How to learn ?

15 minutes read —
Learning takes time

Mastering any topic of interest takes time. In fact author Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10 000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery of any given field. To get to that number, he picked up on a research done by Anders Ericsson among violin students. The guy found out that the most accomplished players among them had reached 10 000 thousand hours of practice time before they were 20. Gladwell pursued this analysis by examining figures such as the Beatles or Bill Gates. Turns out they all put in their 10 000 hours before they made the contributions they’re most well known for. Now, obviously ; 10 000 thousand hours is a bit of an arbitrary number. You might even say a gross over-simplification. Maybe we’re talking a bit over that figure, maybe somewhat under. Most likely that would depend on a variety of factors. But the point remains ; mastering a topic requires mobilizing vast amounts of time. Considering 6 hours seems to be the very upper-limit of truly focused time one can achieve in a day without burning oneself out ; it would theoretically require almost 5 years of full time studying to master a subject. Less than that and you easily go up to a decade or more. I might add than for those of us with more than one interest ; that number is multiplied by this much. It might be fair to say we’re in for a marathon rather than a sprint. And marathons need preparation. So let’s ask the question ; how to optimize learning ?

Access to information

On the question “what should you learn” ; you’re free to choose, but I would highly suggest learning English as soon as possible. Obviously that check-mark has already been crossed if you are reading this. You might even be a native English speaker. Yet I still want to discuss how much of a meta-skill that is. A meta-skill is essentially a higher-order skill that enables and empowers other skills to happen. Now, when it comes to learning ; as human beings we do most of that from culture. Sure, we’re born with some built-in function, such as the fear of heights or a bunch of other safety skills. But we’re mainly vastly handicapped when we first pop-in the world. We make up from that by picking up from people around us everything that we need to now ; and we quickly realize we need language for that purpose. Unfortunately the language we’re assigned as children is pretty random. For me, I inherited the French build. The thing is ; we live in the 21st century. We have access to a library of knowledge that is updated daily with an additional 2.5 quintillion bits of data. The important part is this : 60.4% of the content online is written in English. That’s huge. If I were to search only in french ; I would be limited to a mere 2.6% of the internet. I would have access to almost 25 times less information. And it’s not even that small a share compared to other languages. On that basis, Russian would be next in line as a language to learn and still, it only represents 8.5% of the internet. Spanish occupies the third spot with a 4% share. I hope I made clear why learning English will assure that all your needs are forever met when it comes to accessing pertinent and up to date information. Once it’s done, you’re ready to go down the rabbit hole of never-ending learning.

Fluid intelligence

The ability to learn new information and problem solve is called fluid intelligence. It stands in opposition to crystallized intelligence which refers to previously learned procedures and knowledge, essentially. In the field of psychology ; fluid intelligence is in large part encompassed through an IQ score. IQ research has been developed in the 1920’s and is a well established branch of psychology by now. It has good predictive validity when it comes to academic achievements, although the big five trait conscientiousness (which you could rebrand as “grit”) also accounts for a significant share of the variance ; the rest being accounted for by socioeconomic factors. The way the IQ tests are designed is as follow ; throw a large number of random test at people. They could be anything. Math problems, general knowledge, vocabulary, anything. See how well people respond. If there’s a correlation between respondents scores on one set of questions and some other set of questions ; then we might assume that there’s something that’s measured that is common across all sets. That something we call generalized intelligence or IQ. An other way to phrase it ; IQ is what is common across all possible sets of intelligence tests.
There’s a bunch of facts that are interesting to know regarding the evolution of your intelligence. For the youngest readers, you should know that you have not reached top speed yet. Your fluid intelligence is going to peak at roughly age 25. It will essentially remain fixed for a while before it will go down significantly as you age towards your sixties. Interestingly no amount of sudoku is going to fix that. The best factor to limit the affects of ageing on intelligence ; is physical activity. It’s all about pumping that blood through the veins and cleaning-up the mess that’s accumulating every day to ensure good O2 supply to the brain.
What’s more ; you should know that insufficient sleep absolutely lowers how well people perform on IQ tests. In fact a bunch of shorter nights in a row can easily translate to a loss of 15 points or more on the scale. Sleeps creates new synapses in your brain and also cleans existing synapses from toxins that accumulate all day every day. You really shouldn’t ever pass on sleep if you can avoid it.

The role of dopamine

If you are going to learn anything, you are going to need some fresh dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that’s involved in motivation regulation. If you can’t get yourself to focus on your learning ; there’s a good chance your brain isn’t releasing associated dopamine ; or to say it at the experience level ; you simply find the subject quite boring and you can’t for the life of you get yourself to enjoy the thing. Turns out dopamine is produced when we do things we enjoy and so enjoying the subject at hand greatly facilitates learning and retention.
Stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine have a direct effect on the production of dopamine in the brain. In fact methamphetamine releases up to 1500 units of dopamine in the brain. To compare that to something you might be familiar with : sex increases dopamine up to 200 units. It ensues that methamphetamine is by far the most pleasant experience one can have, although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone since 19 out of 20 people get addicted to it. One thing it does ; is make the user really interested in mundane shit. Math dunces would suddenly become weirdly passionate about math ; “I would want to be the calculus master and I would study this shit for eight days and eight nights and not even be a little bored of it”. In fact dopamine is such a key element in the equation for what makes a good learner that medication for ADHD people who have trouble staying focused are all essentially stimulant drugs such as metylphenidates and amphetamines ; the most well known among them being Ritalin and Adderall respectively.

