“When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information.” — Dr Alison Preston
Do people learn from their mistakes? Do ‘smart’ drugs really work? How can learning speed be doubled? Is a little knowledge a dangerous thing — or just the reverse?
Learning something new and intriguing is one of the finest intellectual experiences in life.
Psychology, of course, provides us with endless jolts of this type of pleasure as we try to satisfy our intense curiosity about ourselves and each other.
The psychology of learning is no less of a mystery, making us wonder things like:
- Do people really learn more from their mistakes? (the answer is people do NOT learn from their mistakes, but the interesting bit is why.)
- Can smart drugs really help people learn?
- Are some people too old to learn like teenagers again?
Find out the answers to these question and more in these 8 psychology studies from the members-only section of PsyBlog.
(If you are not already, find out how to become a PsyBlog member here.)
- The Most Effective Learning Technique Is The Oldest
- Surprises Are Key To Enhanced Learning
- The Ironic Effect Of ‘Smart Drugs’ On Productivity
- Brainwaves Reveal When Students Are Learning From Their Teacher
- This Type Of Learning Makes Old Brains Young Again
- How To Learn Information At Double Speed
- The Type Of Breaks That Boost Skill Learning
- One Simple Tip To Enhance Learning Motivation
An unsettling feeling, like the absurdity of life, can engender the desired state.
Surreal books and films could make you smarter, research finds.
Stories by Franz Kafka or films by master of the absurd David Lynch could boost learning.
Even an unsettling feeling, like the absurdity of life, can engender the desired state.
The reason is that surreal or nonsensical things put our mind into overdrive looking for meaning.
When people are more motivated to search for meaning, they learn better, the psychologists found.
Dr Travis Proulx, the study’s first author, explained:
“The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment.
And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”
For the study, people read a Franz Kafka’s short story called ‘The Country Doctor’ — which involves a nonsensical series of events.
A version of the story was rewritten to make more sense and read by a control group.
Afterwards, both groups were given an unconscious learning task that involved spotting strings of letters.
Dr Proulx said:
“People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings –– clearly they were motivated to find structure.
But what’s more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story.
They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did.”
In a second study, people were made to feel their own lives didn’t make sense.
This was done by pointing out the contradictory decisions they had made.
Dr Proulx said:
“You get the same pattern of effects whether you’re reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity.
People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.
That feeling of discomfort may come from a surreal story, or from contemplating their own contradictory behaviors, but either way, people want to get rid of it.
So they’re motivated to learn new patterns.”
The study only tested unconscious learning, it doesn’t tell us whether you would be able to use this trick intentionally.
Dr Proulx said:
“It’s important to note that sitting down with a Kafka story before exam time probably wouldn’t boost your performance on a test.
What is critical here is that our participants were not expecting to encounter this bizarre story.
If you expect that you’ll encounter something strange or out of the ordinary, you won’t experience the same sense of alienation.
You may be disturbed by it, but you won’t show the same learning ability.
The key to our study is that our participants were surprised by the series of unexpected events, and they had no way to make sense of them.
Hence, they strived to make sense of something else.”
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Proulx & Heine, 2009).
The evidence that neurotypicals might benefit from smart drugs has come from studies testing relatively simple tasks.
The brainwaves of undergraduate students and their instructor were monitored while they learned.
“Remarkably, the cognitive scores increased to levels similar to undergraduates taking the same cognitive tests for the first time.” – Dr Rachel Wu
Neuroscientists find that the key to learning fast and efficiently may be the opposite of conventional wisdom.
People who learn quickest show the least neural activity, a study finds.
The research flies in the face of the common myth that the key to learning is trying harder and thinking it through.
Instead, quick learners in particular showed reduced brain activity in the frontal cortex, an area linked to conscious planning.
In other words: good learners don’t overthink what they are trying to learn.
Professor Scott Grafton, who led the study, said:
“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit.
When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music.
With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior.
What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”
In the study, participants were learning a simple game which involved playing sequences of notes.
Their brains were scanned at two-, four- and six week intervals to see how they were learning the task.
What the neuroscientists were interested in was which networks the brain recruited.
Dr Danielle Bassett, the study’s first author, explained:
“We weren’t using the traditional fMRI approach where you pick a region of interest and see if it lights up.
We looked at the whole brain at once and saw which parts were communicating with each other the most.”
Graphing the patterns of interactions, the researchers could examine the areas that were interacting:
“When network scientists look at these graphs, they see what is known as community structure.
There are sets of nodes in a network that are really densely interconnected to each other.
Everything else is either independent or very loosely connected with only a few lines.”
Professor Grafton said:
“Previous brain imaging research has mostly looked at skill learning over — at most — a few days of practice, which is silly.
Whoever learned to play the violin in an afternoon?
By studying the effects of dedicated practice over many weeks, we gain insight into never before observed changes in the brain.
These reveal fundamental insights into skill learning that are akin to the kinds of learning we must achieve in the real world.”
The researchers found that those who learned the quickest used the areas of the brain related to planning the least.
Professor Grafton said:
“It’s the people who can turn off the communication to these parts of their brain the quickest who have the steepest drop-off in their completion times.
It seems like those other parts are getting in the way for the slower learners.
It’s almost like they’re trying too hard and overthinking it.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience (Bassett et al., 2015)
People who thought they were ‘experts’ got a surprise about what they really knew.
Working through this state of mind helps people learn more deeply, psychological research finds.
While micro-breaks do work in some ways, they are limited in others.