Personality and Trajectory (Part 1)

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Personality has always been an interesting subject for me. I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick and what separates an individual from the rest of the crowd. Personality is one of the many factors which determine individuality. Personality can be thought of as a collection of qualities that make up our overall character. Over the years, there has been much debate over what those qualities are and how they present in human behavior. Today, multiple theories have been widely accepted by the public and are used in business practices.

Learning personality is a fantastic way to connect with and understand more people than we otherwise would, but I don’t just stop there, I like to use it to help determine a complimentary life trajectory. Learning about our own personality gives us an insight into what kind of life we would actually enjoy.

It’s too easy to get caught up building our life for other people or chasing romanticised ideals. This is how people get stuck with jobs and relationships that they hate. People think they want these things because someone else told them it was worth having or because they saw it in the media. I see this with my students all the time, they stress out over which career pays the most, is the most “secure,” or looks the most glamourous. I see students intentionally repress themselves in order to fit into a mold that they will never truly accept.

The trick to avoiding this pitfall is learning about what makes up our personalities and tailoring our trajectories to fulfill ourselves. If we know what we would like to do, then we can pick a role within society that can satisfy that. Sounds simple enough, but people don’t really act this way. We live in a complex society and there are roles that need to be filled by people of certain temperament. It’s better to fill these roles with people who naturally fit into them, rather than waste resources trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Our personality is something to take into account when we are designing the trajectory of our lives. It’s something we need to grapple with. It’s much easier to put ourselves in an environment which compliments our strengths, than to reject or ignore part of ourselves which cannot easily changed.

In this post, I’m going to talk about a popular theory of personality. It’s slightly outdated and not entirely scientifically inaccurate but it is widely accepted and used in many institutions, so it’s useful to “be in the know” with this information. Plus it’s fun party talk.

Myers-Briggs Personality Types

Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator or (MBTI) is a method of categorizing people through a questionnaire which outlines the differences in how they perceive the world and make decisions. It was created by American mother-daughter duo, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. MBTI is widely accepted throughout the business world as well as socially, especially in the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, MBTI does has significant scientific deficiencies, poor reliability, and is not entirely comprehensive of human personality. However, MBTI is useful to know because it gives us a common language with people who do accept it. MBTI is popular in the corporate world, because it does an excellent job in categorizing people without hurting anyone’s feelings. This theory of personality has a way of making everyone seem like they have no downfalls and can always contribute, which is powerful in business environments. Businesses tend to do better when the people who run it feel better. Empirical personality data isn’t as relevant to performance as we would expect. MBTI is also fantastic at providing a basic structure for understanding personality, but it’s crucial to know that it does not supply us with the whole picture.

MBTI is based on the assumption that people have specific preferences for interpreting experiences and pursuing our desires. It also draws from Carl Jung’s typology theories which suggest people have four modes of cognitive functions (Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition) as well as one of two polar orientations (Extraversion or Introversion). Even though Jung’s theory of psychological types was not based on empirical scientific studies, they were based on clinical observation, introspection, and anecdotes. Since the conclusions did not originate from controlled scientific studies, they are not accepted by the scientific community. However, Carl Jung was an amazing thinker and I do believe he was one of the few operating with precision at the edge of our collective understanding. His conclusions, from his observations or otherwise, were always made with the intention of bringing man closer to truth that we all can accept.

MBTI sorts out personality in 4 major continuums. Each person leans more towards one pole of each pair similar to right-handedness or left-handedness. When a person determines which side of each continuum they express, they are assigned a type. There are a total of 16 different types, 1 for each combination of the letters.

Let me give an example using my own letters. I’m more introverted than extroverted. I’m more intuitive than sensory. I’m more of a thinker than a feeler. Usually I’m more perceiver than judger, but recently I have been more judger than perceiver. This gives me the letters INTJ. (Some days I’m an INTP) The letters come from the capitalized letter in each word: Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judger.

Extroversion vs. Introversion

MBTI and Jung use introversion and extroversion in similar ways. Introversion meaning inward-turning and extroversion meaning outward-turning. These both are often referred to as attitudes that one uses to function in the external world.

Simply put, extroverts are recharged by people while introverts are recharged by alone time. Each type is usually drained by the opposite activity, extroverts are drained by alone time and introverts are drained by social interaction. However, there are other notable differences between them.

Extroverts direct their energy towards people and objects while introverts direct theirs towards concepts and ideas. We can always find out which attitude people take by paying attention to the topics of their conversation or asking them what their ideal weekend would look like. If someone is frequently talking about people and things they’re most likely extroverted. If someone is frequently talking about concepts and ideas they’re most likely introverted. An extrovert’s ideal weekend is probably spent going out and seeing a bunch of people, celebrating at the club, or another type of high energy ordeal. An introvert’s ideal weekend would probably be spent inside with a good book or TV show along with ample time for reflection.

This is not to say that extroverts can never be alone, or that introverts hate being with people. Everyone needs some amount of social interaction and alone time. Our attitudes merely reflect our preferences and how we choose to interact with the world around us. Neither attitude is more advantageous or otherwise, they are simply two sides of the same coin.

The following statements will apply to you if you are more extroverted:

  • I am seen as “outgoing” or as a “people person.”
  • I feel comfortable in groups and like working in them.
  • I have a wide range of friends and know lots of people.
  • I sometimes jump too quickly into an activity and don’t allow enough time to think it over.
  • Before I start a project, I sometimes forget to stop and get clear on what I want to do and why.

The following statements will apply to you if you are more introverted:

  • I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.”
  • I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
  • I prefer to know just a few people well.
  • I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.
  • I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

This dichotomy is based on how we psychologically perceive the external world. These are both functions of gathering information. Sensing individuals tend to trust information that is tangible, concrete, and understood by the five senses. They’re less likely to trust “gut feelings” or other “hunches” that come out of nowhere. For them, meaning lies in the data, what is in front of them.

Individuals driven by intuition tend to trust information that is remembered or discovered through analyzing patterns. Since they trust information that doesn’t have to fit within the five senses, they tend to be more excited by what the future has in store. For them, meaning is not in the data but the principles and theories which underlie the data.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive through sensing:

  • I remember events as snapshots of what actually happened.
  • I solve problems by working through facts until I understand the problem.
  • I am pragmatic and look to the “bottom line.”
  • I start with facts and then form a big picture.
  • I trust experience first and trust words and symbols less.
  • Sometimes I pay so much attention to facts, either present or past, that I miss new possibilities.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive through intuition:

  • I remember events by what I read “between the lines” about their meaning.
  • I solve problems by leaping between different ideas and possibilities.
  • I am interested in doing things that are new and different.
  • I like to see the big picture, then to find out the facts.
  • I trust impressions, symbols, and metaphors more than what I actually experienced.
  • Sometimes I think so much about new possibilities that I never look at how to make them a reality.

Thinking vs. Feeling

Thinking and feeling are based on how we prefer to make choices in the external world. Both thinkers and feelers make rational choices based on certain kinds of information which were gathered from their senses or intuition. Thinkers tend to make their decisions based on objective measures while aiming to be reasonable, logical, or causal. They are usually personally detached from their decisions and try to match their choices to a given set of rules. Thinkers also tend to have low tolerance for those who are inconsistent or illogical. Thinkers give direct (and sometimes harsh) feedback and view the truth as more important than feelings.

This is not to say that thinkers never make emotional decisions, MBTI simply lets us know one’s preference in decisions making and is not a predictor of behavior. They also don’t “think better” than their feeling counterparts. MBTI doesn’t measure cognitive ability, just preferences.

Feelings types tend to make their choices based on empathy, balance, harmony, and with consideration for others’ needs. Feeling types try to see what works best for everyone involved and are willing to sacrifice logic and truth for the good of the majority. 

Thinking types will have a hard time leading a healthy and productive life if they make their choices based on their feelings, while feeling types will have a harder time leading a healthy and productive life if they make their choices based on their logical reasoning. Both types tend to lack the opposite senses necessary to make good choices. Similar to our attitudes toward the external world (extraversion vs. introversion), one isn’t better than the other, they are both different sides to the same coin.

The following statements will apply to you if you decide through thinking:

  • I enjoy technical and scientific fields where logic is important.
  • I notice inconsistencies.
  • I look for logical explanations or solutions to most everything.
  • I make decisions with my head and want to be fair.
  • I believe telling the truth is more important than being tactful.
  • Sometimes I miss or don’t value the “people” part of a situation.
  • I can be seen as too task-oriented, uncaring, or indifferent.

