The Science of Learning: How to Harness Your Brain’s Neural Networks
Having trouble learning? Take a break and your brain will process the information. You'll learn better and faster.
Barbara Oakley, PhD, is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University. Her research involves bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Alongside legendary neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski, Dr. Oakley teaches two massive open online courses (MOOCs), 'Learning How to Learn,' the world's most popular course, and 'Mindshift,' the companion course to her most recent book of the same title.
BARBARA OAKLEY: A very important idea that people are often unaware of is the fact that we have two completely different ways of seeing the world, two different neural networks we access when we’re perceiving things.
So what this means is when we first sit down to learn something—for example, we’re going to study math. You sit down and you focus on it. So you focus and you’re activating task-positive networks. And then what happens is you’re working away and then you start to get frustrated. You can’t figure out what’s going on. What’s happening is you’re focusing and you’re using one small area of your brain to analyze the material. But it isn’t the right circuit to actually understand and comprehend the material. So you get frustrated. You finally give up, and then when you give up and get your attention off it it turns out that you activate a completely different type of or set of neural circuits. That’s the default mode network and the related neural circuits. So what happens is you stop thinking about it, you relax, you go off for a walk, you take a shower. You’re doing something different. And in the background this default mode network is doing some sort of neural processing on the side. And then what happens is you come back and voila, suddenly the information makes sense. And, in fact, it can suddenly seem so easy that you can’t figure out why you didn’t understand it before. So learning often involves going back and forth between these two different neural modes – focus mode and what I often call diffuse mode which involves **** resting states. You can only be in one mode at the same time
So you might wonder, is there a certain task that is more appropriate for focus mode or diffuse mode? The reality is that learning involves going back and forth between these two modes. You often have to focus at first in order to sort of load that information into your brain and then you do something different, get your attention off it and that’s when that background processing occurs. And this happens no matter what you’re learning. Whether you’re learning something in math and science, you’re learning a new language, learning music, a dance. Even learning to back up a car. And think about it this way. Here’s a very important related idea and that is that when you’re learning something new you want to create a well practiced neural pattern that you can easily draw to mind when you need it. So this is called a neural chunk and chunking theory is incredibly important in learning. So, for example, if you are trying to learn to back up a car when you first begin it’s crazy, right. You’re looking all around. Do you look in this mirror or this mirror or do you look behind you? What do you do? It’s this crazy set of information. But after you’ve practiced a while you develop this very nice sort of pattern that’s well practiced. So all you have to do is think I’m going to back up a car. Instantly that pattern comes to mind and you’re able to back up a car. Not only are you doing that but you’re maybe talking to friends, listening to the radio. It’s that well practiced neural chunk that makes it seem easy. So it’s important in any kind of learning to create these well practiced patterns. And the bigger the library of these patterns, the more well practiced sort of deeper and broader they are as neural patterns in your mind, the more expertise you have in that topic.
And chunking was first sort of thought of or explored by Nobel Prize Winner [Herbert] Simon who found that, if you’re a chess master, that the higher you’re ranking in chess, the more patterns of chess you have memorized. So you could access more and more patterns of chess.
So research began developing and what they found was that the better your expertise at anything, the more solid neural patterns, what I call neural chunks you have. So, for example, if you might know how to do mathematics very well. Well you’ve got certain patterns related to multiplication and you’ve practiced quite a bit with them. And so you can pull them instantly to mind. And likewise, division. And then you go higher so you’ve got calculus. You’ve got the concept of the limit. You’ve got integrals, derivatives. And you practice with each one of those enough so that it is almost like backing up a car. All you have to do is think oh, I’ve got to take this derivative and boom, off you go. You’re taking your derivative and it seems very easy to you. So a challenge that we’ve had is for a long time, particularly in mathematics education, it was felt that if you practiced too much that it would kill your creativity.
And that’s actually not true. You want to do the right kind of practice where you’re interleaving and doing one technique and then trying that with another technique. You don’t want to just be doing the same thing over and over again. But practicing by – here’s a good way to practice developing a chunk. Let’s say that you’ve got a homework assignment. You’ve got this homework problem and it’s a really difficult homework problem. So what you tend to do, well you do it and you turn it in. That is the equivalent of you have just sung a song one time and thinking that you know how to sing that song beautifully in front of an audience. Well, it doesn’t work that way.
A good thing to do when you’re learning something that’s difficult is find key, in math, key problems and then see if you can work it cold. If you can’t, take a peek at whatever hints you need to be able to finish working it. Then maybe a little later try working it again cold without looking at the answer. And maybe you go further. The next day try it again. Go a little further and practice it. What you’re trying to do is to develop the same patterns that you would develop if you practice singing a song a number of times.
And if you do this with key problems in math, or if you’re learning a language key conjugation patterns, for example—Then those patterns become automatic.
So, for example, with your problem after several days of practice you find you’ve worked it out enough times by pencil that when you just look at the problem you can step through all the solution steps in your mind. You’ve created a valuable chunk. And so then when it comes test time and you’ve got maybe five, ten of these key problems – so you can just look at them and know what you’re supposed to be doing.
Suddenly when you’re taking that test you can pull this chunk up and connect it with this chunk and solve new problems you haven’t seen before and it’s a really, really powerful technique is to realize that all learning involves getting these neural chunks together.
