To know is to master

The brain is responsible for the worst disasters and the best accomplishments realized by human beings. It is also for the worst vices and the highest virtues. Without our brains, we are nothing. Every sense, every thought, everything we know, love, or hate, comes from this little device.

Honestly, do you think learning more about it won’t do you any good?

What you’re about to learn

My grandfather was not into internet and computers until recently. One day, upon an e-document signature request, he grasped a pen to sign right on his computer monitor. To say the least, it didn’t work as foreseen. Particularly for his screen, which now carry little scratches as a souvenir.

He was not silly, but just unaware of how his computer operated. He applied a model that worked in another situation to this one.

Believe it or not, a lot of us are in the same condition. We apply wrong thinking models too. All because we’re partly unaware of the way our brains function.

I imagine a future in which everyone could say: “I’ve got my brain under control.”

Having something under control is to first, understand it, or at least be aware of how it works.

This applies to whatever you want to do in life. And this is especially true for our brains. There is a lot of complicated stuff around this one, but even more astonishingly useful to know.

The study of the brain is a big area. I’m going to focus this article on its ability to acquire information. It is not a scientific paper, so I kept it as simple and clear as possible.

For me, there is a before and an after what I’m about to convey to you. It has modified how I perceive things about learning, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Our brain’s full potential

A little trip to school

In school, we have all knew this friend who, unlike us, didn’t study for an exam. He probably looked at you despair. Luckily, you were there to helped him.

He possibly started the discussion by talking about the upcoming exam. Rapidly, he asked you a question on a specific thing that he didn’t understand.

Him: “ChapterX, when the professor talked about…”.

You gave him an answer taken from your lovely revision sheet. But there was something else in it that he didn’t understand either.

Him: “What is Y. Can you explain ?”

Question after question, you, who worked hours to understand the course, spot that his comprehension started to match yours. All, in a matter of minutes, simply by asking cascading questions.

Each question seemed to fill a knowledge hole. But these, followed an absurd order that wasn’t the one in the lecture. It was messy! But at least for him, it appeared clear in the end.

The outcome of the story was probably :

  • You, having a good mark.
  • Your friend, having a reasonably great result. Especially considering the time that he spent studying.

Is this messy way of asking questions have something to do with his quick comprehension? Is that a real technique?

A messy process

Samuel Suresh, in this video, suggests that our brain is not storing things sequentially, and works chaotically to retrieve them. He qualifies what your friend did as a “Joining the dots” process.

Another interesting illustration is the “half-done puzzle” one. Your friend was in front of a half-done puzzle, and each reply from you was a piece that he placed to complete it.

As Sonke Ahrens wrote in the book “How to Take Smart Notes”:

« Learning would be not so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information. It’s about making sure that the right cues trigger the right memory.»

What your friend tried to do was plausibly closer to what’s going on in our brain than we thought. It can explain his quick understanding.

Going from one slide to another is not a brain thing. Likewise, reading chapter after chapter is somewhat unpleasant for it. Brains like mess!

Question remains. How to connect pieces of information? How to make sure that the right memory is triggered? In other words. How our brain save and retrieve knowledge?

Behind the brain scene

It took thousands of years to master our hands and manipulate objects. This acquaintance has not been given, but the mere fact that we can see them made the whole process easier. Our brain does not grasp objects but knowledge. Unlike our hands, we cannot see it. So the process of mastering is inevitably slower. Fortunately, we have considerably accelerated it since the emergence of Neuroscience.

Neuroscience is a domain that deals with a lot of things. Among them, the understanding of the biological basis learning and memory. It’s the eye that looks our brain’s behavior, try to understand it, and facilitate his uses.

Acquire information

Learning is by definition the process of acquiring new information. Whether it’s understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, or preferences.

Eric Richard Kandel is the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. With his team, he studied in 1962 the brain connections of a sea slug. He had the will to illustrate the human elemental learning principles.

Guess what? He succeeded! Kandel discovered something that goes against what many people thought. Neurons don’t affect the learning processes much. But synapses that govern signal between them yes. They make it weaker or stronger, depending on the circumstances.

  • When some connections become weaker. He concludes that we developed a form of learning habituation. We stop reacting to something.
  • When connections become more active, we develop a kind of learning sensitization. It’s when we pay more attention to something. When we are more alert and have a faster response.

