What Is the Origin of Learning?

learning in human evolution

« We are here to learn. » This is what one of my friends says when he relapses and commits another alcohol-related blunder (don’t worry; he doesn’t read this blog).

That remark has always puzzled me. What exactly do we need to learn and for what purpose? But when you think about it, his assertion has a second meaning. Maybe my friend means that learning is the purpose itself, that we are born to learn.

According to brain scientists, such a view is dead on the money. The human brain comes pre-packaged with a level of flexibility that impels learning.

All living beings follow their genetic code. For example, moths are drawn to candle flames because they’re hardwired to navigate by the light of the moon; they’re unable to change with experience.

But a few species have been able to detach themselves from that programming, and rely on experience to survive and reproduce. We can say that learning was born the day an organism managed to override the primal instructions of its DNA, and respond to its environment on the fly.

How have humans become expert learners?

Essentially by being born prematurely, before their brain is ready. As Doctor Medina explains, if the brain completed its development inside the womb as expected, the baby’s head would be too big.

So our species have become peak learners because after birth our neurons, instead of slowing down, continue to multiply like crazy. Did you know that a 3-year-old’s brain is twice as active as a normal adult’s?

All and all, my friend is totally right. We’re biologically built to learn. The brain has the incredible chance to test drive its environment while under construction. That cerebral flexibility gives us the opportunity to map the world in real time and adjust to circumstances on the spot.

Knowing how to quickly detect opportunities and dangers, and adapt accordingly is what a peak learner is all about, isn’t it?

Why I Turned Off Talk Radio and Tuned In to Music

music vs talk radio

Until recently, I looked down on people who listened to music while commuting.

What a waste of time. Why not make the most of this downtime by getting fresh news and opinions. Don’t you want to be the most informed person in the room? It’s enticing, but no thanks. As I’ve come to realize, such input gets you nowhere.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m a new convert of the low information diet. Here’s why.

Whenever you commute or operate on autopilot, your brain is on one of the three following modes. You either focus on what is in your head (deep thinking), on your environment (info receiving), or have no focus at all (mind wandering).

There’s no way you can become a peak learner if you don’t develop your thinking power, and that means making more room for the first mode.

No doubt, the acquisition of new information is crucial. As Benjamin Bloom showed, higher-order thinking skills feed on it. But a peak learner must filter and limit incoming information.

Tim Ferris nailed it when he said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And guess what? Attention is the fuel of deep, clear and creative thinking. So any new information that doesn’t make you think should be sorted out as entertainment. 

Finally, our third mode of thinking, mind wandering, shouldn’t be dismissed as totally worthless. For starters, it’s our brain’s default mode of operation (we typically spend almost half our time there). But more importantly, this mode is highly conducive to creative insights, as it fosters idea associations.

During downtimes, try to reduce information input and daydreaming, and engage in effective thinking (i.e. leading to an outcome), such as problem solving, problem finding and planning (for your next blog post for instance).

So next time you’re driving, do like me. Tune in to music (or turn off all noise) and start thinking.

Happiness Is An Empty Head

thinking optimization

One of my colleagues lives in perpetual bliss. Do you know his secret? He keeps his mind in the present and won’t let his pre-frontal cortex interfere with his life. Of course, such a strategy has the downside of severely limiting your growth, doesn’t it?

But recently, I’ve found a way to reach his level of happiness without sacrificing my future.

You first need to understand that our brain was originally programmed to live in the present. Our memory basically works as an adaptive mechanism, and our planning skills seem to be quite recent. But if you try to follow nature and don’t have tenure, our result-oriented world will eat you alive.

So how can you reconcile your psychological makeup with the demands of your environment? The key is to regularly empty your head into a bucket (i.e. your system). As David Allen brilliantly puts it, your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.

Next, you need to schedule time to think; otherwise, you won’t ever think. Seriously. Thinking doesn’t feel natural; it requires time and energy. Most people regurgitate and play back stuff in their mind and call this thinking.

Once you do regular brain dumps and develop effective thinking habits, you’ll be able to afford to walk around with an empty head like my colleague. Such peace of mind will increase not only your happiness, but also your thinking power.

After freeing up some psychic space, get ready to receive your best ideas.

How To Become A Peak Learner In 3 Steps

how to optimize your brain

I went to university for seven years and earned four degrees. During that time, nobody ever taught me how to study, think or learn better. Like most people, I’ve learned how to learn by trial and error.

As a teacher now, I must admit with some embarrassment that I rarely tell my students how they can improve their learning.

Today, I want to break that cycle, and present three key steps to peak learning.

A peak learner is someone who is able to quickly change his/her knowledge, skills and behavior to fit his/her environment. More precisely, it’s someone who can maximize the speed and size of that change.

In order to get there, you need to work on three areas: awareness, behavior and competence, or ABC.

First, there’s no real learning without awareness. Whether you’re learning Spanish, golf, or how to be nicer, you need to hone your sense of observation to differentiate what works fine from what works great. Even if you’re already getting feedback from a coach or a teacher, evaluating correctly your learning practices and results is essential.

Do you want to turbo-boost your self-assessment capacity? Keep a personal journal.

Second, like any top athlete, you need to implement effective habits or behaviors into your life.

Here’s a short list of five practices required to maintain a high level of learning performance: note-taking, irrelevant information removal, time management, regular workout and sufficient sleep.

The last step is central to your quest. You must master some crucial strategies and competences.

Here are ten of them, which I will cover in greater depth in this blog: active recall, pretesting, self-testing, elaborate encoding, deliberate practice, visualization, semantic organization, optimal theory/practice ratio, optimal rehearsal intervals, working memory enhancement, and perceptual strengthening.

Knowledge workers have no choice but to become peak learners. The future arrives faster and faster, and the lifespan of your technical skills and knowledge is therefore getting shorter and shorter.

Becoming a peak learner is really your best competitive edge.

3 Reasons Why You Should Stop Reading And Start Writing

why write

I love the fields of learning and cognitive science, and I’ve read plenty of books on these topics. But now I need to stop the information input and start producing some output.

Here’s why.

First, Tim Ferris is right. Reading too much and using your brain too little make you fall into lazy habits of thinking. As a knowledge worker, your first job is to think and create new knowledge. Integrating information is only the first part of the equation. At some point, you need to achieve your full potential.

Second, as Cal Newport points out, when it comes to learning, nothing beats active recall. Do you want to make new information stick in your long-term memory? Describe and organize that information in your own words. And, as any creator knows, this strategy is best achieved when you decide to put digital pen to paper.

Finally, what defines an expert isn’t the size of his/her knowledge, but rather the way it’s organized. Here again, writing is key, because it forces you to structure your thoughts. Eventually, you’ll find the core concepts or big ideas to base your expertise on.

As a knowledge worker, you need to invest in your main capital, that is knowledge. Writing will enable you to reach a level of thinking where new knowledge is created.

So even if nobody reads your blog, feed it regularly; it’s the surest road to becoming a peak learner.