Some students do improve, even dramatically improve – when this or that teaching/learning method-
ology is introduced. In others there is no change. Still others actually do worse. In the end, the
beneficial effect to a selected subgroup of the students may be lost in the statistical noise of the
study and the fact that no attempt is made to identify commonalities among students that succeed
The point is that finding an optimal teaching and learning strategy is technically an optimization
problem on a high dimensional space. We’ve discussed some of the important dimensions above,
isolating a few that appear to have a monotonic effect on the desired outcome in at least some range
(relying on common sense to cut off that range or suggest trade-offs – one cannot learn better by
simply discussing one idea for weeks at the expense of participating in lecture or discussing many
other ideas of equal and coordinated importance; sleeping for twenty hours a day leaves little time
for experience to fix into long term memory with all of that sleep). We’ve omitted one that is crucial,
however. That is your brain!
Your Brain and Learning
Your brain is more than just a unique instrument. In some sense it is you. You could imagine having
your brain removed from your body and being hooked up to machinary that provided it with sight,
sound, and touch in such a way that “you” remain6
. It is difficult to imagine that you still exist
in any meaningful sense if your brain is taken out of your body and destroyed while your body is
artificially kept alive.
Your brain, however, is an instrument. It has internal structure. It uses energy. It does “work”.
It is, in fact, a biological machine of sublime complexity and subtlety, one of the true wonders of the
world! Note that this statement can be made quite independent of whether “you” are your brain
per se or a spiritual being who happens to be using it (a debate that need not concern us at this
time, however much fun it might be to get into it) – either way the brain itself is quite marvelous.
For all of that, few indeed are the people who bother to learn to actually use their brain effectively
as an instrument. It just works, after all, whether or not we do this. Which is fine. If you want to
get the most mileage out of it, however, it helps to read the manual.
So here’s at least one user manual for your brain. It is by no means complete or authoritative,
but it should be enough to get you started, to help you discover that you are actually a lot smarter
than you think, or that you’ve been in the past, once you realize that you can change the way you
think and learn and experience life and gradually improve it.
In the spirit of the learning methodology that we eventually hope to adopt, let’s simply itemize
in no particular order the various features of the brain7
that bear on the process of learning. Bear
in mind that such a minimal presentation is more of a metaphor than anything else because simple
(and extremely common) generalizations such as “creativity is a right-brain function” are not strictly
true as the brain is far more complex than that.
• The brain is bicameral: it has two cerebral hemispheres8
, right and left, with brain functions
asymmetrically split up between them.
• The brain’s hemispheres are connected by a networked membrane called the corpus callosum
that is how the two halves talk to each other.
• The human brain consists of layers with a structure that recapitulates evolutionary phylogeny;
that is, the core structures are found in very primitive animals and common to nearly all
Imagine very easily if you’ve ever seen The Matrix movie trilogy…
8Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/cerebral hemisphere.
them are already apparent from the discussion above. Let’s list a few more of them with explanations
just so that you can see how easy it is to sit down to study and try to learn and have “something
wrong” that decreases your ability to learn in that particular place and time.
Learning is actual work and involves a fair bit of biological stress, just like working out. Your
brain needs food – it burns a whopping 20-30% of your daily calorie intake all by itself just living
day to day, even more when you are really using it or are somewhat sedentary in your physical
habits. Note that your brain runs on pure, energy-rich glucose, so when your blood sugar drops
your brain activity drops right along with it. This can happen (paradoxically) because you just ate
a carbohydrate rich meal. A balanced diet containing foods with a lower glycemic index
to be harder to digest and provides a longer period of sustained energy for your brain. A daily
multivitamin (and various antioxidant supplements such as alpha lipoic acid) can also help maintain
your body’s energy release mechanisms at the cellular level.
Blood sugar is typically lowest first thing in the morning, so this is a lousy time to actively
study. On the other hand, a good hearty breakfast, eaten at least an hour before plunging in to your
studies, is a great idea and is a far better habit to develop for a lifetime than eating no breakfast
and instead eating a huge meal right before bed.
Learning requires adequate sleep. Sure this is tough to manage at college – there are no parents
to tell you to go to bed, lots of things to do, and of course you’re in class during the day and then
you study, so late night is when you have fun. Unfortunately, learning is clearly correlated with
engagement, activity, and mental alertness, and all of these tend to shut down when you’re tired.
Furthermore, the formation of long term memory of any kind from a day’s experiences has been
shown in both animal and human studies to depend on the brain undergoing at least a few natural
sleep cycles of deep sleep alternating with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, dreaming sleep. Rats
taught a maze and then deprived of REM sleep cannot run the maze well the next day; rats that
are taught the same maze but that get a good night’s of rat sleep with plenty of rat dreaming can
run the maze well the next day. People conked on the head who remain unconscious for hours and
are thereby deprived of normal sleep often have permanent amnesia of the previous day – it never
gets turned into long term memory.
This is hardly surprising. Pure common sense and experience tell you that your brain won’t work
too well if it is hungry and tired. Common sense (and yes, experience) will rapidly convince you
that learning generally works better if you’re not stoned or drunk when you study. Learning works
much better when you have time to learn and haven’t put everything off to the last minute. In fact,
all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs5 are important parameters that contribute to the probability of
success in learning.
There is one more set of very important variables that strongly affect our ability to learn, and
they are in some ways the least well understood. These are variables that describe you as an
individual, that describe your particular brain and how it works. Pretty much everybody will learn
better if they are self-actualized and fully and actively engaged, if the material they are trying to
learn is available in a form that makes sense and clearly communicates the implicit patterns that
enable efficient information compression and storage, and above all if they care about what they are
studying and learning, if it has value to them.
But everybody is not the same, and the optimal learning strategy for one person is not going to
be what works well, or even at all, for another. This is one of the things that confounds “simple”
empirical research that attempts to find benefit in one teaching/learning methodology over another.
4Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/glycemic index.
5Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a nutshell, in order to become self-
actualized and realize your full potential in activities such as learning you need to have your physiological needs met,
you need to be safe, you need to be loved and secure in the world, you need to have good self-esteem and the esteem
of others. Only then is it particularly likely that you can become self-actualized and become a great learner and