Tag Archives: brain

The Two Main Theories of Brain Evolution

brain evolution

Fossil records (skull size) and archeology (tools) show a clear evolution in our species’ cognitive abilities.

But, when you think about it, our current level of intelligence is far from being necessary for survival. Hunter-gathers could easily get by without abstraction, reasoning and even language.

So where does human intelligence come from? Why has our brain size tripled in the course of our journey?

Two main reasons can account for this spectacular brain expansion. In other words, humans have developed larger brains to deal with either one of the following elements or a combination of both:

  1. Their physical environment
  2. Their fellow humans

In turn, this has led to two sets of hypotheses, namely

  1. Ecological theories
  2. Social theories

Ecological theorists argue that learning to master the environment gradually caused human intelligence to evolve. Without getting into specific theories, here are four factors that might have played a role in this increase.

  1. Food: A positive correlation exits between diet quality and brain size in primates.
  2. Foraging: The increase of food sources required a better memory.
  3. Bipedalism: Tool use increased the demands on cognitive abilities.
  4. Climate: The challenges of climate change called for better problem-solving skills.

The problem with ecological theories is that these factors aren’t unique to humans, which may explain why social theories have become more popular.

Social theorists, on the other hand, argue that living in complex social grouping is what provoked cognitive development in our species. Here again, instead of going over different theories, let’s look at three important (and interrelated) factors.

  1. Social complexity: The wide range of social rules required high-level cognitive skills.
  2. Sexual selection: The choice of intelligent mates created a positive feedback loop.
  3. Language: A symbolic system fosters conceptualization and inference skills.

At the moment, the predominant model explaining the emergence of human intelligence is the ecological dominance-social competition (EDSC) theory, which is a mix of ecological and social theories.

In short, it says that an initial growth of intelligence was enough to overcome ecological pressures, which caused population to increase. This, in turn, forced humans to compete and collaborate with each other, which led to larger brains and higher intelligence.

So humans became peak learners through collaboration and competition.

Here there may be an interesting parallel with knowledge workers, whose success in the organization often comes from their high level of emotional intelligence.

2 Reasons Why Learning a Second Language Is So Hard

second language acquisition

In my studies abroad and within my language-related work, I’ve heard plenty of second-language speakers. Yet I’ve only met one person who spoke my language as a second language with native-like fluency. I actually couldn’t believe it was his second language.

Why does learning a language seem so gleefully easy for babies, but so cruelly hard for adults? Why is it that the better you get at learning in general, the worse you perform in learning a language?

Here are your two culprits.

  1. The brain
  2. The learning process

For babies, learning means choosing. A three-year-old has about twice as many neural connections (synapses) as an adult. When synaptic pruning kicks in, weak connections get deleted while those that are used get a boost. So, as the brain gains in efficiency, it must let go of some opportunities.

This operation is obvious when it comes to language learning. A study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson shows that, if you miss the boat and don’t get early exposure to a language (yes, the famous critical period), you’ll likely never reach native-like proficiency (sorry).

For example, babies at birth have the amazing capacity to distinguish the sounds of all human languages, but as they grow up, their brain cleans out the unused connections, and this sensitivity to other languages gets radically reduced.

Similarly, it seems impossible to perfectly re-acquire a gender-category system if you didn’t develop it as a kid (unlike English, most European languages attribute gender to nouns).

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from the way babies master their native tongue.

Second language acquisition feels like climbing Mount Everest because we typically engage System 2 (see my post on this topic). When you study German in your living room or classroom, you emphasize that rational, deliberate and conscious learning process. You sit down and try to find ways to assimilate the material, right?

Children, on the other hand, master their native tongue exclusively through System 1, and don’t even need feedback about whether they’re getting it right. Unlike System 2, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, System 1 uses the limbic system, where the learning process is implicit, instinctive and spontaneous.

That’s why immersion is so effective. Of course, sheer exposure plays a big role, but this method also enables System 1 to kick in and open up a whole new type of learning.

So what’s the lesson for those trying to pick up a foreign language?

First, relax. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Your brain needs time to create new pathways. Also, bear in mind that some aspects of second-language learning have no critical period. Second, as peak learners now know, call upon the power of System 1 (stay tuned for more info on that).

4 Basic Strategies To Boost Learning Performance

how to be a top learner

Recently, one of my colleagues wanted to test my budding expertise and asked me to give him learning strategies you can’t live without, be it for improving dance moves, public speaking or language acquisition.

