Category Archives: Neuroscience

Learning How to Learn

We humans are born poised for learning. But we don’t necessarily know how to learn what doesn’t come easily to us.

Blue exam book cover. Tests are useful to the learning process, it turns out.For years after I finished college, I had a recurrent nightmare. I was sitting down to take a final exam, and I realized I hadn’t even opened the textbook. As you might guess, I’d had a rocky time in college. It was a liberal arts school where the ideal was to be studying all the time. Our workload reflected that. I literally got every grade you can get, from A+ to F.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: I’m still curious about myself and the world around me. I love learning. So when I stumbled across a reference to “learning how to learn,” I immediately clicked on the link.

It lead me to a New York Times article about an online course taught by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski. Oakley had failed science and math in high school. She decided in her twenties to get an engineering degree and taught herself how to learn the material which didn’t come easily to her. Now she’s an engineering professor.

When I read that, I signed up for the course immediately. Hey, it’s free! (Unless you’d like a certificate: then it’s $49.) And the info’s invaluable.

The material, backed by research in neuroscience—with plenty of supplemental material if you want to dig deeper—complements what I’ve learned, from a different perspective, as a Feldenkrais teacher.

tomato kitchen timer

A Pomodoro kitchen timer. “Pomodoro” means “tomato” in Italian.

Just a few of the concepts from the course:

  • Emphasize the process not the product
  • Practice the Pomodoro technique: studying in 25-minute periods
  • Give yourself rewards
  • Alternate between focused and diffused attention
  • Spread your learning out over time; don’t try to pack it all into one or two days
  • Get a good night’s sleep before exams

I wish this course had been offered before I went to college. I’m certainly glad I’ve taken it now.

Going deeper with learning

Are you ready to learn how to learn? Register for the course here, on Coursera. Apparently it’s their most popular course, by far. I’m not surprised.

Would you like to discover more about how the Feldenkrais Method® supports learning? Here are core principles suggested by Norman Doidge, MD.

Re-Wiring Your Brain

Why Feldenkrais Works

We humans are experts at learning. We don’t need to show babies how to learn. As soon as they’re born, they begin.

Movement is key to learning. The Feldenkrais Method® works by inviting us to attend to small differences between movements and assess which are preferable: which use less energy, are more direct, and feel better. At any age we can notice these differences, learn, and improve.

Neuroplasticity: More than Just a Buzz Word

Literally our brain grows new neural connections: dubbed neuroplasticity, this ability of our brain to change has become a buzz word. Buzzy or not, it’s still true we can learn and improve. It’s pretty darn cool.

Feldenkrais teacher Rich Goldsand just produced a nice video demonstrating with several clients how the method helps them. Watch it below.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

You probably first researched the Feldenkrais Method® because you wanted to change. Maybe you wanted one of your knees to be more reliable in walking. Or to diminish back pain so you could run with pleasure.

You might have an explanation about why the problem exists. Like your age. Or because you have a particular skeletal pattern like scoliosis. Or because your gym teacher said you weren’t athletic.

Cultivate a growth mindset: we all had one when we were children.Feldenkrais practitioner John Tarr wrote an excellent blog, “Growth Mindset and Movement,”  about the importance of believing you can change. Which means letting go of those explanations, your familiar stories, and creating  space for something different with a growth mindset. He writes, “. .  the march of time and fate do bring about irreversible changes, but often we are not fully using the potential we still have.” We can investigate this potential by cultivating curiosity, enjoying investigation and discovery the way we did as children.

John’s blog cites Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, and Maria Popova‘s summary on Brain Pickings. Read his complete blog here.

Core Principles of Feldenkrais: Norman Doidge’s Perspective

Adapted from The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, MD, 2015, pages 168-176.

How the Feldenkrais Method facilitates neuroplastic healingThe cover of The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, MD

1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain.

We are born prepared to learn. We can adapt our brains and movement to particular surroundings. Even when we damage our brains, usually plenty of brain remains to take on damaged functions.

2. A brain cannot think without motor function.

Just thinking of a movement triggers that movement, changes tone in that part of our body. Using our brains triggers four components: motor movement, thought, sensation, and feeling.

3. Awareness of moving is the key to improving movement.

Doidge writes: “It may seem ‘magical’ to think that movement problems. . . can be radically changed simply by becoming more aware of the movement, but it seems magical only because science formerly thought of the body as a machine with parts, in which sensory functions are radically separated from motor functions.”

4. Differentiation—making the smallest possible sensory distinction between one movement and another—builds brain maps.

5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest.

The less effort we use, the more we can notice. If you’re lifting a piano, you won’t notice if a fly lands on it; if you’re lifting a feather, you will.

6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning.

If you leap too quickly, you can’t look before you leap.

7. Reduce effort whenever possible.

If you are straining, you aren’t learning: if strain, no gain. No pain is gain.

8. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways.

If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn. No one speaks her native language perfectly from day one.

9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs.

Sometimes it’s useful to wander!

10. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body.

When you’ve got a ball of yarn, whichever part of the yarn you take hold of, the whole ball comes along eventually.

11. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure.

Often there’s nothing to “fix.” Improvement can come from changing your movement patterns.

About Norman Doidge, MD

Norman Doidge, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet. He is on faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, and Research Faculty at  Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, in New York. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on neuroplasticity. Learn more about Dr. Doidge on his website.

Big brains because we move

New research suggests that our brains attained their size because we move. There was an evolutionary advantage to being more agile, and humans with bigger brains could move more quickly.

if physical activity helped to mold the structure of our brains, then it most likely remains essential to brain health today, according to one of the researchers, John D. Polk.

Yet another reason to make Feldenkrais or other movement part of your regular routine.

If you’re interested, you’ll find the whole article here–it’s a NY Times science blog.