When you think of a common pond snail, you likely don't think of speed, let alone a powerful brain capable of learning tons of information. Still, neuroscientists just used this primitive creature to unearth an astounding reality about what your brain needs to learn well.
Variety really is the spice of life (and learning)
When you're trying to stuff information into your brain, it's natural to encounter different types of interferences, all of which influence how the memories are encoded and which ones are deemed most relevant for keeping. And Michael Crossley, senior research fellow in neuroscience at the University of Sussex, wanted to more about what influences those interferences.
Enter the snails. Crossley and his team trained snails with the basic methods of food reward and aversive conditioning--that is, they gave the snails something to eat to reinforce the behavior the researchers did want, coupling that with simple punishments or unpleasant elements to stop the snails from doing what the researchers didn't want.
Then the team looked at brain recordings that highlighted the snails' brain activity as they tried to learn. They saw that, when a snail tried to learn two very similar things, the same neuron fired. Because of this, there essentially was competition, and only the first memory survived.
But when a snail had to learn two different things, two different neurons fired. There wasn't any competition and the brain was able to store the information about both tasks.
Bringing the snails to your office
Crossley asserts that the results of the study show that, based on this interference mechanism, if you really want to learn many things quickly, your best bet is to spice up your agenda with lots of different subjects. For example, read a few pages of a great biography you found and then switch to tinkering with your new software. And while blocking similar topics might be great for your calendar in terms of convenience if you're taking classes, it's probably something you want to stay away from in terms of retention.
The research findings make sense in the context of other facts we know about the brain. Researchers already have discovered that your brain is ravenous for whatever is novel--it readily will give attention to what's different. And as part of that process, you get rewarded with dopamine, which not only helps you feel content and happy, but which also plays a huge role in motivating you to continue to pursue and learn more. In our 24/7 world, most people are trying to figure out how to combat this mechanism to avoid distraction from important tasks. But the snail study suggests that being exposed to many different things in a controlled way might actually give us a learning edge.
Now, of course, different topics can seem to be polar opposites to each other, which can make it hard to determine relevance. And doing that is important, since time is precious and we have to be selective in how we give it up. But scientists also know that, while the brain can make connections between ideas or experiences without much direction, we also can engage in proactive thinking and deliberately choose to form connections between items that don't seem related. You do this, for example, when you use the rhyming phrase Big Toe Joe to remember the name of a person you just met. And innovation is nothing but seeing unusual connections. So don't automatically assume that varying up what you're learning or doing is going to stall you.
Neuroscientists also recognize that, while a single task can engage many different areas of the brain at once, if you totally switch the type of task you're doing, you'll let other areas get cranking while the ones that were busy get a chance to downshift and recuperate. That's fantastic for preserving brain health and function for maximum productivity, including good emotional regulation and enjoyment from life.
Lastly, research has shown that learning improves when you cover topics over the long haul, such as doing a few months of a program rather than just a week or two. So while the snail study shows that daily variety is critical to memory, it's still totally fine to focus your energy into a few key areas for a while, based on what your goals are. To use an analogy, having 100 bright lights turning on and off in the room all at once can blind you and stop you from seeing anything. But if you strategically choose just a few bulbs to leave on and concentrate their light--which still contains the variety of many different colors--toward one point, your target will be clear.
So the bottom line is, even if you're a specialist (perhaps especially if you're a specialist), make sure you mix up your day. Your brain is designed for that, and you'll end up more knowledgeable and competitive if you embrace it.