So here are four basic tricks given by Professor Monisha Pasupathi in How We Learn.

  1. Spread out your rehearsals
  2. Mix them up
  3. Draw the connections
  4. Sleep on it

Spacing out your rehearsals is the essential first step for anyone serious about learning. Leaving enough time between your practices or studying is like changing your Pentium computer for the latest iMac (sorry if you’re not into Macs). It just turbo-charges your performance. To know how much time is enough time, check my post on the topic.

Varying the way you learn is your second performance booster. Remember the old advice of sticking to a strict practice routine? Throw that out the window. You want to often change where, when and how you practice and study. For example, instead of always reviewing your Spanish with flashcards at the kitchen table, try finding the words in texts or talking about it to friends. Each change in your routine reinforces your learning by making it more independent from the context.

Using elaborative encoding in the third strategy applicable everywhere. This big word simply means that you need to connect your new material to what you already know, either deliberately by organizing it around past info and experience, or implicitly by using past movements to generate new ones. For more details, check my post on the topic.

Getting a good night’s sleep is your fourth power. Sleeping consolidates learning by helping the brain complete new neural connections forged through practice and study. Brain images show that the patterns of activities occurring while learning are reproduced during REM sleep (and it’s a good thing your body is paralyzed during that phase). Sleep is like an extra rehearsal at the brain level.

So that’s what I told my colleague. You want to reach peak learner status in your field? Start by making these habits part of your daily routine.

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

You Want To Be a Peak Learner? Find Where You’re Stupid

what is stupidity

“That was stupid of me!” If you aren’t saying that to yourself at least once a week, you’re not getting as smart as you could.

When do I feel stupid?

Whenever I don’t operate optimally. Either due to a failure to plan correctly, to think effectively, or to find an obvious solution.

It’s cliché to say that you learn from your mistakes, but this is different. Most people don’t even register their own stupidity, and when they do, they quickly sweep it under the rug.

What is stupidity anyway? 

Einstein said it best when he defined it as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So doing something stupid doesn’t mean you have a low IQ; it means you’re not learning from experience (yes, I’m an incremental theorist).

Stupidity is a failure to change, to adapt.

As the paleoanthropologist Rick Potts explains, what has taken us from caves to rocket science is our gradual ability to adapt to variation itself. In other words, we became increasingly allergic to inflexibility (read: stupidity).

Feeling stupid is a signal.

Don’t shy away from noticing your own stupidity, and welcome the unpleasant feeling it creates like a straight-shooting messenger. Receptiveness (self-awareness) is indeed the prerequisite first step of any learning.

So whenever you act stupid or fail to act smart, don’t shake your head in disbelief and rush to forget about it. Rather, grab that info and course correct. This is the be-all and end-all of learning.

Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.

Why The Most Depressing Fact in Education Isn’t That Depressing

how to prevent forgetting

I’ll always remember what our stats professor told us at the beginning of the semester years ago: “You’ll only remember 5% of what you’re currently learning at university.”

As a teacher now, I must bow to the evidence. The battle against forgetting has no end.

And Ebbinghaus’ famous forgetting curve confirms that. Students typically forget 90% of what they learn in class within 30 days, and most of that forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.

This has got to be the most depressing fact in education, don’t you think?

Actually, not quite. For two reasons. There are two types of forgetting, and each plays an essential role in learning.

The first type of forgetting is active, and acts as a spam filter. It enables you to prioritize information and focus on what your brain thinks is important.

But what exactly does your brain deem important?

Our brain has evolved to retain info and skills that we need to use over a long period of time. Basically, we’re evolved not to waste a lot of energy learning what’s going to be used only one time. What is considered useless gets filtered out.

So for the brain, repetition means usefulness. Rehearsing and repeating tell your brain not to lose track of that info or skill because you’re going to keep needing it in the future.

This leads to the second type of forgetting, which is passive and referred to as decay. Memory fades with time, and that’s a pain, isn’t it?

But here’s the good news. Dr. Robert Bjork’s New Theory of Disuse shows that forgetting actually increases learning. Memory seems to have a muscle-like property; breaking down promotes rebuilding. This means that without some forgetting, you may get no benefit from further study.

As a peak learner, you should see forgetting as what it really is. It is a filter that blocks the background noise so the right signal can stand out.

You should also make the most of it. You want to remember something for a long time? Space your learning periods. This will enable forgetting to strengthen your learning.