16 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging Your Effort To Learn

16 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging Your Effort To LearnOur own brains regularly deceive us in order to make sense of the world we live in. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than an innocent effort to save face. Our brain will tell us we’re smarter and better looking than everyone else, and that any fault brought to our attention should probably be blamed on someone else. It will advocate for our convictions, pointing out any evidence that supports them and politely ignoring any that doesn’t. And it will even spare us from the mental strain of thinking beyond the stereotypes it has so conveniently crafted for us. The human brain is our best friend, and our worst enemy, and unless we keep one eye peeled, it can hijack our learning completely.

In this article I’d like to examine some of the “traps” the brain sets for us during the course of our academic careers, and what we can do to avoid them. Psychologists have already done the hard work of realising there’s any hijacking going on at all; what’s left for us to do is pay attention.

1. Equating Learning With Knowing

When we learn something new, we tend to assume that it creates a permanent imprint in our mental record. The thing is, we can’t feel or detect the difference between a memory cached in our long term store and a memory cached in our short term store. We’re surprised when we remember the answer to one test question but not another.

But there’s always an explanation, and it usually has to do with how well your brain has encoded the information. If we don’t realise that this is going on – that knowing takes more effort than learning – then we’ll continue to play the highly dangerous game of trusting our brain to remember everything it learns.

Recommended Remedy:

Whenever you learn something new, be conscious of the fact that you might not remember it for very long. If it’s an important piece of information–something you will be tested on or something you’d like to share in a future conversation–then actively acknowledge that you will need to remind yourself of it frequently, and preferably over time, in order to make it stick. Read more about working memory vs long term memory.

2. Defaulting to Mental Shortcuts

Whenever possible, the brain tries to be efficient. This means it can create mental shortcuts in order to spare you from wrecking your faculties. When trying to solve a problem or make a decision, your mind often falls back on rules of thumb or solutions that have worked well in the past. In many cases, this is a useful and effective approach. But in some cases these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, can trip you up and cause you to make mistakes.

A great example of this is the old guess-and-go spelling method, tested in parts of the United States in the 1980s. Also called “inventive spelling,” it’s the practice of spelling unfamiliar words by making a guess as to the correct spelling based on your existing knowledge. An example of this would be spelling “is” as “iz” or “flowers” as “flawrs”. In effect, this method trains the brain to create mental shortcuts that underserve learning.

Recommended Remedy:

Make a habit of asking yourself why you’ve drawn the conclusion you’ve drawn about something. Is it because of an experience you’ve encountered before, or is it because you’ve used sound logic to figure it out (which may involve your experience, but won’t rely on it completely)? Try to remain objective and you’ll avoid being deceived by yourself.

3. Being Biased Towards Ourselves

The brain likes to defend itself, especially when it can assign blame to something else. Imagine for a moment that you just bombed an important test.

Who, or what, do you blame?

If you are like many people, you might explain away your poor performance by blaming situational factors (“The test was designed poorly!” or “This wasn’t covered in the course!”). In psychology, this is what is known as the “actor-observer bias.” When it comes to our own behavior, we are often too quick to place the blame on external forces rather than on personal choices or characteristics.

In the same breath, when something great happens to us, we tend to fall victim to what is known as the “self-serving bias.” If you get a great grade on a test, you attribute your success to internal factors: you did well on your test because you’re smart and you studied.

Recommended Remedy:

Be honest with yourself. If you are, you’ll take responsibility for your own learning and blame external factors only when they’ve actually played a part in your performance. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on valuable learning opportunities, such as realising you need to attend more review sessions or admitting you need help on your writing.

4. Being Biased Against Others And Shifting Responsibility

16 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging Your Effort To Learn

But what happens when a fellow student fails a test? While we might focus on outside forces when it comes to explaining away negative events in our own lives, we often fall prey to the opposite problem when we are looking for the causes of other people’s behavior. When you fail a test, it’s because the teacher didn’t provide adequate preparation, but when a fellow student fails, you’re likely to believe it’s because he didn’t study, that he is lazy, or that he is just plain stupid. Psychologists call this the “fundamental attribution error.”

So why do we engage in this blame game?

Researchers believe that many of our attributional biases function as a way to protect our self-esteem and guard ourselves from the fear of failure. According to this way of thinking, bad things happen to other people because they do things that you would never do, bad things happen to you because of things outside of your control; and your successes are the result of your traits, skills, efforts, and other internal characteristics.

