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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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Smart Thinking Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking – Think 2-Steps Ahead

Being able to think strategically is one of the most useful skills a person can have. It can apply in so many situations, whether you’re developing a marketing strategy, mapping your path to achieving a set of goals or even trying manoeuvre your way to the top of your organisation.
You want to train your mind to think in a certain way. The greatest strategists were able to win wars before even a single arrow had been fired because they developed winning strategies that enabled them to leverage their resources to give them the results they craved.A lot of people often get strategy confused with tactics or even with goals, but while they’re related, they’re completely different things.

Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones gives a prime example of this misunderstanding.

After her brother Tyrion points out that she’s quoting her father, she says “Why not? He has a good mind for strategy doesn’t he?”

To which Tyrion responds “Call it tactics not strategy but yes he does have a good mind for it. The best mind some would say.”

I’ll try to explain the difference using an example I was given at university.

It’s the beginning of the day and you need to go to work. So, getting to work is your goal. You have a number of potential strategies at your disposal:

  • Drive in your car
  • Walk
  • Cycle
  • Get on a bus
  • Get on a train
  • Catch a lift
  • Or jump in a taxi

You look at the state of the environment; the state of the traffic, how quickly you’ll get to work, how much it will cost and how much effort it will take.

You weigh these up and make a decision. Say you choose to drive home, that’s your strategy.

Tactics would be the smaller steps which make up that strategy; which roads will you take and how fast will you drive.

Goal > Strategy > Tactics

The most well-known uses for strategic thinking are in politics, warfare and the business-world. Before Sun Tzu’s The Art of War the only way you could learn strategy, was through practice. You had to get involved in politics or warfare and make potentially deadly mistakes in order to learn.

Luckily, we know have a myriad of resources from which we can learn and practice to think strategically.

Chief among them is chess. Chess has long been viewed as the ultimate strategy game and it’s not hard to see why.

You can get by to start with by planning one move at a time, but if you want to compete with the best, you need to be able to plan 3, 4 moves ahead. Chess masters are able to plan a full game of moves in their head to position their opponent where they need them to be. Naturally they also need to be able to adapt their strategy on the fly when things don’t work out exactly as planned.

As with politics, business and war, in chess in each you have an opponent that you are trying to bait and outmanoeuvre. This is why looking into chess strategy is a great primer on the subject.

Thinking two-steps ahead of everyone else is a very valuable thing to be able to do. Like a lot of thinking processes, it’s also not that difficult if you just take your time.

The first step with forming any strategy, is knowing the environment. This is true whether you’re building a military invasion plan, or a set of marketing campaigns.

If you’re forming a business strategy, you need to have a very good idea about who your competitors are, who their products appeal to and what their strategy is.

It’s difficult to come up with a strategy, if you don’t know who you’re facing. The first step is to learn everything you can about your opponent. The most important aspect of understanding your opponent is having an idea of how they will react to certain situations. Once you know this you can set up a chain of events that lead the person in exactly the direction you want them to go.

With chess, naturally this means examining every previous game that the other person has played – strategic thinking is easy but time consuming and takes a lot of mental energy. With enough practice this comes second nature and you’ll be able to react to changing circumstances quickly – which is another key element.

Always leave yourself room to adapt your strategy, don’t put all your eggs in one basket because if the situation changes, you could be left with nothing.

Once you understand how strategy works, you can start to pick apart another’s strategy and identify their goal. This way you can lead you opponent into thinking they are reaching their goal, while you are secretly working against them.

The easiest way to identify another’s strategy is to look at all the component parts. In business this would include things like pricing, promotion style, distribution channels and positioning. Map out their actions, paying attention see what they all have in common – this however generally only works for companies that are good at implementing their strategies.

A company advertising their products as premium and high-end but having lowest prices are in-congruent and show an inability to carry out their strategies.

Further Reading:

 

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Learning Memory & Learning

Focused and Diffused Thinking

by Barbra Oakley - https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

by Dr.Barbara Oakley – https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

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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Logic & Reasoning Smart Thinking

Think Clearly With Logic

Unless you’re a mathematician or a programmer, you’ll most likely hear the term logic used to describe something sensible.

We usually refer to being logical as taking emotion out of the picture and looking at something objectively – this is partially right, but there’s a lot more to logic than that.

Logic is the formal study of what follows what. They form the principles of correct reasoning.

Our use of logic will be to ascertain the cause of a result or what result might follow from certain events.

It’s important to note that logic doesn’t deal with the content of an argument or situation, only the form and process by which you analyse it.

The facts of your argument can be incorrect, but still provide a logical outcome.

We are emotional creatures and following a logical process requires separating ourselves from the experiences and emotions that have formed our understanding and belief.

This is not an easy thing to do and it takes time and effort to think logically. This is why we don’t often use logic unless we’re incredibly emotionally invested in proving the validity or invalidity of argument.

In this way, we most often employ logic when we’re trying to be persuasive and encouraging others to let go of their emotionally fuelled opinions in favour of our  more sensible option.

Logical reasoning is the process of using arguments, premises, statements and axioms to define the truth or falsity of a statement.

Reasoning can be formal or informal.

Formal reasoning deals with the form of the argument, it’s irrelevant if the premises are true are not, so long as the proper form is followed

For example:

  1. All whales are big.
  2. All big things are slow.

Therefore all whales are slow.

The truth of the first 2 statements is irrelevant. If you assume they are true, then the last statement must be true. The proper form as been observed.

Informal reasoning is concerned not with the form of reasoning, but with content of it. Informal reasoning deals with the probability that the premises and conclusions are true. Every-day reasoning is informal.

Logic provides a great foundation for clear and focused thinking.

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