Day 1 - Tomatoes, procrastination and the human brain / by Andreas Kopriva

Good evening and welcome to the first day of our latest project, One Week at a Time, wherein we will be exploring new skills and topics for an hour a day and blogging about our discoveries. Upon completing a week, a general summary of the experience will be provided, along with a sort of status check in terms of where, after a mere 7-10hrs of focused work, we stand regarding the particular topic or skill. 

A few points before proceeding with the first day write-up. Firstly, we will do our best to maintain a daily update, but due to uncontrollable, primarily work-related obligations, this may not always occur. Despite this, the 7 day thing will be followed and each topic/skill will get those seven days. In the event that these are not consecutive, this will be mentioned, with attention given on the lack of sequential engagement. 

Secondly, it is very likely that if a particular subject is piques our interest especially, that there will be follow-up posts relating to it. This could even lead to branching pathways, especially considering some of the more tech-related subjects such as machine learning. 

Onto this weeks topic then! 

Learning to Learn

I considered it prudent to begin at the core of it all and begin this journey by trying to gain a better understanding on the actual mechanics of learning itself. Though I had covered the subject briefly during my undergraduate Psychology degree, this would be the first time that I dive specifically into the anatomy of learning. 

The process I'll be following for the next week will largely rely on lectures and courses available on the subject that I track down online. I've started off with the Learning How to Learn course available for free on Coursera (here) and have also located some other interesting articles that I'll be going over a bit later on. 

Today I covered Module 1 which provides one with an introductory overview, in layman's terms, about what learning is and about different modes of thinking. Basically, there appear to be two fundamental modes of thinking labelled Focused and Diffuse learning : 

  • Focused - this would be what we typically consider to be the default learning state and involves concentrating intently on something trying to comprehend it. Say you've got a test coming up and you're focusing on the class notes and scribbling in the margins, using analogies to understand abstract concepts etc - that would be an example of Focused learning. 
  • Diffused - this revolves around a more neurally-restful type of thinking. If you're out jogging, or daydreaming and are just letting thoughts come and go, you're likely in a diffused state. 

You apparently cannot inhabit both states simultaneously, so it works like a coin in a way. Then again, you could achieve that rare vertical stance with a coin if you were to flip it and I guess your brain would implode? 

Despite the awkwardness of the previous analogy, it appears that analogies and metaphors are useful tools for understand core concepts about whatever it is you're trying to learn, and that there is a way of implementing both states in very interesting ways. 

For example, world-renown expressionist painter, Salvador Dali would relax in his chair holding a key chain. As he drifted to sleep, the key would fall to the ground, waking him up and he would focus on the diffused ideas that his brain generated during that in-between state, which probably explains the peculiar nature of his artwork. 

Wrapping up this general introduction, a multi-tiered, complicated subject takes time to understand and most importantly requires diligent, regular exposure to it so as to facilitate deep understanding. 

Onto basic brain physiology!

The Brain

The brain weights approximately 3lb (or 1.4kg) and consumes 10x more energy by weight than any other body part. It is considered the most complicated structure in the known universe with a million billion synapses and it is actually those activities that we take for granted that are the most complicated, such as hearing, seeing, general coordination etc. 

An interesting thing pointed out during the module was that the brain is capable of growing, even in adulthood, with the dendrites of neurons making new synapses as you engage with new knowledge. 

However, to maximize learning and to help the brain out, sleep is proving to be a very important component in it all. I've attached a TED talk about the importance of sleep relating to healthy brain function below : 

To summarize a few more points about sleep : 

  • Sleep is the brain's way of refreshing itself
  • Taking a test/exam while sleep deprived is the equivalent of trying to drive a car with sugar in the fuel tank 
  • Long term sleep deprivation is associated with a large number of maladies - including premature death
  • During sleep, the brain tidies up concepts and ideas, strengthening areas that one would want to remember 
  • The deactivation of your conscious self allows your subconscious to communicate with itself
  • Going over something that you were learning prior to sleeping, apparently increases your chances of dreaming about it, which, in turn, can enhance your understanding of the subject

And now : procrastination and tomatoes 

The Pomodoro Method 

Procrastination is that horrible thing we all do where we postpone a task that needs to be completed in order to engage in something more pleasant. For example : 

The initial unpleasantness in starting a task that we really don't want to get done but have to has to do with the triggering of the insular cortex in the brain which associated with pain. Therefore, an unpleasant feeling is generated, we funnel the attention onto a more pleasant task (weasels) and end up feeling, temporarily, happy. Then guilty. More weasels, Happy. Then guiltier. Then the deadline is in 3 hours and panic sets in. 

Mr Francesco Cirillo came up with the Pomodoro technique in order to combat this. Apparently, that unpleasantness goes away after you sort of muscle through those first few minutes and then you end up focusing on whatever it is you need to get done. By implementing the usage of a timer and planning your session out in 25 minute chunks, with 3-5 minute breaks between each one, you can gradually combat procrastination and actually get things done. 

I had heard of the technique some time ago but, ironically, never got around to actually implementing it. As I've dedicated this week into figuring out how learning actually works, I will probably be trying it out though. 

To wrap this day up I'll be ending on a subject that has caused me quite a bit of frustration over the years  - 

Practice makes permanent and mathematics

One of the things that I keep hearing from all sorts of people is that they just don't have the brain for mathematics. This is especially frustrating as the reality is that noone has the brain for mathematics. It's a completely abstract field with no tangible presence in nature (note : I'm referring to the presence of mathematical symbols in nature. Nature is practically pure maths, through and through) and therefore it takes a lot more practice than most other things to get good at. 

That leads to the 'trick' behind any kind of skill-building - regular and deliberate practice. If, for example, I want to finally understand calculus, I would have to solve problems involving calculus daily until I get good at it. Yes, a lot of failure would be experienced in such an endeavor but it would generally lead to me, eventually, understanding calculus. Now, personally I can understanding people not having the patience to undergo that, but I am of the opinion that understanding the language of mathematics leads to a better appreciation of the world we're in, for all those glorious patterns and cosmological phenomena, suddenly acquire a beautiful layer of context. 

Practicing also ties into how memory works. Memory is traditionally believed to consist of two parts : working memory (fits only about 4 bits of information and is pretty short term - like a fuzzy blackboard, or RAM in a computer) and long term memory (the warehouse in Indiana Jones). 

Transitioning thing to the long-term storage part requires spaced repetition which in turn allows those concepts to settle and fix themselves into one's long term memory. In other words, get learned. 

That pretty much wraps up today's bit of research. I'll be looking at a few articles relating to learning methodologies, what works best essentially, over the next couple of days, before continuing with the course. By the end of the week, I plan to have covered the course (getting a verified certificate along the way!) and hope to have at least a rudimentary understanding on how learning works. That would definitely prove to be useful for the subsequent weeks. 

Hope you enjoyed this first day post and am looking forward to your comments/ideas in the comments section below!