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Learn It Again, Sam

The human mind

If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ve probably noticed that every once in a while I come back to talk about the same subject from a different perspective. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons that learning the same thing more than once can be valuable in almost any situation where you really want it to sink it.

First, effective learning usually requires repetition over time, as I discuss in Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning, delving briefly into points brought up by neuropsychologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.

Second, getting a new look at something heard before offers a new perspective to facilitate understanding it.

Third, that same new perspective (as well as the new situation in which you’re learning) makes it possible to develop more and different neural connections to that idea, increasing mental mastery of it.

Fourth, revisiting a useful piece of knowledge creates a reminder that the knowledge is available and increases the chance that we’ll use it. And as also discussed in my learning article mentioned above, using knowledge is one of the most effective ways to fix it in memory.

That extra opportunity to use the idea is particularly important because knowledge alone is not enough to reap us the benefits of an idea, even an idea about our own behavior. It’s easy to pick up a new piece of knowledge and imagine that it will be life-changing, only to have it fade away without ever having made an impact. The impact, of course, comes only from actively using the idea–for learning purposes, the more often the better.

Photo by khowaga1

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Book Review: Brain Rules


BrainRulesI’m working on expanding my list of books on the left to include some of the resources I haven’t yet reviewed on the site, and going forward I’ll be posting reviews of books I’ve read recently or some time ago, eventually linking to the reviews from the book list on the left. (The book reviews are in addition to my regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday articles.)

John Medina’s book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School is a fascinating read both for its content and because it is written about how we think and learn, so that it uses some of its own strategies to become more effective. For instance, Medina talks about how much more powerfully highly emotional situations imprint on our memories, and he uses several emotionally-charged situations in the book to illustrate his principles, helping make them more likely to sink in. As another example, he talks about the profound improvement we experience in learning when visuals are added to spoken or written words, and he helpfully supplies a very visual Web site,, to help underscore the points in his book.

Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who knows his stuff in great detail and isn’t shy about bringing in practical research from all quarters, which makes a much stronger case for the information he presents.

Several of his brain rules are extremely meaningful to our daily lives: the sections on exercise, short-term memory, sleep, and vision struck me particularly. Some of his other brain rules seem to be less profound and less useful, although there is some useful material in each of the twelve chapters.

Toward the end of each chapter, Medina offers ideas on how the information could be put into use. Unfortunately, he offers this information as a scientist does, coming up with hypotheses about what might work in classrooms or workplaces and suggesting that people try these things on a large scale to see how they work. That’s great, but it’s not much use to us in the trenches who are trying to find better ways to teach children or accomplish work or cooperate. I would rather he had focused on things that had already been tried and documented and pointed out where there were practices that could be adopted for definite gains. At least, though, there’s a chance that his suggestions for experiments will inspire other scientists to tackle those experiments, and if we’re lucky, Medina will follow up with another book.

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How Much Sleep Do You Need? 8 Hours Isn’t for Everyone



I’ve been particularly looking forward to the sleep chapter in John Medina’s book Brain Rules (one of my current reading books) because I was interested to know once and for all how much sleep I needed. Was 8 hours really the magic number? What were the consequences of averaging, say, 7 hours, or 6? What about naps? I was interested in knowing how sleep affects our brains so that I could begin to see how it might affect self-motivation.

The answers were very helpful in some ways and completely unhelpful in others. What are the findings about how much sleep we need? Research so far seems to say that there is no definite number, and sleep needed varies widely from person to person. Some people (who have a condition called “healthy insomnia”) only need 4 or 5 hours a night and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects. Kids going through puberty definitely need more, preferably in the morning. There also seem to be genes that determine whether someone is a morning person (a “lark”), a night owl, or (like most of us) a “hummingbird,” which is to say someone with a “normal” sleep schedule. Sleep needs and daily schedules change as a person ages, too.

