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Some of the underlying principles of effective learning and how to apply them.



In short, it is what we were designed to do.  Or, depending on your ontological point of view, we have evolved into learning animals.  Carl Sagan has suggested that our capacity to learn is what gives us evolutionary advantage over the other animal species.  Whereas they have to encode the lessons of survival into genetic format (often, at great waste of present generations) we have the capacity to alter our behaviours in response to immediate situations.  However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we also have the capacity to ignore the lessons of history and to continue to waste present generations.


We might encapsulate our condition by reversing the Cartesian dictum,

“I think,


I am”

so that it reads,

“I am,


I think.”


It is evident in young children that they have remarkable potential for learning.  They “teach themselves” language, often having to overcome the oddities of grammar that seem to plague our native tongue.  Hence, they correctly formulate such past tenses as “see-ed” and “teached”.


Once we recognise that we exist to learn – it seems strange that we do not devote a great deal of time to teaching the young how to learn.  True, we send them to school – and incarcerate them there for upwards of 11 years – but do we teach them the principles that underlie effective learning?




We pay too little attention to the effect of diet on our capacity to learn.  Sportsmen readily eat more red meat because it helps to develop muscle.  Do we even know what kinds of food are good for the brain?


Dr Dharma Singh Khalsa, who has carried out research into Alzheimer’s disease, recommends specific nutritional therapy to improve the brain’s functions.  He writes:- “Nutritional therapy also helps to repair damage done by another terrible destroyer of the brain: impaired blood circulation.  Impaired circulation … is directly responsible for approximately 20% of all cases of severe cognitive dysfunction in the elderly, and I am certain that it is a powerful contributor to mild age-associated memory impairment.”

(KHALSA, Dharma Singh: “Brain Longevity”: London, Century p199.)


Dr Khalsa recommends that we:

  • Eat more fruit and vegetables

  • Eat less fat

  • Eat less sugar

  • Drink less coffee

  • Drink water regularly

  • Eat a balanced diet


His general dictum is:- “If it’s good for the heart then it’s good for the brain.”


Our brains are divided, metaphorically, into three “layers”.


The innermost, the reptilian brain, deals with survival (fight, flight, freezing and flocking).


The next layer, the limbic system, deals with (1) our emotions (2) our sexuality (3) filtering information and passing it (via the hippocampus) to long-term memory (4) beliefs and value systems.


The outermost layer, the cerebral cortex, deals with patterns and relationships, models and metaphors, cognitive and problem-solving skills.




Avoid stress if you want to study successfully.


The stress response literally poisons the brain – because it causes excessive secretion of the adrenal hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is released at about the same time as adrenaline – but stays in your system much longer and causes problems.  Cortisol is highly destructive of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for routing most long-term memories to the neocortex.


When under stress, our reptilian brain “kicks in” – often bypassing the cerebral and limbic systems.  Hence, we “freeze” in the face of exam conditions and “our minds go blank”.  Learning cannot be effective under stress.  Hence, it is important to feel comfortable, positive, alert and challenged (but not to the extent that we feel unable to cope).





“One of the world’s premier brain researchers, Dr Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, recently discovered in animal experiments that intellectual enrichment can even help rebuild the brain after it has suffered physical damage.  She also discovered that if a brain is not regularly engaged in mental exercise, it can atrophy physically, just as an unused muscle can waste away.” (KHALSA, Dharma Singh: “Brain Longevity”: London, Century p58.)



When athletes routinely “warm up” before a race or sporting event, they are stretching the muscles, preparing them for the rigours to come.  But, additionally, those same exercises produce chemicals in the brain which help to put the athlete in the right frame of mind to be successful.


Educational kinesiologists have suggested that there are equivalent exercises that can help to “warm up” the brain.  These “Brain Gym” exercises usually involve simple physical exercises that co-ordinate both sides of the body, thereby bringing into play both left and right sides of the brain.


Bearing in mind that the brain is not merely divided into left and right – but has eight or more distinct intelligences - it is a fascinating endeavour to invent simple exercises (preferably ones which can be carried out without too much equipment or preparation) which will act as “warm-ups” for the brain.


For example: the logical-mathematical, visual-spatial and physical intelligences are all brought into play by juggling.  Although this requires some practice, it requires little equipment, not too much space, and can be a useful diversion which will encourage the brain to think along different channels.


By having a store of such activities, you can greatly increase your productivity.  We are all aware that many activities lose their novelty after about 15-20 minutes and it becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate.  Start a study session with one of these “brain-warmers” and then give yourself a break every 20 minutes or so by using different activities as interludes.  Try to vary the focus of the activities so that you are using the whole brain and encouraging communication between its different pathways.  Include physical exercise (to increase the intake of oxygen) as well as mental exercise.


Practice using your brain at every opportunity.  Build up your “brain muscle”.