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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…)

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Education Lifestyle

Our Unconscious Filters

“If you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise?”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

The mind has a few habits that we should pay attention to when we are trying to maximize our learning. Everyone is susceptible to these thought patterns and it would be advantageous to find where these patterns occur within our own lives. Without understanding these habits we could subconsciously close ourselves off to information that could be important to our education. I like to refer to these habits of the mind as Cognitive Biases. Officially, they can be thought of as systematic errors in thinking as a result of subjective perception. Cognitive Biases act as filters between us and the outside world. We view the world through whichever lense our minds naturally applies to a situation. If we don’t see the world objectively, then we see the world through our biases and that can prevent us from learning information that we don’t know we need. Understanding our cognitive biases, or unconscious filters, is our best shot at keeping them at bay so we can be best prepared for the worst that Fortuna has to throw at us. (I’ve been reading a lot of stoic philosophers recently)

Understanding these biases helps with critical thinking development. We all have biases and it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to remove them completely, but we can develop more reliable ways of learning through our bias. This could be achieved through seeking out people who will challenge and critique our ideas. Not learning about our own biases will keep us in a bubble. Our minds will filter out important information because we believe it to be useless. Through understanding our biases of the world and ourselves, our education falls into our control rather than having our minds unconsciously run the show.

Cognitive Bias (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

Types of Cognitive Bias

Below are a few examples of cognitive biases that, if understood well, could help us maximize our learning and make our minds an ally rather than an enemy:

Disconfirmation Principle

This principle describe the phenomena where people tend to accept new information that support their already held beliefs, and are more likely to refuse new information that challenge their beliefs.

I try to pay attention to any current beliefs that I have now and what new information I quickly reject because it doesn’t align with my beliefs. Just because something supports what we already believe doesn’t mean it’s true or that it will help us. It’s important for us to do a detached analysis of all the information we are presented with. Its healthy to keep a small degree of skepticism, but it’s useful to consider that we may just be dismissing something simply because we don’t agree.

Confirmation Bias

This describes the tendency to interpret new information as evidence to support your already existing beliefs.

This is different than disconfirmation principle. Confirmation bias is saying that we will look at information and try to make it support our already held beliefs. This is dangerous because it can lead to overconfidence and overconfidence can tank our test scores and lead us to make terrible decisions. The overconfidence comes from seeing constant validations everywhere we go. Thinking that everything supports our ideas can delude us into thinking that we always come to correct conclusions. It is important to be aware of this “mind habit” and remain objective, as we can be, when obtaining new knowledge.

Belief Preservation

The tendency to keep believing an initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or disproves the initial belief.

This reminds me of a mentally ill patient I once had who honestly thought the sky was green. When we took her outside, she saw that the sky was grey (it was raining that day) and refused to believe that the sky wasn’t green. Now it’s easy to think that since she’s not completely alert and oriented, she’s not going to follow the same conventions as everyone else but even if we are open minded, we have a natural tendency to keep holding on to our beliefs even if everything around us tells us were wrong. The best way to prevent belief preservation from hindering our growth is to recognize it’s there when it comes up and try to look at new information regardless of your personal feelings.

Conviction Bias

This bias is best summed up with the statement “I believe it strongly, so it must be true.”

We are so strongly captured by some of our beliefs that we mistake them to be truth. In order to remain open, we must constantly question the beliefs we tend to hold as truths. (I do think a little too often sometimes and wonder if I’m crazy but there is an optimal balance to be achieved) We cannot become too attached to our beliefs. Who we are and what we believe do not have to be the same thing. Learning something to be false that we believe so strongly has a punishing feel and has consequences deeper than we can see. It’s totally possible to be so rooted in our ways that we sacrifice who we could be for who we are.

Appearance Bias

This has less to do with incoming information and more to do with people that we encounter. This bias describes the assumption that we know and understand the people that we deal with and that we see them for who we are.

It is important to understand that we do not see people for who there are, but we see them as they appear to us. It’s a great piece of knowledge to bring with you throughout life but can also bring us success in the academic world. Do not think that you know a teacher, or a professor, or a student based on what you can see. Everyone is just as, or even more, complicated as you. Keep an open mind and notice when you start to think that you have someone figured out. They may know something you don’t and that knowledge may bring you incredible insights into the world. In order to maintain a grip on my appearance bias, I try to listen to people as if they always have something they can teach me.

Group Bias

This is regarding the lie we tell ourselves when we are in groups; we have our own ideas and don’t listen to the opinions of a group. Within a group, our thoughts are rarely our own, but are of the group and its very likely that the group will come to a conclusion that is incorrect. We are social creature and NEED to conform. This is the basis for groupthink and group polarization and can lead to dangerous outcomes. This is not to say that group work isn’t great. We can get far more done as a group than as an individual, but that trade isn’t for free. We sacrifice a bit of autonomy and individualized thinking.

Group bias is something we should look out for when we are group studying or working on group projects. Make sure that the group does not lead you astray by learning incorrect information. Its very easy to think that you understand a concept because you understand how the group looks at it, but it’s very possible that everyone in the group is incorrect. Group bias and confirmation bias can be a deadly combination, I learned this lesson the hard way when I took Physical Chemistry at Cal State Long Beach. I studied with a group and we all thought we understood what was going on, but we all ended up failing the test.

