Story Day

So my first story is not actual fiction piece. Rather it is a light hearted report I wrote for a class I recently did on Coursera. For those who haven’t heard of Coursera, it is a first-rate resource for online learning. It is free, the classes come from around the world ( I am taking one from Paris, from Edinburgh, and from New York), and it has subjects on almost every subject. A extraordinary way to expand our horizons.

I chose this as my first class because, well, it has been a long time since I tried to learn anything new. Outside of work, that is. I enjoyed it so much, I was sad when it was done. It had zombies and flying mules, not to mention many ideas on how to get ideas into your head: and keep them there. For writing, I particularly liked learning about the diffuse method.

                         A Girl named Sam: A Rather Autobiographical Story

This is a story about a girl named Sam. She hadn’t been to school in over 20 years, and suddenly, it occurred to her that she ought to. Sam had been in retail for those 20 years, and she just couldn’t stomach any more. But what to do?  Where to go?

Sam knew she had some issues with learning. She had skated through high school, partied through part of college until financial aid dried up, and had just never put that much effort into it. When she couldn’t go back to college her junior year, she shrugged her shoulders and went to work.

Sam made the same mistakes at the same types of jobs: she lacked focus, and paying attention to what went on at the register next to her sometimes meant that her own drawer was off. She procrastinated every year and the taxes were never done until April 14th.  Sam had an odd combination of ADD and OCD that meant what she focused on she could do well, sometimes even exceptionally, but once she lost that focus (which happened often) it all slid downhill.

Now, Sam did have some very good attributes for her jobs: she liked people. She was reliable. And people liked her. At the bank her clients got quite attached to her and her to them.  She worked through her focus issues with post-it notes everywhere, and she was determined to get all her work done properly and on time…..but at home, the taxes were still done on April 14th and the floor was vacuumed after every other option had been exhausted.

But now, Sam was unemployed and needed to decide what she wanted to do when she grew up.  She liked people, and she wanted to help people. Hmmm…Whatever it was that she was going to do, it was clear that Sam would need school to do it.  And that meant learning how to learn all over again—or better yet, learning how to learn properly this time.

That is when Sam found Learning How to Learn, a course from San Diego University. Dr Barbara Oakley explained many concepts Sam had never heard of, and Dr Terrence Sejnowski explained a bit on how the brain works. Between the two of them, Sam may have learned enough to survive college.

What did she learn, you ask? Well, she learned all kinds of things, from tomatoes to zombies and flying mules. And while all those things may sound like they have nothing in common, somehow they do.

In the first week Dr Oakley taught Sam (and everyone else!) about Focused and Diffuse attention. Sam had actually used the Diffuse Mode (without realizing it) for her writing, but it had never occurred to her to apply it to learning or solving important issues. The artist Dali was used to illustrate the Diffuse Mode, which Sam truly appreciated as he was one of her favorite artists. She had even based some of her own artwork on his style in high school.  His technique was far better than Sam’s, as he used something in his hand that would drop as he became sleepy and he would become alert and organize his thoughts. Sam just thought about her writing as she fell asleep at night and hoped she would remember her turn of words in the morning.  The good thing about this is that Sam was using sleep to clean out the toxins in her brain and recharge her to face the next day and learn more.

And the next thing Sam learned was how a tomato could help her with her procrastination. No, really. A tomato timer, that is. When using the focus method to intently study a subject, it can be best to set a timer for 25 minutes. After the timer goes off, take a 5 minute break to reward yourself: check email, return some texts, eat a chocolate. If one repeats this four times, it is amazing the amount of learning/tasks one can get done. And, the unpleasant tasks one dreads are broken down into easily managed bites that don’t seem so bitter. Sam started using that technique right away!

In the second week Sam learned about chunking. No, not Pumpkin Chunkin’, but building chunks of knowledge in the brain. If one can learn a formula or process, it can be stored in long term memory and pulled up as needed. Sam learned working memory can only hold four items at a time (she feels that sometimes hers doesn’t even hold that many), but a chunk would be considered one. Chunks can be expanded as more knowledge on a particular subject is learned.  Strong chunks can build an excellent foundation, and then knowledge can be applied to other subjects. Applying knowledge from one subject to another can help build stronger neuron paths as one uses the understanding of the chunk’s information. It can also increase creativity, and “thinking outside the box”—not getting stuck in Einstellung.  If one is an expert in a field, then sometimes one is not always open to new ideas, from oneself or others. Creativity is a key component in learning.

After teaching Sam (and the others) about what a chunk is, Dr Oakley then showed the most efficient ways to build the chunks so that they would be retained and easily pulled up for use.  Chunks are best built by:

  • Focused attention
  • Understanding
  • Practice

Using a Pomodoro to initially learn the knowledge is a great start. But then one must test oneself: flash cards, self tests, doing exercises without using the formula at-hand. Doing a bit of this each day on a subject will help build the neural connections needed to remember the information. Interleaving, learning about one subject and then another, before studying the first again can help as well. One subject should not be studied ad nauseaum, it will be like pounding a nail that is already flush with the wood: pointless. Recall is also an important factor in learning, so switching subjects means that one must recall the chunk  (correctly, hopefully) when one goes back to the original subject.

One of the best things Dr Oakley taught was that mistakes are good.  A mistake, if one takes the time to learn why it was wrong and understands the proper way, can be an excellent learning experience. Many professors wouldn’t teach that, and it puts less pressure on a student to know that having a wrong answer can be ok.  Once one adds the proper knowledge to the chunk, the chunk can be put in one’s library of chunks.

