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How to Have Einstein’s Brain Even If You’re Not a Natural Born Genius

How to Have Einstein’s Brain Even If You’re Not a Natural Born Genius

Do you ever find yourself having to read an article several times before it makes sense? How about having to revisit online tutorials again and again because they just won’t stick?

Don’t worry… you’re not alone and you’re in the right place.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at Cognitive Load Theory and discover how we can use it to make learning easier and start retaining everything in a single sitting.

Similar to the way athletes leverage the body’s processes to improve sports performance, we can leverage the way the brain processes information to make complex concepts easier to grasp. With that said… let’s get into a complex concept.

The 3 Essential Stages for Our Memory to Stick

There are several theoretic models that attempt to explain how the mind processes information. One of the most prominent is the Atkinson–Shiffrin model[1], published in 1968. According to this model, external information has to journey through three stages of our memory in order to stick.

These three stages are:

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  1. Sensory memory – a filter which discards unnecessary information
  2. Working memory – a gateway to the long-term memory, passing on information via repetition and schemas (explained below)
  3. Long-term memory – where information sticks

To complete the explanation above, a schema is simply a way to organise multiple memories into a single entity through classification and association. Once information is sorted into schemas it’s changed from something abstract to something familiar, connected and easy to recall.

Just Imagine You’re in a Cafe, and Here’s How the 3 Stages Work in Your Brain

You’re in a café, sipping on a cappuccino whilst reading an article about the discovery of a new, strange animal.

Your sensory memory filters out the background noise of the café, the taste of the coffee and the smell of the food, and allows you to retain the information about this new animal.

Next, your working memory searches existing schemas in your long-term memory for anything resembling the animal… and it finds a close match.

The animal is similar to a cat, so it’s added to your cat schema and enters into your long-term memory.

So What Exactly Is the Cognitive Load Theory?

First published by John Sweller in the Journal of Cognitive Science[2], Cognitive Load Theory builds upon the foundation outlined above by focusing on the capacity of the working memory.

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According to Cognitive Load Theory, our working memory only has a capacity of five to nine items [3]. Therefore, for us to learn, we have to avoid memory overload.

Fortunately, this theory also identifies two handy ways to extend the working memory and maximise learning.

The Modality Effect

Auditory and visual information are processed separately in the mind and are able to exist side by side in the working memory without claiming double the space. This is called The Modality Effect.

The Modality Effect explains why slideshows accompanied by narration have become the staple of lectures and presentations worldwide. What would happen if the narration was written onto the slides instead of being spoken? Yes, information overload.

Leverage Existing Knowledge

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New information delivered in a way that builds upon existing ideas and concepts (schemas) is easier to make sense of and retain. This means that the sequence of information is important. Simple, familiar topics should come before more complex, new ones.

5 Strategies to Make the Most out of The Cognitive Load Theory

By applying Cognitive Load Theory to our learning we can avoid information overload and absorb new information more quickly, with less stress.

Identify your existing knowledge

Before you start studying a new topic take a few minutes to run over what you already know. Make connections between your existing knowledge and the new topic. This will maximise the chance that you’ll leverage existing knowledge on the subject and also make building on existing schemas easier.

Avoid obsessing about goals

Goals are important, but sometimes focusing on them too much ruins the learning process. When our mind thinks too far ahead, it loads our working memory and makes us less able to process new information. By focusing on learning and letting go of goals, at least temporarily, we allow ourselves to learn at our optimum rate.

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Focus on one thing at a time

The saying “you can’t serve two masters at the same time” holds true when it comes to learning. Switching between multiple sources of similar information, such as two visual items, uses a lot of cognitive load. To avoid this, focus on one source at a time or find a way to combine them together.

Use audiovisual media

By incorporating both streams of information, audio and visual, we harness The Modality Effect and are able to benefit from peak cognitive load without tipping into information overload.

Reduce unnecessary information

Make the sensory memory’s job easier by removing distractions in the environment. For example, if you’re listening to a podcast on your train ride to work then try closing your eyes or, better still, making notes to bring in a visual element and take advantage of The Modality Effect.

No longer do we need to experience the frustration that comes with information overload. Armed with Cognitive Load Theory and the strategies in this article, we’re able to become better learners and more effective teachers.

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Oliver Braithwaite

Founder/CEO of Stars & Catz

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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