Learning How To Learn

In the information overload age, we don’t need more How-To methods for finding useful information but methods to transform the information to knowledge.  This process is learning which is one of many things that schools don’t teach you.  

Based on the information I got from Coursera “Learning How To Learn” and various sources, the following is my brief takeaway.  

Grow Your Brain

We all know we can train our brain but we think its capacity (IQ or number of neurons) is fixed and the shrinkage occurs as we age.  This is why we feel we can’t remember things as much as we were young.  However, the important part of our brain, the hippocampus, is for learning and memory.  In here, new neurons are being born everyday if you’re surrounding yourself to new environment to stimulate your brain.  

New synapses being formed and others disappearing everyday. This is a picture of one dendritic branch on a neuron which receives inputs from other neurons. The synapses are on the spiny knobs coming off the dendrite. On the top, the dendrite was imaged before learning. The same dendrite is shown below after learning and after sleep. Multiple synapses that are newly formed together on the same branch are indicated by the white arrowheads.  

Exercise & Brain

Steve Jobs was known as a walking thinker.  He often invited guests to walk with him for a meeting instead of sitting in a room.  Our physical movement affects our brain so the best way to train your brain seems to be exercise.  Whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic, it improves your brain function. If you don’t have time, you can do a 20 minutes HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and you’ll feel much energetic and clear afterwards.  

If you’re stuck on a problem you try to solve, stop thinking about it and go for a run. It often gives you the answer you couldn’t come up at home or office.  This is called “Diffuse Mode”. 

Diffuse Mode

There’re two modes for us to learn.  One is the Focused Mode which is obviously, a state that you’re concentrating on your learning.  Another is called Diffuse Mode that is basically resting and relaxing so your brain has time to process the info it absorbed during the Focused Mode.  It’s recommended to spend 25 minutes on the Focused Mode and take 5 minutes or so for the Diffuse Mode.  It is also called Pomodoro method.  


Sleep is the most important factor to affect your brain ability that is very easy to relate to as most of us have some experience.  Sleep is not only to detox as your brain generates toxins when you’re awake but also process the info during the day so they can be stored in the long term memory warehouse.  Sleep might even help you solve the problem or give you world changing ideas.  Famous examples are Periodic Table, Google, DNA and the movie, Terminator.  If you don’t sleep enough, whatever you do to improve your brain is useless.  (Matthew McConaughey sleeps nine and half hours everyday and his wife is rather exhausting on taking care of kids and house and let him have enough sleep because her life will be “easier” that way.)   

Two Memories

We have two types of memory that are long term and working (short term).  The working memory is functioned in our prefrontal cortex that helps us remember things we just encountered.  The limit of the working memory seems to be the magic number “Four” such as 4 layers or levels of information or 4 steps of procedure or logical reasoning.  The listener/reader will be lost and sometimes, the speaker him/herself will also lose their thinking and say “I don’t remember why I’m talking about XYZ”.  More precisely, it is 3 – 5 but one number is much better than a range to remember.  

The info stored in the long term memory comes from the workin memory.  Just like a warehouse that stores products.  In order to fit in, the info needs to go through repetition.  We do this all the time as a student. Read the same info over and over again until we can remember it for the test.  The best method is “Spaced Repetition”. 

Spaced Repetition

It’s much better to study 1 hour every day for a week than 10 hours on a day.  The brain needs time to process the input and gradually moving it from the working memory to the long term memory warehouse.   Here’s an example.  

Box 1 is the info you need to study/remember everyday.  Once you can remember them, move the card to the Box 2 which you’ll test yourself every other day.  If you get it done, move it to Box 3 and so on.  However, if you can’t remember the card in Box 2 ~ 5, move the card back to Box 1.  

About Dan Zen Learning

This is provided by Dan who’s a serial tech entrepreneur, IT sales & marketing professional with 12 year working experiences in Japan, 10 years in Taiwan, 6 years in Beijing and learning something everyday. Blog / Podcast / YouTube