Too little sleep has serious costs
But one very clear finding across the board is that not getting enough sleep actively sabotages the brain’s abilities. As Medina puts it, “Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge … manual dexterity … and even gross motor movements.” Also, interrupted sleep or inadequate sleep severely limits our ability to remember things we learned that day, increases stress, and causes effects that mimic accelerated aging. Not getting enough sleep even forces the body to crave sugar while reducing our ability to make good use of sugar when we get it, playing havoc with healthy eating.

Figuring out your own sleep needs
Most of us already knew that shorting ourselves on sleep was bad (though maybe we didn’t realize it was that bad). But how do we figure out how much sleep do we actually need to not condemn ourselves to tired, inattentive, grumpy days? The best answer I can give is that we probably already know. If you wake up feeling overtired, it’s probably no secret to you that you could use more sleep. Some of us treat sleep as expendable if something else important is going on, but since even small sleep shortages can have a major impact on performance, we may be more effective if we get the right amount of sleep even though that takes away from the waking hours in which we can actually get things done. If you find yourself adding in extra “down time” during the day because you’re tired, or making mistakes, being distracted, or having trouble getting things done because of a sleep debt, then the “bonus time” you’re getting by cutting out sleep–and possibly more time besides–may be getting used up by the problems caused by not getting enough sleep. In other words, shorting ourselves on sleep is both unpleasant and unproductive.

The need for naps is built into our genetic code
Pretty much everyone, it turns out, is programmed to need about a half-hour nap in the early afternoon, although some of us need it more than others. This isn’t just an artifact of not getting enough sleep at night: it’s a normal part of the sleep-wake cycle in human beings. Many of us won’t have the option of getting this extra sleep on a regular basis, but it may be worth experimenting with it when you do have the freedom to try and seeing if it doesn’t give you a lot more energy and attention. In one study, pilots who took a 26-minute afternoon step performed 34% better than pilots who didn’t. That’s a big improvement!

At the very least, it’s best not to schedule things that require a lot of attention in the early afternoon if you can help it.

Sleep and self-motivation
How does this affect self-motivation? Pretty profoundly, it turns out. Self-motivation requires knowing what you need to do, paying attention to your priorities, devoting a little time and focus to moving forward, being self-aware, and solving problems that come up with your process. All of those things are compromised when we short ourselves even an hour or two of sleep a night. So with enough sleep, self-motivation will tend to get noticeably easier.

I know you will have gotten the advice to “get plenty of sleep” time and time again, and if you aren’t currently getting enough, it might be because you are trying to get enough time in the day to accomplish everything that’s important to you. Only you can judge whether or not a little sleep-deprivation is worth being less intelligent and less capable while the sleep debt lasts. In the past, at least, I’ve often gone with a little sleep deprivation in the service of what sometimes seems like a good cause. Put in this light, though, I’m not sure I want to continue to make that kind of a bargain. I’m beginning to think of it this way: if I can accomplish everything I already accomplish without always getting enough sleep, how much better could I do if I were actually operating at full capacity? It’ll be worth finding out.


By the way, if noise interferes with your sleep, or if you just want a little more silence in your life, you might want to try any brand of soft, foam earplugs with rounded ends (above). I’ve found these very helpful, especially for sleeping when someone else has to get up early, during travel, working while someone’s watching a TV or listening to music nearby, concentrating while my neighbor is mowing the lawn, etc. I haven’t been as happy with plastic earplugs or with the kind that are made of harder foam and don’t have a rounded end. Fortunately, the earplugs don’t block out sound completely, so it’s still possible to hear (faintly) a phone ringing or an alarm going off even while wearing them.

Photo by tempophage


Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning



Learning and memory can be essential in self-motivation. Why? Well, consider two examples.

Let’s say a man, Scott, has trouble with being late, and he’s trying to change his habits to always be on time or a little early. Scott has three children, all in school, with various afterschool activities. Sometimes they take the bus home, but sometimes Scott needs to pick them up, while sometimes his wife, Selena, does. Sometimes activities get changed at the last minute.