The following statements will apply to you if you decide through feeling:

  • I have a people or communications orientation.
  • I am concerned with harmony and nervous when it is missing.
  • I look for what is important to others and express concern for others.
  • I make decisions with my heart and want to be compassionate.
  • I believe being tactful is more important than telling the “cold” truth.
  • Sometimes I miss seeing or communicating the “hard truth” of situations.
  • I am sometimes experienced by others as too idealistic, mushy, or indirect.

Judging vs. Perceiving

This dichotomy is based on how we relate to our perceptions of the external world. This continuum is heavily influenced by our sensing and/or intuitive natures, because we are either judging or perceiving the information obtained through those perceptions.

Judging types take in information with the intention of using it later and, in the words of Myers, like to “have matters settled.” They usually have a plan in mind and are only interested in information if it’s related to their goal in some way. They tend to be more comfortable once decisions have been made and the environment around them is under control.

Perceiving types take in information for the sake of learning. They love knowing things just to know them. Perceiving types learn about and adapt to the world around them rather than structure it themselves.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive your information by through judging:

  • I like to have things decided.
  • I appear to be task oriented.
  • I like to make lists of things to do.
  • I like to get my work done before playing.
  • I plan work to avoid rushing just before a deadline.
  • Sometimes I focus so much on the goal that I miss new information.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive your information by through perceiving:

  • I like to stay open to respond to whatever happens.
  • I appear to be loose and casual. I like to keep plans to a minimum.
  • I like to approach work as play or mix work and play.
  • I work in bursts of energy.
  • I am stimulated by an approaching deadline.
  • Sometimes I stay open to new information so long I miss making decisions when they are needed.

For more information on each of the MBTI traits, I suggest going to myersbriggs.org. It’s the place to go for more thorough explanations of everything MBTI and where I got most of this information, like the relevant statements for each type.


Like I said earlier, personality changes throughout our lives and these letters are just letting us know our proclivities, not defining who we are as people. However, knowing my MBTI can give me an insight into what kind of life trajectory I would be the most satisfied with with the least friction.

According to my MBTI, I would most enjoy a trajectory which: provides me with ample alone time (I). opportunities to discover new information (N). puts me in environments where the culture values reason, logic, and causality (T). gives me the opportunity to make decisions on my own time at my own pace (J).

Through understanding our personality, we can create paths for ourselves which compliment our proclivities. For example, if I were extroverted, I would probably best enjoy myself in an environment surrounded by others.

While MBTI can give us delightful insight into what life trajectories would best compliment our nature, there are some criticisms that are important to consider:

  • These types are generalizations which do not accurately describe an individual.
  • There are people who do not fit nicely into these 16 groups.
  • MBTI suggests that there are no negative personality traits.
  • MBTI is widely accepted in the workplace, even though there is no evidence that supports MBTI is predictive of performance.

There are others, but these are the ones I’ve encountered to be the most substantial. All these criticisms bring up the question:

Why still use MBTI?

It can give us a rough idea of what kind of life trajectory we would fit well with and as I’ve talked about in my other posts, we do things badly before we can do them well. If we want to design a beautiful life trajectory, we need a rough starting point. MBTI is great for that. Plus it’s fun party conversation if you ever run into an MBTI nerd. Additionally, since MBTI is commonly accepted in the workplace, it’s useful to be in the know when people try to use it’s coded language.

Find your letters and start discovering which paths most align with you.

In the modern world we have choices, why not choose what fits us?

20 Things We Need to Know About Sleep

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

Matthew Walker (1973- )

Dr. Matthew Walker is a British Scientist and the world’s renown sleep expert. He has a fantastic book out called “Why We Sleep” and a wealth of knowledge all over the internet from Talks at Google to The Joe Rogan Experience.

After familiarizing myself with some of Dr. Walker’s work, I couldn’t help but to share it with everyone and include it in my blog because sleep is so damn important for learning.

This post will just be a few of the things I’ve learned about sleep, but I highly recommend checking out Dr. Walker’s work for yourself!

I’ll start with this fun fact:

The number of people that can operate of 7 hours of sleep or less without any deficits is zero.

Literally no one can function at their best without a full night’s sleep. Typically people consider 8 hours to be a full night’s sleep, but that can vary by the individual. Even with just missing out on an hour, there are noticeable differences in performance. No one is exempt from this, we are all human beings and sleep is essential for everyone.

Hunter-Gatherer cultures have no sleep problems.

Probably because they don’t have alarm clocks! Really though, if you have an alarm clock that goes off every morning, then you may be depriving yourself of necessary sleep. If we still feel tired when our alarm clocks go off, then we aren’t done with sleep yet. A lot of hunter-gatherer cultures don’t have the temporal restrictions that many modern people do and that gives them the ability to sleep as much as they need.

Beauty sleep is a real thing.

People who sleep more look better! I mean we’ve all heard it at one time or another – we have a bad nights sleep and someone tells us the next day “Geez, you look like crap.” or “You look tired.” The meaning is the same, we don’t look as good as we could. Skimping out on sleep means skimping out on looking good and the sad truth of life is that looking good is more important than most of what we can bring to the table. If we don’t look the part, we are rarely offered opportunities to perform. Get sleep, get opportunities.

Prefrontal cortex activity decreases with lack of sleep.

I talked a little bit about brain anatomy in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning. That’s basically all of our self-regulation and complex decision making. So if we don’t sleep, we lose our ability to regulate our emotions, actions, reponses, as well as discipline and planning for the future. Without a strong prefrontal cortex, we are likely to feel our emotions more strongly which could result in anxiety or higher levels of stress. Everything is harder when we have to fight our amygdala, we should get adequate sleep so our prefrontal cortex can fight that battle for us.

Lack of sleep leads to a higher sensitivity to negative emotion & an increase in impulsive reward seeking behavior.

This goes hand in hand with the last fact. If we don’t have a strong way of regulating ourselves, then we feel our negative emotions more intensely and seek out the easy reward. Unfortunately, most things that are worthwhile are difficult and require delayed gratification. If we aren’t sleeping, it’s hard to thing past the present moment and delaying gratification is less attractive.

Sleeping “hits the save button.”

Moving information from the short term memory to our long term memory happens during sleep and is known as consolidation. We need to consolidate because holding information in our short term memory uses up cognitive load, which can be thought of as our brain’s physical processing power. Sleeping is what resets our cognitive load. As our days go on, we take in more and more information and store it in our short term memory – this is known as acquisition. When we sleep, we move all of that information into our long term memory, which clears up space in our short term memory. This is why it’s important to sleep every day. I talk a little about this in the memory section in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2).

Simply moving information from short term memory to long term memory is a massive oversimplification of the actual process. I won’t go too in depth here, but it’s helpful to know that only certain kinds of information gets consolidated during certain stages of sleep. There are 4 stages of sleep and they happen in a cycle. Throughout the night, we experience these 4 stages over and over and over until we wake up. An entire sleep cycle last from about 90-120 minutes.

Stage 1 – this is when someone would be moving back and forth between consciousness and sleep. On an EEG, they would be exhibiting alpha waves. They would look pretty drowsy at this point. This only lasts about 5-10 minutes.

Stage 2 – this is when we really start to sleep. Our body releases chemicals that make it difficult to wake up. Our heart rate and body temperature start to decrease. On an EEG, we’d notice k-complexes and sleep spindles. This lasts about 20 minutes.

Stage 3 – We are in pretty deep sleep at this point. We can have dreams at this stage, but the brain isn’t as active on an EEG. The brain would be giving off delta waves. This is also when information consolidation really happens, but not all information is moved to the long term memory. In stage 3, only a certain kind of declarative memory is moved from short term to long term. Declarative Memory holds information regarding facts, things that we “know”, or things that can be “declared as known,” are consolidated and saved for later. Keep in mind, this process just saves the neural pathway, to strengthen them requires practice. Consolidation of declarative memory occurs in NREM (non-REM) sleep if the information is emotionally neural or simple. Once the declarative information is emotionally charged or complex, then our brain uses REM sleep to consolidate that information.

