The entry point to learning is paying attention. Luckily, paying attention is something you can learn. Well, at least if you pay attention for a bit longer.
Before we go into more details, two important points:
- You need to want to learn something and see it as an opportunity. You, not someone else. I hope your curiosity about learning is enough to drive you to finish reading this.
- Radical transformation is possible. Contrary to what was taught to my generation at school, your brain continues to develop physically until you’re about 30 years old and is far from a static lump that just decays after it’s done growing. Everything you do changes your brain, you can’t not change it. By paying attention to what you do and think, you can learn anything and even change yourself completely.
Practicing paying attention
Your ability to pay attention is as trainable as are your muscles. The practice isn’t about keeping your attention on something or emptying your mind. Even with decades of practice, your mind will still wander. The practice is about returning to the object of your attention. The more you practice, the less effort it takes for you to return. You can use any of your six senses to practice, but starting with your body is often the easiest path.
Before you read any further, take a moment to breathe in deeply and exhale slowly 3 times.
Take a moment to feel your feet on the floor and your body breathing here. In this moment.
Breathing in, you are aware that you are breathing in.
Breathing out, you are aware that you are breathing out.
And as long as you are breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you.
That’s what training paying attention feels like. This is just one example, find out what works for you. If formal meditation or yoga feel like too much right now, you can practice paying attention in your daily life. For example, one regular practice I have is to breathe with the red light at intersections both walking and driving.
The building blocks
Naturally, just paying attention is not enough for learning. You need to put all the data you take in somewhere. Luckily you have a practically limitless container available: your brain.
Your memory is essentially a huge blob of seemingly random associations and what gets stored is largely out of your control. Paying attention to specific things make them more likely to be stored. Unfortunately, from the perspective of your memory manager, feeling really embarrassed for example is also a great reason for storing something. And since it’s so important, better throw it out there in your consciousness every now and then.
There are ways of taking advantage of the associative nature of your memory. Learning things that are ‘logically’ (I use this term very loosely here) related in sequence reduces the total amount of energy needed to store those memories.
Scenario A, these blue blocks are your memories of math:
And then you decide to learn physics (represented by white blocks):
It’s somewhat straightforward to build your understanding of physics on the solid math base and storing the information doesn’t take much energy.
Scenario B, start with limited math knowledge:
You’re more likely to end up retaining only a small part of the whole, and very likely will misunderstand some parts and the picture may be out of focus.
In Scenario C, your personal experience from falling of a swing and getting hit in the face by the swing helps you build a bridge without fully understanding the math behind pendulum physics and gravity, but it takes more energy to store the information.
This is a highly simplified and somewhat speculative example, but hopefully helps you get an inkling of how your memory works.
So in order to learn you need to first pay attention to something and then store that information in your memory.
If you’re reading this yourself, it’s very likely that you know what an insight feels like and in what kind of situations they happen in typically. That rush of energy you get when new connections are suddenly formed between memories that were not connected before.
Unfortunately, insights are out of your control. What you can do is to create the conditions required in your brain for insights to happen. They are:
- Quiet mind
- Internally focused
- Not working directly on the problem
- Slightly positive mood
Based on my experience, what is typically called an ‘innovation/brainstorming session’ or ‘pushing for creative solutions’ create the exact opposite of the state required for new thinking to emerge. In order to ‘innovate’ or to ‘be creative’, you first need pay a lot of attention to things to gather data and then give your brain space to do it’s thing. Insights can happen within a conversation, but are by orders of magnitude more likely to happen on a break, on your way home or the next morning.
To use the previous example of how your memory works, if we add your memories from the playgrounds of your childhood:
And when you get an insight connecting these, it looks more like this:
So in order to learn you need to first pay attention to something, store that information in your memory and hope for the best. The likelihood of new ideas that are useful for you is greatly increased by paying attention to things relevant to your future interests.
Sleeping enough (usually around 8–9 hours a day, depending on the person, highly genetic) helps you pay attention. Sleep deprivation is practically equal to being drunk. While sleeping you’re also in an ideal state for new insights — unless you’re having a nightmare. Sleep is also the time when your memory manager is most active. Sleeping is mandatory for long term memory forming.
Getting enough sleep is the easiest way of improving your learning and your life quality in general. So if you’re reading this in bed at night, put your device away and continue in the morning.
Stress kills. Not just people, also their ability to form insights. Pushing people to innovate or to be creative simply does not work.
You may notice me repeating things here. That’s part of making sure that you pay attention to the important bits and increase the likelihood of them getting stored in your long term memory.
Prolonged stress also reduces and over time fully compromises your ability to form memories. Stress and sleep share a bond, sleeping well reduces stress, but stress reduces the quality of your sleep. And this can slip into a negative feedback loop where you sleep less because you’re stressed and get more stressed because you don’t sleep well. If you get in this situation, go see a doctor.
Extreme stress also does fascinating things to your attention. When a threat is big enough, it is literally the only thing you see, your field of view is reduced and your brain and body target all their resources to surviving the threat by either fighting or running away. This is the same whether the threat is a bear attacking you or your colleague embarrassing you in front of everyone. From the perspective of learning this isn’t very useful, unless you want to be a trauma driven automaton.
So in order to learn you need to first pay attention to something, store that information in your memory, hope for the best, sleep on it and manage your stress. Don’t worry about that last bit, help is on the way.
By far, the number one benefit of exercise in the modern world is stress reduction. Both the immediate effect of consuming the stress response in it’s original purpose of fleeing from or fighting a threat. And the long term benefit of more balanced neurochemistry. A side effect of this balance is that it’s also easier to pay attention.
Exercise directly improves your sleep quality. One relatively new discovery is that exercise also directly improves your ability to form new memories. There’s also good data on exercise interventions being an effective treatment for depression and anxiety.
Exercise is for your brain, what it does to your body is a nice side effect.
So in order to learn you need to first pay attention to something, store that information in your memory, hope for the best, sleep on it, manage your stress and exercise regularly.
But wait, that’s not all
Thank you for reading this far. I made a huge assumption in the beginning that you are interested in learning about learning. That is where trouble with learning usually begins. If you don’t want to learn something, you wont. And it’s twice as ineffective to try to make someone else learn something they don’t want.
There are more things you can do to manage your stress. And there are things you can do to make it more likely for people to want to learn something with you, but details on these will have to wait for next time. Applying what you’ve learned here is a good start.
So, equipped with all this knowledge, let’s return to the entry point: attention.
Feel your feet on the floor and your body breathing here. In this moment.
Take the next few moments to reflect and think what do you want to take with you from reading this?
And as my request to you, to quote one of the great educators of our time Rachel Coleman:
Go share it with a friend, share it with a friend.
When you share it with a friend, it becomes a part of you.
You can share it with a grown up, a baby or a shoe.
You can share it with a neighbor, a bird or bee or newt!
What will you share with a friend?