Learning to Learn

Gimmicky course name, but turned out to be surprisingly interesting

Table of Contents

Week 1

Focused vs Diffuse

  • Two modes of thinking: focused and diffuse

Diffuse is neural resting states

  • Focused: you're trying to map the idea is something you've already encountered
  • Diffuse: you can look at things broadly - can make new neural connections. High level, not precise technical details

Salvador Dali. Has an ocelot. Key clattering from string will be able to fetch diffuse mode ideas from dream into focused real world. Edison used a similar trick with ball bearings. Learning new materials require to go between focused and diffuse modes

  • Not consciously aware of how brains work


Unhappy feeling → Funnel attention onto more pleasant task → Feel happy (temporarily)

Pomodoro (tomato) - 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. 25 minutes of non-interrupted focus

  • Give yourself a reward when done

The more abstract, the harder it is to learn. The solution to this is to keep practicing

To build strong neural structures, do a little everyday so you can sandwich focus and diffuse learning


  • long term memory. Need to revisit stored long-term memory several times before you can retrieve it again successfully
  • working memory. Immediately processing in your mind. Centered in prefrontal cortex. Can hold four-seven 'chunks'

Use spaced repitition to move things from working memory to long term memory

Being awake creates toxic products. When sleeping, brain cells shrink. Toxins can be washed out

Strengthens areas you want to remember. Goes over neural patterns to deepen.

Dr. Terrence Sejnowski

  • "Learning by doing"

  • "Learning by osmosis"

  • Rusty discovered that in hippocampus (located in middle), new neurons are being born in adulthood.

  • Otherwise, you might be stuck with the same neurons, but it's just the wiring that changes

  • Strengths of connections much stronger in an enriched environment (surround yourself with people who stimulate you)

  • Exercise will also increase the number of neurons being born in the hippocampus

  • Having people around to bounce ideas off

Week 2: Chunking

Mental leap that helps you unite bits of disparate information together

Focused modes of learning should be able to take larger bits of chunks out of your long-term memory

Network of neurons that are used to firing together

Small chunks can become larger. Can make more creative interpretations with larger chunks.

Chunking helps brain runs more efficiently

Forming a Chunk

Form mini chunks, and then form them into a big chunk, e.g.:

  • learn individual passages of the guitar, then join them up together

Best chunks are those where you can load them up subconsciously

Math/science: use a worked example to start off, to alleviate heavy cognitive load. However, best to use this as a roadmap instead of 'follow these steps explicity' in order to form those connections

Chunking is different in different subjects

  • Focus undivided attention to the material you want to chunk
  • Figure out the main idea of what the material is about, otherwise the chunk is useless
  • Difference between 'aha' and expertise of the subject - chunk not persisted
  • Only doing it yourself will create the neurological connection that underlie true mastery
  • Develop context for your chunk - find out when to use your chunk and when not to use your chunk. Practice helps broaden neurons connected to your chunk

Top down learning allows you to see what you're learning, and where it fits in

  • focused attention
  • understanding
  • practice

Seeing the Big Picture

Your brain also has a set of diffusely projecting systems of neuromodulators, that carry information not about the content of an experience but it's importance and value to your future.


Neuromodulators are chemicals that influence how a neurons responds to other neurons.

Acetylcholine neurons form neuromodulatory connections to the cortex that are particularly important for focused learning, when you are paying close attention. These acetylcholine neurons project widely and activate circuits that control synaptic plasticity.

Leading to new long term memory. Neuromodulators also have a profound impact on your unconscious mind.


One of the great brain discoveries in my lifetime has been that our motivation is controlled by a particular chemical substance called Dopamine.

Which is found in a small set of neurons in our brain stem shown here in orange.

These dopamine neurons are part of a large brain system that controls reward learning and in particular in the basal ganglia which is located in the green region above the dopamine neurons and below the cortex at the top of the brain. Dopamine is released from these neurons, when we receive an unexpected reward.

Dopamine signals project widely and have a very powerful effect on learning. And this is something that also affects decision making. And even the value of sensory inputs. Dopamine is in the business of predicting future rewards and not just the immediate reward. This can motivate you to do something that may not be rewarding right now but will lead to a much better reward in the future.

Addictive drugs artificially increase dopamine activity and fool your brain into thinking that something wonderful has just happened. In fact just the opposite has just happened. This leads to craving and dependence, which can hijack your free will and can motivate actions that are harmful to you.

