Coursera is an online education service that opens up thousands of courses to people around the world who want to further their education from their computer. All courses are free, but certification is available for around $50. My first course was Learning How to Learn from UC San Diego. I did not pay for certification, but it was an enjoyable experience. The final project is to explain a few of the topics covered in the course in one of a variety of media. As a blogger, I naturally chose this space. What follows is a brief overview and expansion on the some of the ideas mentioned during the course.
Essentially, learning is the compilation of memories into useful ideas. This, of course, requires the effective building of memories. In order best to grow our memories, we must understand how memory works. In this exploration, we will find that sleep plays a crucial role in both the storage and synthesis of information. Here, I will provide some background information on how memory works, sleep’s role in the process of learning, and some techniques to capitalize on this information.
The course uses a variety of analogies to explain memory. Long term memory is seen as a warehouse of information that can be recalled at any time, whereas working memory is depicted as a blackboard on which our writing becomes fuzzy with time. While these analogies are useful as learning aids, they do not accurately explain the true nature of memory. In fact, memories are not stored in discreet locations like bits of data on a hard disk, but they are the connections between neurons that have been formed during the learning process. Understanding that the foundation of memory is a connection, not a discreet bit of information is essential to understanding how we can best form memories and retain knowledge.
Memories are formed when neurons fire together, thus creating a connection between them and a tendency for them to fire together in the future. This requires, of course, that the neurons be there in the first place. This has two implications: 1) that memories form best when there are other connection to which new connections are added and 2) that further learning requires the continual growth of new neurons. Fortunately, we have ways to facilitate both.
Forming these new connections (or neuronal pathways) occurs when we encounter new experiences and information. When we study something new or face a new challenge, signals from various parts of our brains are sent to other areas that might be of use. When we repeat these exercises (preferably over increasing periods of time), those pathways become stronger. The stronger the pathway, the easier the knowledge is to recall. If a new idea is similar to a familiar one, the new neuronal path will share much with the old one, and thus, the new information will be more easily retained. This is how we can, in fact, change the way our brain works.
We must also consider the fact that building new pathways will require new cells altogether. Fortunately, our brains are building new neurons all the time. One proven way to optimize this growth is through physical exercise. When our brain creates a new neuron (mostly in the hippocampus – the main memory center), the new cells are quite weak and feeble. Without proper stimulation, they will quickly die. Studies have shown that exercise increases the maturation process of newborn neurons. In other words, working out helps your brain grow. With all of these new neurons, researchers have seen an increase in neuroplasticity, or the ability of your brain to change and develop.
As we have seen, two key components to learning are building connections and growing new cells. Both of these processes are receptive to our actions. New challenges and experiences help our brains build new connections between our neurons, and physical exercise helps new cells survive and serve as junctions for the neuronal pathways.
As anyone who has tried to actually use the knowledge they supposedly learned for an exam will know, learning new information is only half the battle. Without the ability to retain that information, it is useless. Though envisioning a massive repository where information sits in nice compartments isn’t exactly accurate, the course’s description of long term memory as a warehouse is useful in understanding that information in our long term memory will be accessible well into the future. The key is getting our brains to move that information from our short term memory banks that may last only a day to our long term memory where it can remain useful for years. Recent studies have shown that sleep plays an integral role in this process.
For many, myself included, sleep was just that time between actually being productive, and minimizing that wasted time was a perpetual mark of honor. However, as we learn more about this mysterious time of unconsciousness, we begin to find that it may be even more important than our waking hours in terms of cognitive health. When we sleep, our brain enters two distinct types of activity: slow wave sleep and REM sleep. In slow wave sleep, our brain gradually becomes less and less active as we drift deeper into unconsciousness. However, at the depths of unconsciousness, something surprising happens: Our brains seem to come alive again. This is known as REM sleep (named for the Rapid Eye Movements that often accompany it), and our brains are doing a lot of work even if we aren’t awake to experience it.
