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

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

Understanding Development and Mentors

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”

Jean Piaget (1896 -1980 )

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a concept developed by soviet Psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The ZPD is the difference between what someone can do and what they cannot do. In this zone, the person can learn new skills with aid from someone more experienced. To make things easier, let’s refer to the person learning as the “child” and the person giving aid as the “adult.” However, the ZPD does not necessarily only apply to children. It applies to anyone learning something new.

The ZPD changes for each individual and as the domain of unaided skills increases so does the ZPD and the domain of skills that cannot be done decreases.

Piaget and Constructivism

Jean Piaget was a famous Swiss developmental psychologist who was best known for his work in genetic epistemology and constructivism. I highly recommend looking into his work if you work or spend lots of time with kids. Piaget believed that people build new representations of the world on top of their preexisting knowledge in which the new interpretation would incorporate the old interpretation. This is the basis of constructivism.

I like to look at it like this – we can use a bronze axe to chop down a tree, but over time we changed the bronze to steel, and eventually we replace the axe with a power saw. Each of these tools can still cut the tree down but over time the tools we use to get the job done become more comprehensive, efficient, and effective. The same goes for our ways of interpreting the world. When we’re young, we see things a certain way and as we get older we learn new things which explain everything we understood before and more!

The same thing happens in science as well. Isaac Newton founded an entire field of study known as Newtonian physics and it explains so much of what happen in the material objective world but it was unable to explain a few things like how light seemed to travel the same speed no matter which way it was pointing. Over time, a little German boy named Albert Einstein came up with his Theory of Relativity and blew out the doors in the world of physics. Now, Newtonian physics is a subset of Einsteinian physics. Einstein’s theories explain everything Newton was able to explain plus more and this is exactly how we build our own understandings of the world.

Piaget’s constructivist theory works in tandem with Vygotsky’s ZPD theory. We start off with understanding very little but that helps us expand our understanding and this is useful because the world we live in is infinitely complicated and we don’t know very much about the absolute state of being so we need to be able to constantly update our perceptual systems. We can get this updated information through mentorship (we can find the answers ourselves but we make much more progress with mentors), asking the right questions, exploration, and play.

Build a Panel of Mentors

In Game of Thrones, (and in many historical monarchies as well) the king had a small council to advise him on matters outside his expertise. I fell in love with this idea but I found myself frustrated of the king’s small council. I wouldn’t have filled my council with tyrannical sociopaths but with mentors and other people that I look up to. We should all strive to build a small council of mentors.

Building a small council, reading books, taking time to cultivate ourselves will help us expand our domains of unaided skills. When I first graduated from college, I felt ill equipped to handle the world and I knew I needed to learn new things. At the time, I didn’t have a traditional mentor or someone to model myself after but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t keep growing.

I found the works of incredible people and they acted as my guide when I found myself in pitfalls or moments of confusion. These people included Jordan Peterson, Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Seneca, and many others. I highly recommend building your own personal panel of advisors. It’s great if you can have one in person, but if you don’t have immediate access to mentors then check out the works of the people that you would like to have advise you. I recommend creating a balanced panel in terms of personal specialty. I believe different people do better in different situations and the panel should be diverse enough to have strengths in all situations. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and a balanced panel’s member’s strengths should compliment the weaknesses of the others. What Seneca lacks in 21st century technology knowledge, Tim Ferriss provides in just 1 book. What Tim lacks in timeless wisdom, Seneca provides in just 1 book. Both of them on my panel ensures I have the best of both worlds.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Create a mastermind of the best people you can imagine and make that team unstoppable.


Everything you need to learn to be an excellent and whatever you want is within your ZPD. Here is a list of difficult skills that, if developed properly, pay off for the rest of your life:

  • Life long learning and skill acquisition 
  • Grit development
  • Adaptability
  • Silencing your inner critic
  • Learning to say no
  • Critical thinking 
  • Creative thinking 
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Decision making
  • Writing
  • Leadership
  • Personal effectiveness
  • Persuasion
  • Cooking
  • Reflection
  • Compassion
  • Meditation
  • Self-control

These are great starting points if you aren’t sure which skills are worth developing. Honestly though, developing yourself in all of these things will take a lifetime, so I recommend finding which skills are most relevant to you and prioritize accordingly. I talk more about this in my post The 20 Hour Rule and Metaskills.

Developing ourselves is a huge undertaking and requires a bunch of effort, but what else do we have better to do? If we’re better people, we do better, and we cannot fathom the reach of our actions.

Categories
Education Productivity

The Transition Curve

“You realize that you will never be the best-looking person in the room. You’ll never be the smartest person in the room. You’ll never be the most educated, the most well-versed. You can never compete on those levels. But what you can always compete on, the true egalitarian aspect to success, is hard work. You can always work harder than the next guy.”

Casey Neistat (1981- )

Beginner’s luck — it’s totally a thing. There’s actually an entire pathway that illustrates our levels of competence when we learn a new skill. This pathway easily explains the stages from day 1 to total mastery, The Transition Curve was developed as a result from a study at Cranfield University School of Management.