The fun in learning

Now ; I need to point out ; distractability is common among intelligent people. In fact it might even be a necessary part of being smart. Being uninterested in a task at hand is one way to see the problem ; an other might be that the dude is more interested in other things crossing his or her attention all the time. If you’re going to have something called generalized intelligence, you’re going to need a mechanism to push you to explore the width of available learning, not just to hammer the same subject in depth (although ADHD also make people hyper-focused when they actually enjoy the topic at hand). When under control, they make for T-shaped learning profiles ; where one is highly competent on a topic or two and also has breadth of knowledge reaching out far from main land.

If you want to maximize for learning ; you will have to go for what you find interesting. This is were the overused “follow your passion” comes into play. What if that part keeps changing however and you lack follow through on anything ? The other, sometimes more practical road to travel would be to learn how to make your learning more enjoyable ; and I mean that without relying on drugs. In fact if you’re going to try and focus on the same thing for years ; it’s going to be downright necessary to do so in some measure. Modern culture is phenomenal at grabbing people’s attention and so I bet we can learn a thing or two from what they do to achieve that result. This is were things such as gamification come into play. Video-games are really good at keeping you aroused and focused for extended periods of time. One reason why is because they keep offering a challenge that’s level with your current skills. It’s not so easy that you get bored, and not so hard that you get anxious and rage quit. This is also -ideally- the role of a good teacher to present the subject in a way that is as interesting as can possibly be ; adapting the material to its student so that he stays engaged. In fact hands-on learning always wins over reading books, especially at that debut phase where one needs to find the curiosity first. On the internet, the video format is the winner when it comes to grabbing people attention ; far out-pacing the written word. The more sensory organs involved, the better.

First principles, learning trees.

Getting into the heart of the matter ; when tackling any subject ; you should consider that field of knowledge as a tree branching out in all kind of directions with a bunch of leafs on the outer periphery. As a learner, your goal should be to unlock the trunk and big branches as fast as possible. They are your fundamental principles on which every little facts and details rest. You need them before you can even properly digest the specifics ; otherwise they won’t have anything to hand onto. You risk collecting a bunch of disjointed knowledge and being unable to make sense of them. As a example you’re likely to have encountered ; think of the branch of mathematics. It is a highly sequential, tree-like field. You might have notice that if you miss a level ; it becomes next to impossible to make sense of the next floor and everything falls flat. You can try to rote learn a solution or two for specific problems but you won’t be able to adapt to even slightly different problem statement. That’s the difference between knowing and understanding. The one who understand can pivot and generate new solutions.
The thing is ; it can take a little while to get those core principles down. In fact the reason recipes are popular is because they are extremely efficient. Staggeringly efficient. Just follow through step one to ten and you’ve got yourself a cake. Easy-peasy. The thing is ; if you develop a sense of the underlying chemistry and some of the fundamentals of cooking ; you start being able to produce not only this cake but any cake really ; new cakes even. You’re no longer a cook but a chef. The one collecting recipes would have acquired a dozen or so different cakes recipes while you would now have a quasi limitless possible cakes list from which to draw at any time ; creativity is unlocked. In exchange for understanding you get exponential growth once all the pieces are in place even though it might take a while to take off the ground.
When considering language acquisition ; the trunk might be grammar while the leaves might be vocabulary. In painting ; the trunk might be things like perspective, color theory, values, form, brushwork or composition. The leafs would be any particular object, any particular lighting scenario. In music your fundamentals would be things like intervals, chord relationships, modulations, or maybe rhythm and timing ; while the leaves would be specific songs or licks. You get the point ; time is better spent on those big fat branches. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outputs come from 20% of the inputs. Don’t get me wrong ; the specifics are important as they are ultimately what is seen from afar ; but you sure as heck will have a much easier time grabbing and remembering them once you can connect everything back to your core anyway. Grammar is your 20-80 input. Master the trunk.

Teaching as a learning tool

Here is a great way to test one’s understanding of any topic : teach it to someone else. Write it down. Talk it out.
Turns out we ourselves are the easiest person to fool. It’s really easy to believe we have it all figured out until we try to get it out to people and can’t help but notice how shaky the ground seem to be at the moment, how full of contradictions we are, how many gaps are still left to be filled. Richard Feynmann was an american physicist who got known as “the great explainer”. His method of learning essentially consisted in formulating stuff as if you were to teach it to a child and then going back to the material each time a gap was identified until full understanding is achieved. It’s about finding the simplicity in the most complex subject matters. In fact, you’ll find teaching as a learning method has a long history to back it up. The Master-apprentice model for painters that was in use during the Renaissance used to divide to time as follow ; about a third would be used learning from one’s master ; an other third would be used practicing on your own ; and the last third would be spent teaching.

