Nine – not 10 – tips to increase your smarts

How to  Learn Faster and Better, RANDOMLY

excerpted from Andrew Huberman’s newsletter


1. Stare to Get Focused

Visual focus increases mental focus. To increase your level of focus on the task, stare!  Choose a point on a wall or object for 30-60 seconds before starting. You might be surprised if it takes a bit of effort—that ‘effort’ you feel is attentional engagement and reflects the activity of neural circuits mostly involving acetylcholine release in the brain.  Expect your mental focus to flicker on and off, especially at the start of a learning bout. 


2. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Perform the maximum number of repetitions you can in a given learning bout. There’s a reason teachers have you do the same thing over and over…  . and over.   If you repeat the process of what you are learning  faster than is reflexive for you it will help your mind from drifting off task and keep you alert. Will you make errors? Of course, which leads to #3.


3. Make Errors and Activate Your Brain

Why should your brain take notice If you perform something correctly?  But when you make an error, the the neural circuits that increase alertness are activated.  When you feel stressed from producing something that doesn’t work your brain pays attention.  Attention puts you in a better place to perform and execute learning-related behaviors the next trial—meaning on the next attempt. Computational modeling data suggests that an error rate of ~15% may be optimal and can help determine how difficult we should make a task.

But don’t worry too much about those specifics. Instead, keep doing repetitions and when you mess up, capitalize on it by doing another attempt (and another) while your forebrain is in that maximally attentive state.


4. Randomly Rest-Just for 10 Seconds

Studies (in humans!) have shown that when trying to learn something, if you pause every so often for 10 seconds and do nothing during the pause, neurons in the hippocampus and cortex—areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, engage the same patterns of neural activity that occurred during the actual activity of learning . . . . but 10X faster.  These “gap-effects” are similar to what happens in a deep sleep.

The takeaway: introduce  RANDOM 10 second pauses every 2 minutes during learning . . . which is one nice long breath in and out.


5. Give Yourself Random Rewards 

The neural circuits that control rewards (all of which are brain chemical rewards) are closely tethered to the circuits that control motivation and the desire to pursue things, including learning. The question of how often to reward ourselves or others in order to keep motivation high is simple: make it random and intermittent. This is what casinos do to keep people gambling. It works. Predictable rewards lose their motivational impact quickly.


6. Max Out at 90 Minutes

Solid research shows that 90 minutes is about the longest period we can expect to maintain intense focus and effort toward learning.  After 90 minutes, take a break and space intense learning bouts at least 2-3  hours apart. 


7.  Deep Rest , or take a Short Nap after 90 minutes of concentration

Research shows that shallow naps and/or NSDR Non-Sleep Deep Rest can enhance the rate and depth of learning.  Within 1 hour of completing a learning bout, do a short NSDR “protocol”.  Here are some options:


8. Sleep Deep at Night  

The actual rewiring of neural circuits that underlies learning occurs during sleep and NSDR. Think of the learning bout as the “trigger” or stimulus for the possibility that we might learn, but sleep and NSDR are when the actual learning- the neural circuit rewiring, occurs. Our goal should be to get sleep right at least 80% of the time—it takes some work to get there but it is well worth it.


9. Breathe to Be Alert

 Being alert acutally  involves many processes and one of the main things is the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). One simple way to become more alert:

  1. Take 25-30 deep breaths (Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth).
  2.  Next, hold your breath  for 15-60 seconds.
  3. Finally, inhale once and hold your breath. But don’t force the breath hold; start to breathe normally immediately once you feel the impulse to breathe. 

Behavioral protocols like the ones listed here are necessary no matter what. You don’t have to do all 9 every learning session (although numbers 1, 2, 9 are non-negotiable).

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