Blame Bias

The idea that we pretend that we learn from our mistakes but actually hate to look at our imperfections closely, which limits our ability for introspection and reflection.

Learning from our mistakes is usually the best way to learn anything but keep in mind that we cannot learn from our mistakes all on our own. It’s best to look to someone who knows more about your endeavor so they can help you explore why you made those mistakes in the first place. We all have blind spots and we need others to help us see them. We are a social creature after all! Additionally, being aware of this bias allows you to have a slightly deeper insight into your errors than you naturally would have.

Superiority Bias

The idea that we believe that we are different, more rational, and more ethical than other people.

Most people probably wouldn’t say this out loud but deep down we believe it. This is why we get so upset when we see other people make dumb mistakes or think “everyone else” is so terrible. It is important to keep in mind that we are more similar to other people than different and pitfalls that most people can fall into are probably a danger to us as well. Everyone believes that they are smart, capable, independent, and good. Keep in mind that you are not as superior as you might think and you will go very far in life and in learning. Humility removes a lot of unnecessary friction and coming to terms with our own delusions of grandiosity helps with our progress.

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

When we attribute other people’s errors to internal factors, and our own errors to external factors.

An example of this would be when someone cuts you off while driving. It’s easy to think that they cut you off because they are a terrible person. But if you were the one who would have cut them off, it would have been because “you had to” or “you were in a rush” and it’s not because you are bad person. FAE is a type of Self-Serving Bias, which are a set of biases that protect our self esteem or where we see ourselves in an overly favorable manner. Knowing this can help you be more patient with others and you can catch yourself when you start to think that one of your mistakes may be due to outside circumstances.

Neglect of Probability

The tendency to disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.

During my time in school I’ve always wondered why I had to learn something and didn’t bother learning a lot of it because I figured that most of that information would never come up. Turns out, I used more of it than I expected, like all the advanced math I use daily because I’m a math tutor. When we’re presented with new information we make a choice to learn it based on if we think it will be useful to us in the future, but this bias demonstrates that we naturally disregard actual the probability that it can come up again. It’s difficult to predict if it will come up at all and if we knew the probability, chances are we’d ignore the raw data and believe what makes feel good. This is true not just with learning but with many of the decisions of our lives. We should try to think about how often we may need the information we may learn and not be satisfied with a surface level analysis or even with what other people will tell us. Academic topics taught earlier on are taught for a reason and topics later will very likely build upon the assumption that you proficiently learned all of the topics prior, and the answers to the problems of life require a sophisticated synthesis of all the information you’ve been exposed to and internalized.

Availability Heuristic

We determine how likely something is by how easily we can recall events of it happening in our brain.

An example of this would be a medical assistant who is working in a stroke center believes that strokes occur more often than they actually do because they can remember many instances when someone had a stroke. Another could be a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD can easily view a patient’s pathologies and conclude ADHD because they believe it is highly probable that the patient has ADHD, but the psychiatrist only believes that ADHD is highly probable because he can recall many events of people having ADHD. Just because we can recall an event easily, doesn’t mean it has a high probability of occuring often.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This is a theory that suggests people tend to believe their cognitive ability is higher than it actually is.

My explanation above suggests the relationship between knowledge and perceived ability is linear but it’s more nuanced. As we learn more about a subject, our perceptions adjust from the initial ignorant and confident position following the graph below. I love graphs because they explain concepts better than I can with words.

Confidence vs. Knowledge of Field based on Dunning-Kruger

Priming Bias

Our tendency to be included by what someone else as said or made to create a preconceived idea.

This happens to me all the time with meal ideas. Someone will mention an In-N-Out double double in a conversation and a few hours later if someone else asks me what I want to eat, I’ll say I want a double double from In-N-Out and I will have completely believed this was my own idea. This is a big reason why I try to limit my social media use, I don’t like the idea that my thoughts could be decided by someone else’s poorly thought-through comment or that the standards for my life and myself could be created by other people’s standards. Our ideas aren’t always our own, and it’s useful to recognize that.

Hindsight Bias

Also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect which is our tendency to see events in the past as highly predictable.

Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to wonder why we didn’t act differently when we were younger. “Last year, I couldn’t have even fathom the depths of my ignorance” is the phrase I’m telling myself every year and I tend to be a harsh judge of younger Chris’ choices. The truth is, in the present moment it’s difficult to know which is the path most aligned with our Jungian Self. When we reflect back on our decisions, it’s important to keep that in mind that our past selves were trying to make the best choices they could at the time, unless you know they weren’t. Hindsight bias makes the past make sense and with the knowledge comes a harsh judgment on our past selves. Hindsight bias gets in the way of compassion for yourself and can distort your narrative. Watch it closely, we never really knew it all along.


A big part of managing cognitive biases is taking a little extra time to recognize the patterns and reevaluating what we really think about something. Cognitive biases are strong forces in the mind, but we can overcome them by taking a little time and slowing down.