Loss of Dopamine neurons leads to a lack of motivation. And something called anhedonia, which is a loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure.

Severe loss of Dopamine neurons causes resting tremor, slowness, rigidity, this is called Parkinson's disease. Ultimately it leads to catatonia, a complete lack of any movement. Dopamine neurons are part of the unconscience part of your brain. That you learned about in the first week. When you promise to treat yourself something after a study section you are tapping into your dopamine system.


Serotonin is a third diffuse neuromodulatory system that strongly affects your social life. In monkey troops the alpha male has the highest level of serotonin activity and the lowest ranking male has the lowest levels.

Prozac, which is prescribed for clinical depression, raises the level of Serotonin activity. The level of Serotonin is also closely linked to risk taking behavior. With higher risk in lower Serotonin monkeys. Inmates in jail for violent crimes have some of the lowest levels of serotonin activity in society.

Finally your emotions strongly affect learning as you are well aware. Emotions were once thought to be separate from cognition but recent research has shown that emotions are intertwined with perception and attention and interact with learning and memory.

The amygdala an almond shaped structure shown here, nestled down at the base of the brain is one of the major centers where cognition and emotion are effectively integrated. The amygdala is part of the limbic system which together with hippocampus is involved in processing memory and decision making as well as regulating emotional reactions.

You will want to keep your amygdala happy to be an effective learner. The emotions and your neuromodulatory systems are slower than perception and action but are no less important for successful learning.

Transfer: concepts learnt in physics can also be used in business

  • Chunk is way of compressing information more efficiently
  • Chunks are a collection of neural libraries

Diffuse mode can help you connect chunks together to solve novel problems.

Two different ways to solve problems:

  • Sequential reasoning
    • Each small step leads to solution
  • Holistic intuition
    • Creative diffusive mode linking chunks together
    • Should be verified using focused mode, though

Law of serendipity: Second concept goes in more easily than first


Can produce automaticity - useful for piano practice, tennis serves

Don't do it over a single session, though.

After you get the basic idea down in the session, don't return to it in the same session

Deliberate practice: focus on the difficult concepts

Einstellung: road block in the reasoning in how something works


Mix up different types of learning, e.g. bike riding and guitar playing

Knowing 'how' to use a technique isn't enough, need to know 'when' to use it

Thomas S.Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

"Science progresses one funeral at a time"


  • Chunks best gained with focused attention, recall

Week 3: Procrastination

Memory and procrastination

  • Use the pomodoro technique for a period of focused concentration, then 5 minute rest

Zombie responses focus on making the here and now better

  • Cramming doesn't build good neural structures
  • Willpower is hard to come by; uses a lot of neural resources. Don't use it to fend off procrastination

Procrastination cycle:

  1. unhappy feeling
  2. funnel attention onto more pleasant task
  3. Feel happy (temporarily)

Possible to build up immunity to arsenic

"Habitual zombie mode": chunking is related to habit. Habit is a energy saver.

Habits can be good or bad, though:

  1. The cue (trigger that launches you into zombie mode, e.g. looking at first item of todo list)
  2. The routine (what you fall into doing)
  3. The reward (good habits can also be rewarded. procrastination gives quick rewards, though)
  4. The belief (perpetuates the habit)

Perfectly normal to have negative feeling when you are about to embark into unfamiliar territory. Reframe it:

Focus on the process, e.g. "I'm going to spend 20 minutes focusing on this problem", and not the product (the end-result that needs to be achieved)

Habitual zombie can help process: it just thinks "going to do this for 25 minutes", allows you to relax and go into the flow, instead of concentrating on the final product

Harnessing Inner Zombie

Change your reaction to a cue is all you need to do:

  1. Recognises what launches you into the mode (the cue)
    • location
    • time
    • feelings
    • reactions (to other people, other activities)
  2. Rewire the habit using:
    • a plan (e.g. leave phone in car when going to class, settle into a quiet place in the library)
  3. Reward yourself (guilt-free procrastination, buy yourself something nice. Play some Hearthstone, meet up with a friend for dinner)
  4. The belief: believe that you can change your habits
    • Develop a new community, e.g. mooc-mates, like-minded friends
  • Make a task list; otherwise they might occupy slots in your working memory. Does that mean have a calender?
  • Plan your quitting time; just as important as your start time
    • Learn to trust your system - relax without feelings of guilt
  • Make sure to squeeze a little break time in
  • Work on your most disliked/willpower-intensive task in the morning "eat your frogs first everyday"


Mind is built to retain general information about a place - tap into naturally super-sized visual memorisation abilities.

