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.”
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.”
“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.” –Harper Lee
Tali Sharot is the author of, “The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others.” An associate professor of cognitive neuroscience, she is the director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London. The information and opinions expressed are hers.
Why does evidence seem to have little influence on people’s beliefs?
“To many of us who study the human mind, the diminishing influence of evidence is less a puzzle than a prototypical example of how the mind forms beliefs. And the very idea that simply providing people with data would be sufficient to alter their beliefs is condemned to fail.”
“It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships. Many individuals avoid medical screenings in an attempt to evade alarming information.”
Using . . .” non-invasive brain imaging techniques, my colleagues and I have recently gathered evidence that suggests our brain reacts to desirable information as it does to rewarding stimuli like food, and reacts to undesirable information as it does to aversive stimuli like electric shocks. So, just as we are motivated to seek food and avoid shocks, we are also motivated either to seek or avoid incoming information.”
“Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as providing people with full and accurate information. When you provide someone with new data they quickly accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye.“
Confidently-held opinions are difficult to change.
“They are even more difficult to change once people act on them. Research has shown that immediately after making an overt choice, our conviction strengthens as we tend to rationalize our choices to ourselves and others.”
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 variability* which 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
- 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.
* * *
* “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:
Neuroscientist Kolber wanted to know if the length of time spent exercising makes a difference in the amount of relief patients get. Could boosting the exercise level, or “the dose,” bring more relief?
“Anyone who develops any drug has to go through hundreds of different tests looking at dose,” Kolber says, “but in exercise there’s almost no data about dose — especially in the context of pain.”
“He conducted a small, weeklong study measuring 40 healthy women’s sensitivity to pain before and after bouts of exercise, using heat and pressure to elicit pain. The individuals were asked to walk briskly on a treadmill for 30 minutes. Some exercised three times that week, others five or 10 times.”
“He and his team found there was no difference in pain perception after exercise for those who walked just three times a week.”
The findings were very different for the people who exercised
five times or more each week.
“We asked them to rate that pain,” he says. “And at the end of the study, they rated the same pressure — the exact same pressure — as 60% less painful than they rated it at the beginning of the study.”
Orange pumpkins, black cats
skeletons, and scary bats
mummies that horrify
Witches flying through the sky
Thank goodness witches aren’t like birds
screeching and dropping turds
Check out our Halloween collection – towels, gift boxes, mugs and more at Zazzle. Click here.
And of course ME! I have my own personal link