Learning is emotional

We are all emotional, it’s part of what it means to be human, your emotions help navigate uncertainty and experience the world. For some it’s even considered an intelligence, requiring the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others.

For many years’ emotions were considered something that “got in the way” of learning, effectively disrupting the efficiency, but it is now believed that emotion has a substantial influence on cognitive processes, including perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

Emotions, feelings and mood

In last month’s blog I outlined how sensory input impact memory and the story continues because memories are a key part of emotion and both are found in something called the limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system plays an important part in controlling emotional responses (Hypothalamus), coordinating those responses (Amygdala), and laying down memories (Hippocampus).

There is no single definition of emotion that everyone agrees upon, what we know is, it relies upon the release of chemicals in response to a trigger which in turn leads to three distinct phases. Firstly, a subjective experience, perhaps a feeling of anger, although not everyone would necessarily respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Secondly, a physiological response for example, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and lastly a behavioural or expressive response, a furrowing of the brow, showing of teeth etc.  

Although emotions are not believed to be hard-wired, in the 1970s Paul Eckman identified six emotions that were universally experienced in all human cultures. They are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. This list has however been expanded to include others for example shame, embarrassment, excitement etc.

Feelings on the other hand arise from emotions, they are a conscious interpretation of the stimulus, asking questions as to what it might mean, some refer to feelings as the human response to emotions.  And finally, moods which are more general and longer term, an emotion might exist for a fraction of a second but moods can last for hours, even days and are sometimes a symptom of more worrying mental health issues.   In addition, moods are not necessarily linked to a single event but shaped by different events over time.

Impact on learning

Understanding what this means for students and educators is complex and in a short blog it’s only possible to introduce the subject. But there are a few lessons we can learn.

  • Emotions direct attention – if students can make an emotional connection with what they are learning it will improve levels of concentration and enjoyment.
  • Consider the emotional environment – the emotional context in which information is delivered can help students experience more positive emotions such as happiness and one of the most powerful emotions in learning, curiosity.
  • Avoid negative emotions – students who are in a continual state of anxiety or fearing failure whilst learning will find concentrating and retaining information difficult. This is partly the result of the brain going into its fight or flight mode which effectively narrows its focus to the task in hand.
  • Emotional state is contagious – the emotional state of the teacher can have a significant impact on students.
  • Memory and emotions are bound together – emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally charged events such as September 11 or the London bridge attack in 2017.

And if you would like to find out moreHow do emotions impact learning.

Dedication – in a lifetime we will all experience many emotions some good, some bad, but none are as powerful or more gratefully received than a mother’s love, for my mom.

Never forget – improving memory

When I first started lecturing, I asked myself a question, what’s the point in saying something if no one can remember what’s said? Didn’t I have a responsibility to present the knowledge in such a way that it was more memorable? If not, then all I was doing was putting it out there for each student to figure out the best way of getting it into their head.

What followed has been a lifelong interest in learning and memory.

How memory works
Although there is a strong link between working memory and intelligence, they are not the same. Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information, it’s the recalling of information to solve a problem that makes memory so useful in terms of intelligence.

A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.
John Henry Newman

The brain takes information in by way of the five main senses, what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, this is known as sensory input. But we are bombarded with sensory information potentially at the rate of 11 million bits per second making it impossible to consciously capture everything, that is if we should want to.

The result is that much of this information is lost, however if you turn your attention towards a piece of information, effectively concentrating on a sound or image whilst ignoring the rest, it will move to short term memory where it can be stored, but not for long. Although short term memory is only part of working memory in this context they can be thought of as the same.

The true art of memory is the art of attention.
Samuel Johnson

As you might imagine short term memory is by definition short, around 15 to 30 seconds, its also limited in terms of capacity. In 1956 George Miller* famously defined the capacity as being 7 plus or minus 2, although recent research suggests the 7 might more accurately be 4. The implication being that you can only hold around 7 pieces of information in short term memory at any one time. You can test this by looking at the letters below for about 20 seconds and trying to memorise them.

SHNCCMTAVYID

Then take a 5-minute break and on a blank piece of paper write down as many as you can remember.

