When you read some of the important skills one has to develop, you often read: "learn how to learn".
For some people, this may sound weird. Yet, it is fundamental to our development. I have always had this problem to memorise information instead of learning.
The key is to understand how the brain works when learning something new, and take advantage out of it. In this post, I will share some of the knowledge I learned in the online course called "Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects" and from my personal experience
One day, as I was reading some answers on Quora, someone asked: What is something unusual about you ? An answer showed up, the best answer among all the others for that question. I cannot remember the exact words, but these sentences stayed in my mind the whole time: "I don't study. Seriously, I don't. The key is to learn, people tend to memorise. I learn".
Well, you could say that for a high-school student, it is easy to answer like this. The material covered is still simple. This person was doing a PhD in Mathematics at MIT.
Focused vs Diffuse Mode
When learning, our brain has two different modes that can be activated. These modes cannot be activated at the same time:
FOCUSED MODE: it is just what is sounds like, a concentrated, focused form of thinking
DIFFUSED MODE: it is a more relaxed thinking state, one the the brain settles into at resting.
One way of imagining it is the FLASHLIGHT ANALOGY.
This involves visualising your brain as a flashlight: Diffused mode of thinking could be thought of as a setting on the flashlight designed to cast a broad light not very strongly, while focused mode would cast a very strong light in smaller area.
Now, why am I talking about these ? It is important to know how to joggle between both of them. Did it ever happen to you to focus on a problem, not find a solution, then you take a break and during that break the solution just comes to you ? That is because you joggled between both of them. Sometimes, I wake up at 3am, my mind solves an algorithmic question, then come to sleep. Funny right ?
Learning in focused mode is usually what people think of when hearing the word “learning.” It is using our focused attention to think solely about the information we are trying to learn. During focused mode thinking, we are sitting down and deliberately practicing something or trying to solve a problem, without distracting ourselves with anything else. When you are sitting down and writing a paper, doing a math problem, or practicing a specific dance move, you are in focused mode.
The focused mode can be thought of as the foundation of knowledge, laying the initial memory traces for us to form our knowledge base. The focused practice and repetition of triple axles, free throws, roundhouse kicks, math problems, or vocabulary is what allows us to build a foundation of knowledge to ultimately apply it to what we are ultimately learning to do—whether it be figure skating, playing basketball, doing karate, acing a math examination, or learning to speak a foreign language.
Focused mode learning is centered in and around the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of our executive functions that has to do with decision-making and problem-solving, in addition to controlling our attention and memory.
Unlike focused mode, diffused mode doesn’t seem to have one central area in the brain that is mainly responsible—it seems to be a division of labor of multiple areas of the brain.
When you are trying to grasp a new concept, you do not have a preexisting neural patterns to help guide your thoughts—there is no fuzzy underlying pathway to help guide you. This is when diffused mode becomes handy. To further explain the difference between focused and diffused, it is useful to use the flashlight analogy used in the book. When you are in focused mode, you are shining a flashlight that is tightly focused on one small area. However, when using diffused mode you are casting the flashlight in a broad area, with the light not shining brightly in any one specific area.
When you are in diffused mode, you are not intently focused on so-called deliberate practice. Rather, you are just letting the limited knowledge run in the background, kind of like background programs running on your smart phone while you actively use one program. Thinking in diffused mode can be done by just playing a game of basketball if you are learning how to be a better basketball player, by playing random chords on the guitar if you are learning how to play the guitar, or just mentally thinking about math problems while taking a walk.
Let me give you an example: Salvador Dali was an extremely famous surrealist painter. Here is his face and most famous painting:
This surrealist painting is called the "Persistence of memory" and was painted in 1931. I will leave all the art analysis, as it is not my goal here. However, any person interested in art should check its analysis. It is a masterpiece.
Now, let's come back to our initial point: Salvador Dali was said to relax and drift off to sleep with a key dangling and upon his dozing off to sleep he would drop the key, it would jangle and startle him awake. This is an example of Dali bouncing between thought modes. He would clear his head and relax his mind until sleep came, entering the diffuse mode, then he would wake up and drag all those wonderful diffuse mode ideas back the focused mode and the results were brilliant works like the painting above.
I hope this example gives more insight to the joggle of both modes.
Now, I will give some learning techniques that anyone should use in order to learn faster, work smarter and be more productive. These techniques are from my personal opinion and some resources on the internet:
I honestly believe it is quite a shame that this is not taught in school. We only learn about new materials, but the first thing we should be taught as children is how to learn.
Ahmed Ahres, 22.