Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Surprising Neuroscience Behind How We Learn

Hello everyone and welcome to the Synap Blog! We’re incredibly excited to launch Synap later this year. In the meantime we wanted to share some information on what it is and what it’s going to achieve.

Synap is an online education platform that uses insights in neuroscience to help people to learn more in less time. It will be available for free in October this year on iOS, Android and Web.

Throughout this post I’ll talk about the inefficiency and the problems with how we learn today, what neuroscience research tells us the solution is, and how Synap is part of that solution.

How We Learn Today

Over 95% of us (myself included) are guilty of cramming; delaying the studying you know you’re meant to be doing well in advance, until the last possible moment – often a Red Bull-fueled night before the big exam. When we finally do start studying, what we’re mostly doing is staring at a textbook over and over again, hoping that the information will eventually sink in.

Granted, a lot of the time we manage to just about get by with this method, but there are a lot of times when we don’t. In any case a lot of stressed is caused and we swear that ‘next time, we’ll study *properly*’ – a promise we believe until the ‘next time’ comes!

Cramming for exams meme

Research into how the brain learns is now able to tell us why cramming is an inefficient revision method, and why it’s efficacy is mixed at best. It turns out that our short term memory has an incredibly limited capacity. In a famous and often-cited psychology study, researchers found that we can only hold 7 things in our short term memory at one time (9 at best). This is an experiment you can easily try yourself; write a bunch of words down on a piece of paper, turn it around and then see how many you can remember after just 30 seconds – it’ll be 7, give or take 2 depending on what you were up to at the weekend.

Prioritising Information

So short term memory is not the goal; when we’re studying or revising for something, we’re trying to commit it to our long term memory so that it makes an impact and sticks in our brain, ready to be recalled at some point in the future. There is virtually no limit to the amount of information we can hold in long term memory. Unfortunately getting it to stick in there takes mental effort. The brain has it’s own built-in priority system for information – things we encounter only once are quickly discarded. Information we come across time and time again stick in our memory. If you think about it, this makes a huge amount of sense; we are bombarded with so much information every minute that if we were to store it all, we’d be full of irrelevant, disorganised ‘junk’ information. Have you ever tried to find something quickly in a messy room or a badly organised hard drive? The same rules apply in the brain; it’s a sieve or filter for information, and that’s a good thing. If we encounter something regularly, it must be important to us so we don’t want to forget it; how to make a cup of coffee; our date of birth; the year World War II ended.

The brain acts as a filter for information
The brain acts as a filter for information

The brain’s priority system depends on the strength of the connection between different neurons. Neurons are the main type of cell in the brain; whilst there are also other cells in there, neurons are really what makes the brain, ‘the brain’. Neurons have parts that let them connect with other neurons known as Synapses and are what produces our thoughts and memories – the reason behind the name ‘Synap’. The average human brain has around 100 BILLION neurons, however, what’s truly amazing is that each neuron can connect to up to 10,000 other neurons. That means that we potentially have 100,000,000,000,000, or 100 TRILLION synapses in our brain.

Multiple neurons connecting to each other via synapses
Multiple neurons connecting to each other via synapses

 

Mental Exercise

When we learn something, what we’re doing is exercising our brain in a specific way. Just as in physical exercise, it stimulates our body to strengthen and grow the part of the body being exercised. In physical exercise, we’re not making new muscle cells, we’re making existing ones stronger. Similarly with learning (which is simply ‘mental exercise’) we’re not able to make new brain cells although we are able to create new connections between existing cells. By re-visiting the information and observing it in different ways, we’re strengthening this connection, a process that helps us to further understand the information and recall it more readily. A good, although slightly geeky analogy here would be the webs Spiderman shoots from his hands. Spiderman wouldn’t be able to swing from building to building on just one thread of web; what makes the connection strong is that it’s built from a combination of multiple threads.

Spiderman shooting a web from his hands
It’s multiple intertwined threads connecting to each other that makes Spiderman’s web strong!

So, in order to store something properly in our brain, we need to encounter it regularly – that’s the first thing. The second thing is that when we’re learning something new, it needs to be effortful. Learning is an active process whereby new ideas are being interpreted and challenging older ones we might have had. New perspectives on things we’ve learnt and experienced in the past are found. We’ve all done that thing where we’re reading late at night or listening to someone, suddenly realise that our attention has strayed, and have had to re-read the page or ask that someone to repeat themselves. The words were going ‘in one ear and out the other’ – as the phrase goes – without any mental processing in between. You weren’t really thinking about what was going in, you just thought you were.

A quote by Professor Gary Lynch at The University of California saying "We're easily seduced into thinking learning is better when it's easy. Research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better

We can do the exact same thing when we’re studying, but unfortunately we don’t have the awkward stare from a disgruntled friend to remind us that we’re not focusing anymore. We can read every word of whichever textbook that it is we’re using, and if read enough times, we might convince ourselves that we’ve ‘learnt a lot’ because we can recite a particular paragraph word for word. It is only when we get to the exam that we realise that most of the information has dissipated, and the pieces that remain are simply memorised passages; we don’t truly understand most of what we’ve read.

Roundup

The above is unfortunately how the vast majority of us study and revise today, and it’s also how most universities teach; a process of throwing lots of information at us in one go, and expecting us to truly take it in and use it. Fortunately, there have been some fascinating insights surfacing from the fields of cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology. Insights allowing a deeper understanding of how the brain works, as well as how we can develop educational practices that take advantage of these understandings. At Synap our mission is to take these insights and build them into a mobile app that’s fun, intuitive, and easy to use. Everyone should be able to benefit from having the equivalent of a ‘personal trainer for the brain’ in their pocket. Synap isn’t part of the ‘brain-training’ fad; we’re not about training you to take abstract memory tests. Synap helps you to learn and retain the knowledge you need for your course, exams and career.

That’s probably enough for now! In this post I’ve talked about the problems with the way we learn at the moment and given you a hint as to how Synap can solve them. In Part 2 I’ll explain exactly how it’s going to do that – please check back in with us if you’d like to hear more 🙂