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.

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…)

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2)

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The Mind

The mind what makes us feel alive and aware. It gives us the faculty of consciousness and the ability to think. The mind provides us with judgement, perception, language and memory. People all throughout time have dedicated their entire lives to trying to understand the mind but there is no shortage of things we don’t understand. Some of the people that studied the mind in depth include but are not limited to: Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Peterson, and many, many more. The mind is a strange place that we know very little about, but we can use what little we do know to our advantage. For some, the mind is the enemy. Perhaps it’s the most formidable enemy we’ll ever meet, but learning a few things about our minds can turn it into our most valuable ally.

I’ll do a brief run through a few of the topics that are integral to understanding the mind. Each of these topics is extremely dense and you can spend your entire life learning about just one aspect, but knowing just a little bit can make a dramatic difference in our lifestyle.

Mental Faculties

Thought

Wikipedia puts it best when it comes to summarizing what thinking is – “Thinking is sometimes described as a “higher” cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools; to understand cause and effect; to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.”

There are many theories to how the mind works. One of my favorites are diffuse thinking vs. focused thinking:

Focused thinking is what we traditionally think of when we hear the word thinking. It’s effortful, deliberate, and concentrated. It’s what we use when we’re consciously trying to solve a problem. Focused thinking eliminates distractions and gets the job done through sheer will power. This type of thinking is made possible through the contributions made by the prefrontal cortex. Focused thinking is optimal when you have high energy and the solution to the problem is right outside your zone of proximal development.

On the other hand, diffuse thinking is less straightforward. Diffuse thinking is the kind of thinking that’s running in the background making connections without you consciously noticing. Diffuse thinking occurs when we’re doing mundane tasks or whenever our brain has the ability to “wonder off.” Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking occurs in all parts of the brain. The freedom the brian has to make random connections allows for more creative solutions to come about. Diffuse thinking is optimal for when you are presented with a problem that may need a creative solution that you can’t immediately see. Benjamin Franklin used to induce diffuse thinking with his special napping technique whenever he came across a problem that he didn’t know how to solve.

Daniel Kahneman wrote about another thinking dichotomy in his best selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this book, he discusses the brain working in two gears but he calls them System 1 and System 2. It’s similar to focused thinking vs. diffuse thinking but with some nuances. The main idea is to use System 1 to get the easy things done, but to slow down and use System 2 when necessary. Many people tend to mix these up and make important decisions quickly resulting in many unnecessary problems. I recommend checking his book out!

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Memory

Memory refers to our ability to keep and retrieve information. The study of memory has been a meeting point of several different academic disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and biology. There are many different kinds of memory. I laid out working memory vs. long term memory in my last post, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning.

Long Term Memory

It’s an umbrella term and splits into two different kinds of long term memory – Declarative and Implicit Memory.

Declarative (Explicit) Memory is the conscious and intentional storage of facts, events, and concepts. This is the memory that’s consolidated during stage 3 of the sleep cycle. Declarative memory can also split into two types:

Episodic memory refers to our autobiographical memory of specific events. It’s basically our collection of how we remember our life events.

Semantic memory refers to our memory of words, concepts, numbers, or other general worldly knowledge that we may need to survive. This type of memory is dependent on culture and experience.

Implicit Memory is the unconscious and unintentional learning that affects our thoughts and behaviors. Implicit memory is the reason why priming is a popular marketing method advertisers use to sell their products.

Procedural Memory is the best example of implicit memory at work. Procedural memory is responsible for knowing how to do things and it’s consolidated during the REM stage in the sleep cycle. This part of our memory picks up on the motor skills necessary to make every day life easier. This is how we learn how to talk, walk, ride a bike, play an instrument, etc.

Memory Tree (2019)

Retrieval

Part of what we consider to be our memory is our ability to access the information stored in our brains. The two main methods of retrieval are recall and recognition.

Recall

Recall refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory with little or no cues.

Recognition

Recognition refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory because of specific cues.

Imagination

“Scientists must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.”

Max Planck (1858 – 1947)

Scientists aren’t the only people who must have imagination, it’s necessary for everyone.

The imagination has been described as a subjective process that the mind uses to perceives the world and the activity of creating new situations, concepts, images, or any other qualia. Even when setting aside the make-believe games that children need to play, people use their imagination all the time. Whenever we think of possible future scenarios, see things from other people’s perspectives, or get lost in a daydream we are using our imagination. Imagination is crucial for problem solving, especially under restricted conditions, so there are many practical reasons to develop our imagination. I say imagination is the fuel for creativity, and our creativity is what separates us from animals. We should lean into our imaginative thoughts. Everything we have around us was first imagined in someone’s mind. Everything.

