We’ve all been through the sufferings that being stuffed with vocabularies, definitions, and formulas into our brains when in school. It’s like the objective of learning is to see who has the most incredible memories of content in the textbooks, especially in many Asian countries. Being acting like “exam machines”, the result is often that we forget what we had studied and memorized right after the exam. However, there are ways to learn effectively and efficiently with less effort instead of cramming all stuff into your brain at once.
Contrary to the traditional concept that one must make use of every waking moment actively memorizing, learning, practicing to master what they want to learn, here I want to talk about the art of relaxation and how it help improve your learning.
Before we start, I want to explain the idea of “chunking”, which is the basis of learning everything. All knowledge or skills we’ve learned, we learned them by chunking, i.e. uniting bits of information together through meaning. Each chunk is a network of neurons in our brain, which can then be integrated with other small chunks and form bigger chunks.
As we make the chunks bigger, we become more familiar with the area. For example, when learning origami, at first we learn how to make a mountain fold or valley fold, and then we learn how to use mountain folds and valley folds to form some basic shapes. Then we learn how to combine those basic shapes to form different kinds of beautiful works. The process of integrating small pieces of information together into a whole concept is called “chunking”.
Once a chunk is formed, we don’t have to remember all the underlying details; knowing the main idea is enough. For example, we don’t have to remember all the steps of “opening the window”; by holding the thought alone, we can accomplish the task.
Learning continues when you are relaxed
Now let’s get to the business. Do you know that we human have two thinking modes – the focus mode and the diffuse mode? When we are focusing on thinking or learning something with undivided attention, our brains are under the focus mode, meaning our brains are busying making new neural patterns, i.e. chunking (ex: associate “s” “u” “n” together as the word “sun”), or retrieving and strengthening the patterns that has already been built (ex: repeating the spelling of “sun”).
We all know very well how the focus mode can help us strengthen our memories and improve our studying performance, but we know little about the diffuse mode, when our brain is relaxed.
I like to imagine the brain under the diffuse mode as soaking a wet watercolor painting into the water. The fine lines drew start to get blurred, and colors start to mix with each other. The painting seems to become a mess, but the boundaries among different color sections are dissolved. This is when the isolated chunks find their ways to their brothers and sisters, and when the creativity is born.
For example, the teacher is explaining the conjugations of a verb, and you feel like your brain has turned into mush and couldn’t process anything at all, but you still try to remember everything the teacher says. After the class, you give yourself a break, and let all the pieces in your brain fall into place gently. Without your knowing, the neurons in your brain are now reaching out for each other, forming connections and patterns. Then, when the next session begins, and the teacher writes the verb on the blackboard again, you find yourself able to conjure its conjugations in mind naturally.
This is the magic of the diffuse mode, and this is how relaxation can strengthen the learning process
Sleep on your problems
There are many ways to switch your brain into diffuse mode, like taking a walk, doing exercise, daydreaming, or even go to sleep.
It might surprise you that sleep can actually help you consolidate your learning. During your sleep, the brain tidies up your ideas and concepts by erasing unimportant memories and strengthening what you want to remember in daytime. It’s like rehearsals of what your brain did when you are awake; it traces the patterns built, and makes the connections stronger and deeper in your memories.
Also, since the conscious self is absent during sleep time, no specific rules of how to go from A to B, different parts of the brain can now communicate with each other randomly, and enable unexpected link to be formed. Therefore, “sleep on your problem to be solved” can actually help you find solution lied deep down in your brain somewhere you don’t normally have easy access of, or help build newer solutions that associate different seemly-unrelated ideas together.
Just forget what you’ve known
However, do you have the experience that you want to solve a problem, and you already have initial thoughts, but your thinking process is blocked somewhere and unable to make a breakthrough?
Well, you’ve just suffered from the Einstellung phenomenon, meaning a known thinking pattern you’ve well developed might prevent better solutions or ideas from being found. It’s just like a trail in the forest formed by the footsteps of hundreds of people; following this trail, you can always find your way out of the forest. However, one day you want to find some mushrooms in the forest, and you go back and forth on the trail but can’t spot any mushrooms aside; you are stuck.
