Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain – 4 Techniques to Help You Learn

A lesson from the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn.”

By PHILIP OAKLEY and BARBARA OAKLEY

1.  FOCUS and then DON’T

“The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.”

2.  TAKE A “tomato” BREAK

To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”

“As a bonus, the ritual of setting the timer can also help overcome procrastination. Dr. Oakley teaches that even thinking about doing things we dislike activates the pain centers of the brain. The Pomodoro Technique, she said, “helps the mind slip into focus and begin work without thinking about the work.”

“Virtually anyone can focus for 25 minutes, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.”

3.  PRACTICE – Chunk it

“Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.”

“Practice brings procedural fluency, says Dr. Oakley, who compares the process to backing up a car. “When you first are learning to back up, your working memory is overwhelmed with input.” In time, “you don’t even need to think more than ‘Hey, back up,’ ” and the mind is free to think about other things.”

“Chunks build on chunks, and, she says, the neural network built upon that knowledge grows bigger. “You remember longer bits of music, for example, or more complex phrases in French.” Mastering low-level math concepts allows tackling more complex mental acrobatics. “You can easily bring them to mind even while your active focus is grappling with newer, more difficult information.”’

4.  KNOW THYSELF – Racer or Hiker?

“Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “race car brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.”

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About the Oakleys

“Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, in her basement studio where she and her husband created “Learning How to Learn,” the most popular course of all time on Coursera.The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room . . .”

“This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.”

“Dr. Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., created the class with Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and with the University of California, San Diego.”

“Dr. Oakley said she believes that just about anyone can train himself to learn. “Students may look at math, for example, and say, ‘I can’t figure this out — it must mean I’m really stupid!’ They don’t know how their brain works.”’

“Her own feelings of inadequacy give her empathy for students who feel hopeless. “I know the hiccups and the troubles people have when they’re trying to learn something.” After all, she was her own lab rat. “I rewired my brain,” she said, “and it wasn’t easy.”’

“As a youngster, she was not a diligent student. “I flunked my way through elementary, middle school and high school math and science,” she said. She joined the Army out of high school to help pay for college and received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Once out, she realized she would have a better career path with a technical degree (specifically, electrical engineering), and set out to tackle math and science, training herself to grind through technical subjects with many of the techniques of practice and repetition that she had used to let Russian vocabulary and declension soak in.”

“Dr. Oakley recounts her journey in both of her best-selling books: “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)” and, out this past spring, “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” The new book is about learning new skills, with a focus on career switchers.”

“Dr. Oakley is already planning her next book, another guide to learning how to learn but aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds. She wants to tell them, “Even if you are not a superstar learner, here’s how to see the great aspects of what you do have.” She would like to see learning clubs in school to help young people develop the skills they need. “We have chess clubs, we have art clubs,” she said. “We don’t have learning clubs. I just think that teaching kids how to learn is one of the greatest things we can possibly do.”

Pausitively Tuesday: Drum Beats

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau

Book Look – Did You Know Your HEART RATE can influence WILLPOWER?

Always on the lookout for a magic pill for will-power we picked out this book in the library.

“The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works and What You Can Do to Get More of It”  by Kelly McGonegal, PhD

Kelly McGonegal touches on a lot of measures of willpower but one of the most interesting signs or index of self control is heart rate variabilitywhich can be used to predict giving in to temptation, and is sometimes known as the body’s reserve of will power.

(Additionally, heart rate variability (HRV) decreases chronic pain, anger, depression, stress, illness.)

Why willpower flags 

1. Low blood sugar

Low blood sugar can actually predict loss of will power. Your brain interprets low blood sugar as a sign of scarcity and neurochemically increases your risk taking. (Do ANYTHING to find food NOW, so you don’t starve & die). It’s been shown people with low blood sugar take more risks.

2. Feeling tired

Fatigue is an early warning sign generated by your brain, NOT your muscles.  Will power takes energy, and your brain wisely doesn’t want to squander what energy there is on non-survival needs, like will power.  

Take inspiration from athletes who learn to push through fatigue.  Practice focusing on your goal, pushing through and experience your will-power getting stronger.

3. Thinking negatively

Your brain likes to protect your positive mood by continually seeking rewards – and giving in to temptation.  Motivating yourself by making yourself feel bad or guilty increases your stress response, decreases your willpower and makes immediate rewards more appealing.