While we are sleeping, our brains are doing extraordinary things with the information we have picked up during the day. Particularly during REM sleep, our brains are actively organizing new information. While studies showing the effects of REM sleep on general learning have some conflict, substantial evidence has been found to show that periods of REM sleep significantly aid memory-intensive learning like a new language or complex task. Where sleep seems to have less effect is in the memorization of simple facts such as names of historical figures or obscure mathematical rules. Key in all of this, though, is the time of sleep. First of all, there is a limited window for which the information is available to be moved to long term memory. Studies like this one have found that sleeping shortly after learning new information significantly enhances the retention of memories the next day. Secondly, the amount of time we spend sleeping is important. Only about a quarter of our time in sleep is this all-important REM sleep, so even with a full eight hours of rest, we only get two hours of REM sleep. This is enough for most of us, but less starts to show significant memory impairment among other negative effects. Especially if you are trying to learn a problem solving method, a new language, or a new physical task, getting a full night’s rest is critical.
IV. Proven learning techniques
With all of this theory, it may seem that this is all an academic exercise. It is far more than that. As this course was designed to help students effectively learn the information their schools are providing, all of this research into memory and sleep does have practical applications. Here I would like to focus on one technique that applies across the spectrum of learning: seeking a variety of activities.
As we have learned, memory is not simply independent bits of data stored in our brains. Memories and knowledge are actually the connections between the cells in our brains. This means that simply trying to pack our brains with all the information we need for the next test or project is wasted effort. We have seen that the best way to build these connections is through new experience and exercise.
Scientific American labeled this form of learning “seeking novelty” in 2011 article about developing intelligence. When we think of many of the great minds of history (Einstein, Newton, Hawking, Galileo), we find that these people were often polymaths. They did not spend their entire lives entwined in their work. We may know them best for their popular discoveries, but their lives were far more complex. It is rumored that Albert Einstein got the spark for his theory of general relativity while hanging out with his good friend and noteworthy idol in a completely different field, Charlie Chaplin. Isaac Newton may be remembered for his theories of kinematics, but he was truly passionate about alchemy and religious studies. Certainly the varied lives of these men influenced their great discoveries.
We may not need our experiences to lead to groundbreaking discovery (though that would nice), but changing our focus can be essential to understanding concepts. The course refers to the benefit of interleaving, the practice of moving away from a subject you’re studying and returning to it later. This can be done in an individual study session or – even better – over the course of many study sessions. If new experiences help build stronger connections between neurons, we should spend our time between studying doing things that will challenge and expand our minds. This could be exploring an unfamiliar subject, going to an unfamiliar place, or meeting someone new. Better yet, include physical activity in these things. Pick up a new active hobby, explore an unfamiliar place, or my personal favorite, travel.
I found Coursera because I wanted a way to continue my education while living a life on the move. I have written this entire assignment while on the KTX, Korea’s high speed rail system that connects Seoul in the north to Busan in the south. During my travels, I constantly face new challenges and experience new things. When sights like the new development that is prevalent along this corridor reminds me of the way new neurons form and are sustained by the connections to others, I can better remember the process of neuroplasticity. When I encounter situations in which my Korean language skills fail me, I console myself with the fact that learning takes time, just like allowing the mortar to dry when building a brick wall (an analogy used in the course). As a backpacker, I am walking and hiking a lot (in addition to a personal fitness routine), so I get plenty of exercise on the road. Though the effects may not be immediately obvious, the science tells me that every kilometer I have to walk to get to the next attraction or meeting place helps my new neurons mature and strengthen.
Most importantly, though, is that in all of this we recognize the importance of sleep. As we build these new connections through experiences and new information, our brains need time away from our hectic conscious world to organize and store everything. I often find that travel and new experience leave me far more exhausted at the end of the day than a day full of perfunctory study. As someone who occasionally has trouble sleeping, this is yet another argument in favor of seeking novelty.
Throughout this course, we have learned about the processes that our brains go through as we learn. For me, the two most important pieces of this puzzle to understand are the basics of memory and the importance of sleep. Memory is not simply bits of data, but it is the web of connections that permeate our brains. The strongest of these connections comes from new experience, and we can best enable the growth of new nodes for these connections through exercise. Maintaining this memory takes time, and the critical time comes in the form of the mysterious state of unconsciousness, sleep. When we sleep, our bodies may be static, but our brains are hard at work. In order to use this information, we should seek novelty in our lives. Learn something new, challenge yourself, and explore your world. These are all ways to increase your ability to learn the information that you need.