What does brain science say about learning

Some people are better at learning and mastering skills than others. For us, programmers, this ability is especially important.

While some professions rely on the same set of skills that are acquired before or at the first job, there seems to be no end of learning in software development. It is just both vast and very dynamic field. Programming languages, frameworks, and tools all evolve as new versions are released. New trends and paradigms routinely take the industry by storm. Give yourself 2-year time-off from frontend development and it will feel as if you lived under a rock for a decade. You either actively stay on top of your game or fall out of it.

It’s not only about how quickly we manage to learn new skills but also how far can we push them. Granted, we’re not like musicians for whom a certain level of mastery is required to do the job at all. Programmers do get by with few fundamentals and googling the rest (which is a skill of its own). But how well we know our tools and languages, and all those things we don’t need to google – it all increases our productivity and our sense of satisfaction.

Traditionally, although we were often able to spot a fast learner, we though those abilities to be fixed traits of a given person. Fortunately more and more research is done on the subject of memory and learning. We now know that skill acquisition and development also greatly depends on our learning habits and attitude. Things, we can control.

Science of getting good

So here are a few interesting findings I gleaned from the jumble of articles and videos I found on this subject. Initially, I was more interested in motor skills for increasing my guitar chops, but I quickly realized that much of this is applicable to any kind of learning.

Memories are not lost – they become inaccessible

Brain scientists say that what we usually think of memory in everyday life is what is called long-term memory. Generally speaking, if you managed to recall information or experience after more than about a minute since it was last presented, it means you already have it stored the long-term. It is also said that this memory has practically unlimited capacity and can hold information indefinitely. That sounds pretty good. So why are we forgetting stuff so often?

As I understand it, there seem to be two variables in play here. One of them is how well the memory is encoded in our brain and the other is how accessible it is to us in the presence of cues given by current situation and context.

On an abstract level, memory and meaning are formed as a series of associations with other memories. If there is nothing in our surroundings or on our mind that is anyhow associated with some memory it is unlikely it will come to our mind, even when we’re consciously trying to recall it. We experience it as forgetting. This does not mean that the said memory is gone from our brain.

However, when we build up a wide and dense network of such associations, it becomes a lot easier to recall a memory in any situation. At some point, it starts happening unconsciously and effortlessly.

Forgetting is ok

Now, the critical, and quite an unintuitive thing here is that forgetting something allows us to learn it better than before. If we keep repeating a task or piece of information that is easily accessible to us at the present moment, no additional learning can happen because our brain is already primed to start another play-through. Once we fully or partly forget, however, the rehearsal will cause us to form new associations with thoughts we went through to do the recall or whatever we’re experiencing in the present context.

There’s a good YouTube video of professor Robert Bjork explaining it much better than I can.

Passion and enthusiasm boosts learning

Another cool YouTube I’ve found is a fun presentation on learning with passion and enthusiasm. Various research results show that we learn much better when we anticipate something exciting to happen. When we are in such a state, our brain absorbs a lot more information from our surroundings than in normal mode. We notice a lot more details about what we see and experience and remember more of it.

Interestingly, another study shows that young prodigies do not always have super high IQ, but consequently excel in attention to detail and working memory. It all seems to connect since more absorbed information also means more associations.

Sleep is crucial

The last reference I want to bring up is one about sleep’s role in memory consolidation. Current theorizing leans to the idea that certain aspects of long-term memory formation can happen exclusively during sleep. Only then is our brain free from having to encode and retrieve sensory information which has to be done constantly and efficiently in the wake phase.

So if you don’t want to have your learning efforts of the day wasted, do not cut back on sleep. And that’s just one of plenty good reasons why we should all take our sleep very seriously.

I believe we can use those findings and come up with practical things we can do to learn our software development skills more efficiently. I will write about them in an incoming blog post.

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