REM Sleep – This is our deepest stage of sleep, but yet our brain is the most active on an EEG. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement on account of our eyes moving so much during this phase. We do our most intense dreaming here and if we’re woken up during these phase we’ll feel groggy and disoriented. REM sleep is necessary for the body and mind to function properly. REM sleep allows a reset for our cardiovascular systems by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and restocks our immune systems. Most of the benefits from sleep coming during REM sleep, so don’t be fooled to think short naps are a replacement for long deep sleep. During REM, we consolidate a different type of information – Procedural Memory. This includes the knowledge of how to do things, typically with motor skills. REM sleep is essential for learning how to play an instrument or a sport, anything that requires a knowledge of moving ourselves in a certain way. When we’re in REM, we can brain run through the procedures (fire the specific neural pathways) 30-40 times during one nights sleep! If you’ve read my Active Recall and Space Repetition post, then you know that means we’ve improved that specific skill overnight literally in our sleep! Studies have found that people are about 20-30% better at a skill after a night of proper sleep without any extra practice.

When I was first learning the guitar, I always had trouble learning a song in one sitting. I could never get it perfectly right, but I knew that if I went to sleep, the next day I would be able to do it!! I thought it was my superpower, but after reading a little bit about skill acquisition I know now that brain was practicing those procedures in my sleep over and over again. No wonder I was so much better the next day!

The Sleep Cycle but really simple.

Being awake is low level brain damage.

Our body has this system known as the Glymphatic System which is responsible for cleaning the brain during sleep. It’s similar to the more commonly known, lymphatic system, which is responsible for cleaning the body. The glymphatic system washes away beta-amyloid, which is a protein that builds up in our brains during wakefulness. Too much of this beta-amyloid in our brains will prevent us from firing our neural pathways correctly. It is the main component of the plaque found in Alzheimer’s patients.

Lack of sleep is the most determining lifestyle factor in developing Alzheimer’s.

After learning about how essential sleep is for the brain, it is not surprising. Living is hard work, our brains are doing a lot, and if we don’t give them a break, then we can’t expect them to work well over the long term.

If you know that you have a proclivity toward Alzheimer’s, then I recommend taking your sleep seriously.

It’s a myth that you need less sleep as you get older, adults will always need 8 hours of sleep.

People like to think that as we get older, we need less sleep. After all, you see it all the time! The old people are always waking up early and going to their early bird specials or gardening at odd hours, but what many people fail to consider is what time they go to bed too. Old people tend to wake up earlier because they go to sleep earlier. They don’t need less sleep, their circadian rhythms are just slightly shifted from the norm.

There are many stages of our lives when we circadian rhythms “aren’t normal”, so to speak. Teenagers also have a shifted circadian rhythm! No one knows for certain the reason behind the shifts, but there are a lot of theories. People think we need less sleep as we get older, but that isn’t true – we always need 8 hours.

The teenage brain has a shift in circadian rhythms that should dictate when schools start.

In addition to the older folks, teenagers have a shifted circadian rhythm which causes them to typically sleep and wake later than the average person. After I learned this, I was so surprised that me entire high school education started class at 7:30 am. My brain never really woke up until like 3rd period and now I know why! We should change the schools to adapt to our body rather than use extra energy to adapt our bodies to our poorly informed institutions. Schools shouldn’t start until at least 10 am.

Men who sleep less have smaller testicles and less terstosterone than men who get a full night’s sleep.

As if we didn’t need another reason to take sleep seriously. Men who sleep 5 hours of less per night have smaller testicles than men who sleep 7 or more hours per night. Men who sleep less than 5 hours per night also produces as much testosterone as someone 10 years older than him.

Cutting sleep shrinks your balls and ages your hormonal production by 10 years. Don’t do it fellas. Just sleep.

Women are less likely to get pregnant when sleep deprived.

Skipping sleep doesn’t just mess with men, women have trouble conceiving if their sleep deprived as well. If you’re trying for kids, make sure you’re well rested!

There is a strong connection between lack of sleep and cardiovascular diseases.

Heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure increases by 24% the day after daylight savings, but in the fall when we gain an hour of sleep we only get a 21% increase. There is a similar profile for car accidents, suicide rates, and federal judge sentencing severity as well. Just a single hour of sleep can influence a lot! Maintaining a consistent sleeping schedule is crucial to a healthy cardiovascular system.

Driving sleep deprived is more dangerous than driving under the influence.

People love to demonize drinking under the influence, but will not think twice about driving sleep deprived. There are multiple reasons for why driving without sleep is worse than driving drunk. Seep depravity lowers our IQ more than alcohol intoxication, so we are literally dumber when we don’t sleep. Additionally, drivers under the influence has slowed reflexes which is dangerous when you are in charge of a 2,000 lbs metal moving moving at 70 mph, but sleep deprived drivers don’t react at all which is way worse. Slow reflexes or no reflexes, which is worse behind the wheel?

Getting a handle on our sleep is difficult because of poor social perception.

The inconvenient truth is that we live in a society that does not value sleep as much as it deserves. People who sleep often are labeled as lazy and are shamed if they need or ask for more sleep. People flaunt their sleeplessness as badges of honor as if it is something to be coveted.

If we want to get control of our sleep as a society, then we need to start rewarding people for sleeping adequately! I try to encourage everyone I know to sleep as much as they need to and shame them for skipping sleep. It’s the opposite of what most people do and I know a lot of people think I’m crazy for it, but sleeping properly is more important than others’ poorly informed opinions of me.

Sleep is typically the first thing people choose to sacrifice when they get busy.

I know many people live their lives this way because things get difficult. It’s easy to think believe that sleep is optional and sacrificing a little bit won’t hurt anyone except maybe ourselves, but the opposite is true. Our bodies will work against us if they aren’t properly maintained, and sleep is essential for that maintenance. People have time for what they prioritize. Make sleep a main priority. Sacrifice something else in order to achieve your goals, don’t be quick to think that trading sleeping for anything is an even exchange. Sleep debt is difficult to pay back and natural will always collect what she is owed.

Blue light from our devices delays and interferes with our sleep.

The blue light from our devices delay melatonin (the hormone that gets us ready to sleep) release by 3 hours and cuts it’s concentration by 50%. Something as simple as exposing ourselves to a blue lights will delay our onset of sleep by 3 hours!

Let’s say we need to sleep at 10, so we stop using our phones and turn off all the lights. Our bodies aren’t going to release melatonin for another 3 hours! We won’t be able to start feeling tired until about 1 am. Those blue frequencies tell our brain that the sun is still out and we should still be up! On top of the later onset of sleep, our REM sleep is of lower quality when exposed to these blue lights during the evening hours.

Many of us know this and many devices have a night mode setting to block out the blue frequencies so we don’t mess with our neural biochemistry too much, but I’m not so sure that night mode works well enough.

Artificial lighting in our homes can interfere with proper sleep.

It’s not just blue light that we are sensitive to (although they affect our sleep tremendously), it’s all light. Keeping lights dim at night signals to our body that it’s nighttime and we should start physiologically preparing for sleep. This lowers our blood pressure, keeps our circadian rhythms in their most natural states, and improves the quality of our sleep.

Alcohol and caffeine really mess with sleep.

Some people like to call some alcohol in the evening a “nightcap” to help them go to sleep but the truth is alcohol doesn’t help us sleep. Alcohol may knock us unconscious, but that is not the same as sleep if we are looking at it from a physiological perspective. Alcohol blocks REM sleep and fragments our sleep throughout the night. The frequent interruptions keeps us sleeping in the first two stages of the sleep cycle and even if we stay asleep, REM is blocked and that is where most of the benefits from sleep are. This is usually why we wake up feeling exhausted after a night of drinking. Alcohol doesn’t induce sleep, it sedates us.

Caffeine is another fun drug to keep in mind when we are thinking about sleeping properly. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, so this means that it takes the body 6 hours to process half the concentration of the caffeine out of the body. Let me put it like this, if we drink a coffee at 6 am, half of that caffeine is still circulating around in my body at noon, and a quarter of it will be there at 6 pm. But most of us don’t just have one coffee, we’ll have one in the morning then one at lunch to get us through that afternoon slump. Let’s say we drink that coffee at 2 pm, that would mean that half of that 2nd cup of coffee is still in our system by 8 pm and a quarter of it at 2 am. We may feel tired, but our brain is still physically dealing with the caffeine and studies have shown that it interferes with sleeping properly. The bottom line is that coffee stay in the brain hours after we drink it, if we don’t want our coffee to mess with our sleep, Dr. Walker suggests drinking coffee 14 hours before bed. Even if we manage to fall asleep with the caffeine in our brains, we will experience a 20% reduction in sleep quality which is equivalent to aging our brains 20 years.

