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Dealing with a legacy brain...

Yourlegacybrain_1

You thought dealing with legacy code was a challenge... the code in your head is thousands of years out of date. Plus the docs are really sketchy, and there's nobody alive who knows how to refactor it. But if that's what we're stuck with (at least until Ray Kurzweil's future gets here), we have to figure out ways to live a 21st centry life with a brain that thinks you're still living in a cave surviving on berries and mammoth meat.

A big part of our goal at passionate users is to find workarounds or ways to trick the brain into thinking that the content in your stats textbook is as life-threatening as a tiger, but it was a comment on my last post (from P-daddy) that reminded me that's it's not just info attention/retention we're fighting for. A large part of why it's so frickin' hard to lose or even maintain weight is that your brain/body thinks it better save everything to prepare for that long winter.
(One of the reasons that most calorie-restricting diets make things worse... you're just cofirming what your brain was already worried about, and it says, "HELLO! We're starving here! If you thought I was hanging onto everything before, well now things are drastic, so I'm going into all-out protection mode." And you end up with an even bigger fight. You'll have to wait until we start a fitness blog to hear our thoughts on how to work around . Tip: weight training with heavy weights is the crucial part, because it sort of "tricks" your body into thinking that you're growing.)

But knowing what your brain is motivated by is half the battle. Because you can't change it, but you can work with it. The biggest challenge is that you can't simply consciously order your brain to care. You can't tell it, "OK, I know this looks really dull, but trust me--I'm screwed if I fail that exam on Tuesday..."

For learning, one of the best things you can do is whatever it takes to convince your brain that what you're learning is life-threatening or life-saving. What does your brain think is important? Novelty. Surprise. Sex. Danger. Shocking things. Stories. Human faces. Pleasure. Things that make you emotional. Things that move you, and things that cause you to move. Things that cause you to think deeply. Solving puzzles. Stories.

See the problem there?

Your stats textbook probably doesn't warrant a checkmark next to any of those. So, you'll have to retrofit it yourself. To trick your brain into thinking that what you're learning is important, find ways to add some of those things into what you're studying. But you can't do it by passively reading! Here are a few tips, though:

* Write notes, and read them out loud. Just talking helps your brain.

* Write notes as poems, haikus, limericks, songs, and say or sing them out loud. One guy we know quite literally writes songs on his guitar, and then records them as mp3's and shares them with others.

* Create a tiny little play, and have you and your study partners act out the parts of different components in the system. If you haven't done this, it seems weird. If you have, then you probably know just how amazingly effective this is. What might take fifteen repetitions when you're trying to read something and burn it in, might take just one little act. So, form the "Dorm Three Interpretive Dance Troupe", and start handing out scripts.

* No study partners? Teach your dog, or explain it to a rubber duck.

* Make pictures! Draw mind-maps. You can't possibly buy too many of those flip-chart-sized post-it notes, with some colorful Sharpie markers. If an illustration that the author creates is worth a thousand words, the picture that you draw is worth 10,000.

* For rote memorization, create your own mnemonics and flash cards you can carry around. (It's always best if you can use the "the more you understand, the less you have to memorize" approach, but there are always a few things you simply must burn in.)

* Use visualization.

* Use chunking and patterns -- (more on that in another post) to group the content into meaningful arrangements, so that you don't have to learn as many individual arbitrary bits, and can focus on bigger chunks.

* Involve more senses. Record your notes and listen to them, while walking around. There's even some evidence that having a strong smell, like freshly-popped popcorn or fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies can help you get the material in. (Or at least it's more fun.)

* Certain kinds of music might help, although this is a little controversial, there's some interesting research. (More in this book, including a music-for-learning CD.)

* And make sure you drink enough water. The brain works a lot better with fluid (and I don't mean beer up there).

* Make the hard thing you're studying the last hard thing you read before going to sleep (or before doing some long, brainless activity like a hike). A big part of your learning and memory encoding happens after you put the book down (or stop listening). If you put something else into your brain before the other stuff has a chance to "gel", you'll weaken or completely inhibit that process. But you can mix things that use completely different parts of your brain. So you could learn Java, and then go work on your golf swing, without losing too much of the Java you were working on.

* If you're studying for an exam, and you wear the same shirt each time you study, there's some evidence that suggests you might have better recall if you wear that shirt into the exam room. Bummer about the smell, though... And after you pass the exam, you can have a sacrificial burning of the shirt along with your text book.

* The same principle that makes the shirt thing work can work against you if you always study in the exact same place, and then take the exam in a different location. So make sure that while you're wearing your "special shirt", you do your studying in different rooms, desks, cafes, etc.

* If you can find a way to link what you're studying to sex, go for it. Your brain won't forget, and your study partner may thank you. (Or, alternatively, slap you. Your brain won't forget that either.)

The most important thing is just to remember that your brain isn't trying to make it hard for you. Your brain is trying to save your life. You have to find a way to make your brain think it's helping you, by tricking it into seeing your stats homework as crucial to your survival. : )

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Great post, lets take it a step further:

If our brains are still preparing us to run from tigers, and store food for the winter, what impact are our "caveman" brains having on our ability to communicate with one another effectively? What impact are our "caveman " brains having on our management style? How does our "caveman" brain impact our customer service?

The implications are staggering?

Posted by: Jay | Mar 1, 2005 10:20:30 AM

IT ISN'T THE BRAIN THAT HASN'T EVOLVED. IT ISN'T BEING INTEGRATED INTO THE BODY. THE BODY IS WHERE WE FEEL WHAT WE CALL EMOTION OR FEELING OR SENSATION. THIS IS ALL PART OF THE THOUGHT PROCESS...WHAT YOU PHYSICALLY FEEL. THAT IS WHAT HAS NOT BEEN ALLOWED TO WORK THROUGH A CULTURAL CONDITIONING PROCESS THAT KEEPS IT FROM BEING ACKNOWLEDGED. WE DON'T EVEN HAVE WORD TO DESCRIBE THE SENSATIONS WE EXPERIENCE. LONG AGO THESE SENSATIONS, I THINK WE PAID MORE ATTENTION. THE BRAIN IS A COMPONENT OF THE WHOLE BODY, BUT IT HAS BEEN ISOLATED AND SO NO ONE IS FUNCTIONING IN A WAY PROPER TO ALLOW FOR THE WHOLE BODY TO PERCIEVE.


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