So Scott might get much better at paying attention to what he’s doing before leaving to go somewhere, and he might start setting aside extra travel time in case of delays, but if his daughter shouts “We have an extra soccer practice tonight, so you have to pick me up” as she’s leaving for school in the morning and Scott doesn’t remember this fact, then his other preparations are useless, and his daughter will be left standing in front of a deserted, locked school until someone catches Scott’s mistake.

To take a different kind of example: let’s say Lisa wants to become much more organized at her job (she’s an architect). She attends a special training seminar on organization for architects, with all kinds of wonderful information–but she’s distracted during the seminar by a very sick man sitting next to her, and so while she scribbles down a lot of notes, the information doesn’t sink in. When she looks back later, her notes aren’t of much help: she wasn’t really understanding the material when she wrote it down, so she’s not going to suddenly understand it from looking at her own notes later. She has a vague recollection that the system seemed to be exactly what she needed and involved a lot of colored folders, but that’s it. The system never gets implemented and Lisa continues to spend hours every week trying to find documents she needs.

So if learning and memory are important to self-motivation, how do we improve them?  There are a few important facts to keep in mind.

Make sure you understand as you’re learning
We don’t remember things like a video recorder: our brain breaks up everything see, hear, touch, etc. into a lot of separate kinds of information and store it all over the brain, bringing it together as needed. That means that if you don’t learn something when it’s presented to you, you usually won’t be able to learn it by trying to recall the details. Effective learning requires focus at the time you’re learning.

We learn better when information has meaning
The more meaning and connections information has for us, the easier it is to remember. As an example, many top chess players can look at a chess board mid-game and instantly memorize the location of every single piece on the board. In one study, chess players with this ability were able to remember layouts set up from actual games beautifully, but were much poorer at being able to remember layouts where pieces were just set randomly around the board. The actual game layouts were meaningful to them: a possible threat to the queen here, mutually protective knights there, and so on. Random game layouts didn’t have these meanings, so they couldn’t “chunk” the information (that is, bind up many pieces of information into a single “chunk” that can be recalled as one piece), which was what was enabling them to memorize so much information so well (I’m trying to help both myself and my readers chunk concepts from posts when I use subheadings, like in this article). More meaning connections to a piece of information also gives you more possible ways to remember it when you need to.

Emotion is a powerful force in memory
We learn things better when we have emotional associations with them. Have you ever used your own personal information, or a family member’s, when making up a password? Those kinds of passwords are much easier to remember than random passwords, because our lives and those of family members have much more meaning to us than random information. (Unfortunately, such passwords are also usually easier for other people to guess.) In the same way, experiences that are powerfully joyful or frightening or that are emotionally charged in some other way tend to be very memorable. If you run out of your house while it’s on fire, you’re liable to remember that in much greater detail than if you run out of the house to get to the hardware store before it closes. (Although this is also because we tend to remember unusual things better than everyday things.)

To really learn something, start using it immediately
When learning how to do something, one of the strongest possible ways to fix it in memory is to start using it. This serves several purposes: it provides a lot more neural connections for the information; it allows you to experiment and apply the information while it’s still fresh in your memory; and it helps turn up any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in while you’re still close to the source of the original information.

One way to start using knowledge immediately is to write, talk, or teach about it. If you find out something you think will be especially useful in your life, you might consider calling up a friend and telling them about what you’ve learned, or blogging or writing a journal entry about it. This forces you to use the information in a way that creates more connections and helps you see exactly how well you’ve understood it, at the same time that you’re doing other people a service by passing it on.

Come back to the same information several times to fix it in memory
Getting information to permanently take up residence in long-term memory usually requires revisiting it several times, with perhaps a few hours to a few days between repetitions. If you make notes about something you want to learn, you can leave yourself two reminders to come back to it two more times, just to review. You can also use the write, talk, or teach approaches at timed intervals. The same amount of study spread over a day or a few days or a week seems to be much more effective than taken all at once.

How this all works in real life
So for instance, if you were writing an article on how memory applies to willpower, you might start out with some examples that people could easily envision, to give meaning to the idea that memory applies to self-motivation. You might even make those examples a little emotionally loaded, with a stranded child here, anxiety about a sick person there … actually, that sounds like it might work. Remind me to write something like that sometime!

And if you want to make the best possible use of this article, you might glance over it to make sure you understand everything, asking yourself questions about each of the major points and seeing how well you can answer them. You might then go blog about it, tell a friend about it, try to summarize the main points in a quick written outline, or go use this information to learn something else. Reviewing it twice over the next couple of days would give it the strongest chance of sticking around.

For more information on how memory works, along with other useful information about how the brain operates, I highly recommend John Medina’s book Brain Rules, which provided some of the information for this entry.

Photo by clappstar.


How to Multitask, and When Not To

Strategies and goals


In my last post, “How to Get a  Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy,” I mentioned molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s point that our brains are structured so that we can only focus on one thing at a time. In Medina’s book Brain Rules, he asserts, “the brain cannot multitask.” It’s a really important point, but he is making it in a confusing way, because Medina goes on to say he’s only referring to “the brain’s ability to pay attention.” As you know if you’ve ever driven the wrong way because your mind was on something else, doing a thing doesn’t always mean paying attention to it. Medina is telling us that we can’t multifocus. Multitasking is not only possible, it’s a terrific way to get dull things done without getting bored, if used in the right way.

But since we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, that means that if we’re multitasking, we can have at most one thing tying up our attention at a time: past that first thing, anything else we do can’t be something requires attention: it has to be something we’ve done over and over the same way.

I like folding laundry, because I always use laundry folding time to watch a movie with my son. We dump all of the clean laundry in the middle of the living room, sit around the pile, and gradually transform the pile into neat stacks of folded clothing. We take our time, talk about the movie a little when we feel like it, and when we’re done we hardly feel like we’ve done any work. It’s my son’s favorite chore, and I count it more as leisure than work.

unicyclerBut it’s easier for me than for my son, because I’ve been folding clothes for decades, while my son has only been doing it for a few years. Several times every folding session, I’ll notice he’s stopped folding, his attention fully on the movie. Usually this happens with a trickier item of clothing or with a particularly gripping part of the movie. Not being as used to folding as me, he can’t do it entirely on automatic, so his brain needs some of his attention for the folding, and his attention is already taken up by the movie. Since he can’t pay attention to two things at once, the clothes folding just stops, and since he was doing it automatically, he may not even notice: he may just sit there holding the shirt, transfixed.

“Fold,” I remind him, and he takes the few seconds necessary to focus on the clothing and start folding it, at which point his brain can go back to the movie.

I can understand if you don’t think of watching a movie and folding clothes as multitasking (though since I write a lot of fiction and analyze movies for plot, character, pacing, and emotional impact as I watch, watching movies for me is fun work instead of just fun), but even using our attention for fun can make boring work enjoyable.

So multitasking is simple, but multitasking attempts are doomed to fail unless the extra tasks being done are near-automatic ones. In terms of prioritizing tasks if we want to get a lot done, this suggests that it’s helpful to save the really mindless ones for a time when we’re doing something else with our mind: planning, talking on a headset phone (they’re not expensive, and they’re a good way to get housework done painlessly for some people), or even relaxing with a movie. But since even automatic tasks require a little bit of attention from time to time, we generally can’t focus intensely on one thing while automatically doing another: for example, we can’t multitask and still expect to get into flow.

I’m not suggesting we need to fill every moment of our lives with as much productivity as possible, but when we have a lot of things in front of us to do, it can help to know that some of the dullest tasks can be done while our brains are elsewhere. While there are other good ways to accomplish boring tasks, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting two things done at once: it makes us feel organized and confident, and that feeling itself is a great motivator.