Week Three was all about an issue Sam knew intimately: Procrastination. This is where the Zombies come in.  We all know zombies have very little in thoughts or brain activity, and they charge ahead blindly in search of their primary drive: food. A habit is very like a zombie. Most require very little thought, indeed one can find oneself in the middle of a habitual move without even realizing it. Pushing hair behind ears, chewing a fingernail, these habits are often completely unconscious.  Zombies are fond of procrastination; as they just want to shamble down the street with no changes.  Procrastination has three parts:

  • An unhappy feeling as one approaches a dreaded task
  • Funneling the attention to a more enjoyable task
  • Unhappy feeling replaced by satisfaction—temporarily until one realizes the original task is still in front of them

Not all habits are bad: pushing one’s hair behind one’s ears is an efficient way to get it out of one’s way. The Zombie also has specific parts:

  • The cue: hair is tickling Sam’s nose
  • The routine: pushing hair behind ears
  • The reward: nose is tickle free
  • The belief: Sam doesn’t need a hair-band as long as Sam has ears

Now, a hair-band might be a more efficient way to go so that the distraction of Sam’s nose tickling, and perhaps sneezing, is never an issue. But first Sam must change the belief that just pushing the hair behind the ears is not the best way to go. That would be removing the zombie.

To get rid of zombies, particularly procrastination, Dr Oakley suggested focusing on the process instead of the product. IE: instead of making one do a distasteful task beginning to end (product), focus on the process, like using the Pomodoro that breaks it up.  To break the zombie habits that bring her down, Sam learned that she needs to:

  • Think about the Cue: what prompts it? Recognize what pushes one to procrastinate; it is a place, time, how one feels about a certain task?
  • The Routine: brain automatically wants to default to zombie
  • Plan ahead to avoid the zombie
  • Reward: use a small reward to feel good about avoiding zombie
  • Belief: use that satisfaction and reward to build a new belief that one can learn and continue to use new habits

Once Sam has new zombies bent to her will, there is still plenty to learn. Now that she (and the others), had new tools, it was time to put them into action. Dr Oakley had some good tips about how to balance life and learning as well as new techniques to make those chunks stick.

An excellent way to remember new ideas is to use visual keys. Here comes the flying mule! What he really represents is F=MA. That is, force=mass x acceleration.  A flying mule: flying=mule, um, butt?

The more creative one’s picture cues, the more likely one is to remember it. Dr Oakley discussed how the Memory Palace can help one learn longer and longer lists or formulas by building chunks using spatial cues from one’s own home. Sam thought that was cool and immediately spread her grocery list around the living room. She had a written list, but on the way to store repeated to herself where what food product was in the living room, and even why she put it there (the dogs would be psyched that the ice cream and whip cream were on the floor next to the door). After going into the store and using the Palace, Sam checked the list. She had gotten everything! Except for the coffee….she had added that afterwards and forgot it was on the jelly cabinet when she viewed the living room in her head. More practice was needed.  And one thing Sam needed to remember: creativity is great, but if one gets into the test and remembers the mule, but not what it stands for, one is going to fail the test. It can be an Illusion of Competency if one is so proud of thinking up the visual cue, or Memory Palace, or whatever is created, that one forgets to actually practice what the cue stands for.

In the final week, Sam (and the others!) was shown how to use analogies or metaphors to really hook a new concept into information already in the brain. A lively visual metaphor (like that flying mule) can really help. In the end however, learning comes down to deliberate practice, interleaving and repetition to strengthen the neural passageways. Even if one is not “gifted”, these techniques can bring home excellent grades and really install the knowledge in one’s brain. In the theory that the knowledge will be necessary in whatever career course is chosen, bringing up the chunks learned in class into practical knowledge on the job is more important than just passing a class.

So now you are thinking, that was all about Dr Oakley and her lectures. What about Dr. Sejnowski? Wasn’t he involved in this course?

Dr. Sejnowski didn’t give techniques as much as he gave knowledge. Sam found his insights into the brain thought provoking. She had never before given much thought to her Hippocampus, whether or not she had new neurons or, really, the processes of her brain at all. She was very happy to learn, as a fervent exerciser, that exercise was in fact excellent for the brain. The brain needs activity to enrich the neural connections, and physical or mental activity can achieve that. Running a mile is good, but having an active engagement in a lively discussion can also help. Running three miles, then engaging in mental activity is better.

Dr. Sejnowski’s lecture on chemicals in the brain was surprisingly interesting. Beyond a passing knowledge that the brain in fact did have Dopamine and Serotonin, Sam had no idea what they actually did; and had never heard of Acetylcholine. Sam’s grandmother had Parkinson’s. She and her mother watched as her grandmother, an active woman who traveled widely, lost her thrill in life. Her mother remarked that, near the end, it was if her grandmother was simply waiting to die. Sam had no idea the effect that Dopamine had in Parkinson’s, and it helped her considerably to understand now what had happened to her grandmother. The fact that Sam associated this story with the lecture rather proves one of Dr. Sejnowski’s points: emotion is intertwined with perception and attention, and that is required for learning.

And the Hippocampus. Who knew it was so essential? It is the center for learning new things (which means Sam’s hippo must be getting pretty tired). The case study where a patient without a hippocampus learned new motor skills, but could not remember that he learned the motor skill: how unbelievable. Sam found learning about the brain, and how it worked and how the neurons are maintained by astrocytes new and exciting. Dr. Sejnowski had opened a whole new world. She will definitely be checking out to find out more. And use her new techniques to learn and remember!



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2 responses to “Story Day

  1. Wow I did not know there were free courses online. I am so going to check this out. I have been told I may have beginning of alzheimers or early onset dementia (what are a few lesions and shrunken brain matter!!). I decided the best way to work on it isn’t drugs but trying to put more into my brain. Love your story.


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