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New Learning Research

Frustrated when learning something new?

The brain research on new learning can help:

Here is the point to remember: 
When learning a new skill things that look like obstacles at first, turn out to be desirable over the long haul. You know how stupid you feel when you are learning something new, be it shooting baskets, drawing a picture, learning to be mindful? Pay attention to the mistakes: the missed baskets, the dumb looking pictures and the restless mindful sitting. The mistakes along with the frustration is proof your neurons are connecting and you are learning. Remember this before you give up in frustration.

The research:
Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code uses the term “deep practice” to describe the process. He says: “Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit further each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively” (Coyle, 2009, p. 79).

The inside (your brain) story:
Inside your brain everything you learn and experience is really just brain cells (neurons) firing. The electrical signal from one brain cell jumps to the next one over a tiny space called a synapse. There are zillions of brain cells involved in learning anything. (Actually there are an estimated 100 billion brain cells in your head, but I digress.) Each new skill you learn involves its own special network of cells (picture a spider web). Every time you practice something the same spider web of cells fires in the same way. If you make that spider web of cells fire the same way often enough, part of each brain cell (called the dendrite) grows to connect better to its partner cell in the web (each brain cell has on average 10 thousand dendrites). When your “practice finally makes perfect” it means that the spider web has wired it self together tightly. A way to remember the process is with the adage “what fires together wires together.” But, it is important to know that if you practice something incorrectly this will also create a spider web of cells, just not the one you want (which is what a bad habit is). As you get more practice those neurons even get insulated! Just like the plastic insulation on the wires leading to your computer. In the brain the insulation is called myelin.

Dan Siegel (2010) describes why myelin is important: “Here is the essential issue: Myelin [the white colored insulation covering brain cells] can increase conduction speed by 100 times. And while all neurons need to rest after firing, myelin can reduce that resting time… by 30 times. The end result, you can imagine, is that if you and I are neurons in a circuit and we’ve been training well, our communication with each other will be 3,000 times faster than an unmyelinated pair of connected neurons (p.218).”

Here is how to learn a new skill using a musical instrument as an example. Play the first note right then the second note – third note oops a mistake – STOP – go back to the first note play it, then the second, then the third (correctly this time) then the fourth oops a mistake. BACK to the start first, second, third, fourth (correctly), fifth. You get the idea – CORRECT THE MISTAKE IMMEDIATELY BEFORE YOUR NEURONS MAKE WRONG CONNECTIONS – GO SLOWLY BUT CORRECTLY. It is intense, hard and will work.

As you struggle (or watch your child struggle) to learn something new, remember the difficulty you are having is a good sign. It’s proof your brain cells are setting up a beautiful spider web of connections and then insulating them. But, pay attention to your mistakes so you don’t create an ugly spider web.

For the research facts check out these great books:

Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. New York: Bantam.
Siegel, D. J. (2010) Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam.

Siegel, D. J. (2010) The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York: Norton.