Ways of lowering the stress response include:: exercise, religious  services, reading, music, family & friends, massage, walking, meditating, yoga, a hobby – all increase GABA and serotonin, not reward-seeking dopamine.

Willpower Brain Bootcamp  

1. Exercising 3 times a week for 15 minutes increases HRV.

2.  Go small.  Train your brain to think first before you act.  Start with small, easy things, to practice willpower.

3. “Dopaminize” tasks you don’t want to do.  McGonigal uses this term to mean make it fun: play music, do the task in a pleasant setting, put lottery tickets next to project. –you get them when you are done.

4.  Ten minute time-out 

When you wait 10 minutes your brain takes your desire/urge out of its immediate focus and into long term storage. This strengthens will power helps you delay gratification. Try this:

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes
  • Sit down, feet on floor
  • Tell your brain you can choose what to do, or not to do, in only 10 minutes 
  • Breath, meditate, pray or daydream

Kelly McGonegal lists other ways to stimulate your brain and raise your HEAR RATE VARIABILITY by:

  • eating a plant based diet
  • eliminating or reducing processed foods  
  • breathing good air quality 
  • meditating 
  • exercising
  • getting good sleep 
  • sending time with friends 
  • maintaining a spiritual practice

We’ve covered a very small sample of what is in this interesting and informative book.  She includes a lot of exercises based on research.  Now all you have to do is find the will power to get the book and read it.

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* “Heart rate variability (HRV) is the physiological phenomenon of variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval”. Wikipedia:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you knows? – Nose-breathing boosts your memory

Nasal inhalation may help us retain olfactory memories longer.

Scientists have been intrigued for some time about the effect that breathing has on the brain,”The idea that breathing affects our behavior is actually not new. In fact, the knowledge has been around for thousands of years in such areas as meditation,” said Artin Arshamian, the lead author of the study, which took place at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet. “But no one has managed to prove scientifically what actually goes on in the brain. We now have tools that can reveal new clinical knowledge.”

How the study tested the effect of nose-breathing on memory

So what is my nose for?

“One stumbling block to understanding how breathing through the nose affects the brain is that scientists’ typical subjects — mice and rats — don’t breathe through their nose. Therefore, sniffing out the truth of the matter requires human subjects.”

  • The study’s 24 subjects memorized 12 smells delivered through a nasal cannula during two training sessions.
  • Afterward, they were given an hour off during which they were instructed to breathe exclusively through either their mouths or noses.
  • This was followed by exposure to a variety of scents, some of which were from their training sessions and some of which were new.
  • Subjects were asked to differentiate between the two.

What the scientists found was that those who’d breathed through their noses during their hour off were more likely to recognize the scents from training sessions, suggesting that their nose-breathing had more effectively stored what they’d learned.

Lack of sleep looks the same as severe anxiety in the brain

“If you’ve ever found that a poor night’s sleep has left you feeling not only a bit groggy, but also on edge, you aren’t alone. People with insomnia have double the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, and 70 to 80 percent of people with clinical anxiety have trouble either falling or staying asleep. However, until now, how this relationship works in the brain was unknown.”

“Sleep loss triggers the same brain mechanisms that make us sensitive to anxiety to begin with—regions that support emotional processing and also regions that support emotion regulation,” says Eti Ben-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we are chronically sleep deprived, if we keep losing sleep, it could sensitize us to greater anxiety levels and help develop an anxiety disorder.”

(Nap poster available on Zazzle click here)

“In the study, the researchers had 18 healthy people come into their sleep lab for two nights: one of total sleep deprivation, followed by a normal restful night. The scientists measured the sleepers’ anxiety levels in the evening and in the morning after each session. When the participants were sleep deprived, their anxiety levels increased by 30 percent the next day, with half the participants reaching the threshold for a clinical anxiety disorder.”

“The researchers also probed what was happening in the brain after a night of sleep loss. They put the participants in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner the next morning and showed them distressing video clips, like of child or elderly abuse, to evoke an emotional reaction. Following the night of no sleep, there was significantly more activity in emotion-generating regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Both of these areas process negative emotions like fear, and they are hyperactive in patients with anxiety disorders.”

“When in a sleep-deprived state, the participants also had less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is directly connected to the amygdala and helps control negative emotions. For example, this area turns on when we try to calm ourselves down, and less activity there is associated with greater anxiety. The participants who had the most decline in activity in the region also had the biggest increase in anxiety, suggesting that emotional control is especially important in the link between sleep loss and anxiety.”

