Learning to Learn: The Science of Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain and nervous system to grow and “rewire” itself. It can be good (learning a new skill) or bad (developing bad habits or addictions).

As a teacher, learning how to teach also involves learning how to learn.

To that end, this video by Dr. Andrew Huberman on neuroplasticity (The Biology of Learning) is fascinating. Dr. Huberman begins at the 6:30-mark.

For those who may not have watched the whole thing, or maybe a bit suspicious about devoting an entire hour, I’m also copying my notes from this lecture. They won’t necessarily make sense if you haven’t watched the video, but they can give you a nice overview of the video’s content and hopefully encourage you to watch.

  • Neuroplasticity is the ability of the nervous system to “rewire” itself.
    • It can be good (adaptive) or bad (maladaptive).
  • For younger (under 25) it happens all the time – whether trying to learn or not. For older students, you must actively try to learn in order to rewire the system.
    • This is not true for maladaptive behaviors – those can happen without “active” learning.
    • If you pay attention to something, then you can learn (or remember) something as an adult.

Mechanisms for Learning

  • Two mechanisms: triggered (in the classroom) and rewiring (during sleep and rest)
  • Learning prereqs. You must be
    • Alert – not tired, able to notice and function
    • Focused – able to tune out distractions and concentrate on a specific thing (not multitasking)
  • Rewiring of neural connections happens during sleep ( for more read Why We Sleep or this blog entry ) – we get “neural reputations” of the action or information we learned while awake.
    • These reps also happen during “non-sleep deep rest” – things like meditation, naps, hypnosis, yoga Nidra – activities that try to “turn off” conscious attention.
    • Taking random 10-second breaks (to focus on what you’ve done) greatly enhances learning. (Involves a rapid replay of what they just did/learned 10-20x faster than “real” time).
      • This is more beneficial than “pre” or “post” training rest

Neuroplasticity Super-Protocol

This is not a static document. This can (and will) change as new research comes out.

There are pharmacological tools (pills, plants, etc.), but these are not as effective to rely on outside of a lab setting (where things can be tightly controlled). Generally, changing behaviors and activities are the best way to make long-term progress.

Focus is a process, not a switch

  • Be alert
    • Alertness is the gateway to focus – it came come about through desire or through action. Actually doing things increases our level of alertness which can then increase our level of focus (and then learning).
      • Without alertness, there is no learning.
      • No “learning by osmosis”
      • Use the body to control the mind – it’s hard to use the mind to control the mind.
        • 15 quick, deep inhales and exhales can increase alertness.
  • You must be focused.
    • Dopamine is the molecule of alertness (not pleasure)
  • Use of white noise may raise your level of alertness (prior to or at the beginning of a learning block).
  • The brain’s ability to focus follows your visual focus
    • Focus on a “target” at approximately the same distance as your study materials (music, words, etc) for 10-60 seconds while minimizing blinks
  • While learning, generate repetitions – (as many as you safely can).
  • Expect and embrace errors.
    • Errors are actually productive since they can increase your ability to focus.
  • Randomly insert micro-rest (10-30 seconds)
    • During these micro-rests, stop, close your eyes, and focus on what you’ve just done. This increases the number of “neural reps”.
  • Use random intermittent reward
    • An expected reward diminishes the capacity for learning. Don’t work for a reward
    • Sometimes the best reward is no reward. Expected reward undermines the learning. The more you expect a reward, the bigger that reward has to be to generate effort.
  • Limit learning trigger sessions to 90 minutes (or less). Learning (and focus) is hard work.
    • Give yourself a 5 or 10-minute break between sessions. Similar to the Pomodoro method.
  • Incorporate nap or NSDR (non-sleep deep rest) protocols
    • If naps interfere with nighttime sleep, don’t nap (to NSDR instead)
    • As little as 10 minutes of napping can have benefits
    • Meditate
    • Reveri.com (self-hypnosis)
    • NSDR at Madefor (Youtube)
    • Yoga Nidra
  • Maximize the quality and optimal duration of sleep at night. The step is often neglected but among the most important. This is when the “saving” happens.