We can induce sleep by lowing our body temperature.

The body needs to drop by about 1°C to start sleeping. There are many ways to make this happen. My favorite is to take a super hot shower before bed. The hot water will make the heat radiate from us when the shower is over and our bodies are way more primed for sleeping. Keeping the room cool when we try to sleep is a great way to help get to sleep faster while increasing sleep quality! This makes sense if we think about it, when the sun goes down, it gets cooler and it’s time to sleep. It’s no wonder why we get tired when we lower the temperature just a little bit.

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Lifestyle

Lessons from an Application + Tips from Winston Churchill

“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (Parerga and Paralipomena)

My girlfriend recently emailed me a potential dream job that she thought I was the perfect fit for. I was elated to discover that renown author and habit-guru, James Clear, is hiring a podcast writer/researcher and producer. Given my nerdy passion for self-improvement and audio engineering, I figured this would be a fantastic opportunity to pursue.

I’ve always hated applications, but this one has taught me a few lessons that I think are worth sharing. Some came from the application itself, others came from my overachieving spirit taking on unnecessary challenges.

Future Opportunities are Difficult to Imagine

A part of the application that made me think was when Clear asked the applicant how much money they expect to be paid for the position. I know I’m fairly new to the “real world,” so to speak, but the idea of getting handed a blank check to do meaningful and potentially life changing work is so beautiful to me.

How crazy is it that there’s this job that appeared over the recent years that has no established monetary value. Then I got to thinking…how many other unforeseen opportunities are coming? How many other jobs will come that will give people the opportunity to write their own checks? It’s so wild to think about the seemingly boundless opportunities that come with our rapid technological growth. Podcast writer/researcher/producer was not a popular job just a few short years ago, but now there are people who will pay handsomely for someone with those unique set of skills.

After seeing this, I see that it’s so important to focus on developing skills that interest us because future opportunities are difficult to imagine and perhaps one day a well-paying and flexible job will look for someone with those particular set of skills in that particular combination. In a world of niches and specialization, we need to find new ways to make ourselves relevant and it seems like cultivating our inclinations is our best bet.

Modes of Growth

When I looked at my website, my writing, and resume, I was unsatisfied and embarrassed. I was so frustrated because I felt burnout creeping in and I couldn’t see any ways to make my situation better. I took a step back and saw this as an opportunity to level up everything, so even if I don’t get the job, the energy dedicated to this application is worthwhile. I had to stop with experimenting and work on presenting. Off with Experimentation Mode and on with Presentation Mode.

Once I switched gears, I was working harder than ever before. Suddenly, I knew what had to be done and saw multiple ways to get to where I needed to go. This was an important realization in a time of burnout and complacency. Once I switched my mode of growth, I had a whole new set of problems to tackle. I was so inspired that I made plans that will take way longer than the application window to complete, but that’s totally fine.

Being the nerd I am, I started to wonder why I had this newfound energy. I wanted to know what exactly broke me out of my burnout and complacency. I was thinking about Big Sean and when he goes into “Album Mode,” he’s focused, setting his intentions, attentions, and energy all in one place. That got me thinking…we all have different modes to our outward development. We don’t necessarily have to have “Album Mode” or “Presenting Mode,” but having different creative “modes” helps us switch to the perspectives we need to take action.

Paying Attention Paid Off

I kept stopping the application to work on the musical pillar of my online city and realized that I kept wanting to dedicate my energy to myself and my own endeavors. I’m not saying I’ll be James Clear, but James had to dedicate a huge amount of energy in order to create the body of work he has today.

If I’m naturally gravitating towards working on my own endeavors, then I ought to get out of my own way. For a while I wondered if I was paying proper attention to my own patterns and behaviors, but now I have another example as to why paying attention to our own behavior is worthwhile. When I made the switch from working on someone else’s plan, to working on my own, I felt less anxious and stressed. The application didn’t cause me a huge amount of stress, but it does feel a hell of a lot better to work on my own contribution to humanity.

In the end, I decided not to submit an application but the lessons I got from it felt like a good trade.

-Future opportunities are difficult to imagine, so focus on what keeps you interested and useful.

-Have different modes of growth to help change perspectives in times of burnout or complacency.

-Pay attention to what I’m subconsciously trying to do and get out of my own way if it aligns with my values.

How to Be a Better Leader: Tips from Winston Churchill

One of the questions on the application was asking us how we would handle writing a practice podcast transcript on the topic “How to Be a Better Leader: Tips from Winston Churchill.” I thought this was an excellent question to ask because it gave Clear a clear idea (no pun intended) of how this new hiree will work once everything is said and done.

When I read The 4-Hour Workweek (which is on my Must Read List), Tim suggested to have a preliminary task set up for potential hires to see how each person would work. This way you can evaluate their workflow, how quickly they can complete the project, a sample of their work, and if you like working with them in general.

Given how I saw the question, I figured the best thing to do would be to actually write out the transcript and detail my workflow. Since I decided to not follow through with the application, I didn’t finish writing the transcript, but I did do a good amount of research for it and learned some valuable lessons. Without further adieu (in a much more casual manner) here are some lessons I learned from Winston Churchill on how to be a better leader.

Never ever stop.

“If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

I’ll start with one of his most popular quotes. Churchill was no stranger to situations akin to Hell. He participated in many wars as a soldier and a Prime Minister. War can be seen as close to Hell as we can get and Churchill had experience with it on the front lines as well as being in charge of millions of lives. On top of that, the guy lived to the ripe ol’ age of 90! If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I truly believe life is suffering and to reject that suffering is to reject life itself, so we must do everything we can to learn how to deal with that and other tragedies of life. I talk a little bit about this in my post Proclivity for Comfort. Since Churchill lived for so long, it’s safe to assume that the man has seen the innate hardships of life, which I believe can also be akin to Hell. I believe it’s safe to say that Churchill knows Hell and how to get through it. Keep going. If things get hard, keep going. If things aren’t hard, they will be. Plan for the worst and keep going.

On a slightly different note, I was also reading Austin Kleon’s third book, Keep Going, which is a solid book on how to stay creative in good times and bad. I’m pretty sure Kleon didn’t reference Churchill, but I want I mention this too since this week’s post is more about lessons I’ve learned over the last week. Kleon offers many different ways to stay creative, but the most influential idea for me was to make gifts. Basically, when you’re in a creative slump, make gifts to get in touch with your gift. When you think of creating something of value for another person, we see tons of new ways to utilize our talents.

Persistence will conquer strength, intelligence, talent and hard work. Without persistence, we are nothing. Being strong, smart, and talented can give us a leg up, but someone with more persistence will be the champion.

I feel like Churchill’s advice to keep going is amazingly perfect and simple, but to take it a step further, we should look for specific methods to keep going. Persistence is the goal, finding the methods to get there is our task. Excellent for leadership, excellent for conducting ourselves powerfully in the world.

Intentionality is for the strong.

“I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Churchill has so many quotes, but a common thread between a lot of them is his reverence for intentionality. In a phrase, Churchill believed that people want things to happen, but don’t try to make them happen. He wanted to participate in life, not just observe it. He suggests that great leaders will bring out what they want into the world despite other forces working against them. The good leader delivers results, on purpose.

What comes with intentionality is confidence. When someone knows themselves as someone who can bring about their own will into the world, then they are confident, especially in times of uncertainty. Leaders view themselves as being able to impose their will on the world and NOT the other way around. Leaders have an Internal Locus of Control. Now, this isn’t to say that we should just do whatever we please and force others to act how we’d like, this is simple a mindset to approach potential problems from. When we are intentional, we build confidence, and when we’re confidence, we build intentionality. The combination of these traits gives us a backbone, and are way less likely to fold under pressure.

Pick your battles.

“You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

This is similar to intentionality, because fighting every battle you come across, or stopping to shy a stone at every dog that barks, is not intentional at all. Getting distracted by ever disturbance you’ll come across will eventually stop you completely. Some things are worth ignoring or letting go. A good leader knows when to move on. A good leader knows when to quit. However, when the time does come for a fight a good leader must know how to conduct himself in battle, be it physical, verbal, or mental. We can’t give our attention to the barking dogs, for they are just beats who follow their lowly urges. These animals cannot see what we see and therefore their judgment cannot be taken into consideration. Haters gon hate.