The study suggests that the transition curve can be applied to the individual and organizational level. So people and companies would follow something similar to this pathway whenever they are learning something new.

The transition curve shows competence and confidence levels over time. This is scientific evidence for the idea that:

At first you’re going to stuck, but if you keep practicing you will get better.

or the age old dictum:

Practice makes perfect.

I found that this curve to be pretty accurate with my own personal experience too. I’ve gone through these stages with multiple skills. It was true when I was learning how to play the guitar, bass, drums, ukulele, produce music, tutor, write, drive, be an EMT…you name it.

Stae Jez Ov Comp Pe Taunce (2019) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

The Stages of Transition

Shock

When we are first introduced to a new activity we are shocked that we encounter something that we are unable to do. It sounds arrogant, but it’s true. It’s surprising to encounter something that we don’t know how to handle. Check out the slight dip that happens right at the beginning of the curve. That’s from the shock. We usually start off decent at most skills, but the shock from being confronted by unexpected circumstances throws us off our game a little bit.

Note – the more unexpected the new skill or circumstance the larger the initial dip in competence

I like to think that we’re pretty tough cookies, and it’s true because most people don’t usually quit during this stage.

Denial

We deny that we’re bad at something and it actually makes us perform a little better but eventually our delusions get the better of us and our competence starts to decline.

Barring the incredibly few exceptions — without hours of deliberate practice and mistakes, we cannot be highly competent at anything. Any skill worth mastering will be difficult and anything difficult will take time to master. Do not let the guise of a slight short term improvement delude you into thinking that you have mastered something.

Awareness of Incompetence

Awareness of our incompetence starts to dig at us. Our confidence and competence plummets. We start feeling worse and worse about our abilities. This is where most people will get trapped and stop practicing a skill. This is where the quitters get off the train.

This stage is where all the convincing excuses will come up. “I’m not a ___ person anyway.” “This is way too hard.” “This is pointless.” “I’m too busy for this.” The list is endless.

I think the best way to get through this stage is to know that difficult times are coming and they will pass. Keep practicing and remember that every urge to quit is just a trap preventing us from learning something new.

Acceptance

Once we’ve hit rock bottom, we finally accept that we don’t know how to do this. This allows us to learn as much as we can about it with minimal egoic resistance. This can be a brutal place. Rock bottom is lovely for our growth and development but it feels terrible when we are there and is often hard to recognize too. So that leads me to the question:

Why do we have to reach rock bottom before we start getting better?

There are many reasons. One is to breakdown the ego which can prevent us from taking in new information. Another is because we don’t understand the dangers of our actions. Rock bottom is a natural place, so don’t be spooked once you’re there. We can try to avoid it, but true mastery comes after we’ve risen from the ashes.

I believe some of the lessons to be learned from hitting rock bottom are:

  • humility
  • discipline
  • rigor
  • consistency
  • tenacity
  • there are so many that they need their own blog post…

It’s one thing to read about these lessons or keep them in mind for others, but it is another thing entirely to internalize these lessons from life experience. Go out and make mistakes. Learn as much as you can.

Testing

This is when we start applying the new things we learn, smoothing out the rough edges, and learning from our mistakes.  We start to see the big things that we do which prevent us from being competent and correct them accordingly. We start to toss out techniques or perspectives only held by novices.

If we are tenacious enough to get to this stage, then us could consider ourselves “official” students of the craft. We’ll experience the most growth and strength from this stage and the next. According to Nietzsche, “People do not seek pleasure and avoid displeasure. People seek more power and in the will of that seek resistance. For aiming at a lofty goal and being thwarted in that pursuit builds strength within us.” When we see our actions move us towards a goal we feel happy, but we feel even better when we meet resistance while trying to reach that goal. This stage is filled with opportunities for that level of growth. Our competence is really low here but we feel pretty good striving to be better.

Search for Meaning

Once we get decent at this skill, we start to dissect why certain methods work and others do not. All the hours of trial and error, along with the deliberate practice, gives us a clearer understanding of how to be competent. We use multiple perspectives and experiences to synthesize our results and draw conclusions as to why certain techniques work. Now, we can really develop ourselves strategically within a skill.

Once we know why we are doing something, we are able to apply our knowledge in various situations. My girlfriend tells me that’s what real intelligence is — the ability to apply knowledge in different situations. In terms of The Transition Curve, this stage is a fun place to be.

Integration

In this stage, we have found ways to weave this skill into our everyday lives. We take our competence (consequently raising our confidence) to a place higher than ever when we internalize the knowledge and skills required for mastery. A thorough understanding of strategies, hours of deliberate practice, and a steady foundation of the fundamentals can take us here. This is the ideal stage and where we want to be with everything we learn. It’s the best place to work from. Your skill takes less energy to execute and you are able to maneuver well through complication situations.

So what does this all mean?

There are stages to learning something new, similar to grief or change. These stages are temporary and will pass with dedicated practice and a rigorous commitment to learning.

Learning about The Transition Curve has helped me get some clarity around why I felt like I was on a rollercoaster every time I was learning something new.

Know the tough times are coming. Prepare for them. Meet them with a strong belief in yourself. Work diligently. Master everything.