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Is concentrating on the material you are supposed to learn a challenge, or do you have trouble remembering? These brain techniques may turn your learning experience around.

Are you having trouble making the material you are supposed to be learning (or teaching!) stick? These insights into the human brain should help you create a more effective learning experience, whether you are a student, a self-educating adult, or a teacher of any kind.

Focused Vs Diffuse Thinking

What do you do when you're supposed to be concentrating on something but your brain simply doesn't seem to cooperate? You have probably had the experience of reading the very same pages again and again, only to realize the contents don't seem to want to sink in. In these cases, you might well be overcome with a strong urge to do something else — go for a walk, have a bite to eat, exercise, just sit around seemingly doing nothing, or actually, anything other than continuing with your attempts. 

People who regularly give into the urge to take a break from serious tasks they can't seem to concentrate on may have noticed that they're often able to focus much better when they return to their work later. They may find that loose bits of information that were floating around their head, but were not forming a whole, can suddenly be connected into a decent essay, for instance. 

Is giving into the urge to take breaks from activities that require a good deal of thinking something slackers do? It may feel that way, but doing something else or doing nothing at all allows your brain to bounce information around more freely.

This is actually called "diffuse mode", a brain mode with a wide focus that leaves you free to connect information and knowledge. The diffuse mode is, as far as scientists know so far, one of two brain modes, the other being "focused mode". While people in diffuse mode might appear to be dreaming or wasting time, they could well be on the verge of something important. Once the connections have been made, the brain will be ready to switch to "focused mode", where a more narrow scope of information can be processed more effectively. 

Trying to focus, on the other hand, may mean that you keep on spinning the same information along the same synapses, unable to see the bigger picture and make adequate conclusions. Similarly, information is bound to look an awful lot different when you sleep on it and reassess the next morning. By giving yourself permission to let your mind wander — and crucially, scheduling time for that purpose if you're working with tight deadlines — will allow you to achieve much better learning results in the future

Train Your Reticular Activating System

While some people are able to multitask very well, others easily get distracted by the many stimuli around them. I can, for instance, hear the sounds of cars honking in the background, my children arguing, and the cooking timer ticking as I am writing. I can also smell an incense stick, and see that the room in which I am working wasn't tidied even though I asked my kids to do that yesterday.

Students and others who need to really focus can constantly be distracted external noises, visuals, and sensations — unless they learn to block the irrelevant stimuli out. 

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) links your brain stem to your prefrontal cortex, and is responsible for keeping you focused. It may do a pretty good job all by itself, but you may want to train your RAS to not send irrelevant and distracting stimuli into your conscious brain, by really trying to focus only on what you need to be doing. 

Some ways in which you can work on training the RAS are: 

  • Listen out for all those background sounds and identify them, then try to shut them out while concentrating on one task. In a classroom setting, this can be turned into an interesting game. 
  • Hyper-focus by telling yourself you might well be expected to repeat instructional materials back to the instructor. Your attention is less likely to wander this way. If you are the teacher, tell your students they might be expected to repeat what you say back to you later.
  • Try focusing on the small details of objects, paintings or even poems for a while, and then try to switch back into "big picture mode". Taking the time to notice the small things many people miss will increase your vocabulary and allow you to remember what you saw better.
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