Category : Learning

Learning Memory & Learning

How Much Can Your Learn At Once?

If you remember anything from your school days, it’s probably that learning must be structured and follow a set path. This structure means that you’re only supposed to move onto other skills, once you’ve mastered the one you’re currently practising.

However, a number of studies suggest that a more effective way of learning is to interleave. This approach is promoted by Dr. Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and Steven C. Pan, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

In the short-term, block-learning is more effective, but in the long-term, interleaving your studies with difference subjects allows your brain to make many more connections that usual, sometimes creating bridges between the two, usually, unconnected subjects.

The more connections the brain has, the more creative you are able to be and the stronger your memory will be.

I highly encourage you to read Barbara Oakley’s book – A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) or take her popular online course Learning How to Learn.

Further Reading:

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Learning Memory & Learning

Lucid Dreaming

Ever had one of those dreams where you suddenly become aware that you’re dreaming and you’re able to (for a short time) control your dreams?

This is called lucid dreaming and is a major feature in the film Inception.

Most of the time when you’re dreaming, you have no idea and you just go along with the odd situations that you find yourself in – often rapidly changing and seemingly random – though they don’t seem so while you’re sleeping.

What if while you were dreaming, you were able to “wake” yourself and realise that you are in fact dreaming? While we dream our sub-conscious minds are in full control and so being in control while in this state gives you access to the incredible creative resources of your sub-conscious.

Lucid dreaming is when you become aware that you are dreaming, WHILE you’re dreaming. This empowers you to influence the content of your dreams. Luckily, lucid dreaming is a skill you can develop, giving you much more control over your dreams.

Why is this important?

Aside from imposing temporary paralysis so we don’t physically act out our dreams, our brains don’t distinguish between dreams and reality. Thoughts and actions that occur during dreams are treat by your brain as though they are actually happening.

This means that any actions that would strengthen neural pathways while you’re awake, will trigger the same response during sleep. Additionally, you’re brain is more susceptible to these neural changes during REM sleep – your brain is able to adapt more while you are asleep.

While we dream our subconscious minds are in full control and so being in control while in this state gives you access to the incredible creative resources of your subconscious.

You are able to generate ideas and potentially solve problems much quicker and with greater creativity than during your waking state. Also, when we sleep, our perception of time is skewed and we experience time as being 44% longer – essentially giving us more time to dream.

Dream control and dream awareness are connected, but you aren’t required to know that you’re dreaming in order to exert control, conversely, being aware that you’re dreaming doesn’t always give you control.

Lucid dreaming offers us a big opportunity – if you are able to control your dreams, then you can practice and learn during your sleep.

Step 1 – Remembering Your Dreams

Focus for a few moments on the dream and try to remember as much as possible, then write everything down – situations, companions, images, sounds and even feelings. When you first start recording your dreams, the details will be sparse and vague.

Step 2 – Analysing Your Dreams

Once you’ve been recording your dreams for a few weeks, read through the pages of your journal and try to identify any recurring themes. I don’t mean from a Freudian analysis involving being chased or nightmares – but elements that are always present when you dream.

For a lot of people, it’s almost impossible to tell the time in a dream. If you look at a clock or a watch you’ll find that it will change each time you look at it.

This is the same for anything written down. The words in books, letters and magazines will change, be difficult to read and probably not make any sense.

If you spot this, you can almost be sure that you’re dreaming.

Step 3 – Reality Checks

A few common reality checks are seeing if you can:

  • Breathe underwater
  • Breathe with your mouth or nose covered
  • See through closed eyes

Once you become aware of your dreams, you will begin to slowly wake up and then your control over the dream slips. I find that breathing deeply (while dreaming) when this starts to happen can help me to stay asleep.

Reality checks are small tests you can perform while awake and dreaming which can tell you that whether what you’re experiencing is reality or imagination. Certain things just aren’t possible in real life, but occur often in dreams.

  • Breathe with your mouth or nose covered.
  • See through closed eyes. Closing your eyes in a dream usually has no effect on your vision.
  • Read a book, magazine or clock. The words and numbers will change in a dream and you’ll find that you can’t actually read them.

It’s important to carry out these checks when you’re awake and doing routine tasks. When you’re asleep, you can’t consciously choose to carry out the checks because at that stage, you’ve no idea you’re not awake. By performing these checks throughout your day, you train your mind to do it regularly and you’ll soon find yourself doing it  spontaneously in dreams.

Step 4 – Staying Asleep

Once you become aware of your sleeping state, your dreams will begin to break down and you will begin to slowly wake up. When this happens you’ll find that your control over the dream slips. I find that breathing deeply (while dreaming) when this starts to happen can help me to stay asleep for a little while longer.

Step 5 – Enjoy and Learn

Now you’re asleep and have full, on-demand access to the most creative areas of your mind. Use this time to come up with creative solutions, ideas or to practice a skill. Remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish between actions taken during sleep or wakefulness – you’ll get the full benefit as though you’d practiced while awake.