“When we are well rested, regions that help us regulate emotions are the ones that help keep us less anxious and keep us calm, and those regions are very sensitive to sleep loss,” says Ben-Simon, who led the research. “Once we are losing a certain amount of sleep or a whole night of sleep, these regions are basically going offline and we’re not able to trigger those processes of emotion regulation.”

“The good news is that after the participants got a full night of sleep, their anxiety levels went back to normal. But it wasn’t only the quantity of sleep that mattered, it was also the quality.”

“There are two main stages of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) when we’re dreaming and nonREM, which is typically a deeper and more restful sleep. An EEG (electroencephalography) helps scientists figure out which sleep stage people are in. After the recovery night of restful sleep, participants who spent more time in deep nonREM sleep were less anxious the next morning and showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.”

“We think that during deep sleep, some of these emotion regulation mechanisms that are so susceptible to sleep loss are actually being restored, and that allows us to start our day with lower anxiety in the morning,” explains Ben-Simon.”

“The overlap between anxiety and insomnia is not new. However, the discovery of how one causes the other and the connection between the two conditions in the brain is. “What [this] work does is to show that this is a two-way interaction. The sleep loss makes the anxiety worse, which in turn makes it harder to sleep,” Clifford Saper, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, “For many people this is clearly a vicious cycle.”’

“Deep sleep is particularly impaired in anxiety disorders, leading the researchers to conclude that enhancing this sleep stage could help treat anxiety. In fact, one way anti-anxiety medications may work is by improving nonREM sleep. However, some sleep medications, such as benzodiazepines, don’t actually increase the time spent in this stage. Saper says that because of this, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which attempts to break the sleep–anxiety cycle, has emerged as the best treatment option available.”

Maui and the Healing Power of the Brain (and a FREE eBook)

Anyone who has ever had a pet or watched wild critters knows animals are inspirational (I’m told there are even people who find reptiles, insects and other vermin fascinating – myself . . . I prefer mammals . . . but who’s to say . . .).

I had a horse, Misty, dogs and cats.  My last kitty Maui, long after his passing, has been particularly inspirational:

  • Maui inspired me to write his story as a children’s book to help children know that they too can flourish when they set their mind
  • Maui inspired Judy and I to create CATNIPblog to share neuroscience research and how we can all live better lives harnessing the power of our own minds.
  • Maui’s story is proof the brain, including YOURS, is capable of “rewiring” and “repattenrining”.

Maui was part Siamese and lived up to the breed’s reputation of being intelligent, playful, social and quite mischievous.  

Maui

I named him for the jokester god of the Hawaiian islands. What happened to him was no joke.

When Maui was 11 years old, he had a  blocked ureter.  The treating vet told me Maui would not live.  I brought him home and helplessly watched Maui do nothing but lay on the floor with his chin on his favorite water bowl.  He didn’t eat for days and his back legs were weak.
One day Maui couldn’t move his back legs at all. The vet had neglected to tell me that cats not eating for 3 days or more can lead to heart problems which can result in a clot that blocks the femoral artery. The blockage causes the back legs to not function.  A permanent condition.

 The vet repeated Maui could die at any time and suggested putting him down. I was distraught.

Hope against hope, I took Maui home and helplessly watched him drag around with his two front legs.  It took him one human year or 7 cat years to rewire his brain and regain use of his back legs.

Maui taught me first hand about persistency, resiliency and how with patience the brain can be retrained  . . .  and the paws will follow.

To read Maui’s full story click here

Your human brain, too, has incredible plasticity.  Maximize aspects of your life by focusing on what you want and minimize what doesn’t support your wants and needs.

The old sayings “Practice Makes Perfect” and The Power of Positive Thinking have been proven accurate through scientific research.

You can shrink memories you can make them less likely to come to mind by avoiding them, by refocusing on other things.

Maui teaches us how to use persistence and trying—again and again and again in order to develop a physical capability (in his case redevelop a physical capability that he once had and lost). People can do this, too. People who do it are very often guided by therapists and professionals who have discovered how to do this, which takes a tremendous amount of persistence. They need to keep trying in the face of such a tiny amount of progress at least at first. Then progress builds.

Free Kindle version of “The Pulling, Climbing, Falling Down Tale of Maui and HIs Back Legs” click here

Offer good until September 23 only