Learning can be hard work. That's what it comes down to, and it doesn't lead to a simple answer or an easy answer. We have one thing going for us, though. Our brains love to learn. Our brains are constantly optimizing themselves, and when we feel this happening successfully it's deeply satisfying. The way to learn better and faster is to create conditions that maximize this optimization.
First, learn by doing. Optimal learning involves not just taking in information but synthesizing it, rearranging it, and learning from mistakes. Think about how you'd learn a new athletic skill, like rowing. First, you'd have a coach talk you through the fundamentals. But you wouldn't get very far by just watching and listening. Soon, you'd need to get in the boat and start actually rowing. It might be rough at first, but you would have constant feedback - how your body and the boat feel, more advice from your coach, and quantitative data on your speed. Based on this feedback, on every stroke, your brain strengthens the patterns that lead to success. This is learning.
Learning academic or professional material is no different, but in the classroom it's easy to forget that learning isn't just about taking in information. To activate your brain's internal feedback loop, you need to use what you learn, solve problems, answer questions. And you need to mess up! Getting something wrong, and eventually understanding why, is just as useful as getting it right.
Pace yourself. Like every other part of your body, your brain needs enough rest to function at peak performance. This is especially true if you're learning by doing. An essential part of learning - the consolidation of short-term memory into long-term memory - actually happens "offline," after the learning task itself, and sleep is crucial for this process. Remember that learning anything is a subtle but pervasive physical change in the brain. Millions of synapses are changing slightly with every fact you learn. So, again there's a parallel between learning and athletic training. You wouldn't try to train for a 5K race by running a marathon the night before, because the physical changes you're looking for need to happen over weeks or months, not hours. Similarly, the physical changes that represent deep learning - and learning at a rapid but sustainable pace - need to happen over at least days of effort, not hours.
Practice self-awareness. Everyone learns differently. Personally, if you try to give me verbal directions, I'll smile and nod (sorry about that!) and eventually I'll ask you to show me on a map. You may be the exact opposite. It's all about how your brain likes to take in and process information. To optimize learning, it's important to figure this out, and nobody is in a better position than you yourself are to figure out what works best for you. If you're frustrated, I guarantee it's not because you're fundamentally unable to learn something. Remember, your brain loves to learn. Maybe you're not starting from the beginning and you need to back up to more basic principles that you never mastered. Or, maybe you need to change how you're working - find a different way of taking in the information, or find a study partner for some friendly competition. It takes self-awareness to figure this out and activate your ability to learn.
Cognitive control. All these tools - hard work, pacing and organization, self-awareness - are related to what's called "cognitive control." This is the brain's ability to focus on what needs to be focused on, getting the job done while avoiding distractions. As you might expect, it's a powerful trait of highly effective people. The good news is that even this brain super-power can be trained. The more you practice it, the better you get!
Of course, there are also promising new technologies for faster and better learning. Research groups across the world - such as the Neuroscape group at UCSF - are developing neuroscience-based games to maximize cognitive control. Great apps like Duolingo are helping people learn languages faster than ever before. Biohackers are exploring nootropics and medications to increase focus and accelerate learning. EEG products like Muse and Emotiv offer people tools to practice focus and gain insight into how their brains work. My own company, Halo Neuroscience, offers a neuromodulation headset to accelerate movement learning.
But while neurotech will surely advance, even the most advanced brain technology will continue to leverage the fundamentals of learning. And these fundamentals are just as relevant today for everyone who owns a brain and wants to learn: the amazing power of neuroplasticity, the principle of cognitive control, and good old hard work.
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