The Learning Brain

To learn better, we need to tap into the learning brain that already exists inside of us. This involves understanding how our brain prefers to accept information and working with it instead of trying to cram information inside it like a clown car. In truth, there are always two brains waging war inside us: the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to learn, and the limbic system, which robs us of our senses. Of course, this is a problem that affects far more about our behavior than learning, but it is the first stop on our journey to neuro-learning.

The Learning Brain

If you’ve spent even a little time in school during the last few decades, the following scenario will likely be very familiar to you: you need to prepare for a test, so you commit to sitting down for a few hours with your books. You go over the material again and again, trying to drill the facts into your head so that you can recall them later. Maybe you read written sections over and over or try rewriting or reciting the material out loud, as though you were a sponge trying to absorb as much as possible. At the end of the preparation phase, there is more highlighted in your notes than not, and your memory retention is questionable. You do feel pretty good about yourself though, and you even pulled an all-nighter trying to cram the information into your noggin. People will be suitably impressed with you.

The rest of the scenario is also probably familiar—i.e., the part where you walk into the exam room and can only recall a small part of what you “learned” anyway.

And yet, you probably also know someone who excelled at school and just seemed to have a knack for remembering everything, absorbing it all with ease and having it stay in there well after the exam came and went. They may have even done this with fewer hours spent studying. While you were inside highlighting the same passages with red, yellow, and green, they were outside riding their bike or engaging in a hot dog eating competition. Why? How? That’s not fair.

This book tries to answer those questions and look not just more closely at the methods for learning and memorization we’ve all been taught, but a little deeper at the neuroscience behind how your brain takes in, organizes, and holds onto new information that you give it. The truth is that we can optimize abstract functions like memory, recall, and information processing by looking at the very concrete, physiological basis they have in the brain itself. Armed with this knowledge, we can work with our brains to their greatest potential, in much the same way as an understanding of anatomy and biology helps an athlete perform at their physical peak. You may have underperformed academically or can’t seem to keep it together for your job, but that’s entirely changeable.

You’ve probably felt the limits of your own cognitive capacity at times before and desperately tried to push past them. But rather than doubling down on the same old tactics we’ve been taught at school, this book tries to understand the brain’s natural capacities in order to work with them. A brain that is better able to take in information, process and analyze it, and recall it is always going to be an effective, powerful brain. And it’s hard to overstate the value of such an asset, whether that’s at school, at university, in your career, or in life in general.

In 1953, Henry Molaison lost his mind—well, part of it anyway. (You might recognize Henry from his more anonymous yet infamous moniker of Patient H.M.) In a desperate attempt to stop steadily worsening seizures, Henry’s doctors decided to carefully remove two thumb-sized pieces from either side of his brain, in an experimental procedure. Though the seizures did indeed stop, Henry was left with a permanent type of amnesia. New memories were impossible for him to form. He could meet a new person, and if they left the room and reentered, he would behave as if it were the first time he’d ever seen them. Henry Molaison’s long-term memory wasn’t affected. And he kept his personality and skills intact, even learning rudimentary new skills in the moment (most motor-skill based)—he just never had the memory of having learned them.

What was a tragic outcome for Henry Molaison was an interesting new beginning in neuroscience. Here was proof that the function of memory was explicitly tied to discrete, physiological areas of the brain. A handful of other patients underwent the same procedure, and in each case the doctors discovered that memory was always affected when portions of the medial temporal lobe were removed. The more of this tissue that was removed, the more extensive the impairment to the patient’s memory. This was a turning point in understanding the function of the brain, and it’s integral to our understanding of neuro-learning.

It’s many decades later and neuroscientists now know that an important part of the medial temporal lobe, the hippocampus, is responsible for turning our passing perceptions in the present moment into fixed memories that we can later recall. The hippocampus is the structure that creates memories, and without it, we can have a full, rich experience of the present moment—but be able to return to it again in the form of “stored” memories.

Let’s return to the question of cramming before an important exam. Knowing that the brain is directly responsible for the extent to which we can remember things, in a physical way even, how can we make sure we’re doing what we can to learn better? How can we understand the process of neuro-learning and how to better cater to what our brains prefer and will accept? What principles can we use to improve our performance on that exam but also transfer to learning in general?

