Learning How to Learn

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
3 min read
Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Learning how to learn is one of life’s most important skills.

The ability to take responsibility for your growth — self-directed learning is a superpower in the age of knowledge abundance.

Ordinary folks want to be entertained. Extraordinary people want education and knowledge. The world’s most successful people are known to read at least one book per week. They are always learning.

Understanding how our brains work can help you learn more efficiently and significantly reduce frustration. Neurological research indicates that we have two distinct fundamental modes of thinking and can only operate in one at a time. Both are needed to help us learn and assimilate information differently.

First, the ‘focused mode’ is used when intently and directly concentrating on something you’re attempting to learn or understand. The ‘diffuse mode’ allows for more creative thinking and broad-range perspectives. This more free-flowing and creative mode is related to the brain’s neural resting states.

The diffuse mode of thinking is best applied when the problem you’re working on requires new ideas or approaches or concepts you haven’t even thought of before.

The diffuse mode is related to creativity and originality. Here is a quote from Monty Python member John Cleese that describes the diffuse mode approach:

“This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later, you will get a reward from your unconscious.”

In the absence of actually having thought a particular thought before, you can’t know how the neural pattern associated with the target thought ‘feels’, or which neural connections give rise to it (and indeed where these connections need to occur in the brain). So the interesting philosophical question is — how can we develop a novel thought in the first place?

To sharpen our understanding of these two fundamental modes, we’re going to draw a pictorial analogy between the neural framework of the brain and a pinball machine. Incidentally, both metaphor and analogy are powerful learning tools.

The focused mode of thinking can be visualized as a densely packed array of pinball machine bumpers, making it difficult for a specific thought (the pinball in this analogy) to travel around and explore different regions. Similarly, the diffuse mode has far more expansive spaces between bumpers, facilitating new neural connections and thought patterns.

The more relaxed diffuse mode offers a valuable big picture perspective. Indeed, you can’t focus as intensely to finalize problem-solving or understand the finer aspects of a concept — yet the diffuse mode enables you to get to the initial place you need to be to go about finding a solution.

When learning something new, especially something difficult, your mind needs to smoothly transition back and forth between the two fundamental learning modes to assimilate the desired material best. So let’s drop in one more analogy to conclude this section. The most effective way to build neural structures, and thus knowledge, is to do a little work each day over an extended period instead of resorting to frenzied last-minute cramming.

In the same way, muscles can only be developed little by little through sustained commitment over a prolonged period. Neural structures also have to be built up steadily over time to ensure robust and reliable foundations of knowledge.

The care and feeding of our brain is critical to acquiring and retaining knowledge.

The path to success is the continuous pursuit of knowledge.

Success is the product of accumulative advantage. When it comes to personal development “sudden” is the result of a lot of “gradual.”

Staying on the path and making incremental progress requires combating procrastination.

The best thing a person can do is help another person learn more.

Check out my book Learning How to Learn: Learn to be a Learning Ninja.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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