Recommended Remedy:

Cultivate empathy. Put yourself in that fellow student’s shoes and ask yourself whether you’d have the same reaction. This bias is included here because it’s universal; everyone around you is thinking the same thing.

5. Processing Time Inconsistently

When we receive large quantities of new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all. The longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels.

When we’re in a life-threatening situation, for instance, we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. When we hear enjoyable music, we perceive a longer period of time because we are paying closer attention to it.

Conversely, if your brain doesn’t have to process lots of new information, time seems to move faster, so the same amount of time will actually feel shorter than it would otherwise. This happens when you take in lots of information that’s familiar. Why? Because you’ve processed it before. Your brain doesn’t have to work very hard, so it processes time faster.

Every student has probably encountered this phenomenon at one point or another. Why does it take ages to read this chapter or perform this new experiment? It can be a tiresome trick of the brain.

Recommended Remedy:

Be aware of this phenomenon and try to appreciate the “time” it takes to learn something new. If you’re spending what seems like hours on an assignment that would normally take you thirty minutes, you can be sure your brain is paying attention, which will be a good thing come test time.

6. Making Us Believe Everything We See

We are all visual learners, to some extent. But it’s no coincidence that “I’m a visual learner” is the label you hear most frequently. Despite being only one of five main senses, vision seems to dominate the others: hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10 percent of it; add a picture and you’ll remember 65 percent.

Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us.

Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time. In fact, vision is so powerful that the best wine tasters in the world have been known to describe a dyed white wine as a red.

Recommended Remedy:

Don’t limit your learning by pegging yourself as a “visual learner.” If anything, be skeptical of new information you process visually. Look for back-up confirmation in other formats.

7. Making Us Think We Can Multi-Task

Multi-tasking is something we’ve long been encouraged to practice, but it’s actually impossible. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually context-switching–just quickly switching back and forth between different tasks, rather than doing them at the same time.

The problem with multi-tasking is that we’re splitting our brain’s resources, giving less attention to each task, and probably performing worse on all of them. When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task. A study in Paris found that when a second task was required, the brains of the study volunteers split up, with each hemisphere working alone on a task.

The brain was overloaded by the second task and couldn’t perform at its full capacity, because it needed to split its resources.

Recommended Remedy:

The multi-tasking argument shouldn’t be an argument at all. If your focus is broken–and not benefitted in any way–by switching between tasks, then don’t do it. Eliminate distractions, if you must, and don’t try to do everything at once.

8. Prioritising What We Already Believe

In 2009, a study at Ohio State University showed that we spend 36% more time reading an essay if it aligns with our opinions. We tend to like people who think like us.

If we agree with someone’s beliefs, we’re more likely to be friends with them. While this makes sense, it means that we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our world views, since we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm what we already think.

This is called “confirmation bias,” and can become a serious impediment to learning for obvious reasons.

Recommended Remedy:

Cultivate an interest in proving yourself wrong. No joke. Learn to appreciate views that challenge your own–in the interest of truth, credibility, or what have you–and make it your goal to “collect” new viewpoints.

9. Perpetuating the “Swimmer’s Body” Illusion

16 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging Your Effort To LearnThe swimmer’s body illusion occurs when we confuse selection factors with results. Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies just because they train extensively; they are good swimmers because of their physiques. How their bodies are designed is a factor for selection and not the result of their activities. In the same vein, are top-performing universities actually the best schools, or do they choose the best students, who do well regardless of the school’s influence?

If we believed that we were predisposed to be good at certain things (or not), we wouldn’t buy into ad campaigns that promised to improve our skills in areas where it’s unlikely we’ll ever excel.

This is similar to the skill of learning to say no, or how our creativity actually works: Both diverge strongly from what we think is true, versus what actions will actually help us get the result we want.

Recommended Remedy:

Think about causes and effects. If something is stated as true or respectable, ask why. If something is abhorred or discouraged, ask why. Once you’ve got an answer, ask why again.

10. Obsessing Over Mistakes

You’ve probably heard the term “sunk cost,” which refers to any cost (not just monetary, but also time and effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered. People tend to obsess over these costs, even though they’ve already been paid, because we are wired to feel loss far more strongly than gain. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains:

“Organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximising opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains.”

