The myth of effortless learning

Do you remember how Keanu Reeves, in the Matrix, gets a program downloaded into his brain in a matter of seconds, after which he opens his eyes and says the legendary words: “I know Kung-Fu”. Effortless learning or change, it’s the wet dream of all procrastinators and of many students. But I’ve got bad news here. If you want to see a change happen in you, you must put in the hours. There’s just no way around it.

The market has a flood of books and material baited to lure you into the idea of effortless learning. Just google the phrase “effortless exercise” and you will see scores of links popping up, systems “designed” to shape a “better you”. But all of us know deep inside that it is nothing more than a marketing ploy. Changing the shape of your body requires aerobic exercise to burn off the calories. You also need strength training for the development of muscles. There is just no way for you to lose weight sitting in your couch.

The same goes for sleep learning. From Dexter’s Laboratory to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fiction is chock full of examples where characters learn a new language or acquire a new skill through sleep hypnosis. It sounds too good to be true and it is. Unfortunately, that has not prevented a number of scam courses that claim to increase your ability to learn while sleeping. People fall for it all the time. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, our brains tend to take the easy way out as it puts less cognitive strain on it. However, electroencephalography studies have shown that it is not possible for a human being to recall the stimulus they received when they were asleep after they woke up.

Repetition is the mother of all learning

When we learn a new skill, whether its doing a cartwheel or playing chess, we are changing the wiring of our brains. Scientists have demonstrated that how neural patterns don’t just stop after you turn 25. Even adults can see transformations to their circuitry. But how does it work? We have to activate various portions of the brain to perform any task. Our brain coordinates a complicated set of actions that involves visual and audio processing, motor function, language skills and more. Our brain is optimized for the set of coordinated activities through practice. This process is called “myelination”.

Myelin is the white matter that fills our brains. It is a fatty tissue which covers the long axons that extend out of the neurons. Research has shown that myelination increases the strength and speed of the nerve impulse by forcing the electrical charge to jump across the sheath to the next open spot on the axon.

The ability to generate myelin gets a little slower with age but it never completely stops. According to scientists, the glial cells play a huge role in creating fresh myelin. The astrocytes monitor the axons for activity, and repeat signals from the axon triggers the release of chemicals from the astrocytes, stimulating a second cell (oligodendrocyte) to produce myelin, which wraps itself around the axon.

So as we practice, whether by hitting jumpshots in the basketball court, writing daily, or playing Age of Empires, we trigger a pattern of electrical signals through our nerve cells. Over time, it triggers the glial cells to myelinate the axons, increasing the strength and speed of the signal. It is no different from changing the speed of your internet connection from dial-up to broadband.

Tips for effective study

Things to do:

Keep your desk clean and tidy. A stimulating environment makes for fast learning.

Maintain a daily schedule. Practicing at appointed times is better for the brain and aids the formation of neuronal connections.

Put what you learn to use. The more you use the information you learn, the better you remember it. This is especially true for people trying to learn a new language.

Review what you study before going to bed. Your retention will be better.

Things not to do:

Cramming does not benefit long-term memory.

If you’re planning on taking notes, highlighting is a form of procrastination as you are saving the process of taking notes for later. This just doubles the work you have to do.

Never study after you have just finished eating. The blood in your body is busy digesting the food and your brain does not get enough blood for you to process what you read efficiently.

Don’t space out while reading. If you find your mind wandering, force yourself to concentrate. Moving your finger across the page as you read is a good way to keep the mind on track. The movement of the finger across the page forces your mind to pay attention to what you read.

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