Move beyond the failure.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Churchill was big on failing early and failing often. I’m not surprised because Churchill was a smart guy. I talk about The Power of Failure a lot because it is the basis for learning. Churchill, without all the modern research on learning, understood that you have to be willing to fail again and again in order to achieve something of significance.

There is no other way to heaven except through death. We must be willing to sacrifice the part of ourselves that is wrong and inadequate in order to make room for the part of ourselves that is correct and competent. Learning that we’re wrong hurts and leads to suffering, but if we can willingly confront that part of our lives then we can fasttrack our abilities to learn and develop skills. Fail all the time, but don’t let it take you down. Excellent leaders are so because they have learned how to be.

We are never done.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

This also ties into never ever stopping. Persistence is what will bring us to the promiseland, so to speak, but what comes with persistence is the assumption that there is more that lies ahead.

It makes sense that Churchill thought this way, given the events that he lived through. He saw the end of WWI, the war to end all wars, just to see the beginning of WWII. He saw the futility in trying to end the problem of problems. Our success are only successes for now. Our failures are only failures for now. He understood what matters in the face of this absurdity, to develop ourselves to have the courage to continue.

This fascinated me for a while. I couldn’t understand why someone would not want to try to solve the meta-problem (that problems exist) and would rather focus their energy in building the courage to keep fighting, but then it hit me. Success, fulfillment, the peak human experience is not defined by what we are aiming in the earthly sense. Aiming at”worldly” outcomes yields a temporary release, but aiming at virtues gives us a whole new set of skills. Churchill switches the conversation from aiming towards vaguely defined earthly success to aiming towards the virtues. This gives us the ability to contend with existence with a whole new, and more effective, arsenal. Success is a journey. Whether we failed or succeeded yesterday, it doesn’t matter. The truth is, we must do it again today.

Categories
Education Productivity

Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.”

Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)

Minimum Effective Dose

The MED or Minimum Effective Dose is the smallest amount of input for a desired outcome. I first came across the idea of the minimum effective dose when I was reading Tim Ferriss. He gives the example of boiling water. When you boil water, you add heat until the water boils. Adding more heat doesn’t make the water “more boiled”, so it would be a waste of resources to continue to add heat once the water is boiled. The amount of heat required to boil the water is the MED. Tim was obsessed with finding MEDs for exercises to trigger hormone cascades in the body to produce specific results. Tim is a don’t-do-more-kettlebell-swings-than-absolutely-necessary type of guy and applying that idea to everything makes life way easier and does wonders for our productivity. If we aren’t doing extra work, then we have more time and energy to do other things that are important to us. Our energy and attention are finite, so using minimum necessary force is in our best interest if we want to get more things done. It’s also a widely practiced Eastern virtue for many different reasons, it’s much to better to get the same results with less effort.

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

I like to think of learning as broken up into 2 parts: Understanding & Remembering

Understanding is to perceive an intended meaning. A good test to see if you have correctly internalized that meaning is being able to teach it to someone else and answer questions they have on the subject.

Renown American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, is known for many things in the world of science, but to us study geeks he’s the brilliant mastermind behind the Feynman Technique. His technique is based on the pretty simple idea that “we thoroughly understand something when we can explain it to a five year old“. If we can simplify complex ideas into elementary speech, then we have a truly deep understanding of those said ideas. Using our sophisticated understanding of a topic, we can carefully discern which parts are deemed unnecessary for an accurate conceptualization. If we don’t understand it well enough, we’ll have trouble explaining it to someone else in a simple way. This is how I was able to grow my skills quickly as a math tutor. I would constantly be explaining complex ideas in simple ways which gave me an opportunity to fine tune my understanding of the subject.

If you want to test your understanding, using the Feynman Technique is a fantastic way to see where you stand. I’ll go over other techniques for testing understanding in future posts, but one more noteworthy technique is Scoping the Subject. Scoping the subject is great for setting up an initial framework when learning new material.

To scope the subject, flip through whatever material that needs to be studied that day and pay attention to headings, bold or italicized words, words that don’t seem familiar, and any questions that are presented in the material. Start writing down what is already known about each concept/fact or start writing questions for concepts/facts that aren’t familiar. This gives our brains a fantastic starting point. Now when we study the material, our brains are going to be looking to answer the questions that came up while we were scoping the subject. We are delicate creatures and our minds need purpose. Scoping the subject gives our study session little landmarks. There are many ways to scope a subject, but I recommend creating a Mind Map. I go in-depth about mind maps and other note-taking techniques in my last post here.

   Here are a few questions to ask when testing understanding:

  • What did I just learn?
  • What are the key points?
  • Can I rephrase this in my own words?
  • Does this make sense?
  • Can I explain this to a 5 year old?

Remembering, in terms of learning and studying, is the ability to recall or recognize information that was encoded in the past. For most exams and metrics, we are expected to remember and synthesize information that we’ve previously been exposed to and the best way to do that is practice.

I’ll go into detail another time about MEDs for understanding, but as for remembering the MED lies in Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I’ll break down each of these terms, explain the ideas the lay the foundation for why they work, and suggest different actionable techniques that can be used to learn everything and never forget.

Active recall is the scientifically most efficient and effective way to study anything. Active recall basically means testing yourself. It’s doing activities that force you to bring up the information out from the depths of your mind. When you practice active recall, you move slower (as in you cover less content), but you are less likely to forget the material that you do go over and your understanding of it will be much richer than if you used other methods.

The Forgetting Curve

Active recall and spaced repetition is nested in an idea known as The Forgetting Curve, coined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus back in the 19th century. The forgetting curve illustrates transience – the fact that our minds forget information over time.

Ebbinghaus : Drawn Like a Child (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

When we first learn something, we slowly forget it over time unless we are forced to recall that information again. Every recall slows down our forgetting rate and the amount of information that can be forgotten becomes less and less. The further we are on the forgetting curve, the harder it is to recall the information but the stronger that connection becomes. My graph isn’t drawn to scale lol but the forgetting curve mimics something like this. For all you nerds out there, here’s the equation Ebbinghaus based his forgetting curve from:

You can graph this and see for yourself if you’d like

The forgetting curve can be proven by our knowledge of 2+2=4. I love using the 2+2 example with my students because most of us confidently know that 2+2 is 4. This is because we’ve had to recall 2+2 so many times that it’s made a permanent home in our long term memory.

When we first learned what 2+2 was, our brain created a neural pathway specifically made for 2+2 is 4 and every time we need to know what 2+2 is we send an electrical impulse through that pathway. The neurons in our brain are so specific, we create pathways in our brain for literally everything we do. We have more neurons in our brain than stars in the milky way galaxy! The first few times it’s going to be difficult to recall the information, but that is because the neural pathway for 2+2 is weak. Every time we fire that neural pathway, our brains decide that this specific pathway is useful for survival and it reinforces the pathway so it’s easier accessible for further use.

The forgetting curve is also supported by Neural Pruning and Long-Term Potentiation, the biological basis for encoding and retaining memory. Basically, neural pruning is our brain removing “useless” information over time to “free up space” for more “useful” information which gets strengthened through long-term potentiation. Our brains decide what’s useful and useless based on how often we have to use that information. Our brain thinks as long as we use it often then we need it for survival, and our brain is only interested in survival. It’s not so concerned with the other things we tend of value.

In a sense, the forgetting curve outlines our neural pruning rate. Once something is considered useful, then it’s strengthened (more information is retained) if it’s used multiple times over time through long-term potentiation. This is why active recall used in conjunction with spaced repetition is the most efficient and effective way to learn new information. We trick our brain into thinking that it needs this new information for survival and we use our in-built mechanisms to bring that information to the front of the line.

Ebbinghaus believed that stronger minds can retain information for longer periods of time, and thus their forgetting curve would be slower. This was the basis for his idea of Strength of Memory. We can strengthen our memory so it’s easier for us to remember information over time. I was pretty excited to read about this because it’s proof that once we become better at studying and learning we get to actually put in less work as time goes on. It’s comforting to know that the toughest times are right now and things get easier later. At least with studying and information retention, I know that’s true as long as I keep using my brain.