Understanding is insufficient. Chunking.

In order to truly master a topic understanding is insufficient though. I need to point out in case it’s not self-evident that no-one has ever mastered dancing by reading books about dance alone. Knowing stuff is not enough ; it has to become automatic. It has to become so ingrained that one does not need to even think about it to put the knowledge into practice. The way that is achieved is through chunking.
The basic idea is that neurons that fire together wire together. Meaning ; as you repeat the same movements, pieces of logic, whatever ; you are in effect reinforcing neural pathways within your brain. They become well practiced neural chunk that can be conceptualized as very compact packages of information that your mind can easily access. As an example ; you can picture what happens when you talk. You are not thinking about how to move your lips or tongue ; you are not overly aware of any of the mechanics that goes into it. Your mind thinks a word and then the entire sequence of actions needed to produce the word just happen. It’s remarkable isn’t it. Yet ; it once was incredibly difficult to do so. In fact if you are currently learning a new language you might have noticed how painfully conscious you need to be in order to produce some of those foreign sounds. Yet if you keep practicing, this is going to get easier and easier until you can do it like you breath. Chunking is compression. A compressed thought require incredibly less storage space in working memory.
It ensues that although practicing is a focus intensive sport ; the master is doing most of the work out of his own awareness. It’s all happening at the subconscious level. The improviser musician just think notes ; the fingers seemingly move on their own. The painter is watching himself paint, thinking the gods must be doing the work. At this point, knowledge becomes intuition. You no longer know how you’re even doing what you are doing. Yet you’re doing it.

Attention natural rhythm

When your focusing on your learning ; the relevant neural chunks get loaded into your working memory. Working memory can be conceptualized as the RAM in your computer. It’s a temporary storage space that is used to connect ideas in the moment. Each time concepts are loaded into working memory ; their pathway gets reinforced and they end up sliding into long term memory. Focusing endlessly on the same stuff for hours does not do much more to engrave it ; it’s much more about that initial recalling. So, when you learn something you should do your best to forget it as fast as possible. Stop thinking about it. And then recall it. Go through that cycle again and again.
From there we get to the concept of spaced repetition. It is the exact opposite of the idea of cramming. Whereas student typically binge their lessons the day before an exam all in one sitting ; it would be much more efficient to rather study a little bit each day (that is, assuming the goal is to develop a long term relationship with the information).

At the local level ; the mind in fact naturally does something like that all the time. There’s two distinct mode of operation it uses. One is called the default mode network ; and corresponds to your experience of a wandering mind. When the brain is operating this way ; it jumps from topic to topic seemingly randomly. It makes long range connections between disparate chunks.
The second is the focus mode. It’s when your attention is devoted to a particular topic. Connections made in this mode are short range ; localized. It happens when you are trying to solve a problem.
The brain naturally oscillate between those two modes of functioning. Although it really likes to be focused, it cannot do so endlessly. It needs to grab some fresh air every once in a while ; just forget everything at hand ; make those distant-range connections, and get itself ready to get back at it. The pomodoro technique really makes use of that natural oscillation. 25 minutes of focus time followed by 5 minutes of guilt-free wandering mind. Turns out the average mind wanders between 15 to 20% of the time ; fitting the pomodoro rhythm. Keep in mind, regardless of whether you can hold your attention for shorter or longer time-frames, some wandering time is a necessary part of learning so don’t skip the breaks. There is a reason eureka moments often occur after showers or walks in nature ; you need those distant connections in order to get unstuck and move forward.

The role of confidence

Finally I want to talk a little about the role of self-esteem and confidence in learning. What kind of mindset favors learning ? The thing is ; those two are not the same. In fact you’d find the motivation to learn more in the first place often stems from low self-esteem rather than high self-esteem. Self-esteem is, literally, how favorably a person regards him or herself. That in and of itself is not correlated with any form of academic performance. You might argue if someone thinks himself perfect already ; he or she might not even have sufficient reason to move further on the path of learning. Inflated self-esteem can instead be a recipe for arrogance or narcissism.
Confidence on the other hand has been shown to affect academic performance. It can affect performance by as much as 12%. Confidence is a measure of one’s belief in one’s own abilities. It’s also often coined self-efficacy.
Turns out students with more self-efficacy keep searching for new solutions longer and are generally more persistent while people with low-efficacy give up more easily and have a hard time concentrating on tasks as well. An other way to phrase it ; the belief that you can tackle maths makes you good at maths over time. It’s one of those positive loops ; that can easily become a negative loop if you let it flip the script.
People routinely under-predict their own rate of learning. Learning curves are steep initially and are associated with some levels of pain. But we should fight our tendency to give up at the first sign of ineptitude. All the conscious effort exerted to learn something will soon enough turn all those complex processes into automatons running in the back-burner. Everything that is easy was once hard.
You’re not there yet ; but you’ll get there. That’s the spirit.