There are 12 characters and you would be in good company if you remembered around 6 or 7, with those at the start and end being the easiest. This is known as the primacy (start) and recency effect (end). But more importantly how did you memorise the information, perhaps by repeating the letters over an over in your head or looking at the shapes each one made, picturing them in your minds eye? These are examples of techniques you have learned to help transfer information from short to long term memory, they may not be the best but they work.

Long term memory – it’s all about the input
The repeating of a word is a type of encoding, effectively labelling the information as a means of moving it from short to long term memory. Think of it as a type of filing system, if you don’t file it correctly, when you come to look for it at a later date it might be there but you won’t be able to find it. If you would like to learn more about what’s happening in the brain when you create these connections read this previous blog – The learning brain.

There are many ways in which you can encode information, they form the basis for the most common memory techniques. I have written about some of these before although it was over 10 years ago and they are sufficiently important to cover again.

1 Association and organisation – the brain needs structure and works well when information is added with an association or link to something that came before. This is why acronyms are so effective, if you already know the word SMART, then it is easier to remember Specific Measurable Realistic and Timely because your simply adding new words to something already in long term memory.
Association also works with dates, ask yourself what day the 15th of February fell on this year? Chances are you will remember that the 14th was Valentine’s day which was a Friday, you will then be able to figure out that the 15th must have been the Saturday.

2 Repetition – continually repeating something fires neurons in the brain until they form a long-term connection. This is the reason you can remember your times table so well. However continually repeating something in a short space of time which is called mass repetition is not as effective as spaced repetition. The spacing makes recall more difficult requiring additional effort and it is the effort that strengthens the long-term memory.

3 Visualisation – one of the most powerful senses for recall is your ability to visualise, with some arguing that it’s the main way in which memories are stored. However, researchers would most likely award that accolade to your sense of smell. But few would disagree that picturing something in your “mind’s eye” is an important way of bringing the past into the present.

Ask yourself what colour your front door is, can you see it, where is the letter box positioned, towards the top, in the middle or at the bottom? When you try to answer these questions it’s your visual memory you will be using. Images have also been proven to be effective when used with a verbal commentary. The theory of dual coding suggests that people process verbal and visual information separately but interestingly at the same time making the input of information even more powerful. Mind maps use many of the principles of memory but rely heavily on the use of related colourful and imaginative pictures. Click here to learn more.

4 Rhythm and Rhyme – the ability to remember music and even more fundamentally rhythm helps encode information. Remembering the lyrics to a song will not be as easy as remembering the tune that carries the words. There are lots of examples of memorising using rhythm, think about all those nursery rhymes or how Matilde remembers how to spell difficulty

Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY.

5 Chunking – and lastly the one we started with, remember those numbers from before? You would have had a much better chance if you had chunked them down into smaller pieces of information and associated them with existing knowledge. Look at the letters below for about 20 seconds and try to memorise them.

DIY VAT MCC NHS

You should find this a whole lot easier, even though they are the same letters as before but just backwards. You might even have found yourself visualising the blue of the NHS. Click here for more on chunking.

Lest we forget – It is perhaps no mistake that in order to remember those who died in the first world war and all subsequent wars, an image of a poppy was chosen. And who could forget – The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

*Based on psychologist George Miller’s paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956)

Food for thoughts – the impact of food on learning

According the latest government statistics obesity is on the rise, there is also a link to Covid deaths with nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care being obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. The WHO has stated that being overweight and obese is the fifth leading risk for global deaths with at least 2.8 million adults dying each year.

Eating too much is clearly not good for your health but how about what you eat, how might that impact your health, in particular your brain?

Viva las Vagus

Have you ever used your gut instinct, had butterflies in your stomach or when feeling nervous had to rush to the toilet? If so then you already have some evidence of the connection and importance of your gut to the way you think and feel. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the brain stem to part of the colon in effect making the connection. The biggest influence on the levels of activity of the vagus nerve are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut. The vagus nerve is able to sense the microbe activity and effectively transfer this gut information to the nervous system and ultimately the brain. Watch this 2-minute video that shows how this works.