There are a huge number of cognitive biases that can help you with your learning and life in general and I recommend taking time to learn more of them. These were just a few of the biases that I have found relevant to student success and my own life. Understanding these biases, or “mind habits,” will give us power over our natural tendencies to filter information. Be aware of them when they come up and approach all new knowledge with an open mindset and healthy skepticism.

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.

Categories
Education Productivity

The Valley of Disappointment

“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”

James Clear

The Expectancy Curve

In James Clear’s fantastic book Atomic Habits, he explains the idea of the expectancy curve. I think it’s a great tool to overcome imposter syndrome or any other form of the attack. The expectancy curve helps us keep going by giving us a frame to understand our insufficiencies.

Whenever we learn something new, we expect our progress to follow a straight line but in reality our progress is more parabolic. This results in a period of time when we are performing at a lower level than we’re expecting. This time period is called The Valley of Disappointment and it’s duration depends on the skill and how much deliberate practice we choose to put in.

When we feel like we’re underperforming, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t “meant” to do that new thing but all we need to do is stick with our newfound skill until we reach the critical point. The critical point is where the level of our skill matches our expectations. When we reach the critical point we stop suffering from imposter syndrome, feel more confident in our abilities, and (most importantly) keep developing our skills.

Most people stop cultivating their skills when they’re in the valley of disappointment but the ones who make it to the critical point can start to reap the benefits of their faith, consistency, and hard work.

I’ve seen this play out in a number of skills but I found this especially true in music production, hurdling, and cooking.

It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to the critical point. When I first took up music production, I was told that I would have to practice producing for 5 years before I would be able to compose, mix, and master a song from start to finish.

This was me kind of understanding The Expectancy Curve and The Valley of Disappointment years before I could articulate it. The idea of The Valley of Disappointment and taking 5 years before I could complete a song gave me a longer time frame for proficiency. This longer time frame is what made it easier for me to cut myself some slack. That freedom to make mistakes helped me grow. I always thought that made me a little insane but [Kobe Bryant] talks about having the freedom to make mistakes and how that leads to accelerated growth too.

This isn’t to say that The Valley of Disappointment isn’t a tough place to be. It’s easy to think all the work we’re putting in is futile and insane but it isn’t. The work we put in while we’re in the valley is exactly what gives us the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of our labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Our efforts compound over time and this is especially true with skill development.

It’s difficult to move past The Valley of Disappointment but I do think as we learn more we find peace in our insufficiencies. The more I learned about music production, the more I realized that the experienced producers who said music production had a 5 year valley of disappointment were right. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. (Which totally applies to everything btw)

“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” 

Chinese proverb

The whole idea is to stick with things for a while. Ask people in the field how long it took them to feel comfortable and confident in their position. I remember an ER doc saying it took him 10 years before he felt like he reach his critical point. Proficiency take time.

I find that knowing The Valley of Disappointment exists helps me get through it. The upset is temporary and I know I’m right around the corner from being a badass.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

The 20 Hour Rule and Metaskills



“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” 

Robert Greene (1959 – )

A lot of people I talk to are familiar with the 10,000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to obtain mastery of a given skill, but not as many of us are familiar with the 20 hour rule.

According the Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours, it only takes 20 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to learn a new skill. We don’t need 10,000 to learn something new and learning a new skill doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. 20 hours is all it takes.

Success in any field is simply learning a specific combination of skills. This means that success anywhere is just a few sets of 20 hour intervals. We can fast track our way to stellar performance by deconstructing the things we want to do into their individual skills.

The combination of all of our skills will be our arsenal to solve problems that we encounter through life. Our skills are what we sell to employers and what we implement to impact in the world.

Metaskills

Success is great, but that’s not the best part. Some of the skills you learn in one place can count towards the success in another. I refer to these skills as metaskills. This means that once you learn one thing, learning other things consequently becomes easier.

I noticed this after I became a proficient musician. Some of the skills I developed to become a musician were also necessary for learning other things, like being a good student, tutor, or EMT. Being a good student also helped me become a better music producer. This is because when I was developing myself as I student, I was developing skills like:

  • self-control
  • time management
  • stress management
  • independent thought habits
  • embracing my uniqueness
  • patience
  • problem solving
  • initiative
  • discipline
  • and many more..

Which can all be used in other areas of life. So as I got became a better student, I became a better everything because. Use The 20 Hour rule to develop your metaskills and see how success in one domain is similar to success in another.

Some people say it gets more difficult to learn things as you get older, but I think thats wrong. If we spend our time learning the metaskills, learning new things actually becomes easier over time.

Some other metaskills I’d recommend focusing on are:

  • writing
  • meditation
  • leadership
  • studying
  • critical listening
  • learning to say no
  • decision making (Click here to understand our decision making process more)
  • quantitative reasoning
  • self-awareness
  • creativity
  • resilience
  • scheduling (Click here for tips on developing scheduling)

I try to make a little time every day to develop my metaskills, even if it’s just 5 minutes. 5 minutes every day for a year is 30 hours. How do conquer the world? One skill at a time.