STUDENT LIFE / APR. 23, 2015
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Study Reveals The Secret To Learning

Head Explode

With the modern world changing at the pace it is, being able to adapt and learn new skills is a crucial talent to have in the workplace. Traditional thinking suggests that the best way to learn is to focus hard and put in as much effort as you can muster towards your endeavour.

It’s a heuristic that’s very much in keeping with the Protestant work ethic upon which much of the western world has been built. Alas, it may not be entirely right, for a recent study suggests that the people that learn the fastest actually show the smallest levels of neural activity.

Over Analysis

The analysis revealed that the fastest learners showed particularly reduced neural activity in the frontal cortex part of the brain that is believed to control our conscious planning. To put it simply, the best learners are those who don’t try and over analyse the things they’re trying to learn.

“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit. When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning,” the researchers say.

The study saw participants asked to learn a straightforward game, with their brain scanned at two weekly intervals to see how they were getting on and how they were learning. The aim was that the parts of the brain utilised in learning would be highlighted.

“We weren’t using the traditional fMRI approach where you pick a region of interest and see if it lights up. We looked at the whole brain at once and saw which parts were communicating with each other the most,” the authors explain.

The researchers were able to graph how these interactions unfolded to try and determine what’s known as community structure. In other words, which nodes of the brain are densely interconnected with one another, which will determine the key parts of the brain for learning new tasks.

"Previous brain imaging research has mostly looked at skill learning over — at most — a few days of practice, which is silly.  Whoever learned to play the violin in an afternoon?  By studying the effects of dedicated practice over many weeks, we gain insight into never before observed changes in the brain. These reveal fundamental insights into skill learning that are akin to the kinds of learning we must achieve in the real world,” the paper says.

Don’t Over Think It

So who learns the fastest? Well, the results clearly showed that the quickest learners were those whose planning area of the brain was not utilised a great deal. These people seemed able to switch off the communication to this part of the brain, as communication with the planning function seemed to slow down their learning. They were literally overthinking the problem.

So if you want to learn something new, it seems you should stop thinking about it so much.

Were you always taught to learn new things learning them off by heart? Did you always argue this was a stupid idea? Do you think that this study has proved that you were right all along? Your thoughts and comments below please...

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