Scientists refer to the relationship between the gut and the brain as the “gut brain axis”. The brain sends chemical signals to the gut through the bloodstream, one such example is the feeling of being full or hungry. But and this is the interesting part – the stomach talks back; gut bacteria send messages in the same way the brain communicates using neurotransmission. Prior blog – The learning brain.

Exactly what the messages say depends on what you eat, a gut filled with fruit and vegetables will have different microbes to one that has just consumed a Big Mac. This is a very new area and most of the research has been completed on rats but there is already some evidence to suggest that junk food impairs memory.

Hopefully this gives you some idea as to the strong connection that exist between your stomach and your brain. We can now move on and consider what specific types of foods can help when learning.

These Ted talks are well worth watching if you want to find out more – Your Gut Microbiome: The most important organ you’ve never heard of (11m), and Mind-altering microbes: How the microbiome affects brain and behaviour (6m).

What to eat when studying

The first thing to say is that I am far from an expert on nutrition and so the focus here is more on the impact food has on mood, concentration, cognition and memory. Secondly, to give this some context it might be worth thinking about what you eat in the same way an athlete does. They pay close attention to their diet to make sure their body is in the best possible condition in order to compete because if not they are reducing their chances of success. However, a good diet is no substitute for the hard work they have to put in at the gym, you have to do both. Short video on how nutrition is key to sports performance.

Brain foods

  1. Apples, berries and Citrus – The British Journal of Nutrition published research in 2010 (The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition) indicating that consuming certain fruits such as berries, apple and citrus, that are rich in flavonoids can help improve memory and cognition.
  2. Dark chocolate – Research published in the Frontiers in Nutrition (Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids) found that dark chocolate which also contains flavonoids improved memory in both the short and long term. But remember many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories so it’s not all good news.
  3. Rosemary – Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found that herbs such as rosemary and lavender impacted memory, with the scent of rosemary enhancing memory but lavender impairing it. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said ‘rosemary is for remembrance’.
  4. Oily fish and walnuts (omega 3) – There is a much-published connection between omega three and the improvement in learning and memory. However, many of these claims are exaggerated to promote a particular type of food or brand with most having such small doses to make little or no difference. There is some evidence published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found people who ate more seafood, which naturally contains omega 3, had reduced rates of decline in semantic memory. But there is little evidence to show that supplements work at all. The best advice is to eat fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet but don’t expect your exam results to improve by that much.
  5. Fruit and vegetables – A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 found an association between consuming fruit and vegetables and being in a positive mood.
  6. Water – Despite being the least exciting of them all, water remains one of the best ways in which you can improve brain functionality. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied 101 participants to see if low water consumption impacted cognition. The result was those who had reduced amounts of water experienced poor memory, reduced energy levels and feelings of anxiety, but those drinking water experienced the opposite.

The evidence on specific foods and its impact on cognition and learning is complex and nuanced. However the connection between the stomach and the brain although still in its early stages has greater potential to lead us to a better understanding as to what we should eat to improve our mental wellbeing.

In the meantime, the best advice is to think about how your diet impacts you personally, identify when you feel best studying is it before a meal or after, pay attention to snacking and of course drink lots of water, eat your greens, all as part of a balanced diet.

The learning brain

Brain 5

There are a number of books that not only taught me something but helped shape the way I think and opened up a whole new world. One such book was Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter, not as you might imagine a book about mind mapping but the Brain. Rita Carter is a science journalist rather than a neuroscientist and understands that it’s not about what she knows but what she can explain.

Having a better understanding of how the brain works will help do far more than improve your grades in a biology exam, you will develop insight as to why something works not only that it does. As a result, you can be confident you are using the most effective brain friendly learning techniques.

The infrastructure Brain 2
Rita Carter provides us with an excellent description of the brain, that it is as big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the colour of uncooked liver and consistency of firm jelly.

Imagine a cross section of the brain, taken from the side, alternatively look at the diagram opposite.

The cerebrum or cortex is the largest part of the human brain and is associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. It is divided into four sections.

  • Frontal lobe – associated with reasoning, planning, some speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
  • Parietal Lobe – associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe – associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe – associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

The cerebellum coordinates movements such as posture, balance, and speech. Next to this is the brain stem, which includes the medulla and pons. These are the older parts of the brain and evolved over 500 million years ago. In fact, if you touch the back of your head and bring your hand forward over the top towards your nose, this effectively maps the ages in which the brain developed.