Active Recall vs. Passive Learning

In my opinion, the easiest way to think of Active Recall is by pulling out the information from the depths of your brain. It’s firing the neuron sequence that’s specific to the information you are trying to learn, and like the forgetting curve suggests, the more we fire that neuron sequence, the stronger that neural connection is. The stronger the neural connection is, the longer we retain the information. Passive learning is relying on cues or other aids to help pull up the information, this can also be known as recognition. I talk a little bit about the difference between recall and recognition in the 2nd part of my The Brain vs. The Mind post. Passive learning is a lot easier to practice than active recall, but it is so much less effective.

Examples of Active Recall

Practice problems. Practice problems. Practice problems. Question Based Learning (QBL) is the best way to encode information. By doing problems, our brains are framing the concepts in concrete examples. This helps us understand why we need to learn certain facts or ideas, and that why is the key to truly internalizing the information.

However, not all questions are created equal. When it comes to study efficiency and effectiveness:

Multiple Choice Questions < Fill in the Blank < Free Response

Free response problems are the most difficult, but that challenge is precisely what we need to develop. The idea of challenge being what we need to develop is known as Opponent Processing. Free response questions are least likely to give us cues to use recognition to retrieve the information, which allows us to solely rely on our recall ability.

Fill in the blank problems (without a word bank) can provide a similar experience, but the nature of the problems provide a context that allows for recognition to carry us part of the way through.

Multiple choice problems are the least effective questions to use for active recall because the incorrect options will point us in the direction of the correct answer. Additionally, as we learn we may unconsciously associate the incorrect answer choices as triggers for the right answer. Multiple choice problems provide the highest probability of recognition as the pathway to retrieve information rather than recall, and that can fool us into thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t.

This isn’t to say that multiple choice questions don’t have their place – they are extremely useful, but as a form of an active recall study technique, they fall short. If all you have are multiple choice problems, don’t throw them out! They can still be used to cover a multitude of topics. When answering a multiple choice question – answer the question but ask a few other questions too:

  • Why are the other choices incorrect?
  • What are they other choices?
  • Which topics do they relate to?
  • How are they different from the correct choice?
  • What is the opposite or inverse of this question?
  • What are some questions that could be related to the other answer choices?
  • What are the opposite or inverse of those questions?

Asking ourselves these series of questions will help us suck the juices, so to speak, from each question. Using this method could make multiple choice questions more effective than free response, but keep in mind, it’s all about how much effort we have to put in to pull up that information. The more effort required, the stronger than neural pathway gets developed and the slower we forget!

Running through it in your mind. I love doing this, because it’s low friction, it’s quick, it’s easy, and I can do it everywhere at almost anytime. Remember, the whole objective is to just get the neurons firing so if you’re just sitting in a waiting room you can ask yourself a question, you can answer it in your head, and it’ll have the same effect! I did this all the time in EMT school and one of my students practices this method as his primary method of studying for his EMT school. Don’t worry, he knows his stuff well!

Including it in a creative project. I forgot where I’ve heard this, but one of the best way to encode information to long term memory is to utilize it in a creative project. Creating something with that information will create a huge number of unique connections and that gives us many different neural pathways to retrieve the information.

I can personally vouch for this, every time I use information in a creative project I feel like I understand it on a much deeper level. I see this happen with my girlfriend and her students as well! Doing something creative with information is an opportunity to put the new info in different contexts. We get to test it out and see why it’s useful or important. No surprise though, when I use new info in any project I end up learning way more about it in the process and the emotional impact of learning these new things helps it stick with me.

Explaining it to someone else. Also known as, The Feynman Technique. According to acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman, if you can explain it to a five year old, then you truly understand the idea. Explaining things to someone else also lets you see if you have any gaps in your knowledge. This is a fantastic reviewing technique and it’s the reason why I tutoring comes to naturally to me now. When I first started tutoring, it was difficult because my own knowledge wasn’t complete, but when I started explaining things to other people I found where my knowledge holes were, filled them, and now most of the concepts I help my students with are second nature.

Using the concepts to solve a problem. This is similar to practice problems, but it doesn’t have to be an explicit discrete question. When we solve the problems, we see the reasons why knowing something is important and that reason drives us to make strong neural connections. If something is important or useful to know, then we are going to want easy access to it and solving problems is the catalyst to make it all possible.

Creating a mind map. This is a fantastic method for getting ideas out when scoping a subject. Creating the mind map helps with retention because it utilizes the new information in a creative project, but it also allows us to pull out all the information we know related to the subject. There’s the active recall element, it’s all about firing those neurons! This technique only works with the book closed, most active recall methods are done with the book closed. Making a mind map while looking at the textbook defeats the purpose. Creating the mind map organizes the information in our minds. I talk about scoping the subject, creating mind maps and other forms of information capture/externalization in my post about Note-Taking.

Use systemic consolidation or systemic expansion to deepen understanding. I also talk about this in my post on Note-Taking. Systemic consolidation is a method designed to emphasize active recall while simultaneously creating a study resource.

THIS IS NOT SIMPLY REWRITING YOUR NOTES.

It involves “shrinking down” any notes that you have taken onto a smaller piece of paper. I recommend consolidating a months worth of notes into one notecard. It may seem impossible, but that challenge is the active recall element of this method. The small space forces you to examine what absolutely can’t be left out targeting the high yield information. This processes activates the filters in your mind that help you distinguish the different concepts from each other.

Systemic expansion is also a method designed the emphasize active recall, but in this process we flesh out our ideas rather than trim the fat. Systemic expansion is what I practice when I make my blog posts. When I first get an idea, it’s usually some one line small note in my notes app on my phone, but because I’m interested in teaching individuals I expand on that thought through many different mediums. The information starts in my notes app, then I move it to OneNote, which helps me organize the information a little better and I expand on it there. Once I have that higher articulated version of the information, I then expand even further in a blog post. Each of the ideas fleshed out in a blog post are then added to the book that I’m trying to write and the courses that I teach. The idea is that my understanding becomes deeper and deeper with each iteration of expansion.

Flashcards. Ahh, the tried and true method of the ages. I used to hate flashcards when I was younger, but now that I know a thing or two about studying I can see that flashcards are the way to go. Putting a question on the frontside of the card and the answer on the backside is a fantastic way to trigger active recall. The thing about flashcards is that they’re painful to get through if you don’t know the material well, but the genius of this method lies in that pain. When we feel pain, we remember things much more easily. Our brains don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, so when we get a question wrong our body and mind will respond to that as a threat. When we flip the card to reveal the answers, our mind makes it a point to remember that just in case the threat comes back. I can go on for a while about flashcards, but know this – high quality flashcards can cover weeks of information in a matter of hours.

Make a connection to your personal life. Connecting things to our personal lives give the information an emotional charge and the more emotion we can attach to things, the easier they are to remember. Learning happens once we bring the abstract down to Earth, I like to do this in my classes. Whenever I explain an idea, I try my best to accompany it with a quick and apparent example in the real world. Don’t be afraid to make it ridiculous too, the crazier the connections the easier it will be to remember. I recommend making multiple connections to your life. If you have multiple access points to that information, then it will be easier to access especially in high pressure situations.

Review questions at the beginning and end of a study session. Active Recall is most effective when it’s done at the beginning and end of the study session. Reviewing past material at the beginning of a session prevents us from forgetting it, further solidifies the information into our long term memory, and primes our minds for the new information to come.

Putting the new information in context will also help with deepening understanding. Reviewing all the new information learned at the end of a study session also helps with retention by at least 15% (according to Spitzer), with literally no extra studying. The extra 2-5 minutes spent at the beginning and end of a study session can dramatically reduce the number of study sessions you’ll need and improves understanding. My girlfriend is currently using this method to study for the MCAT. Since she hasn’t learned all the material she needs to know for the test she has to balance reviewing old material and learning new material. To achieve this balance, she reviews all the questions that are due for spaced repetition at the beginning of the session which recalls all the past topics and places the new information in context. After reviewing those questions, she learns the new material (through other active recall methods as well) and turns that new information into practice questions which she reviews at the end of the session. Studying this way provides intentional structure to our sessions that maximize our results.

Examples of Passive Learning

There are so many different methods to studying. Each having their pros and cons. The problem with so many methods of studying is that many students love to pick the methods that appear effective and feel productive, but actually waste our time and triple our workload. Let’s start with my most despised method.

Rereading Notes or Reading the Textbook. I cannot begin to explain how much I hate this method. It seems like rereading notes or reading the textbook would be the right thing to do. After all, the information can all be found in our notes and textbook right?

