Sunday, 13 March 2016

Learn How to Learn with David Young

Learning Objectives:

Learners will be able to: -
a.       Define and differentiate between Focused thinking and Diffuse thinking. Describe the value of switching between each mode to solve simple and complex problems.
b.      Define Working Memory, Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory. Define Hippocampus and Frontal Lobes and explain how each is used by humans/mammals to store memories and enable humans/mammals to live and to solve problems.


Learning is something that all living things, especially mammals and humans, do all through life. It can be said it is why we are here. All learning is associated with movement, whether a plant, an insect, or a vertebrate. Movement is far more complex than we realise. Catching a ball, typing on a computer keyboard, running a race, darning a sock, performing keyhole surgery  are all extraordinary feats of movement and while man has created computers that can outwit a human at a game of chess, they have yet to create computers that can emulate the many and varied complex movement of the human body and limbs.

Humans have developed a far higher level of learning than all other living things. It is one of the reasons why humans currently rule the world. The pity is they sometimes do it badly.

The purpose of this blog is to help you to learn better, creating more value for you, giving you greater opportunities in living your life, giving you a life with more purpose and helping you to pass it on to your children, your grandchildren and any others who have meaning for you. In this way we can create not only a better life for us but for all the people on this planet.

Learned Helplessness

As far back as 1978 Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and others theorised a human syndrome which they named ‘Learned Helplessness’. They discovered that some mammals and some humans could learn to be helpless. In other words, they could no longer learn. The condition in humans, they theorised, was initially psychological brought on by the ego but without an intervention of some kind, the condition could and very often did become cognitive.

Here's an example. Where I live (in Zimbabwe) we went through the highest living example of monetary inflation where our Zimbabwe Dollar devalued at the rate of trillions of percent per annum between 2000 and 2008. Whereas 10 Zimbabwe cents would buy a loaf of bread in 2000, by 2008 a loaf of bread cost hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwe dollars. Devaluation was caused by printing money not backed by national productivity. Everyone knew that – except it seems the politicians who made decisions on behalf of the nation.

Politicians who defined the monetary policies refused the blame themselves for the devaluation. “It’s not our fault’, they said, ‘it’s greedy traders raising prices’. Blaming others was initially their means to protecting their self-esteem

They were unable to learn that by printing more money without that money being backed by productivity, they were devaluing the money. Diluting it much the same as when we pour a glass of orange juice and then add water, we are devaluing the orange juice. The politicians thought they could control it by legislating ‘price controls’ and ‘wage controls’ on the ‘greedy traders and workers’. They tried it not once, not twice not even thrice, but at least a dozen times. It never worked, They demonstrated by this ceaseless repetition of the same solution that being unable to learn was no longer a psychological condition but a cognitive one. They could no longer learn.

The only way these senseless actions came to an end was because traders of all kinds in the country eventually refused to accept the Zimbabwe Dollar in payment for goods and services. Instead traders demanded US dollars (illegal though it was) or bartered. On one occasion a business that I was working with - an outsource payroll bureau - accepted pick-axe handles from a customer in exchange for running an organisations' payroll in preference to receiving Zimbabwe dollars.

The Brain can Grow

Something else we have learned through Norman Doige and others is that the brain is able to change itself; it is able to grow new neurons and to create new connections between neurons. Age is not necessarily a barrier. The old saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ may apply to dogs but it most certainly does not apply to people.

Learning carries immense value. Moreover, the better we know HOW to learn, the more we can learn.

Working Memory, Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory

Our brains are the most complex organs in our bodies and different parts of the brain do different things. For the purpose of this current blog we don’t need to know everything about the human brain so let’s begin with an image of the brain for which I must thank Genevieve Orr (better known as Jenny Orr of Willamette University.

For the purpose of learning and memory, we need to know more about the hippocampus and the Frontal Lobe

The Hippocampus

You can stop looking for the hippocampus in the diagram above because it is not being shown! The hippocampus is a part of the temporal lobe.  The hippocampus is primarily responsible for long term memory storage whereas the frontal lobe is largely responsible for short term memory.

Sometimes memories can lodge in the hippocampus very quickly and easily. This is when your emotions are engaged. For example I remember clearly the three occasions when I was being shot at and equally, I remember where I was and what I was doing when all three of my sons were born.

But when your emotions are not engaged, it can take a lot of hard work – and practice – to move these short term memories into the long term memory of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus also enables us to ‘live in the present’ – that is it stores memories of who you played golf with yesterday and what your scores were, where you left the car keys, the name of the person you met 30 seconds ago – that kind of thing. If you have trouble remembering these, you are not alone. It happens to us all. There are routines that we can engage in to help remember these one-off events. But as we age, these kinds of memories can be all the harder to recover and this is because of degeneration of the hippocampus.

