Brain Building: Learning How to Learn
As I’ve been reflecting on how to be a more effective teacher, I’ve been studying how we learn.
As essential as the topic is, so few people ever make an effort to learn how to learn. How is this not a core subject in schools? Can you imagine a more high-leverage skill to pick up early in life?
My latest deep dive on this has been with Andrew Huberman’s
work. Dr. Huberman is a scientist and professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. He expresses complex ideas with incredible clarity and accessibility.
And unlike most research on the brain, I see actionable insights here. The quotes below are all from Dr. Huberman, I’ve assembled them to be succinct.
“Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify itself in response to experience.
From birth until about age 25, the brain is extremely malleable. At this stage of life, the brain is designed to adjust itself to be in concert with its surroundings.
The brain is designed to be customized in the early part of life, and then to implement those algorithms and circuitry for the rest of your life.
The brain can change later in adulthood, provided there’s some perceptual event. To do this, the key thing is to bring focus to some particular perception of something that’s happening during the learning process.”
This resonated with me right off the bat. I find my learning to be most effective when I am engaged with, excited about, and tapped into some element of the learning process itself — not merely anticipation of the end result.
This also aligns with the experience we all have in school, where we went through the motions of learning but forgot it all right after the test. We didn’t really learn it, we transported it from a page to the test, abandoning it forever thereafter.
When we are engaged with and bring a drive to the learning process itself, when we find some aspect of the journey to capture our imagination, real lasting learning happens. It becomes part of us.
“All day long we do many many things in a reflexive way. But when you do something and you think about it very intensely, Acetylcholine is released into the brain at the precise neurons that were involved in that behavior, and it marks those for change during sleep or during deep rest later.
So for people who want to change their brain, the power of focus is the entry point… AND the ability to access deep rest and sleep. Neuroplasticity is triggered by intense focus, but neuroplasticity occurs during deep sleep and rest.”
This highlights the self-defeating aspect of cutting your sleep short. There’s a tendency to view sleep as lost time. Nothing appears to happen, and more waking hours seem attractive — more time to do things.
But during sleep, your body is actively working — healing and learning. Giving your body the rest it needs is a force multiplier for all of your waking hours.
“So what exactly is focus and what specifically triggers plasticity? The brain wants to pass as much of its activity off to passive behavior as possible and not put much energy into it. When we force it to focus, it switches on a set of circuits and tries to understand duration, path (what’s going to happen along the way), and outcome (what’s ultimately going to happen). Doing this is work, it has a feeling of underlying agitation and frustration because the circuits that turn on are from the stress system.”
The research on learning says you need to be challenging yourself and reaching beyond the comfort zone to learn — strive to do 15% or so beyond what feels comfortable (pulling from Anders Ericson
’s research here). This reaching is what makes it impossible for the brain to pass it off to reflexive processes. It wants to, it tries, and if your “practice” session is too easy, if it’s not challenging and reaching beyond what you can easily do, it will just be handled through automations in the brain. No striving, no learning, no growth.
How often have you picked up something new, say a sport or hobby, and you improved quickly at first (when everything was stretching and reaching) — then you plateaued and while remaining competent never really saw big noticeable improvement? This is why. If you are not actively striving and reaching, the activity becomes passive and is handled by more routine cognitive processes.
When you focus intensely and push 15% beyond what is comfortable, you’re marking those synapses for change, and with proper rest and recovery they will become stronger and you will learn and grow.
“The adult brain doesn’t really want to change the algorithms it learned in childhood.” But it can if more intense focus is applied. This triggers our stress system and produces “an underlying feeling of frustration and agitation.”
That feeling of frustration and agitation is a major deterrent, but recognizing it can help us realize it’s a necessary part of growth. It’s literally the sensation of growth happening and is something to embrace. This awareness can be the foundation of a mindset shift.
“Research has shown that plasticity in the adult brain can be as robust as it is in childhood, provided the focus is there”
…highlighting the fact that we can change ourselves if we chose to do so. It takes effort, but the effort is worthwhile and will be rewarded.
More from Andrew Huberman: