Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Forget What You’ve Learnt About Learning


Source and authorship credit: Everything you thought you knew about learning is wrong Psychology Today

Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong How, and how NOT, to learn anything Published on January 28, 2012 by Garth Sundem in Brain Candy

Learning through osmosis didn’t make the strategies list

Taking notes during class? Topic-focused study? A consistent learning environment? All are exactly opposite the best strategies for learning. Really, I recently had the good fortune to interview Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, distinguished professor of psychology, and massively renowned expert on packing things in your brain in a way that keeps them from leaking out. And it turns out that everything I thought I knew about learning is wrong. Here’s what he said.

First, think about how you attack a pile of study material.

“People tend to try to learn in blocks,” says Bjork, “mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” But instead he recommends interleaving, a strategy in which, for example,instead of spending an hour working on your tennis serve, you mix in a range of skills like backhands, volleys, overhead smashes, and footwork. “This creates a sense of difficulty,” says Bjork, “and people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

Instead of making an appreciable leap forward with yourserving ability after a session of focused practice, interleaving forces you to make nearly imperceptible steps forward with many skills.

But over time, the sum of these small steps is much greater than the sum of the leaps you would have taken if you’d spent the same amount of time mastering each skill in its turn.

Bjork explains that successful interleaving allows you to “seat” each skill among the others: “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful,” he says.

There’s one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way. If you’re trying to learn tennis, you’d want to interleave serves, backhands, volleys, smashes, and footwork—not serves, synchronized swimming, European capitals, and programming in Java.

Similarly, studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location. If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location.

And again, these tips generalize. Interleaving and varying your study location will help whether you’re mastering math skills, learning French, or trying to become a better ballroom dancer.

So too will a somewhat related phenomenon, the spacing effect, first described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. “If you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten,” says Bjork. That’s obvious—over time, you forget. But here’s thecool part:

If you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you’ll have learned after this second study session.

Bjork explains it this way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.” Note that there’s a trick implied by “provided the retrieval succeeds”: You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning. If you study again too soon, it’s too easy.

Along these lines, Bjork also recommends taking notes just after class, rather than during—forcing yourself to recall a lecture’s information ismore effective than simply copying it from a blackboard. “Get out of court stenographer mode,” says Bjork. You have to work for it.

The more you work, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more awesome you can become.

“Forget about forgetting,” says Robert Bjork.

“People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built.

But in some respects the opposite is true.” See, once you learn something, you never actually forget it. Do you remember your childhood best friend’s phone number? No? Well, Dr. Bjork showed that if you were reminded, you would retain it much more quickly and strongly than if you were asked to memorize a fresh seven-digit number. So this oldphone number is not forgotten—it lives somewhere in you—only, recall can be a bit tricky.

And while we count forgetting as the sworn enemy of learning, in some ways that’s wrong, too. Bjork showed that the two live in a kind of symbiosis in which forgetting actually aids recall.

“Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess,” says Bjork. “Imagine you remembered all the phone numbers of all the houses you had ever lived in. When someone asks you your current phone number, you would have to sort it from this long list.” Instead, we forget the old phone numbers, or at least bury them far beneath theease of recall we gift to our current number. What you thought were sworn enemies are more like distant collaborators.

* Excerpted from Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the Lab-Tested Secrets of Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More (Three Rivers Press, March 2012)

Garth Sundem is the bestselling author of Brain Candy, Geek Logik, and The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination. more…

January 29, 2012 Posted by | ADHD /ADD, brain, Cognition, Education, research, stress, Technology | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Remember What Happened? Only In Your Dreams!

It is by now well established that sleep can be an important tool when it comes to enhancing memory and learning skills. And now, a new study sheds light on the role that dreams play in this important process.

Read Abstract Here

Led by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), the new findings suggest that dreams may be the sleeping brain’s way of telling us that it is hard at work on the process of memory consolidation, integrating our recent experiences to help us with performance-related tasks in the short run and, in the long run, translating this material into information that will have widespread application to our lives. The study is reported in the April 22 On-line issue of Current Biology.

“What’s got us really excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information,” explains senior author Robert Stickgold, PhD, Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.”

At the outset, the authors hypothesized that dreaming about a learning experience during nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep would lead to improved performance on a hippocampus-dependent spatial memory task. (The hippocampus is a region of the brain responsible for storing spatial memory.)

To test this hypothesis, the investigators had 99 subjects spend an hour training on a “virtual maze task,” a computer exercise in which they were asked to navigate through and learn the layout of a complex 3D maze with the goal of reaching an endpoint as quickly as possible. Following this initial training, participants were assigned to either take a 90-minute nap or to engage in quiet activities but remain awake. At various times, subjects were also asked to describe what was going through their minds, or in the case of the nappers, what they had been dreaming about. Five hours after the initial exercise, the subjects were retested on the maze task.

