Learning how to learn (Pt. 1)

I graduated from the University of Waterloo with honors. The school’s math department even sent my family a Dean’s List letter to highlight how well I was doing during my undergraduate program. I mention this not to pat myself on the back (fear from culture expectations powered many of my 16-hour study-a-thons), but to bring a modicum of credibility to what this three-part series covers: learning how to learn.

Learning, or our education more properly, doesn’t end on graduation day. It’s a life long process to keep you fresh and capable.

In the “adult” world, you don’t learn for college credits, you learn to be remain hirable in your 50s, to manage your finances (financial literacy), and to raise a family (life philosophy, cooking meals, helping with homework, house repairs).

If you’re going to learn for the rest of your life, why not have fun with it? In this series, I’ll expose the strategies and knowledge I used then and now to be an effective learner. No rote memorization, no passive lectures, and less frustration.

The lesson to keep in mind while reading: make learning a game of combining as many “brain muscles” as possible.

The visual muscle

From the day you were born, you opened your eyes to take in the world and process it. If you imagine different parts of the brain as different muscles, you can wager the visual muscle getting the most training–given its everyday use. I encourage you to take advantage of this investment of time by funneling new concepts and learnings through the visual form.

Tip 1: Use metaphors to better remember.

Example: Say you’re trying to learn a new language like German. The German word for table is “tisch,” pronounced “tish” like tissue.

Memory metaphor: Remember this by imagining a table made of tissues.

Example: Say you’re in high school chemistry and the teacher says cations are positive ions and anions are negative ions. This will be on the test!

Memory metaphor: Cat’s have paws, cat-ions are paw-sitive (+) (anions, by process of elimination, are negative (-)). Make the metaphor a little silly. Imagine your chemistry teacher scrunching his fingers like a cat when saying “cat’s pawwwww-sitive”. Visual metaphors dusted with humor is extremely effective.

The spatial muscle

The average person today is useless when it comes to navigation (thank you Google Maps) but our ancient ancestors didn’t have the same luxury. It was advantageous for them to navigate the environment from memory. They not only wanted to avoid a tiger’s territory but they needed to keep track of food found on previous scavenges (picture eating no sugar for weeks and then stumbling upon a rare blueberry bush at the foot of a mountain). Life was all about increasing one’s chances of survival. We are the descendants of the ones that avoided predators and knew where to get their next meal.

Us smartphone carrying chimps still have this spatial muscle, though it may have atrophied in recent times. Notice you have trouble remembering a 10-item grocery list but have no trouble remembering the layout of your friend’s new apartment. Your grocery list is relatively straightforward but it’s not activating the stronger, more efficient spatial hardware.

Tip 2: Create a memory palace to translate the abstract to the physical

Back to the grocery list example. You have eggs, milk, cheese, and garbage bags to buy. Imagine entering your home and getting stunned with a camera flash. A block of cheese says, “cheese!” You look over to your couch and a loaf of stale bread lounges on the sofa while egg drips down your coffee table (bread, eggs, coffee!) You’ve had enough and decide to clean up the place with a giant black garbage bag (yup, garbage bags). Done. You’ve hacked your visual memory to remember your grocery list.

This strategy is ancient, popular strategy among memory champions, and even used by the psychotic Hannibal Lecter.

Lesson revisited

The two above examples hone in on different parts of the brain. Using them is clever, using them in combination is genius. And I mean that in the literal sense. Combining several different muscles extends your effective intelligence because a larger “surface area” of your brain is working away at your subject of focus. In other words, why only use your biceps to lift a car (play along with me here) when you can use the power of your entire body in unison?

Some strategies for stacking brain muscles:

Goal: Process and retain your Psych 101 lecture notes.

Strategy: Rewrite your lecture notes, don’t read them. Paraphrasing is encouraged.

Muscles used:

Goal: Memorize the relationship between an income statement and a balance sheet.

Strategy: Explain to a friend with illustrations, instead of rote memorization.

Muscles used:

And that’s it! Use this knowledge the next time you’re trying to learn and retain new information … or just memorize a grocery list.

Make it a game of stacking brain muscles.

In my next article, I’ll cover why learning is actually painful. Procrastination is justified when your point of entry is irritation and agitation.