It’s important to break down the process of learning into a few distinct aspects. Your brain is performing countless complex procedures every time you speak, read, recall a memory, or comprehend a new concept, but in essence, all of learning can be broken down into three functions.

The first is information absorption. This is probably obvious. You cannot begin to talk about how your brain retains and processes information if you don’t understand how it’s taking that information in first. Simply, we can’t learn without the first crucial step of absorption. We need to accurately perceive what’s in front of us and be able to pay attention long enough to the relevant details to have it all sink in. For example, if you were trying to learn and master the game of chess, the very first thing you’d need to do is actually hear or read the rules of the game. You’d need to be able to focus and pay attention so that this information could properly be absorbed. You need the energy, lack of stress, and engagement. Information just has to make it inside your head somehow first, and then we can manipulate and solidify it.

Many people falsely believe they have terrible memories when in fact they would have great memories if only they spent enough time paying attention to the thing they wanted to remember in the first place. If you’ve ever “forgotten” some crucial piece of information, or something someone said, you may have actually failed to absorb that data simply because you were attending to something else in that moment. You might forget your keys on the counter not because your mechanisms of memory aren’t working, but because you were paying attention to your phone at the moment you would ordinarily reach for your keys, and thus you “forgot” to pick them up. We’ll see later on in the book how this step of learning is even more important, and it’s not merely whether you’re paying attention or not, but the state of mind you’re in when you pay attention.

The second aspect of how the brain learns is information synthesis, which is how your brain analyzes, processes, manipulates, and understands the information you took in during the absorption phase. In fact, your brain is constantly interpreting the world around you. It has to—there is simply a constant, overwhelming flood of information for every sense out there in the world. Our brain’s job is to constantly sift and filter through this, decide what everything means, and put sensations into context.

Even as you read these words, consider the whole universe of sensory data out there that you are carefully ignoring so that you can focus on just the few sensations you’re interested in. Consider also how fast your brain must be working to decipher these random black marks into meaning, sifting and sorting, pulling on memory banks so that you understand and can create a picture in your mind of the words “memory” and “bank,” for example. Synthesis is making meaning and attaching significance to information in a way that your brain can understand it.

To return to the chess example, you can listen attentively as the rules are explained to you, but at some point, your brain is going to start putting all the pieces together. You might start to wonder if you can move knights a particular way and rooks a particular way or what happens if both pieces encounter one another in such-and-such a layout on the board. Now you’re beginning to actually understand the information you’ve taken in. You’re turning those rules over in your head, seeing when and how they apply, testing the limits of the game, and trying to actually comprehend the field of your possible “moves.”

Of course, chess is one simple example, but we are all doing this all of the time, whether it’s playing chess or learning more complicated “games” like how to pass an exam, how to fill out your tax form, or the best way to drive into town given the traffic jam you know is there. Absorption without synthesis is akin to information that goes in one ear and out the other, while synthesis without absorption is, well, not possible.

The final aspect of the learning brain, and perhaps the most important, is information retention (i.e., memory). In effect, we can’t really be said to have learned anything if we can’t remember anything about the mastery we’ve gained. As you look at the chess board, you need to draw on your memory of all the different moves each piece can make, as well as the memory of the games you’ve played in the past and all the lessons and tricks you gleaned from them. Without that knowledge, you can’t play effectively. In fact, no skill or knowledge at all is useful if it cannot be recalled at will outside of the moment you experienced it first. Retention without synthesis means incorrect information is probably being acted upon.

Thus, learning comes down to these three key aspects, and we’ll devote a significant amount of time to each shortly. Every step depends on the proper functioning of the others: absorption, analysis, and retention. They must work in sequence, or the next step will be built upon a house of cards. And remember, it’s the hippocampus’s roles in the memory aspects of learning that we are interested in with this book. We’ll also be looking at neuroplasticity—i.e., the ability the brain has to change and make new neural pathways when it learns and forms new memories. By understanding the way the brain does this naturally, we can work to enhance the process and generally tap into the learning brain that you already possess.