Brains. Everybody has one. Not everybody knows how to use one well. If you are trying to learn something (English, a skill for your hobby, how to make friends, etc.), your brain is your most important tool. The more you know about it, the better you can learn.
So, what are the main things you should know?
How to Take Care of Your Brain
1. Eat good food
Your brain is a part of your body. If you eat a lot of unhealthy food or eat at strange times, the condition of your body will not be good. The same is true for your brain: poor nutrition and eating at strange times leads to a poor condition for your brain. Reducing junk food and focusing on healthy food is a good decision for your body and your brain. So, what food are good for your brain? vegetables – especially green, leafy one; nuts and seeds; and fish.
2. Take exercise often
Just like good food, exercise is good for both your body and your brain. The more exercise you have, the healthier you will be. For your brain, though, how often you take exercise is important, especially if you are sitting down a lot to study. As soon as you sit down, your blood begins to move away from your brain towards your feet and bottom. As the blood goes away, the ability of your brain to think is reduced. How can we stop this? It’s simple. Stand up and move! Experts on learning and the brain recommend that you should not sit for longer than 20 minutes without taking a break. Stand up. Dance. Walk. Sing. Do something other than sitting down. Just a minute or two is enough. Then you will have more energy for thinking and studying. Don’t forget, though, to do some more exercise 20 minutes later.
3. Get enough sleep
Your mother probably told you that it is important to get enough sleep. She probably didn’t realise just how important sleep is for learners. Several experiments have shown that if, for example, you are studying for a test, extra hours of sleep are more important than extra hours of studying. While you sleep, your brain is busy reviewing memories of what you have studied, organising important information, and connecting new ideas to old ones. When you wake up, you will find you can remember the information better and may even get a higher score on the test than classmates who studied at night instead of sleeping. How much sleep is enough? It varies from person to person, but this chart can help you see, in general, how much sleep people of different ages need.
How Your Brain Learns
4. Your brain is always changing
Your brain is not the same now as it was when you were a baby. It changed as you grew and had new experiences. We call this kind of change “learning”; learning is not just about putting new information into your brain; it actually changes your brain and the way different parts of your brain connect to each other. Since everybody who is alive is having new experiences all the time, we are always learning, so our brains are always changing.
5. What you believe about your brain is important
Some people think they are just not good at learning. This is not a good way to think. In fact, this kind of attitude can actually stop you from learning. As we just saw, your brain is always changing, which means that it can always get better at learning. So, it is much more helpful to think “I can get better” rather than “I am not good at this.” If you think you can get better at something, you probably will. That doesn’t mean it is easy: learning always needs effort, but a belief that you can get better at something will help you to make that effort.
6. Your feelings can affect the way you learn
Are you feeling anxious or worried or even afraid? These feelings can stop your brain from learning. What happens when you have feelings like stress or fear is that your brain tends to focus its attention on the thing that is making you feel bad. While your attention is focussed on that, it is not focussed on the thing you wanted to learn. So, try to avoid studying in a stressful environment. Relax. Let yourself focus on the thing you want to study. Some learners find that meditation can help them to relax and puts them in the right mood for learning. Others like to take a few deep breaths or go for a short walk before studying.
7. You cannot learn something unless you pay attention to it
Your brain is busy. It has a lot of things to do, all the time. Because it is busy, it does many things automatically, without needing to pay attention to them: breathing, digesting food, tying your shoelaces, walking down a street you know. In order to learn something, you need to pay attention to it. Some learners find it helpful to use an approach called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way to focus on things your brain usually deals with automatically. You can read more about mindfulness here. Even if you do not use mindfulness techniques, remember that you need to give your full attention to something if you want to learn it. No distractions. Relax and focus your attention.
8. Your brain remembers things that are important to it
You have so many different experiences during the day. You can’t possibly remember everything. In fact, you don’t need to remember everything; but you do want to remember the things you are studying. Your brain tends to remember things that it thinks are important. So, how do you show your brain that what you are studying is important? One way that your brain notices is how often you do or see or think the same thing. If it happens a lot, the brain decides that thing is probably important. This is why repeating things is a good way to remember them. So, don’t just study a new word once. Study it several times. That way your brain will know it is important. Brain scientists tell us that the time gap between the first and second time you study something should be quite short but after that the gaps between repeating the same thing should get longer and longer. Another way your brain recognises that something is important is if that thing is part of a pattern. This is why we can remember stories so well: stories usually have a pattern. Even small details can be remembered if they are part of a story, so try making stories out of the things you want to learn.
9. Your brain gets pleasure from figuring things out
Lots of people love detective stories. They try to figure out who the criminal is before the storyteller reveals the answer. They find it pleasurable to do this because, when the brain figures something out for itself, it releases a chemical (called dopamine) that makes it feel good. So, don’t wait for your teacher to tell you things. Try to figure them out for yourself first. That way you can enjoy learning things much more. By the way, even if you don’t succeed in figuring things out, you still get a pleasurable shot of dopamine, just for trying. So, go on, try!
10. Your brain works best when it works with other brains
For most people, almost everything they do is better when they do it with other people. That includes learning. Long ago, before there were schools, we learnt things from our families and friends. The human brain developed so that it was good at learning from and with other people. Even now, when you can find all the knowledge you want by sitting alone with your computer or smartphone, you will find that you learn that information better (and learn how to use it) if you share it with other people. That’s why the most successful location on the internet is not Wikipedia (knowledge) but Facebook (sharing). So, go ahead. Study with other people. Tell other people what you have learned. Teach things to other people. Learn things from other people. You will find it works.
These ideas should help you to look after your brain and to use it well when you learn things. If you would like to know more about how to use these ideas in class, you should read these tips from Marc Helgesen.