Learning Strategies

It’s a busy world, and to stay ahead you have to think quickly. 

There are all sorts of tips out there that promise to help you maximize your learning potential. But in reality, neuroscientists and other experts are only beginning to learn how our brains process information.

Some of that new research is pointing to true best practices for maximizing our mental efficiency.

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Taking the Time to Understand Makes a Difference

The old saying goes that practice makes perfect, but new research shows that how you practice determines how well your skills progress.

A research team led by psychological scientist Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. published a study in the journal Psychological Science that suggests the more time you spend trying to understand how something works, the better your learning outcomes.

The team analyzed data from 854,064 people playing the online game Axon. The game tests players’ ability to perceive, make decisions, and move quickly while guiding a neuron from connection to connection.

Researchers found that some players received higher scores, despite playing for the same amount of time as the others. The game play data revealed that those who learned more quickly followed two patterns: they either spaced out their game play or thoroughly explored how the game worked before going on to higher levels.

“The study suggests that learning can be improved—you can learn more efficiently or use the same practice time to learn to a higher level,” Stafford said in a statement. “As we live longer, and as more of our lives become based around acquiring complex skills, optimal learning becomes increasingly relevant to everyone.”

This kind of game data, the researchers said, gives an unprecedented look at the shape of the learning curve, letting them explore how the way we practice helps or hinders learning.

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Take a Break and Let Your Brain Do the Work

Spacing out game play may earn players a higher score, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) think they know why.

Using live brain scans, researchers gave 27 healthy adults information about cars to help them make a purchase. But before they could decide, each subject had to memorize a set of numbers.

Though decision-making is done in the prefrontal cortex, memorization occurs in another location. Yet the brain scans showed that the prefrontal cortex remained active during the numbers exercise.

This, researchers said, suggests that while we often move from one thing to the next, our brains continuing weighing the costs and benefits of a major decision.

The CMU team offered this advice: If you have a big decision ahead, stop thinking about it for a while and let your subconscious do some of the work.  

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Multitasking May Be in Some People’s DNA

A group of neuroergonomics researchers—those who study the brain in relation to performance—wanted to know whether the ability to multitask is hidden in our genes. 

Researchers with the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society had 99 men and women ages 18 to 38 perform four tests while controlling six virtual flying drone vehicles to avoid friendly fire, destroy enemy targets, and evade enemy incursions, all while completing a communications task.

They found that those with a specific genotype variation called Val158Met showed more improvement during training and handled the multiple directives in the hectic missions better than those without it.

The gene, a variant of Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT), has been shown to increase levels of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that controls reasoning, problem solving, and memory.

The study, supported by a grant from the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, may improve the real-world training of drone operators. The study is set to appear in the next issue of the journal Human Factors.

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