A lot of students pick this method of their primary study method, but that’s working under the assumption that all we need to do is simply expose ourselves to the information. When we are studying for exams or trying to learn new things, we have to be able to recall and synthesize the information. The more difficult the exam or project, the higher the level of sophistication is required to recall or synthesize. Simply rereading notes or the textbook keeps the depth of understanding at a baseline. Only when the mind uses the information to solve problems or make connections is when things get interesting. So rather than rereading notes and reading the textbook, utilize any other active method of studying. Only use the notes or a textbook as a resource if clarification is needed. This goes for PowerPoints as well, try to only use them for clarification.

Highlighting. This one drives me crazy too. This isn’t to say that highlighting doesn’t have it’s place. I love highlighting when I read and research, but highlighting is not something to do when you are studying for an exam or a class. There way too many problems with highlighting, but only I’ll outline a couple.

1) Highlighting can easily lead to over-highlighting and it’ll be too difficult to come back later to see what is actually important. This leads to time and energy wasted just trying to figure out what needs to be learned.

2) Even if we don’t over-highlight, we have to reread the highlights which instantly doubles our work. But the reality is that we have to read outside the highlights too, so we can understand the importance of the highlight with context, which can easily triple our workload. While highlighting feels productive, it’s a trap that gives us more work that we need. Don’t give into the good feelings of pseudo-productivity, practice studying actively and keep the work at a minimum.

Only looking over solutions to problems. Not gonna lie, I did this all the time in college. Whenever I’d study for an exam I would look over my practice test, but I wouldn’t actually work through the problems. I would just look at the solutions and thinking to myself “yeah, that makes sense. I totally got this.” I can assure you that I did not “got this”. Yeah, the solutions made sense when I looked at them and I could easily recognize the concepts and practices, but the exams I took were testing my recall or synthesis abilities, not recognition. Practicing recall and synthesis enhances recognition abilities, but practicing recognition does not enhance recall and synthesis abilities. Just looking at the question does not encode the concepts. Working out the problems proves that you know how to do the problem on every level of our perception.

Listening to lectures in while sleeping. This is not how learning works. This just makes it harder to go to sleep. Additional unnecessary extraneous load is burdensome on the mind. We learn when we’re awake, we consolidate when we are sleeping.

Summarizing. Summarizing doesn’t seem to be an effective study technique for exams that require recall and synthesis as well. While a student will receive some benefit from summarizing a lecture after they’ve just heard it or summarizing a chapter after they’ve just read it, this method won’t help with inference making and incorporating the information into other higher-level cognitive tasks. If we were to summarize, we’d understand the big picture (which is helpful) but we will inevitably miss some of the details and nuances.

Spaced Repetition

“Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice.”

Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)

Every time we recall information, it gets easier to recall and we forget less of it! We are also able to recall less often because our rate of forgetting is lower. This is the idea behind Spaced Repetition, which makes our studying more effective and efficient.

The point of being efficient is to get better results without having to do as much work and there is no better to do less work than to actually do less work! We aren’t designed to workout the same parts of our body all the time. If we do too many bicep curls or deadlifts or run too many miles at once, we could risk injury. We aren’t machines, humans require a refractory period, a time to relax and recover. This isn’t to say, we shouldn’t be diligent and work at something every day, but we should keep in mind that there are optimal times to work on a certain parts of ourselves. We shouldn’t try to fire the same neural pathway every second of every day. We need to give our brains time to establish and strengthen the connections.

Needs Time (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

I like to think of learning like a laying a brick wall.

Each layer of the brick wall is a little tidbit of information and when we want to build a wall we have to lay each layer down in a timely manner. We place a layer of bricks, add some mortar, wait for it to dry, then add the next layer. We can’t just keep adding layers on top of layers without waiting for the mortar to dry. If we do, the entire wall easily collapses and if it doesn’t collapse, the wall will at least be crooked. Our knowledge works the same way. We have to learn a little bit of information, wait for our minds to build and strengthen the necessary connections, then build upon that knowledge once we understand the previous information. The question then becomes –

How do we know how long to wait before we build the next layer?

This is where Spaced Repetition comes in handy. The Forgetting Curve suggests that we strengthen our neural connections in direct proportion to how difficult it is to recall that information. So it would be in our best interests to recall the information right before we forget it. It’ll be hard and it takes the most effort, but it’ll give us the strongest connections with the least number of study sessions.

Thankfully, this type of knowledge has been around for awhile and there are a few established study methods and resources that Spaced Repetition and Active Recall into account. These are the best two in my opinion –

Leitner System – coined by the German Scientist Sebastian Leitner, it’s a system that’s used to practice flashcards that has integrated the principles of active recall and spaced repetition. The flashcards are sorted into groups and the different groups are reviewed over different time intervals.

The system is simple, yet effective. Initially, the student would start with all of the flashcards in Box 1. If they get the question correct, then they get to put the flashcard in the next box. If they get the question wrong, they put the question back in Box 1. Each box is reviewed in spaced intervals. When I practice the Leitner System, I review Box 1 every day, Box 2 every 3 days, Box 3 every week, Box 4 every two weeks, and Box 5 every month. I keep a study calendar that lets me know which days to study which boxes because it’s not worth the trouble remembering. This gradual increase will help me focus on the questions I don’t know and stop using valuable time on questions I already understand. The time intervals don’t have to be broken up exactly like this, I recommend adjusting your review schedule to the time frame that suits you.

Here is a variant, the incorrect answers don’t have to be sent back to Box 1. They can be sent back to the previous box. Adjust the systems as you see fit, just maintain the principles of active recall and spaced repetition.

Anki – every good pre-med already knows all about Anki lol. Anki is a study app that automates the Leitner System, but with some added benefits. When you answer a question, the app asks how difficult it was for you to recall the information. You can answer easy, good, hard, or again and depending on your answer, the app automatically sorts the questions for you. The easier the question was for you, the later Anki will ask you again. Making great Anki cards is a skill all in itself and requires its own 20 hours to get used to but I think the effort is worthwhile. Anki is cross-platform so it’s easily accessible. It’s free for most devices which is nice, but it costs a pretty penny to get it on iOS. It’s a little expensive, but it’s worth the investment when you get to knock out questions in the nooks and crannies of the day. Rather than scrolling through the same Instagram or Twitter feed, you can knock out 1 or 2 questions when you’re in line at the store or waiting in a restaurant.


When it comes down to it, the method we choose to study with doesn’t matter as long as we have the principles of active recall and spaced repetition integrated into our practices. Studying is all about firing the neural pathway in our minds and strengthening the connections that we want. Here’s a list of some peer-reviewed academic studies done on study strategies that support the claims in this blog post in case you wanna look deeper into this! Big thanks to Dr. Ali Abdaal for the curating!

Dunlosky et al 2013 – [Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. – PubMed – NCBI](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2…)

Karpicke 2016 – [A powerful way to improve learning and memory](http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/…)

Spitzer 1939 – http://www.gwern.net/docs/spacedrepet…

Butler 2010 – http://sites.utexas.edu/mdl/files/201…

Karpicke & Blunt 2011 – [Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping | Science](http://science.sciencemag.org/content…)

Categories
Education

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1)

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 – )

We use both the brain and the mind to perceive the world around us and decide the best course of action. The brain is an organ and, in some respects, isn’t just in our heads. It’s spread throughout our entire body expressed in our central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is essentially our spinal cord and what we traditionally consider the brain. The peripheral nervous system spreads out to our fingers and toes as our afferent and efferent nerves.

The mind is a completely different story. The mind isn’t tangible but, in some ways, can be more real than our brains. The mind is our cognitive functions which interpret and interact with the world around us. We usually consider our consciousness and thoughts as originating from the mind and because of this we like to think of the mind as “in the brain” but really the mind is an abstract idea. Our minds shape our reality and are responsible for our creativity and imagination.

There are known connections between the brain and the mind, which are easily demonstrated in drug use. But what I’m most interested in learning is how the brain functions physically, learning how the mind functions metaphysically, and maximizing their innate behavior to bring out optimal results.

The Brain

The brain is made up of 100 billion of neurons, nerve cells, that all work together to run our entire body. Neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters, electrical and chemical signals, through the spaces in between each neuron, synapses. These connections of neurons and synapses creates neurological pathways in our brain. Different neurological pathways do different things and our brain has a unique pathway for every single thing we think and do. Neurological pathways are a bunch of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses. It’s useful to know that these pathways strengthen every time they are fired. This gives the brain a unique ability to change and adapt based on what it thinks it needs to survive, this is known as brain plasticity. The brain is constantly morphing and changing, which is exciting because it shows that it’s never too late to learn anything. Learning doesn’t stop when someone gets older or gets “set in their ways.” Learning only stops when we decide it stops. However, like all organs in the body, the brain is something that requires energy and maintenance to function effectively.