The constructions and destruction speed of these connections represent our learning rate. Also named neuroplasticity. When our brain changes them as a result of an event, it’s called episodic learning.

Kids (besides what they have heard) don’t know what a candle’s flame does until they get burnt. Their brain afterward, modulates their connections to warn them if their hand approaches it again.

Episodic learning is one of the most primitive ways for humans to save information. It has allowed our species to continually demonstrate its resourcefulness over time.

That meets what Jonathan Levi wrote in The Only Skill That Matters :

«We’re specially adapted to learning in ways that are vivid, visual and experimental.»

Retrieve information

There is a good analogy in this video that explains the key points in the retrieval process.

The first time we learn something, our brain is like a forest full of trees with dense foliage. There is no clear pathway between point A and point B. Our actual and future knowledge state.

When we start having the very first flanges of knowledge. A trail across the forest creates a link between A and B. Because this acquaintance is new, the pathway isn’t well traced.

Then, practice strengthens the trail, which slowly becomes a dirt road.

More practice turns the dirt road into a highway. Data is transmitted so quickly that the subject is now second nature to you.

When we try to retrieve information, we reactivate the neural pathways attached to it.

We generally faced 4 recovery situations. For instance, let’s imagine that we are talking about “multiplications” :

1. If you have never seen multiplications before, there are no connections. It’s absurd to recover something in this case. If you have already seen someone doing multiplications on a blackboard. The pathways exist, but are just trails. The only way to enlarge it is by making multiplications by yourself (e.g. the kid and the candle).

2. If you have already seen someone doing multiplications on a blackboard. The pathways exist, but are just trails. The only way to enlarge it is by making multiplications by yourself (e.g. the kid and the candle).

3. If your brain has already tried to make multiplications, at least once, many connections are already written down. That don’t mean they are ready to use. What’s determine that is how frequently you’ve made it before, and for how long.

4. Finally, if these connections have been written, maintained, and improved by a lot of calculations. Then the pathways are well traced and ready to use at any moment. It’s easy to make multiplications.

Learning something once is not enough. To make it persistent over time, we need to retrieve it repeatedly. Behind this principle, there are the forgetting curves.

Always warm up before going to class

Encode and repeatedly maintain and improve is the key to store data in your memory.

Memory is the brain’s faculty by which data or information is encoded, stored indefinitely, and retrieved when needed.

Of course, there isn’t a single type of memory, but one thing’s for sure, we use it every day. Maybe you got here without guessing we were talking about it since the beginning. Like my grandfather, you were not completely aware of how it works even if its a building block of learning.

Now that we know what we’re talking about, how can we tangibly train our memory?

How to get better

Our memory doesn’t like what it doesn’t know. In this case, “Don’t know” means: I perceive no relation with any before encoded information.

The more you know about French history, the easier it is to learn.

Emilie loves French history and knows that the last King of France Louis XVI died in 1792. When it comes to memorizing the French Revolution’s date. She just needs to remember that this event ended the French monarchy. 1789 is not surprising for his brain that quickly links this information to the previous.

Jack knows nothing about French history. The fact that the French Revolution’s date is 1789 means nothing to him. This single event will take much more time and effort to hold.

Our brain is like our arms. Unlike our physical arms, our brain’s ones are challenging controlling. While Emilie confidently grabs the new information at full arm’s length, Jack only uses his hand.

It’s easy to think that Jack can’t grasp the date of the French Revolution full hands, unless he knows French history as good as Emilie does. In fact, there is a trick.

Mnemonics is the art of forcing our brains to make connections. The art of grasping objects of knowledge. These are techniques that assist in the preservation or retrieval of information in memory.

Even if it sounds childish, they can be as incredibly efficient as they are misunderstood. From everyday uses such as; How to store people’s names. To specific fields such as: How to store large numbers.

I won’t elaborate on my personal mnemonics here. If you are curious, feel free to subscribe to the MentalCodex mailing list. Besides this article’s summary, I will share one of my mnemonics. You’ll learn what it consists of and how to apply it.

It’s a great way to show me your support. And a simple one to take advantage of extra content at each article’s release.