How We Learn


Our brain is made up of millions of neurons. The neurons fire together to make responses. Our brain can store 3 million TV shows, everything from cradle to grave. But we remember a little. Because we can only retrieve a little.

Memory exists in the brain as a network of linked cells called as neurons. When a set of neurons fire together, we remember a particular memory. For a different memory, a different set of neurons fire together. Neurons are connected together by synapses. With repeated use, the connection between the neurons thickens and allows for faster signal transmission.

Retrieving our memory alters it. As we retrieve a memory, it gets overlapped with some other information, like the current context, perception or thoughts. The more often we retrieve a more, the more accessible it becomes.

How well we remember an information depends on:

When we forget something and then try to recollect it, we increase the retrieval strength of that piece of information . Thus forgetting and recalling are active parts of remembering. The harder your brain has to work to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in retrieval and storage strength. Learned information, when not used, decays from memory.

Forgetting is nature's spam filter. It allows the brain to focus on the important stuff while letting go of the not so important stuffs. To focus on something, the brain must apply a filter to block the distracting information pop-up. Forgetting helps learning by allowing the brain to focus on the important information/task at hand. It blocks distracting information and clears away useless clutter.

Scientists performed an experiment in which they asked divers to study words and recall them. Those who studied under-water remembered better when they were under-water instead of land. We recall better if the environment of original learning is reinstated during recall. As we learn, our brain stores the information along with the contextual-cues from the environment (music, light, background colors, moode). Hence, when the contextual-cues are presented again, our brain can recall the better in the context than without the context.

Our brain stores information along with the associated context. Recreating the context during recall activates neurons related to the context as well as the information, helping in better recollection in presence of the context compared to a recollection in the abscence of the associated context. To apply this technique, learn the same information at varying backgrounds, like once when playing a guitar music in the background, next in a coffee shop.

Cramming information by pulling an all-nighter help you in the immediate test but it does not help in storing the information for long-term. The spacing effects says that distributing the learning over a period helps in better information storage. For example, learning a piece of information (can be a text, or a tune in your guitar) for 5 continuous days will have less retention than the same information learned 5 times spaced over a month. To build and retain foreign vocabulary, scientific information or other factual information, it is best to review the materials one or two days after the initial study, then a week later, then a month later and then, the intervals are longer.

Testing measures how well you remember and it alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize the information in our minds. Self-examination, which is studying a prose for five minutes and then turning over the page to recite what you can without looking (a kind of testing) improves learning. In an experiment, students who took a test after reading a passage performed better in a final test at the end of two months compared to students who did not take an immediate test after reading. This demonstrates that immediate recall in the form of a test aids in retention of learning. One effective way of self-examination is to share what you learn with your spouse, brother or anyone, as an old saying goes that you have to teach it to understand it better.

Testing is a kind of retrieval practice. Taking a pretest where you guess answers to a question, then reading a passage or learning something helps you answer better in a later test. The act of guessing before reading engages your mind in a more demanding way and helps in making a strong imprint of the knowledge which you are going to study next. This act of pretesting is most helpful when people get prompt feedback.

There are four steps in the aha moment ideas which helps us break hard problem:

Creative leaps in idea often come during downtime that follows a period of immersion in a story or a topic.

Unfinished jobs or goals linger in memory longer than finished ones. Having a goal or an unfinished task tunes our perception to fulfilling it. Start working on large projects as soon as possible and stop when you get stuck, allowing for percolation of ideas to happen and then resume the work.

In a study on badminton players on learning to serve, three groups were made to practice three different kind of serves. The first group, group A, did blocked practice where the group rehearsed only one kind of serve in a session, then moved on to the next type of serve. In group B, the participants practiced three kind of serves in loops. Group C practices serves by trying any serve they wanted but no more than two of the same ones in a row. Group C, which practiced by making random serves performed better than other group. Varying the practice - by taking different approaches, instead of focusing on one particular kind of approach help us to internalize and generalize the information better. The mixed of items, skills or concepts during practice help us to see the distinctions between each item clearly as well as help us to achieve a clearer grasp of each item. A study on mathematics students found that students who practiced different in a mixed setting (a problem in algebra followed by a problem in a geometry) performed better than students who practiced only one kind of problem in a practice session.

Sleep. Sleep helps in consolidation of learning.