How Your Lazy Brain Affects Learning

15.08.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Learning how to learn by Ace Eddleman


Let’s talk about the relationship between memory and energy and the role it plays in learning.

Memory is what allows us to avoid mistakes, update our knowledge and beliefs, and utilize signals from our environment that ensure our survival.

The first step toward understanding how you remember things is to recognize the ongoing energy dynamic occurring in your brain. Your brain is, to be blunt, extremely lazy.

Before you judge your brain for its lack of motivation, you should realize that it’s that way for a reason. Despite only accounting for about 2% of your body weight, it sucks down an average of 20% of your overall energy (as measured in calorie burn)!

Because of this intense energy demand, your brain is always looking for shortcuts that will allow it to skip using energy whenever possible. Your memory system is the shortcut in that dynamic.

Consider this: Where is the one place you travel to the most? When I say “travel,” I don’t necessarily mean “get on a plane and go far away.” What I’m looking for is more like a place you go every day—work, a loved one’s house, whatever.

I want you to describe, in detail, every single trip to that place in the last 3 months. I’ll wait.

Was that an easy exercise? I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t. The reason for that is simple: your memory likes to generalize whenever it can because combining similar memories saves precious energy.

Here’s another exercise you can use to see the other side of the coin: Where is a place you’ve only been to once? Think about all the details of your visit and try to recall it as vividly as possible.

That one is going to be much easier. Why? Because when you enter a novel environment, your brain is scanning around, absorbing information.

You have to actually think in those situations, which, in turn, generates memories that are easier to access. But once you are around certain stimuli enough, your lazy brain will start to mush those memories together and group them all into a far less distinguishable mass.

A critical component of all this is that thinking hard feels difficult because your brain is fighting to stop you from using energy unnecessarily. Cognitive scientists talk about the difficulty in terms of fluency (easy thoughts) and disfluency (difficult thoughts).

That’s why exposing ourselves to familiar environments and concepts is always more comfortable: we don’t have to think hard (or at all) about them, and our brain remains calm because it doesn’t have to worry about its precious energy going away.

This is an important dynamic to understand whenever you’re learning something new, particularly if it’s incredibly foreign to you. At first, everything will seem difficult and confusing, and your brain will fight back because it’s blasting through energy it doesn’t want to give away.

But once you’ve exposed yourself to it enough, everything starts to get easier. Even though you’ll still be a novice when this begins to happen, it will start to feel less and less like a chore to learn.

It’s critical that you understand and embrace the early disfluency you’ll feel, and push through until you reach a baseline level of fluency. Once you have that baseline, learning gets progressively easier (and more fun!).

That’s all for today. Tomorrow, we’ll check out how salience impacts your ability to remember things in the future. See you then!


Recommended book

The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin


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