The Frontal Lobes

The Frontal Lobes are the most recently developed areas of the human brain. They are what make us human. They enable us to think and plan ahead and provide us with the capacity to direct attention, the capacity to make clear minded decisions quickly and under pressure, the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed or habitual responses and the capacity to change cognitive frames effectively in a very timely fashion.

It is also in the frontal lobes where we store short term memories and where we find ‘working memory’. Working Memory allows us to store about four chunks at a time. The memories are not lasting. To give you a typical example, last night at a party I met up with my old friend Simon. I had not met his wife before and he introduced me to her. Within a few seconds I had forgotten her name so I talked with her directly and then asked her to remind me of her name. In this way (repetition) I was able to fix her name into my long term memory. (Her name, by the way, is Joy).

Another way we learn is by reading. As with listening, to move short term memories into long term memories we need to take specific action. One way is called ‘spaced repetition’ where by re-reading what we have learned at spaced intervals helps.

Another effective way is to teach others about what we have learned. I started working in the computer industry when I was 42 years old. I was appointed Training Manager for a computer business in Harare. On the day I started I had never seen a computer let alone touched one. It was at a time when the ‘Personal Computer’ or ‘Micro Computer’ as they were then called started to reach the market. The business was a public training business where we enrolled thousands of trainees every year and trained them to use early operating systems (MS-DOS) and applications such as Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3.

I needed to learn myself so I started to train others on a course which we titled ‘Introduction to the Micro Computer’. It forced me into learning and although I did have some embarrassing experiences in the training room on the odd occasion, I soon learned what I needed to learn to pass on to others.

So to summarise: To fix memories into the long term memory we either need to be emotionally engaged with what we are learning or we need to take specific action to move short term memories into long term memory.

Focused and Diffuse Thinking

This is recent (and valuable) learning for me on a course with Barbara Oakley.

Focused thinking is when we concentrate on a particular topic or exercise. Like writing this blog. I am focused on writing it as clearly and concisely as I can in the here and now. I am not thinking of anything else. I did some ‘diffuse’ thinking when I wrote the learning objectives and when I have finished the actual writing I will have to read-read what I have written, do some diffuse thinking and edit my writings. Remove redundant words, make sense of sentences and paragraphs. It might help me to have someone else do the editing who will have a more ‘diffuse’ view of what I have written, but in the circumstances of this blog, that may not be possible. So you, the reader can do some of this diffuse thinking for me and comment on what I have written.

In Barbara Oakley’s book ‘A Mind for Numbers’ there was a puzzle presented to readers: We were shown 10 coins spaced out in the shape of a triangle with the apex of the triangle pointing upwards or ‘north’. We were asked to change the shape of the triangle of coins such that the triangle of coins then faced downwards or ‘south’. But to perform this we could only move 3 coins. I stared at the puzzle. I focused completely for 20 minutes but I was completely stumped. I could not figure out the puzzle. I went to work for the day, thought about the puzzle occasionally during the day, then when I got home that night I opened the book again and looked at the puzzle. I solved it in less than 2 seconds. I was shattered. How come I could not solve it in the morning when I focused for 20 minutes? What had changed? I realised that by NOT focusing on the problem and letting my mind wander any which way, I had cleared an obstacle to solving the puzzle. Now I looked at it in a completely different light and thought how easy it would be for anybody to solve the puzzle!

Focused thinking needs to be used some of the time and diffuse thinking at others to ‘free up’ the neurons, to help us become creative, expressive and ‘different’.


I have now provided you with some more ideas on short term, long term and working memory and added in some ideas about focused and diffuse thinking. It is a fairly large ‘chunk’ of learning and for now it is enough.

But before I close here’s something I came across recently on ‘learning and movement’ relating to the game of cricket where a batsman stands at one end of the pitch waiting to receive and hit the delivery from a bowler:

“At 136km/h, a ball takes 0.52 seconds to travel 20m. That's less time than it takes Usain Bolt to complete his first stride, and a little more than it takes you to blink. It's how long a batsman has to spot the length and line of the delivery, pick a shot to play, and then pull it off.”

Imagine how difficult it would be to program a robot to do this! Humans have an incredibly well developed sense of movement.

Finally I did come across something on procrastination the other day and if you still have a mind for it – focused or diffuse, have a look at this very interesting presentation: -