So why does learning take so much effort?
Your brain has evolved to look out for your long term survival. In the short term, you may be attracted or distracted by all kinds of ideas. Your brain protects you from investing unnecessary resources of energy.
Your brain is ruthlessly practical. It won’t let you get into trouble by indiscriminately absorbing every piece of information into long term memory. According to a 2009 UC San Diego study, the average American takes in 34 gigabytes of information and about 100,000 words everyday.
So when you decide to add an entirely new piece of information to your long term memory, you have to prove to your brain that it is important enough to become a long term memory.
More than anything else, your brain responds to your emotions. You feel first, and think next. Understanding and working with your emotions can make a big difference in your ability to learn.
Narratives stimulate many areas of the brain. Your brain does not differentiate between reading or hearing about experience and living it; your brain activates as if it is experiencing the story as reality. Detailed descriptions and metaphors light up still more brain regions. “Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.” When your brain receives many different kinds of signals around the same event, it is more likely to form a memory thereafter. Abstract ideas and ideas presented out of context lack the kind of rich sensory and emotional response that our brains crave.
We all learn differently but you can learn more about how you process information and you can use that awareness to become a skilled learner. The academic term for this kind of self-awareness is metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to reflect upon and use an understanding of yourself—your interests, strengths and challenges—to learn and perform more effectively. Metacognition also entails a willingness to be conscious of your own practice and process. Our group focuses on how people use their metacognition to improve self-awareness and to guide their own learning.
In a now famous study, Harvard neuro-cognitive psychologist Ellen Langer (The Psychology of Possibility) took nineteen Air Force ROTC cadets from MIT, many of whom hoped to become pilots, and gave them baseline visual acuity tests. She then split them randomly into two groups.
One group was invited to practice with flight simulators. The other group was told the simulators were broken. Both groups were asked to read out letters through their simulators’ cockpit windows–letters lifted right from the eye chart they’d read earlier.
The group flying planes as fighter pilots improved their vision by 40 percent—
The comparison group showed no change at all.