Actually, the mushrooms, or the solutions to your problems, are out there, but you are too familiar with the patterns you created, and unable to bypass them and looking further for other possibilities.
What you need now is “un-know” the pattern you mastered, hold the problem you are solving in mind, and just relax, so the diffuse mode build “hyperlinks” among your initial thought and other chunks deeper in your brain in new ways to solve novel problems.
Take it easy
Some people think that they perform better under certain degree of tension; and they even think that stress helps them to concentrate and memorize more in a short time.
Well, on the contrary, stress might weaken our ability to learn and memorize things.
When the brain is under the focused mode, it actively link different ideas together, forming conceptual patterns and chunks, as an octopus using its tentacles retrieving pieces of information in the brain and building meaningful connections. However, when you are in stress, anger or agony, the “octopus” seems to lose its ability to make some of the connections.
So, the suggestion to learn effectively is to find a quiet and comfortable place, with the least of distractions (like TV, music, internet, people talking, etc.), make yourself calm and peaceful, and don’t put focus on the thoughts that might make you panic, like the deadline of your homework or how difficult it is to prepare for the test. Then, you channel your brain to the focused mode, and let the “octopus” wield its tentacles in and out your memory zones to construct new ideas and chunk them together to help you memorize and understand what you want to learn.
Get into the flow
As we mentioned earlier, focusing on the deadline of your homework might stress you out and hence weaken your productivity. “But the deadline is out there, and the pressure is on…how can I avoid that?” you might ask. Well, here are the tips.
First of all, overcome your procrastination habit and try to start as earlier as possible, so you have enough time to prepare for it (whether the homework or the test). Second, switch to your brain’s focused mode and keep your full attention on your task for a period of time. You might want to use the pomodoro technique here: you set a timer for 25 minutes, during when you pay your undivided attention to your task without any interruption or distraction. And third, get into the flow.
During the study session, we sometimes get stuck because we are worried by the thought of passing an exam, finishing an assignment on time, or finding the solution to a problem that we couldn’t even focus on the task. So the trick is focus on the process, i.e. I’m going to spend some time studying, instead of the product, i.e. I’m going to finish the homework. The process is the flow of time, habits, and actions associated to that flow of time, rather than the actual outcome. Once you tap into the flow, the flow will take you there.
Therefore, say you have a term report due in 3 weeks; instead of procrastinating it till the last minute and piling up all the stress, you might start it from now, do it bit by bit every day, just to get into the flow of it, and let your brain’s diffuse mode to work its magic.
Here is how you can do:
Week 1:Just get familiar with the assignment. Understand the meaning or objective of the assignment. Generate several casual possible ideas or thoughts about it, and gather relative information if possible. No need to try too hard forming specific concepts or meaningful paragraphs; this is time to explore and relax, and let your brain’s diffuse mode link different pieces together randomly to enlist different possibilities.
Week 2: Start to write down consolidated ideas and decide the main concept you want to convey in the report. Compact your thoughts and draft your report; don’t concern about styles, word amount limits, or presentation. The ideas may be still rough and contradictory to each other sometimes, but make use of your brain’s diffuse mode or even your sleep time to help you integrate different ideas and trim off unnecessary parts.
Week 3: Now you can take time to polish your work. But since you know your work too well now, sometimes you might even want to leave it for a while, so you can jump out of the Einstellung phenomenon, and see your work with fresh eyes and new thoughts.
The art of relaxation
One thing I’d like to highlight before ending this article is that focusing on your study, understanding the concept, practicing and repetition are vital and necessary for you to learn well and master what you want to learn. However, the art is to make use of brain relaxation, i.e. the diffuse mode, to facilitate your learning process. Our brains are not dead machines that only operate as we instruct; our brains are alive, full of wonder, and evolving all the time. Learning doesn’t happen only when we are awake and focused. When the brain is relaxed or even under the “sleeping mode”, it’s still busying filing information, rehearsing patterns, and linking chunks in different areas together to generate new and creative ideas.