Developing our imagination is key to solving all of our world’s biggest problems. Climate change will be solved through imagination. The social and political conflicts around the world will end through new solutions that have not been implemented (or maybe even thought of) yet. Imagination solves problems. Imagination creates life.

Assimilation & Accommodation

Assimilation, according to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, is using an existing schemata to make sense of a new situation. It’s the first step in learning something new! Whenever we encounter something new, we first try to relate the novel stimuli to something we already know in hopes of understanding it well enough to deal with it. For example, whenever I’m teaching my students how to solve algebraic inequalities, I show them how it’s similar to solving regular algebraic equations.

Accommodation is what we use when we don’t have the necessary schemas to perceive the new information. If the new information still doesn’t make sense even after applying our pre-existing schemas, then we modify existing schemas or create new ones to accommodate for that new information. This is how we learn new things. We build new knowledge on top of the knowledge we had before when we encounter new circumstances.

Identity

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

James Clear

Our identity is how we see ourselves and how we know who we are. Over the course of our lives we create this person based on our interpretations of our life events or our goals we set for ourselves. This is arguably the MOST powerful force that motivates us. Our habits and choices are based off what kind of person we see ourselves as.

What makes our identity such a powerful force?

Identity Defense is how we preserve who we think we are. This results in rejecting actions that don’t match with who we think we are and continuing actions that match who we think we are. We love being right and hate being wrong, and nothing is worse than being wrong about who we think we are. The kind of person that we see ourselves to be is the one thing that we like to think we know for sure. This is powerful in creating new habits and explains why starting new habits could be difficult. New habits may not be seen as something that would match up with our current view of ourselves so in order to be right about who we are, we reject the idea of doing those actions.

If we see ourselves as athletes, then we are more likely to do what athletes do.

If we see ourselves as musicians, then we are more likely to do what musicians do.

If we see ourselves as great students, then we are more likely to do what great students do.

If we see ourselves already as the people we desire to be, then taking on the new actions won’t feel so strange. Be the new person, everything else will follow.

The Self

Our identity is very much aligned with how we know ourselves. When we say I know myself, what does that actually mean? We have multiple ideas of our self and these ideas play into how we form our identity.

All of the multidimensional ways we describe ourselves is known as our Self-Concept. It transcends time and applies to our past, present, and future self. We have infinitely many ways in which we describe ourselves, but it’ll just cover a few of them here –

Let’s start with our Actual Self. This is who we are in reality; it includes all of our strengths, weaknesses, and how we know ourselves to act in the world. It’s tough to get an accurate read on who we are objectively, but with serious reflection and the right team of people around us we can find our actual limits and use that knowledge to our advantage.

The Ideal Self is the person who we strive to be. This is can be seen as analogous to Freud’s Superego. This is the version of ourselves that judges us when we make a mistake and praises us when we act in alignment with it. This is the self that most people identify with the most. It’s easy to mix up the actual self with the ideal self.

The Ought Self is the person who other people want us to be. Sometimes the person we think we should we is the person that other people think we should be. We should recognize when this is the case and act in accordance with our own commitment to our Ideal Self. I’m not saying we should never let other people influence how we act, I’m suggesting that it’s extremely beneficial to recognize the affect other people have on our sense of self and decide if it’s worth internalizing.

Our Self-Esteem is our evaluation of ourselves in relationship to our ideal self. The closer our actual self is to our ideal self, the higher our self-esteem. The further our actual self is to our ideal self, the lower our-self esteem. The best way to raise your self-esteem is to clearly define what your ideal self is and do actions that coincide with the your ideal self.

Self-esteem is not the same as Self-Efficacy, which is how capable we think we are at a given skill or situation.

Our self-efficacy is what drives the idea that we have to learn a certain way (like visual or auditory) or that we are only skilled in certain subjects (“I am a math person” or “I am an English person”). That isn’t true. Our self-efficacy can be improved and with those improvements comes a higher rate of learning in all domains of life, higher self confidence, and exciting opportunities!

We can improve our self-efficacy in three steps:

  1. Making & accomplishing small attainable goals
  2. Recognizing those small accomplishments as significant and the preferred method of progress, as opposed to working hard for one large accomplishment
  3. Slowly increasing difficulty over time

If we don’t take care of our self-efficacy, it’ll be difficult to try new things and eventually one could slide into the realm of Learned Helplessness. This is one of the lowest forms of diminished self-efficacy. It comes about from being in consistently hopeless scenarios. Sometimes there are things we can’t do, and if we find ourselves in those situations enough then we’ll learn that there isn’t anything we can do anywhere.

Learned helplessness is serious, but can be avoided. Recovering from learned helplessness requires a shift in identity, recognizing our cognitive biases (specifically the negative ones we hold about ourselves), setting them aside, and focusing on raising our self-efficacy.