The results were striking.

The non-nappers showed no signs of improvement on the second test – even if they had reported thinking about the maze during their rest period. Similarly, the subjects who napped, but who did not report experiencing any maze-related dreams or thoughts during their sleep period, showed little, if any, improvement. But, the nappers who described dreaming about the task showed dramatic improvement, 10 times more than that shown by those nappers who reported having no maze-related dreams.

“These dreamers described various scenarios – seeing people at checkpoints in a maze, being lost in a bat cave, or even just hearing the background music from the computer game,” explains first author Erin Wamsley, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School. These interpretations suggest that not only was sleep necessary to “consolidate” the information, but that the dreams were an outward reflection that the brain had been busy at work on this very task.

Of particular note, say the authors, the subjects who performed better were not more interested or motivated than the other subjects. But, they say, there was one distinct difference that was noted.

“The subjects who dreamed about the maze had done relatively poorly during training,” explains Wamsley. “Our findings suggest that if something is difficult for you, it’s more meaningful to you and the sleeping brain therefore focuses on that subject – it ‘knows’ you need to work on it to get better, and this seems to be where dreaming can be of most benefit.”

Furthermore, this memory processing was dependent on being in a sleeping state. Even when a waking subject “rehearsed and reviewed” the path of the maze in his mind, if he did not sleep, then he did not see any improvement, suggesting that there is something unique about the brain’s physiology during sleep that permits this memory processing.

“In fact,” says Stickgold, “this may be one of the main goals that led to the evolution of sleep. If you remain awake [following the test] you perform worse on the subsequent task. Your memory actually decays, no matter how much you might think about the maze.

“We’re not saying that when you learn something it is dreaming that causes you to remember it,” he adds. “Rather, it appears that when you have a new experience it sets in motion a series of parallel events that allow the brain to consolidate and process memories.”

Ultimately, say the authors, the sleeping brain seems to be accomplishing two separate functions: While the hippocampus is processing information that is readily understandable (i.e. navigating the maze), at the same time, the brain’s higher cortical areas are applying this information to an issue that is more complex and less concrete (i.e. how to navigate through a maze of job application forms).

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“Our [nonconscious] brain works on the things that it deems are most important,” adds Wamsley. “Every day, we are gathering and encountering tremendous amounts of information and new experiences,” she adds. “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?’”

Study coauthors include BIDMC investigators Matthew Tucker, Joseph Benavides and Jessica Payne (currently of the University of Notre Dame).

This study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

BIDMC is a patient care, teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks in the top four in National Institutes of Health funding among independent hospitals nationwide. BIDMC is a clinical partner of the Joslin Diabetes Center and a research partner of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Source: BIDMC


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April 27, 2010 Posted by | Books, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It Takes HOW Long to Form a Habit?: Research Shows a Curved Relationship Between Practice and Automaticity. (Repost)

Reposted due to popularity!

Say you want to create a new habit, whether it’s taking more exercise, eating more healthily or writing a blog post every day, how often does it need to be performed before it no longer requires Herculean self control?

Clearly it’s going to depend on the type of habit you’re trying to form and how single-minded you are in pursuing your goal. But are there any general guidelines for how long it takes before behaviours become automatic?

Ask Google and you’ll get a figure of somewhere between 21 and 28 days. In fact there’s no solid evidence for this number at all. The 21 day myth may well come from a book published in 1960 by a plastic surgeon. Dr Maxwell Maltz noticed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.

Unless you’re in the habit of sawing off your own arm, this is not particularly relevant.

Doing without thinking

Now, however, there is some psychological research on this question in a paper recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London recruited 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15 minute run each day Lally et al. (2009). Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen behaviours felt. These questions included things like whether the behaviour was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’.

When the researchers examined the different habits, many of the participants showed a curved relationship between practice and automaticity of the form depicted below (solid line). On average a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days. In other words it had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to become.

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This graph shows that early practice was rewarded with greater increases in automaticity and gains tailed off as participants reached their maximum automaticity for that behaviour.

Although the average was 66 days, there was marked variation in how long habits took to form, anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study. As you’d imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication (above, dotted lines). The researchers also noted that:

  • Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit.
  • A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are ‘habit-resistant’.
  • Other types of habits may well take much longer.

No small change

What this study reveals is that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10 minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit. And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.

Unfortunately it seems there’s no such thing as small change: the much-repeated 21 days to form a habit is a considerable underestimation unless your only goal in life is drinking glasses of water.


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March 13, 2010 Posted by | Cognition, General, Health Psychology, Social Psychology | , , , , , | 1 Comment