In order to understand how to take care of our brains and use them more effectively, it’s helpful to know a little anatomy. This is not an exhaustive nervous system anatomy section – just some general knowledge and the parts that I’ve found relevant to learning:

3 Major Parts of the Brain

Thanks hopkinsmedicine.org

Cerebrum

This is the part in charge of performing higher order functions like interpreting our senses, developing and deciphering speech, reasoning, emotional regulation, learning, and fine motor skills. This is the youngest part of our nervous system.

Cerebellum 

This part of the brain receives sensory information, coordinates voluntary muscle movements, maintains posture, and regulates balance. This evolved after the brainstem but before the cerebrum.

Brainstem

This is part connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord. It’s in charge of many automatic functions. This includes but is not limited to respirations, heart rate, temperature, circadian rhythms, digestion, sneezing, and sweating. This is the oldest part of our nervous system.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

We’ve all heard the common saying – left brain people are more analytical and right brain people are creative. This never really sat well with me because I’ve always felt like I could be a left brain person and a right brain person. I’m logical and extremely analytical but I’m also creative and artistic, where did I fit into this whole left brain right brain debate? Turns out, I didn’t have to pick a side! Everyone uses both hemispheres of their brains all the time. They’re just used for different things.

In Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series, he outlines (in extensive detail) how human beings interpret the world and derive value structures from that information. In the eighth video of the 2017 series he presents this image and I believe it’s a much better representation of the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Maps of Meaning – Jordan Peterson (2017)

We use the left hemisphere to operate in places that we understand, it’s the part of the brain that gives us our positive emotion when the world around us aligns with what we expect or want. In the context of learning, our left hemisphere is what we’re using what we already know the answers. When students feel like what they’re working on is easy and within their realm of understanding, then they’re primarily using their left hemisphere.

On the flip side, we use the right hemisphere to operate in unknown territory, it’s the part of the brain that tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do. When it comes to learning, our right hemisphere is what’s going crazy when we’re trying to learn something new. When students feel like what they’re working on is scary, confusing, or too challenging, then they’re primarily using their right hemisphere.

Each hemisphere has a separate consciousness and they don’t communicate with each other as much as we’d think. They are seperated and communicate through the corpus callosum. It’s almost like each hemisphere makes their own interpretation and we just kind of roll with it. We see this in people with prosopagnosia, the loss of the ability of recognize faces.

Take the Weirwood tree from Game of Thrones for example. There’s curves in the tree that indicate facial information but it’s still a tree. One half of the brain interprets the visual stimuli as a face while the other interprets the information as a tree. We use both of these perspectives to understand reality but someone with prosopagnosia would see only the tree.

Ned & Catelyn Stark discussing duty

I believe our two hemisphere brain is an amazing demonstration of intelligent design. It’s extremely useful to have our control center, so to speak, ran by two systems. If one side goes down, then the whole thing doesn’t have to shut down. We see this happen in people who have strokes. If someone experiences a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), a.k.a. a stroke, they may experience some brain damage but because we have two hemispheres, people usually lose function of only one side of their body, rather than their whole body.

The Lobes of the Brain

The Cerebrum can be further divided into four different sections referred to as lobes.

Frontal Lobe

This is what’s in charge of our personalities, behaviors, and emotions. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, problem solving, and judging and is where the majority of our executive and higher level functioning takes place. Cognitive phenomena such as concentration and self awareness are functions of the frontal lobe which helps makes us smart and also helps us move towards our goals. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speaking and writing, sits inside the frontal lobe as well as the motor strip for voluntary body movement.

The frontal lobe also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s basically the part of the brain that’s physically responsible for our will power and ability to regulate the more animalistic and impulsive parts of ourselves. Someone with a strong prefrontal cortex is more able to do what they tell themselves to do.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe sits on the top part of our brains and is sort of the sensory processing center of the cerebrum. The parietal lobe is in charge of interpreting language as well as tactile, thermal, visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. It also manages spatial and visual perception.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is at the back of our head and is the primary visual processing center. It interprets visual stimuli in three different ways – color, light intensity, and movement.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the sides of our heads right under our temples – the parts where our skull fuses together. This part of the brain is great for processing auditory stimuli, sequencing, organization, and memory. You can find the Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobes so It also plays a huge role in understanding language too.

Internal Structures

Hypothalamus

This part of the brain runs us like a tyrannical 2 year old. It controls our autonomic systems and is responsible for the 4 f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornication. So it plays a role in determining our body temperature, blood pressure, emotions, and sleep. The hypothalamus knows how to motivate us. When it wants something, it makes sure that we only care about that thing. That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to concentrate when they’re hungry – it’s because all we care about is the food! The hypothalamus is like our master orienting system. Whatever the hypothalamus wants, it gets. We can kind of regulate it with the cerebral cortex, but only to an extent. This is fantastic to know because there are learning techniques that take advantage of the hypothalamus’ behavior.

Pituitary Gland

This part of the brain hides in near the base of the skull in a place called the sella turcica. It’s connected to the hypothalamus, so you know it’s got some power. It controls the other endocrine (communication from far away) glands in the other parts of the body through hormone secretion that regulates sexual development, physical growth, and stress response.

Pineal Gland

This little guy is behind the third ventricle and regulates the body’s internal clock. This part of the brain controls the balance between melatonin and serotonin. The pineal gland is crucial to sleep, which is crucial for learning.

Basal Ganglia

Also known as the basal nuclei. This part of the brain works with the cerebellum to coordinate voluntary motor movements. It’s also involved in procedural and habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotions. So this is the part of the brain that we develop when we learn how to type, tie our shoes, ride a bike, or play a musical instrument. The basal ganglia recieves the information from the cerebellum to encode different skills, this is what people are referring to when they are talking about muscle memory.

Hippocampus

This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for information consolidation and spatial memory which helps us with navigation. Since I’m most interested about learning, I want to focus on the information consolidation feature of the hippocampus. The hippocampus moves our memories from our short term (working memory) to our long term memory. If someone were to damage their hippocampus they would experience anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories. If we think about what learning is, it’s really what the hippocampus is doing. It’s turning information that we know right now into information that we can have access to forever.

Amygdala

This almond-shaped clump of neurons is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala is associated with our fear response and pleasure. This is the part of the brain that goes crazy when some of my students see math problems. Understanding our fear and pleasure tendencies is crucial for understanding learning. Fear helps us remember things better and our seemingly endless pursuit of pleasure is a fantastic motivator.

Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory

Working Memory – this memory we use throughout the day is also known as short-term memory. Working memory has a finite limit. Holding things in your working memory increase cognitive load and since cognitive load has a maximum so does working memory. Things stored in working memory are easily forgotten. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the working memory. It stores information for about one minute and its capacity is limited to about 7 items (plus or minus 2). This is why we’re able to dial a phone number someone just told us. You can see it in reading too! Our working memory memorizes the sentence we just read so that the next one can make sense.

Long Term Memory – this is memory that we use throughout our entire lives. Some items in our working memory are converted to long term memory in the hippocampus through various methods, the most common is sleep. Highly emotionally charged ideas, events, or memories have a fast pass ticket to our long term memory. We have virtually unlimited space and the items stored in long term memory are not easily forgotten.

The goal that we are most interested in, as far as learning is concerned, is moving as much information as possible to our long term memory and be able to retrieve it using as little cognitive load as possible.


Some basic knowledge of the brain can help tremendously when examining methods for learning and improving. Given that the brain is set up for survival in dangerous living conditions, we can develop techniques which take advantage of these mechanisms. If we don’t use something often then our minds tend to forget it because the brain thinks we don’t need that specific neural pathway to survive. Our brains have evolved for a very different environment than we have built for ourselves as modern people. If we use something often, then our brain will strengthen that pathway so it’s easier for us to use later. I talk about this in my other post Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation. This is the basis of Active Recall and many of the other scientifically proven study techniques.

Studying the mind in tandem with the brain sets up a fantastic foundation to test out other learning techniques for yourself. The next post will focus more on the mind and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our learning.