Replicated guy cleaning photo by waveking1
Photo of unicyclist Tom James by Elsie esq.


How to Get a Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy

Strategies and goals

ducks_in_a_rowAs I write this it’s Saturday, the beginning of the first mostly-free weekend I’ve had in about a month. Because scheduled things take up almost all of my time during the week, I’ve amassed a list of about 30 tasks, large and small, that I’d like to get done this weekend. They probably won’t all get done, because there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s OK as long as I make good use of my time, enjoy the weekend, and get the most important ones taken care of. The question is, what’s the best way to do that?

I’ve gotten better and better at juggling multiple tasks over my lifetime, especially since I started intensively learning about the psychology of self-motivation, but it wasn’t until I came across a section on attention in molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s book Brain Rules that I understood why I’ve been getting better at managing a lot of tasks, and how to improve even more.

When Medina talks about attention, he describes how we change our focus from one thing to another: for each separate activity, we have to send a message throughout our brain telling it to first search out, then activate all the neural resources we have for that particular activity, letting the resources that have been active for whatever we were just doing go dormant. This is called “rule activation,” because as we learn, our brain developes specialized rules for how to act in different circumstances. Rule activation takes several tenths of a second, Medina says, and we can only activate rules for one task at a time. (What about multitasking? That’s a special case, and I go into it in more detail in the post coming up on Wednesday, “How to Multitask, and When Not To.”)

So why should this switchover matter? After all, if our brain can change modes in less than a second, we should be able to move from one thing to another with only a tiny hesitation. And that is possible–but only after we decide what we’re going to do and focus. Until we decide, until we’re certain about what we want to do and start to focus our attention on it, our brains don’t switch over: we’re in a holding pattern, still hanging onto the tools for the last thing we did and not sure what the next thing is. Just thinking about doing a thing is not the same as being ready to do that thing, even though we can very quickly move from thinking to committing if we try.

In other words, in order to get something done, we have to choose one and only one thing to concentrate on, discarding uncertainty and distractions. The problem with this is that our lives don’t present us with one and only one thing to do at a time: often we’ll have several things that need our attention, all of them important, with new ones coming in all the time. How do we reconcile our single-focus brain with a wide variety of tasks? We need to narrow our focus to only one thing at a time, and to do that we need to temporarily dismiss everything else. We also need to have an easy way to move on to the next thing once we’re done the current task.

We often don’t do this. Often we start one task, shift to another task, check e-mail, remember something we wanted to get out of a drawer, get up to get it, get involved in a conversation, forget what we got up to fetch … in other words, we let our attention shift from one thing to another, requiring a complete brain reorientation every time.

The discipline of getting a lot of different things done, then, is a discipline of choosing one thing and ignoring everything else. If you don’t know what the one thing to choose is, the answer is easy: focus your attention on prioritizing your next selection. Putting the extra attention in the choice makes it easier to focus once you move on to doing the thing you selected, because you’ve already had the chance to consider and reject all the other things that you could be doing for that moment.

To get an extra boost of productivity from there, it’s sometimes possible to keep a queue of maybe up to three or four things in your mind. As soon as you’re done the first one, focus fully on the next, and so on. This can be fluid: you can change the order before you start doing something, but once you start, try to stick with it to the end unless things change drastically. Once you get your focus on something else, it’s not always easy to bring it back, so each time you focus your attention, focus it completely and confidently, knowing that you’ve chosen the object of your attention carefully. The secret to doing a lot of different things is to not try to do them all at once.

This process of focusing isn’t just efficient: it’s relaxing. What’s stressful about having a thousand things to do is having to deal with all of them at once. By prioritizing, you really are dealing with all of them while still freeing yourself from having to think about all of them at once.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to schedule this post and put my attention in exactly one other, entirely different place.

Photo by Jonathan Caves

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