The Limbic system is largely associated with emotions but contains the hippocampus which is essential for long term memory and learning.

Synaptic gap – Cells that fire together wire together (Hebbian theory)
Although learning is complex, a large amount takes place in the limbic system because this is where the hippocampus sits. Here our memories are catalogued to be filed away in long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex.

What comes next is important because it’s here within the hippocampus where neurons connect across what is called the synaptic gap that learning arguably begins. Synaptic transmission is the process whereby a neuron sends an electrical message, the result of a stimulus across the synaptic gap to another neuron that is waiting to receive it. The neuron’s never touch, the gap is filled by chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters examples of which include dopamine and serotonin. These are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.

Learning is making new connections, remembering is keeping them

When the stimulus is repeated the relationship between the neurons becomes stronger and so a memory is formed and learning has taken place. The whole process is called long term potentiation (LTP).

How does this help?
All a bit technical perhaps but very important as it explains so much. It is the reason that repetition is so valuable, for example, if you are reading something and it’s not going in, you need to fire those neurons again but perhaps using different stimulus. Try saying it out loud or drawing a picture alongside the text.

Don’t forget the blog I wrote in January 2018 that explained brain plasticity and how the brain changes as those new neural connections are made, a process called Neurogenesis.

The neurotransmitters, those chemicals released to fill the synaptic gap are also important as each one is different. For example, in addition to making you feel good, it’s likely that when you feel anxious your brain is releasing high levels of serotonin.

Although it’s fair to say there is still much we don’t understand about the brain, I  hope the blog has helped remove some of the mystery of learning, it’s not a magical process but a scientific one.

learn more

Dedicated to my dog Jack – our family dog and best friend

Mind Mapping – Tony Buzan, Learning leader

MM-How-to-MindMap-imindmap-1024x647

It was with some sadness that I read of the death of Tony Buzan last week. It’s possible you have never heard of him and yet will be familiar with the technique he discovered to help students learn, Mind Mapping. He was born in the UK in 1942 studied Psychology, English, Mathematics and Science at the University of British Columbia.  In addition to his lifelong association with Mind Mapping he worked for Mensa, set up the World Memory Championships in 1991 with Raymond Keene, and found time to write over 140 books. Two of which sit on my bookshelf, both furthered my knowledge and fuelled my interest in learning, memory and how the brain works. These are Use your Head and The Mind Map book.

Curiosity  

When Tony Buzan was at Junior school his curiosity was sparked by a boy who had an excellent knowledge of nature, in particular birds but repeatedly failed tests that were set in school. This led him to question what intelligence was. And although I hadn’t read this at the time it was something I had also been interested in. Society had/has somehow lost sight of the fact that people are different, falling into the trap of praising and promoting those that were “clever” and pitying those that were not. It seemed far more sensible to break intelligence down into a series of biological/neurological qualities, and in 1983, when Howard Gardner published his book on Multiple Intelligence Theory this made perfect sense to me and provided evidence that Buzan was on to something.

Mind Mapping – does it work?

According to Tony Buzan, “Mind Mapping is a two-dimensional note-taking technique with which a Mind Map is made using all the relevant knowledge about a specific subject.”

I have written about how to Mind Map before, so please follow the links if you want to find out more – Mind Mapping unplugged – The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams.

Remarkably there is little evidence to prove that Mind Mapping works, academics have focused instead on Concept Mapping, a hierarchical diagram that links conceptual knowledge, but the principles that underpin Mind Mapping are consistent with much of what we know is effective in learning.

This quote from Tony Buzan offers a deeper insight into why it works.

“I used to take formal notes in lines of blue, and underline the key words in red, and I realised I needed only the key words and the idea. Then to bring in connections, I drew arrows and put in images and codes. It was a picture outside my head of what was inside my head – ‘Mind Map’ is the language my brain spoke.”