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Learning Memory & Learning

Learning While You Sleep

Throughout the day, we are thinking and using our brains. A side effect to this is that our brains slowly build up toxins which can impair our ability to think and learn.

When we sleep, our brain flushes out these toxins – which is why when you’ve been awake for a long time, or had little sleep you don’t feel as sharp, your brain is full of thought-restricting toxins.

During sleep our pre frontal cortex (thinking brain) rests and allows the rest of the brain to work peacefully. While sleeping our brains often revise what we have learned and forge stronger neural links. However, they also clear away ideas and memories which it feels are less important.

When we’re in REM-sleep our brains are in diffused mode and are more likely to build new connections and generate new ideas during this phase. You can prompt yourself to dream about a certain problem or event by thinking or reading about it before bed and even by saying to yourself that you WILL dream about it.

Alternatively, you could try your hand at lucid dreaming. Essentially being able to direct your dreams by being aware that you’re dreaming. You can do this by keeping a dream journal and writing about your dreams the moment you wake (before you forget).

Another method is to “wake” yourself while dreaming (similar to Inception). Great ways to do this are to look at clocks or writing. If you’re dreaming the writing will change and you can’t really focus on the words, additionally, if you look at a clock, look away and then look back again  the time will have changed.

I often ignored it as a student, but a decent sleep has a huge positive impact on much you’re able to learn and remember. Multiple studies have shown that when students cram for an exam the night before, they tend to perform worse than students with the same level of knowledge and confidence who didn’t cram but got 7.5+ hours sleep.

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Learning Memory & Learning

Power of Analogy on Learning

Analogies and metaphor are used throughout our lives and we’re pre-disposed to using metaphors and analogies to both learn and teach, but most people aren’t even conscious they are doing it.

You know a metaphor is coming when you hear, “Just imagine…” “It’s just like…”, “It’s the same as…”, and “Think of it as…”

Metaphors not only help us to learn and understand better, but they increase the chances of you remembering what you’ve learned. Metaphors are essentially showing that something is similar to another thing. metaphors can be really simple, such as saying that Britain looks like a with wearing a hat. A more complex analogy would be comparing sound waves to ripples in a pond.

Because the images are so strong visually, it tends to stay with you for a long time. Additionally, comparing two separate ideas, creates a neural link between them which will strengthen your memory of both ideas.

Metaphors are incredibly pervasive and I’ve seen countless blog posts and articles online where something mundane, like completing a degree, is likened to an exciting subject, such as climbing a mountain and fighting monsters.

They’re particularly useful when trying to understand a difficult concept that you just can’t wrap your head around.

Metaphors work…but why?

Each piece of knowledge or skill we learn is essentially a network or neurons in our brain. Certain ideas and concepts develops into patterns that are easy to follow and we fall into naturally.

Likening a new idea to one you already understand  allow you to link your existing ideas and thought patterns to new ones. They provide a context for the new idea that makes it easier to understand and relate to. As you learn more about a topic, you’ll begin to revise your own metaphors to become more accurate.

A metaphor works like tracing paper, giving us a scaffold on which to attach our ideas. We can then adjust and adapt our understanding of the concept until the scaffolding is no longer needed.

Many breakthroughs have been made by realising that one concept is similar to another.

One of the reasons that some concepts in STEM fields are so hard to learn is that they’re so abstract that there’s no analogy or metaphor than can accurately represent it.

Good teachers understand the value of metaphor and use it daily to make new and foreign concepts more familiar, relatable and meaningful by connecting the new ideas to something the students already understand.

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Learning Memory & Learning

Focused and Diffused Thinking

by Barbra Oakley -

by Dr.Barbara Oakley –

When we’re learning and thinking, there are 2 modes available to us; focused and diffused.

We’re more familiar with focused thinking, it’s what is drilled into us at school and what seems to be valued in the workforce. Focused thinking is when the brain actively zeros in on trying to come up with a solution to a problem or an idea. It’s resource intensive, tiring and eventually stressful.

Focused thinking tends to fall into the same mental paths and patterns that you always use, so using focused thinking to learn about new concepts or find solutions to problems you’ve never encountered before is not very effective.

This is where diffused thinking comes into play.

Diffused thinking is where your brain is in a more relaxed state, often your pre frontal cortex is occupied, such as when we’re running or exercising. The rest of your brain is then free to think openly, unrestricted by your existing thought patterns. This is why so many great ideas tend to occur while you’re in the shower or cleaning the house, you’re not focusing on trying to solve a problem, but your brain is working away in the background to pull all of your knowledge and experiences together for you.

We dream using diffused mode thinking and waking during dreams or day dreams can help you pull the ideas from diffused thinking into focused thinking.

Focused thinking is important and you need deliberate thought and practice to solve most problems, however there come a point where you need to let your brain relax and approach the solution from a different angle.

Unfortunately, you can’t use both simultaneously, but you want to be able to switch between the two. Stopping work for 10 minutes while you read a funny story or play a game online can give your brain enough respite to switch into diffused mode and start churning away.

To learn more about focused and diffuse thinking, check out Barbara Oakley incredible book – Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and course on Learning How to Learn.

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