Learning How to Learn Week 4 - Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Brain

My notes from an online course that claims to "teach powerful mental tools to help master tough subjects". My interest in this is actually pedagogical and cross referencing the techniques with my own experiences and teaching style.

Tips for becoming a better learner:

  • Exercise - in the Hippocampas new neurons are born everyday. But they die if you don't use them. New experiences and learning rescues them. Physical activity also does that.
  • Practice - when your brain is prepared. Critical periods for certain abilities in the brain.
  • Important thought - learning doesn't progress logically so that each day
    just adds an additional neat package to your knowledge shelf. Sometimes you hit a wall, things that made sense before can suddenly seem confusing. But you can trust that this happens when your mind is restructuring it's understanding, building a more solid foundation (hopefully). [Would this happen when learning about less academic subjects? Say learning about people or learning about building a business. Probably, but less obvious]
  • Metaphor is imagining that a concept is like something else that you already know. Visualizations and imagining that you are the concept you're trying to learn. [Teaching idea - while debuggig visualizing each instruction executing on the processor. Imagining you are the code or some variable and tracing its/your value]
  • Metaphors also help 'glue' an idea into your mind because they make connections with nuerons that are already there. "It's like tracing a pattern with tracing paper". <-- A metaphore for what is a metaphor. very meta :)
  • Visualization as being able to see something in your 'mind's eye'.

Intelligence, Feelings of Imposter

  • People learn by making sense out of the information they perceive. They rarely learn anything complex by having someone tell it to them. You learn because your mind created the pattern (the chunk).
  • Yes intelligence matters and not everyone has the same level of it. Intelligence often equivates to having a larger working memory (so maybe 9 slots rather than 4) and being able to latch on things to those slots more tightly.
  • But there are pros and cons. One downside is that it can effect creativity. Creativity requires flexibility and openness and this ability to hold on so tightly to your previous learning can interfere with unlearning/relearning (Einstellung).
  • It is practice, deliberate practice on the toughest material, that can lift an average brain into the more 'gifted' realm. [This leaves out motivation or the desire to do this deliberate practice along with the belief that if you do it, it'll be worthwhile. Don't most people believe that 'if I put in enough effort I can figure anything out'? Perhaps not. This might be fixed vs. growth mindset story]
  • Impostor Syndrome mentioned and related to feelings of inadequacy and thinking that it's a fluke if you do well at something.

Change your thoughts, change your brain:

  • There is a still a lot we don't know about neurological development, but this much is clear - practice appears to strengthen and reinforce connections between different brain regions and centers that store knowledge.
  • We can enhance our neuronal circuits by practicing thoughts that use those neurons. We can make significant changes in our brain by changing how we think and what we think regularly.
  • What you learn from one teacher or one book is a partial version of the story. Sneaking off on your own following your curiosity is the best way of learning. Taking responsibility for your learning path. [My question based learning perhaps falls into this 'I wonder how?', 'I wonder why']
  • The ability to see biases and errors and ability and willingness to change your mind, etc. discussed among most influential scientists. [back to Eistenllung]
  • Santiago Ramon Cajal ('father' of neuroscience) also thought about how people interact with one another in general. And this one line, that seems out of context in this course, but relevant still "He warned fellow learners that there will always those that criticize or attempt to undermine any effort or achievement you make." [Familiar from working life]
  • "We're often told that empathy is universally beneficial. It is not. It's important to learn to switch on a cool dispassion" towards those that do not have our best interests in mind.

Final things:

  • People with damage to the right hemisphere loose the ability to gain 'aha movements' and relate their learning to the bigger picture of the world.
  • Left hemisphere's learning mode is analytical and has potential for rigidity, dogmatism, and even egocentricity [Observation that dogmatism is quite common in software industry - how and why this came to be]. So use the full extent of your cognitive abilities.
  • "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool" - Richard Feynman
  • Much focus on taking tests and test prep checklist. 'Hard start, jump to easy' technique of starting with focusing on exam problems then jumping to easy ones and letting diffused mode take over (sounds plausible theoretically, but skeptical). Breathing techniques for testing anxiety.

Interview - Writer John Maguire:

  • This person's father and other family members are newspaper or book writers. He teaches editing at different colleges
  • Good writing is about objects/things and not ideas. Go down the ladder of abstraction from ideas to things so from the idea of 'nutrition' to talking about things like 'apples', 'french fries'. Not have too many -tion words. Put in more things.
  • Components of good writing - things, active verbs, people (mentioning names), short words and sentences
  • Agrees with separating writing from editing. Writing is about getting things on to the page as rapidly as you can. Editing is about being judgmental and deciding what's working.
  • Use concrete nouns - this means nouns that you can drop on your foot.
  • If you get stuck when writing - make mind maps, list of objects, talk out loud, and then go for a walk
  • Writing is really essential to learning.

Interview - Craig Rice, learning in the humanities:

  • Synthesizing complex reading material - Observations then Patterns. Noticing is a neutral act, it's like giving your mind for being alive. (It's not able analyzing or making an argument).
  • "Humanities" include philosophy, religion study, literature, history, art history, anthropology human nature. Natural sciences (physics, chemistry), Social sciences (psychology, sociology)
  • Humanities is concerned more with questions then answers. Love of ambiguity
  • About having something to say - read and take notes. find points of contention on a topic, note why one argument is stronger than another (not right or wrong).
  • Advocates writing short one-page summery of what you read/consume. You don't have to have an argument to make or have something say always. It's okay to find your thinking in understanding of other's thinking.
  • Discipline-specific learning - not all learning is transferable - learning to cook well, make furniture, be an art historian, etc. are all distinct forms of learning.
  • Computer science and modern physics - creativity and imagination coupled with discipline.

These are my notes from this Cousera course.  If you're intrigued my these notes and decide to take the course, send me a message. I'd be curious to hear other's thoughts and observations!

This is the last note of this series.

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