information later.
Emotion and memory are very strongly intertwined. But the emotional level needs to be just right.
When you link something you want to remember with an emotion, your amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, becomes activated and strengthens memories with an additional emotional component. Any info that touches on your emotions sticks with you better. If you can also connect it to your senses, you are more likely to remember it.
In a positive frame of mind, your brain is more open to learning, making new insights, and seeing new possibilities. These conditions promote creativity and learning. However, when you are in a heightened negative emotional state, your hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily responsible for learning memory, activity decreases. This can make learning anything very difficult when you are stressed or upset.
Cramming doesn’t work. (Wish I had known that back in college.) It actually hinders learning to try to do it in a marathon session and go without sleep. Giving the brain breaks when learning has been shown to increase attention and retention. Getting a good night’s sleep after learning, napping — even a six-minute micro nap –has also been shown to increase memory recall.
In Why You Need To Give Your Brain A Break, I explain:
The brain is much more active – and more likely to tire – than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of, not counter to, working, can make a person more productive, creative, and innovative.