One noteworthy mention is Carl Jung’s definition of The Self. I reference this in my other post The Power of Failure. Jung believed that the Self was developed through individuation, which is the integration of your personality. The Self is the representation of the unification of our conscious and unconscious. It’s my understanding that the primary means of individuation is through circumambulation, which is also mentioned in The Power of Failure.

There are many ways to define ourselves, so no one way is objectively true. But one thing is certain, understanding how we see ourselves is crucial to improving and getting out of our own way.

Dramaturgy (Front Stage Self vs. Back Stage Self)

Front Stage Self

This is the self which we present to other people. The self we put out to fit the social norms.

Back Stage Self

This is the self that we are when we are not around other people. This self is the one that really runs the show. Most of the actions that define our lives and self-concept are driven by the back stage self.

Collapsing these two as much as possible will make success in any domain easier. We don’t have to completely merge them together, but an honest life keeps us confident and directly affects our self esteem and efficacy. Training the back stage self to be well polished and pristine like our front stage self will allow us to accomplish what we need to accomplish to reach our goals.

Cognitive Load

I like to think of cognitive load as our brain’s biological RAM or our mental gas tank. In the morning (if we’re well rested) we start off with our full processing capacity, but as the day goes on every little task and decision chips away at our cognitive load until we go to sleep. Not all activities require the same amount of cognitive processing. Multitasking or activities that require intense concentration use up our cognitive load the most. This is why I do the most difficult tasks first – just getting my lazy ass to do it is going to take tons of cognitive load, so to speak. I won’t have the physiological brain power necessary to do the difficult tasks well if I save them for the end of the day.

Maximize bandwidth by reducing cognitive load.

Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

  • Apply Occam’s razor to everything
  • Minimize the number of decisions you make per day
  • Remove needless words
  • Do the most difficult tasks first
  • Collaborate
  • Use cognitive aids (e.g. checklists, calendars, notifications)

Top-down Processing vs. Bottom-up Processing

Examine the following sentence – Rocky loves to rock on his rcoking chair to rock music.

Noticing that the c and the o in rocking chair are reversed is a form of bottom-up processing, seeing each letter and concluding that it is supposed to say rocking. But knowing that rcoking and rocking are similar for all intents and purposes is a form of top-down processing because you have noticed that the word is rocking then noticing later that the letters are switched.

Top-down Processing

Our ability to perceive something and apply what we already know and expect to perceive details that match with our conclusions.

Bottom-up Processing

Our ability to perceive a collection of details as they come and conclude what something is as a result of those details.

How does it relate to studying?

When studying, we want to use bottom-up processing to fight against our top-down processing tendencies. It’s easy to review a topic and think we know all the small details because we are familiar with hearing the name of the chapter or section, but in reality, we need to practice our concepts from the small details up and practice working through everything to really make sure that we know our information.

To study through bottom-up processing, doing practice problems or answering free response questions will help identify any gaps in your knowledge when it comes to the concepts you are responsible for learning. This type of studying is also know as Active Recall.

How do both processes work for us and against us?

When studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of top-down processing. If we study simply by looking over our notes or reading quick sections over the chapter, we’ll be at a loss when the test comes and that will have a negative impact on our grades.

However, this doesn’t mean that top-down processing doesn’t have it’s uses. Sometimes top-down can be great for trying to learn something new. Applying top-down processing to a new concept can help you try to see the bigger picture then fill in the smaller details later. This is something I like to call Knowledge Frames. Building knowledge frames is perfect for frontloading, or previewing new information in advanced in order to focus on reviewing rather accommodation or assimilation. When I was in EMT school, I used knowledge frames to learn the blood flow through the heart in less than 10 minutes!

Bottom-up processing is great for reviewing content and can prevent us from deluding ourselves from thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t. I have had plenty of experience using bottom-up processing while studying and taking tests I was grossly underprepared for.

That being said, bottom-up processing isn’t so great for learning new material. Using bottom-up can create an illusion of new concepts seeming more difficult than they actually are. Purely memorizing individual facts or ideas about a new concept without trying to find how they all fit together will make any class 10x harder than it should be.

Both have their place and being aware of their existence can give us more firepower when dealing with a new class of information. Experiment with both and find your own methods that can maximize your results.


We interact with the world on many different levels. When a snake lunges towards us, we jump back before we consciously realize that the snake is attacking us. Our bodies are interpreting the world at one level and our minds interpret the world on another. Understanding our minds, is understanding part of how we interact with the world around us which will help us in anything we pursue. This is why I consider understanding our brain and mind important and treat it as a metaskill and I highly recommend diving into the fields of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and literature if you’re interested in doing so.

Despite this blog post and the much larger body of work other people much smarter than me have put together, there is no shortage of things we don’t understand about the mind.

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.