How can this harm learning? In many ways. Think of how you feel when you ace a test versus how you feel when you fail one. Losses are heavy news in the academic world – when it shouldn’t be. Mistakes are, in fact, valuable for learning.

Recommended Remedy:

Keep things in perspective, and always celebrate your victories.

11. Making Irrational Decisions

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has given several TED talks on the irrationality of the human brain when it comes to making decisions. In one talk, he illustrates what’s called the “anchoring effect,” which essentially works like this: Rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment (time, money, etc.), we factor in comparative value–that is, how much value an option offers when compared to another option.

One example Ariely gives is an experiment he conducted using two kinds of chocolates for sale in a booth: Hershey’s Kisses and Lindt Truffles. The Kisses were one penny each, while the Truffles were 15 cents each. Considering the quality differences between the two kinds of chocolates and the normal prices of both items, the Truffles were a great deal, and the majority of visitors to the booth chose the Truffles.

For the next stage of his experiment, Ariely offered the same two choices but lowered the prices by one cent each. So now the Kisses were free, and the Truffles cost 14 cents each. Even though the Truffles became an outstanding bargain considering their usual value, most people chose the Kisses because they were free (and, in comparison, a better deal).

Making these types of decisions prevents us from learning from our mistakes. It could even trip us up on an exam. When we fail to see the big picture, we don’t have all the information we need to make an educated decision.

Recommended Remedy:

Make a habit of analysing each factor in a situation on an individual level and on a relative level.

12. Trusting Memories More Than Facts

In 1974, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an experiment on memory involving car accidents. In the lab she played videos of different incidents and then asked people what they remembered seeing. Their answers depended greatly on how she phrased the question.

For instance, if she asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, people estimated, on average, that the cars were going 7 mph faster than when she substituted the word “hit” for “smashed.” And a week after seeing the video, those who were asked using the word “smashed” remembered seeing broken glass, even though there was none in the film.

Recommended Remedy:

Remember that memory is highly malleable, especially when you’re recounting an event that occurred. If someone else’s story is different from yours, don’t automatically assume yours is the accurate summary (the self-serving bias at work!).

13. Gravitating Towards Stereotypes

In Blink, Gladwell shows how stereotypes can distort our thinking. African American students taking the GRE performed significantly worse when they were required to identify their race prior to starting. The simple act of stating their race primed their brains for failure by awakening a host of subconscious stereotypes about blacks performing poorly on standardised tests.

Recommended Remedy:

Be aware of the way you feel about certain phrases, words, and concepts. More than likely, you have a subconscious reaction to them whenever you hear them. If you can remain aware of your own biases, you can pull up that reaction by the roots.

14. Misinterpreting Instructions

The brain is so complex and confusing, there is little assurance that any given set of instructions on a test or assignment will be interpreted or acted upon accurately. The brain can easily “read” instructions as saying something completely different than the intended meaning, particularly if they are at all ambiguous.

Recommended Remedy:

Read instructions more than once, even out loud, if possible. Instructions are often unclear in the first place, so you may need to consult additional resources to gain the full picture.

15. Letting Emotion Cloud Perception

Although emotion can help us learn, it can also lead us to misrepresent the truth. Sometimes emotions lead us to distort–even fabricate–experiences, a phenonmenon psychologists call “flashbulb memories.” A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid, and frequently inaccurate snapshot of an emotionally salient event.

When an event like this occurs, the brain is too shocked to process it normally, leaving us to subconsciously “fill in the gaps” at a later time. While emotions certainly help us remember new things, they can also cloud our perception if those things are especially shocking to the system.

Recommended Remedy:

Again, awareness is key. If you know you are susceptible to this phenomenon, you will be able to avoid it, or at least accept that it may occur.

16. Priming

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates how subtle cues can trick us into behaving a certain way. In a word association game, participants are asked to read a passage in which terms eliciting old age and ill health are interwoven. Reading these words actually causes the participants to feel old and tired in a phenomenon called “priming.”

Recommended Remedy:

Use positive, “smart” words when designing a test or review session, so that students are primed to feel more positive about their own academic ability.

previously posted on informED

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Saga BriggsSaga has built her writing and editing career at Tin House Books, Night Owls Press, and Dancing Moon Press. Along the way, writing education and education reform have become two of her primary interests. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, OR. @sagamilena

Saga Briggs




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