Learning and Memory Zombies

I've been thinking about why there's such a huge (non-medical) interest in learning about how the brain works? Like many people, I've watched the impact age has on a parent, and have seen the vast difference in awareness, lucidity and curiousity, from when they were, say, my age.

Recently I noticed how easy it was to distract my brain from doing hard learning when an easy ‘snapshot’ of information available. Sadly, what often happens with snapshots is that within a short period of reading, I pretty much forget most of the substance of the article. 

Generously, I might say that the indulgence is a result of the tension between my curiousity and the endless supply of material to amuse me. But I got to feeling guilty about how carelessly I was feeding my beautiful mind. 

A couple of months ago Coursera promoted a program that offered to teach 'powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects'. I signed up, immersed, learned and now that it's all over, feel a bit sad - because it was so good. The 4-week MOOC is called Learning how to Learn, and I'm genuinely excited about the potential impact it may have on my thinking and learning.

Learning how to Learn is lead by the delightfully enthusiastic Professor of Engineering, Dr Barbara Oakley. Her co-instructor, intense and a little bit quirky, Professor Terrence Sejnowski from the Salk Institute. While their target audience is probably first-year university students, I think the course is relevant to anyone who wants to improve their ability to engage with challenging and interesting concepts.

Here's some of what I learned by doing the program

  • Controlling my use of focused and diffused thinking
  • Using 'chunking' as a process towards learning difficult subjects
  • The science to tackle procrastination
  • Strengthening my ability to retain new information (clue: I'm doing it right now).
  • Sleep more
  • Memory zombies are a thing!

I'm not sure it's possible to hold off the impacts age has on the brain, but while I'm still capable, I want to improve my processing and recall and creative idea generation as well as build my capacity to translate thoughts into action. 

If you're interested, and an experienced MOOC'er, you'll notice there's a bit more testing - there are good reasons for that (the course will teach you why).  Also, you really can't fudge your way through the program; you need to learn the concepts if you want to progress. I had to re-sit the final test a second time. You need to be completely present when you’re watching the videos, give them some broader application and then do some spaced recall (you'll learn about that as well).

Dr Oakley says 'a broad toolkit that allows you to grow in many different subject areas is one of the most powerful assets you can have'. I agree, and this program is an insight into how you can build your brain's broad toolkit.

Etc ...

* If you're new to MOOC's - don't be too concerned about the testing, it's not onerous. And, as a motivated, self-starter (which MOOC'ers self-evidently are) you'll come to see it's the best way to learn what you haven't quite learned.

NYT article on Learning how to Learn

This article was First published on my previous blog, Curious Interested August 2015

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