In this narrative there are three important principles identified. Firstly, use only key words, this process of reduction is hugely valuable in learning. When the brain has to select one or two words it engages in a process of reflection and review, reading and re-reading asking which one word should I pick, and why. Secondly connections, it is well accepted that the brain finds storing unrelated chunks of information difficult, a Mind Map requires the student to link information and in so doing forces a connection. And lastly, arguably one of the most powerful, the use of images. The brain appears to have a limitless capacity to store pictures, the brighter, more colourful and stranger the better.

In summary, it’s not that Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan and before we knew little about the best techniques to aid learning, what he did was pull together much of what we now know to be effective using as inspiration the drawings of the Leonardo de Vinci and created a tool that requires the student to know little of the theory behind how it works but by preparing one engages them in a series of very effective techniques that will help them learn.

Critics

It would be wrong to suggest that everything Tony Buzan said or did was correct, he has been responsible for promoting what many now recognise as pop psychology that has since been proved to be incorrect. For example

“Did you know that you use less than 1% of your brain? The good news is that Mind Mapping can help you to access the other 99%.”

However, he also said

“Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.”

And in this world rich with information, AI and robotics, this may be the only thing that will keep us ahead of the game.

Listen to Tony Buzan talking about Mind Maps

RIP Tony Buzan learning leader.

 

 

 

 

Sleep, studying and Circadian rhythms

Circadiam - sleepThe brain is truly astonishing, if you disagree with that statement it’s just possible you have never heard of circadian rhythms.

Your circadian rhythm is best thought of as a body clock, a 24-hour cycle that tells you when to sleep, get up in the morning and eat. In biological terms the clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. The SCN is a tiny part of the hypothalamus which is situated directly above the pituitary gland in the centre of the brain.

 

 

Your body has a clock
Do you wake in the morning naturally or is it the result of a stark shrill from your alarm? If its naturally then this is your internal clock at work. Interestingly it can be pre programmed, you will have done this many time, waking before your alarm goes off for example. We are not talking about 10 minutes before, so accurate is your body clock you can wake 1 minute or even seconds before it is due to go off. Jet lag is an example of what happens when you disrupt the internal clock, your entire body struggles to adapt, affecting your ability to concentrate, eat, rest and sleep.
Interestingly Circadian rhymes exist in all living organisms, including plants. The external stimulus is natural light. However even without light the 24-hour cycle will continue, this has been evidenced by research with people who are totally blind. Although their circadian rhythms are often said to “free run” and extend slightly longer than 24 hours, they continue independent of light.

Why is this important for studying?
One of the reasons for going into so much detail is to illustrate how complex we are as human beings and that what may seem a relatively small change in your behaviour e.g. studying late into the night, can have a significant impact on your ability to function, in this context concentrate and remember.
Pulling an all-nighter to prepare for an exam is a badge of honour that many students will wear with pride. It is perceived as a measure of how committed and mentally tough you are. And on one level the effort and difficulty of the task should be rewarded, but given that examinations are a test of cognitive ability anything that reduces your chances of doing well should be avoided. If Hussain Bolt ran the 100 meters in a record time, having been out on the town the night before, waking up with a hangover and only having two hours sleep he would be a hero. But if he lost, he would be a fool. Why would someone who had invested so much of their time put that at risk?
In simple terms you need to help your brain perform to the best of its abilities.

Circadian rhythms and memory
A little more technical detail to illustrate a simple point, if you don’t follow your natural sleep patterns your ability to memorise and retain information will be affected. Retention appears to hinge on the amount of a neurochemical called GABA which inhibits brain activity. And it is the Circadian clock that moderates the amount of GABA produced. In fact, in an experiment using hamsters where the circadian clock was effectively disabled the hamsters were unable to remember anything.

Mental health types-01There is a far more sinister side to the disruption in your circadian rhythm, ongoing research has identified a direct link with mental health disorders such as depression. This is of particular interest given the rise in reported levels of depression amongst students. One area that is being investigated is screen time be that mobile phones or computers. The artificial blue light emitted from these devices could well be confusing your circadian clock.

Why we sleep is still uncertain but it is believed that deep sleep helps the brain consolidate all the experiences from the day, including what its learned. When you shut down your computer, it may say “do not turn off during this update” – that sounds like  good advice.

And if you would like to find out more

Circadian Rhythm and Your Brain’s Clock

How Your Circadian Rhythm Tunes Your Health