Today's superpower - learning

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler


Thank you for joining me for blog 13 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.


I believe that the superpower of the 21st century is being able to rapidly learn. We are in a world where new technologies emerge every day, and being able to master them before they become outdated will allow us to get the best return on our learning. There is also a huge advantage to those who can learn a skill deeply. Take people who mastered social media early (which, before it became mainstream, seemed like ridiculous oversharing), many of those were able to build huge audiences for their causes, whether political, musical or fashion.


Learning and unlearning is also crucial for decision-making. Our decisions rely upon our understanding of the world at its root. We ideally want a rich and current understanding of the world as it is today. Having outdated views is similar to thinking we know things that turn out to be untrue. This is significantly more damaging than just not knowing.


Our ability to learn has evolved to help us survive and reproduce and therefore we are likely to learn things quickly in response to a famine or a job loss.

(it is such a good quote, but we should accept that Mark Twain gets attributed for loads of stuff he did not say)


There are three important concepts we should define when talking about learning:

1) knowledge - the information (or skill) we seek to integrate

2) learning - the process of integrating that information

3) memory - the retrieval of the information


Learning is the fundamental to the way we understand the world better, and learning is not just acquiring knowledge, it is also the willingness to rethink or unlearn parts of our understanding (spoiler alert - if you still believe in Santa you might be in for a tough conversation soon!).


How do we need to learn?


To help us understand more we should look to the best learners of them all - babies. A baby's brain is a highly connected set of neurons with weak paths between them. This setup is much like a blank canvas - as a baby learns, some of the paths between neurons get stronger. An example of this is clapping. I remember when my daughters went from being able to clap for the first time to being able to clap consistently in a very short while. Each time she clapped the neural connections got stronger. Stronger neural connections meant that she could do this with increasing ease.


The 3Fs of learning - Focus, Feedback and Fusing


There are lots of good models for learning, but I found them a bit unmemorable (excuse the pun). Given we are all easily distracted I am going to suggest a simple model, which is the 3Fs.


As an adult, we are not blessed with the immersive qualities children have, that is a biological fact we are going to discuss next week, but people of any age can improve their learning e.g. a language by following the three key pillars.


Focus


Learning is improved when there is a genuine desire to learn something. It is quite amazing how quickly a child can learn mathematics when you are calculating their pocket money, versus rote learning times tables. Being curious and open to the idea that you might not have the story right is a hugely powerful learning tool.


When you pay attention to something it is not just mental bandwidth that improves, when we pay attention we release hormones in our brain which increases the likelihood that the neurons are active (epinephrine) and act as a spotlight (acetylcholine). We are physically more likely to learn with focus, as our brain is bathed in chemicals that help us learn.


We learn quickly when something really bad or surprising happens, this is because more hormones are released during these unexpected situations. There are some good or bad events in life you will remember vividly.


To improve focus some people use caffeine, nicotine or drugs that are targeted at those people with ADHD. With any of these chemicals, there might be significant drawbacks, some people prefer ice cold water or generally keeping hydrated as an aid to focus.

Feedback


You cannot learn something well, unless you either keep score or get regular feedback. Feedback is important as it helps you make deliberate focused changes.


Interestingly, making errors causes a release of the two focus brain hormones and dopamine. This increase in brain chemicals makes it easier for you to make the changes you are looking to make. Being accountable to someone, or setting yourself a target helps keep you on track. Feedback is often well received from a coach or someone you have committed to learn with.


Whilst frustration can cause people to stop learning, it might be at that very point of high emotions where pushing through might have the most impact.


Fusing


Whilst focus and feedback are probably well understood, the process of fusing is something which I think is less well understood. Fusing is the integration of learning and moving it from the so-called short term memory into the long-term memory. You will remember something for a long-time if you have had time to fuse your learning.


There are two main ways to maximise fusing i) learning length, frequency and intensity and ii) sleep and rest.


Learning Length, frequency and intensity: whilst there are many ways to learn productively, the current view is that 90minute cycles of work produces excellent results. The more frequent the better obviously, but its fair to say that 90mins per day is better than 7x90mins in one go. Learning intensity can be significantly improved by putting your phone away and being totally undistracted (I'll have to invite my friend Mike Harris one day who is a deep work expert).


Sleep and rest: knowledge is integrated during your sleep or during moments where you mind is allowed to drift. After your 90minute cycle of learning, a walk, a nap or mental relaxation like meditation can help your mind process and integrate your learning. This needs to be followed up by sleep (yet another one of the benefits of sleeping!).


How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:


1) The world is rapidly changing. Understanding of the world today is crucial to make good decisions. Rapid learning and unlearning will be superpowers of the 21st century.


2) Learning has actual physical implications through the strengthening of neural connections. To strengthen neural connections we need to practice for a period of time whilst we have an abundance of brain chemicals that help us strengthen the connections.


3) By using the three learning pillars of focus, feedback and fusing you can accelerate your learning and get the best return from your time spent.


Thank you for joining. The next blog in a week's time will cover unlearning how learning varies by age.