Superior "where things are" and "what things look like" - visual memory system

Right hemisphere dominance for visuospatial attention is characteristic of most humans

Working memory → long term memory: needs to be memorable and repeated

Repitition is important - firmly lodge it into long-term memory. Sporadically over several days. Use index cards could help. Writing and saying what you're saying seems to be help retention.

Handwriting helps you deeply encode (convert into neural memory structure)

Sleep is where your mind repeats patterns and pieces together solutions

Anki spaced repetition

Hippocampus - shape of seahorse - hippo - horse, campus - sea monster

HM could no longer remember new things - profoundly amnesic

Hippocampus is important for learning and memory of facts and events

Memory is not fixed, but is living, changing

Reconsolidation: changing of recalled memories. Suggest/imagine

STM → LTM through reconsolidation

Reconsolidation over sleep

Astrocytes might have to do with learning; Einstein's brain - had many more astrocytes than average human

Memory Palace Technique


  • grhm - graham cracker
  • some lovers try positions they can't handle
  • use familiar place and put unfamiliar items in there

"Memory tricks allow people to expand their working memory with easy access to long term memory"

Week 4: Renaissance Learning


  • Best gift you can give brain is physical exercise

New neurons are being born in the hippocampus - new neurons born to separate pictures in pattern recognition. Will die if you don't use them. Exercise also helps new neurons to survive.

Practice makes perfect, but only if your brain is prepared.

  • Binocular depth perception. Can recover stereovision
  • Practice can repair as well as train the brain, but would take longer than it would than in the critial period
  • Zombies - can't plan, decide
  • Prefrontal cortex is involved in complex analysis in social behavious - decision making and planning. Last part of brain to mature

Takes time to assimilate new knowledge.

Create a metaphor or analogy. Models important in providing physical analogies. Connection to neural structure already present in the brain

No Need for Genius Envy

People rarely learn anything complex simply by having someone else tell it to them

Being smarter often equates to having a larger working memory - makes itmore difficult for you to be creative

Smaller working memory may let you generalise your learning into new, more creative combinations - allows you to get input from other areas of the brain, including the sensory cortex

Practice can help left average brains into the realm of those with more natural gifts

Imposter syndrome - natural for people to get them

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

  • Cajal - father of modern neuroscience
  • Piano practicing: - pyramidal tract
  • Preserverance - key to those who have average intelligence

Tune people out if they want to undermine you. People are often as competitive as they are cooperative.

Value of Teamwork

"Broad-perspective perceptual disorder of the right hemisphere" - can still function, but if they make a mistake in calculation, it doesn't bother them. No big picture.

Right brain helps us step back and put our work into the big picture perspective - unable to gain ah-ha insights. Doing reality checks and ah-ha moments

Important to stop and take mental breath

Left brain - interprets world for us - will go to great lengths to keep those interpretaitons unchanging. Potential for rigidity, dogmatism, and egocentricity

Work with others who are smartly focused on the topic

Test Taking

Practice test taking. Use a checklist:

  • Did you make a serious effort to understand the text?
  • Did you attempt to outline every homework solution?
  • Did you participate actively in homework group discussions?


DON'T Tackle easiest problem first - then, gain enough confidence to do tough problems

DO Tackle hard problems, but quickly jump to easy ones. "Hard start jump to easy" technique

Formal learning more interested in product of learning, rather than process


  • "Broaden your passions instead of just following them"
  • "People rarely learn anything complex simply by having someone else tell it to them"



  • Anhedonia: Loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure
  • Astrocyte: Most abundant glial cell in human brain. Provides nutrients to neurons, maintains extra cellular ion balance and are involved with repair following injury
  • Choline: Water soluble nutient important in the signaling role for cell membranes
  • Einstellung: Means 'setting', or 'installation' in German. Initial idea may prevent a better idea from being found (water jar experiment)
  • Glial cell: supporting cel
  • Kannada: Dravidian language spoken in South Indian state of Karnataka
  • Interleaving: Interspersing learning sessions
  • Limbic system:
  • Marco Polo: One of the first Europeans to reach China, but also left a detailed journal of his experience
  • Metaphor: Realising that one thing is somehow similar to another
  • Neuroplasticity: Process in which brain's neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral and neural changes
  • Reconsolidation: The process of a memory changing as you recall it