Cramming for a test and having a hard time understanding something? Might be best to go away and come back after a while. Your brain is constantly fluctuating between a "learning" mode and an "understanding" mode. When you're sitting there reading (and re-reading!) a textbook, unable to make sense of it, your brain is actually learning. It just takes the decompressing part of your brain for it to all be unpacked. It's called the neural chunk theory and you can learn to utilize it to your advantage by learning how to study differently; small bursts of inactivity and breaks can really make a big difference in how to memorize seemingly difficult information by combining bigger and bigger "chunks" of information until you understand the big picture. It's fascinating stuff.
Barbara Oakley's most recent book is Mindshift
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The results of this study showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence, declining in early adulthood and then climbing back up again into one's early 30s.
- A 2020 Michigan State University study examined the link between teen social networks and the levels of depression later in life.
- This study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, specifically targeting social network data. The results showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence and declining in early adulthood, then climbing back up again into one's early 30s.
- There are several ways you can attempt to stay active and socially connected while battling depression, according to experts.
The study suggested that teenagers who have a smaller social circle showed higher rated of depression later on in life.
Credit: asiandelight/Shutterstock<p><a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-09/msu-tsn093020.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2020 Michigan State University study</a> examined the link between teen social networks and the levels of depression later in life. The results of this study suggested teens who have a larger number of friends in adolescent years may be less likely to suffer from depression later in life. These findings were especially prominent in women.</p><p>This study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, specifically targeting social network data. This data asks students to select up to 5 male and 5 female friends and indicate how often they felt depressive symptoms. </p><p>MSU Sociology Assistant Professor Molly Copeland and lead author Christina Kamis (Sociology doctoral candidate at Duke University) published the study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in September. </p><p><strong>Female teenagers may struggle more with depression during their teen years but show fewer depressive symptoms later in life.</strong> </p><p>For female adolescents, popularity can lead to increased depression during their teen years. However, this ultimately may lead to lasting benefits of fewer depressive symptoms later in life. "Adolescence (is) a sensitive period of early life when structural facets of social relationships can have lasting mental health consequences," Copeland wrote, adding that "compared to boys, girls face additional risks from how others view their social position in adolescence."</p><p>Throughout this study, men showed no association between popularity and depressive symptoms, however, they did show benefits from naming more friends. As for why this is, Copeland has a theory: perhaps the expectations on young girls (compared to young boys) as well as the roles that lead to popularity can create a kind of stress and strain felt more prominently by girls than boys. </p><p>While this does create more difficult teen years for young girls, the stress and strain may lead to giving these girls a psychological skillset that benefits them later in life, allowing them to deal with stressful situations more easily.</p><p>The study also suggested that teenagers who have a smaller social circle showed higher rates of depression later on in life. </p><p><strong>Results from both men and women followed a U-shaped trajectory of depressive symptoms.</strong></p><p>The results showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence and declining in early adulthood, then climbing back up again into one's early 30s. This was particularly more noticeable in women, who showed a steeper decline in symptoms between the ages of 18-26, followed by a more rapid increase in symptoms in their early 30s. </p>
How to stay social while battling depression<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ1MjA3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNDMyNDY1N30.e1ULIJ5QYXh4H1SGUPUTJqYBCnX2XWp6InjPRr-2Bdw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C22%2C0%2C22&height=700" id="832fd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b360bb24fb8d6025680bfffb52fd5982" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="depression support group illustration" />
Attending support groups, planning activities with family or even just a weekly phone call to a friend can help alleviate depression.
Credit: Mascha Tace/Shutterstock<p>Although maintaining relationships can help you cope, it can also be one of the most difficult things to do when you're experiencing depression.</p><p>As Dr. Jennifer L. Payne (an assistant professor/co-director of the Women's Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore) <a href="https://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/major-depression/staying-socially-active-with-depression/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tells Everyday Health</a>: "One of the common symptoms of depression is social isolation." </p><p>Payne goes on to explain that you can "soak up some energy" by simply being around other people, moving around, and staying active.</p><p><strong>Creating a daily schedule and planning activities ensures action. </strong></p><p>While it may be easy to turn down last-minute plans, it's more difficult to cancel plans you've already committed to with friends and family. While it's important not to overwhelm yourself with a packed schedule, creating a minimal daily schedule that involves seeing friends and family or doing activities that you've previously enjoyed can ensure you stay active and often makes you feel more accomplished at the end of each day. </p><p><strong>Support groups and social networking with people who understand. </strong></p><p>While depression can very easily make you feel isolated and alone, surrounding yourself with others who may be struggling with depression as well can help in multiple ways. You will have peer support from people who relate to how you're feeling plus the added benefit of being around people, which can raise your spirits. </p><p><strong>Keeping a journal (and setting goals) can help you feel accomplished. </strong></p><p>Keep a thought journal and detail certain daily or weekly goals (such as a plan to call a friend on Monday or to visit your local coffee shop for a change of scenery on Thursday). These small, achievable goals not only get you out of the house and/or interacting with others, but they also provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction once they are complete. </p><p><strong>Random acts of kindness, such as volunteering, will make you feel good. </strong></p><p><a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/kindness-benefits-james-doty?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1596517476" target="_self">Being kind is good for your health</a> in many different ways. Doing something nice for others can boost your serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Similar to exercise, kindness, and altruism can also release endorphins, creating a <a href="https://www.quietrev.com/6-science-backed-ways-being-kind-is-good-for-your-health/#:~:text=Kindness%20releases%20feel%2Dgood%20hormones&text=Doing%20nice%20things%20for%20others,as%20a%20%E2%80%9Chelper's%20high.%E2%80%9D" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">temporary sense of euphoria</a> that can help combat depressive symptoms. </p>
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