Training Your Brain to Learn Better (Even Without Drugs)

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I’m excited to be starting my “new school year” as a blogger here on Healthland — and what better way to begin than with news about boosting your ability to learn, using neuroscience! One of the hottest articles flying around the Web today is Benedict Carey’s great New York Times science story headlined “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.”

In it, Carey shows, among other things, why the conventional wisdom about learning — getting into the habit of studying in the same place each time — is wrong. How come? Essentially, making studying monotonous contradicts key aspects of what we know about learning. Novelty is a key part of the connections that ease learning. Studies find that simply switching study rooms helps make new associations and keep them fresh. Carey writes:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Throughout the NYT piece, Carey illustrates that, in education as in medicine, we have a big problem moving from research evidence into practice.

Incidentally, here’s another study tip based on research evidence about how the brain learns by association. Learning is, to a large extent, “state dependent.” What that means is that if you study something while anxious, happy or while experiencing some form of altered consciousness, you will remember it better if you are in that same state again when you are tested for what you’ve learned.

While I definitely recommend against studying while intoxicated and certainly don’t condone test-taking while under the influence, oddly enough, this research (much of which was done with drugs) does suggest that recall may be improved by trying to match your studying and test-taking emotional states. This may account for part of why last-minute cramming sometimes helps — you are anxious both while studying and while taking the test.

Research also finds that while mild to moderate stress increases learning, severe stress can impair memory. Extreme stress can actually cause the higher regions of the brain to shut down, shunting mental energy into areas devoted to aiding the fight-or-flight instinct. So, absolute panic will worsen performance even if you are panicked both while studying and during the test.

Stimulants as mild as caffeine can produce state-dependent learning boosts — so if you drink coffee or soda while studying, drink them before the test, too.

For people who use medication for ADHD, testing and studying should either both be done medicated or unmedicated to maximize state-dependence effects.