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6 Secrets to Learning Faster - Backed by Neuroscience

When writing articles for my website, I often draw on lessons and interesting information that I find when scouring the web. I look for interesting or new information on golf technique, as well as information on skill development and learning.

In fact, learning as much as I can about the brain and skill development sometimes overtakes my thirst for golf improvement information. I think it's fascinating, and I think that skill learning and the brain is not given it's due in our educational system.

I saw a very interesting TED presentation on "6 Secrets to Learning Faster - Backed by Neuroscience" given by Dr. Lila Landowski, a multi-award winning neuroscientist and lecturer.

I'll cover the most interesting parts of her lecture in this article, but I do have one comment.

In my Ball Striking lesson, I cover a lot of the material mentioned below (in a condensed form) as it applies to skill development for golf. In that process I cover "myelin" as a component of actually building and reinforcing neural pathways for skill building, but that wasn't mentioned in her presentation, which I found to be interesting.

However, it is alluded to in more understandable layman's terms, which was probably intentional.

Dr. Landowski also mentioned the Wim Hof breathing method and Non-Sleep Deep Rest, follow the links if you want more information on those subjects.

Last but not least, this article is a bit longer than usual BUT it's worth every minute of your time if you are interested in building golf - or other - skill sets. The content that Dr. Jandowski covers in her speech is priceless!

I took the liberty of adding a few golf related remarks (italicized) that were not a part of her presentation, you'll recognize them when you see them, enjoy.

6 Secrets to Learning Faster - Backed by Neuroscience

In the course of my golf lessons, I see some students struggle with their learning, especially the older ones, but it's not their fault.

In our educational system, we don't get taught how to learn. We just kind of expect it to happen.

And I think the worst curse of all really is it gets harder to learn as we age.

But what if I told you that there are things that we can do to learn faster and more effectively?

Here's the neuroscience behind six critical ingredients that can help you learn faster:
  1. Attention
  2. Alertness
  3. Sleep
  4. Repetition
  5. Breaks
  6. and Mistakes.
How do we actually learn?

We need neuroplasticity to happen.

Neuroplasticity is the scientific term that essentially means our brain's ability to physically change in response to experience.

So when we're learning something, whether it's learning information or learning a skill, tiny little connections called synapses form between neighboring neurons in the brain.

And the more we do that thing, whether it's information or a skill, the more robust those connections become and the better we get at doing whatever it is.

Now, kids (ie: my junior golfers) are a little bit like sponges.

They just seem to need to be exposed to stuff, and they seem to remember it.

Languages, skills, sports, whatever it is, the learning just happens really quickly.

Have you ever met - or heard of - someone who's incredibly talented, and you just thought, "Okay, they must have some magic thing about them that the rest of us don't have."

Well, what if I told you that that's probably not true?

It mostly comes down to practice, perseverance, and when in their development they started learning that skill.

The earlier, the better.

And people like Serena Williams, Beethoven, and Tiger Woods weren't just born with their skills.

They practiced, and they all actually started early in life - by age five.

So really, our ability to learn certainly gets harder through our childhood, through our teens.

And once we hit our mid-twenties, it gets exponentially harder to learn.

But the good news is I'm going to tell you what you can do about it because there are things you can do.

You can use attention, alertness, sleep, repetition, breaks, and mistakes to make your learning better.


In order to learn, Attention is a really important function.

We actually have the ability to choose how much attention we pay to something.

And studies have shown that when we are fully focused on a task, we are more likely to retain that information, especially for the long term.

Now, until the last little blip in human history - the internet, social media, smart phones - we have never had to work this hard to pay attention.

Let's be honest, how many times do you find yourself rereading or replaying something because you got a bit distracted?

We are designed to focus on one thing at a time.

It's no secret that frequent context switching happens when we use social media, so scrolling through our phones and seeing lots of different bits of completely unrelated bits of information like news, ads, you know, cat videos.

That results in significantly measurable attention deficits.

Studies have shown that if you use your phone for more than an hour in your teens, that it results in these attention deficits.

So try and use your phone a little bit less.

Now, if you want to improve your attention for the long term, there are things like focused attention meditation that you can do to improve that.

And if you want to improve your attention in the really short term, well, you can actually just exercise.

Did you know that exercise can actually increase the size of the part of your brain involved in learning and memory?

It also helps you make new brain cells.

And studies have shown that regular exercise improves memory.

It improves cognition, your ability to think.

And just 20 minutes of moderate exercise - so not even intense exercise - will actually improve your attention for about two hours afterwards.

So here's what you should do: before you sit down to study, go for a jog, or do some squat jumps or pushups.

It's even better if you challenge your balance.

If you're at work, run up and down the stairs.

There are lots of things that you can do to make this happen.


In order to learn, you've got to be alert, that's not rocket science.

If you're not fully focused on a task, then you're going to have a harder time retaining that information.

Activating our body's fight-or-flight system or activating our sympathetic nervous system, as it's also known, results in the release of things like adrenaline and noradrenaline, and amongst other things, that will increase our alertness.

So what are some things that we can do to increase our fight-or-flight system?

Well, once again, exercise - a bit of a recurring theme here.

You can also do certain breathing techniques like the Wim Hof breathing method

You can even end your shower with a bit of a cold blast of water because that will certainly make you feel very alert.

And we also know that stress will do the same thing.

We know that if you sit down to learn after a small stressor - that will enhance your learning.

When you have been experiencing long-term stress or chronic stress, it physically changes our brain, and it causes issues with learning and memory.

So if you have been experiencing stress for a long period of time, you will have impairments in memory.

It is that simple, so do be kind to yourself.

But little bits of stress are good.

They actually help you reach peak performance.

And we know that having a little bit of an increase in adrenaline after a learning task will actually enhance your learning as well.

You can also ingest substances to enhance your alertness, things like caffeine.

And there's a growing body of evidence now that shows that having caffeine before a learning task or actually just being a regular caffeine drinker can enhance your learning and memory through a range of different mechanisms in the brain.

We know that, for example, if you eat, you are less alert because that's switching off our fight-or-flight system.

So maybe don't sit down to study after a big meal.

There's also a limit to our alertness as well.

So it's still a little bit contentious, but studies have shown that we are constantly going through what we call an "ultradian rhythm."

So about every 90 minutes, we're going in and out of peak alertness.

So the reality is you can't be 100% alert all the time, and it's going to be a chunk of about 8 to 30 minutes in the middle where we will be most alert.


If you haven't been sleeping, then you won't be as alert.

But sleep is really important for learning for another reason.

It resets our immune system, it resets our metabolism, it resets our emotional control, and it even gets rid of the waste that builds up in our brain over the course of the day.

But sleep is actually critical for memory consolidation, so for turning short-term memories into long-term memories.

There's a particular part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.

So when you do stuff throughout the day, your hippocampus is keeping track of that.

It's a bit like a diary.

But it only keeps information there for the short term.

When you sleep, all of those short-term memories make their way to other parts of the brain, the cortex, and get turned into long-term memories.

So if you don't sleep, you can't turn those short-term memories into long-term memories.

And that's why sleep is so important for learning.

That's why pulling an all-nighter and cramming is the worst thing you can do for study, because you are not going to retain that information for the long term.

So here's what you should do.

Make sure you prioritize your sleep before you study, just so you can be a bit more alert. But also really prioritize that sleep after learning, because you will need that to retain that information for the long term.


Now, the old adage says that practice makes perfect, and there's much truth to that because repetition is key when it comes to learning.

Repetition is key when it comes to learning.

It's not enough to just hear or see something once and expect to remember it forever.

Just like exercising builds muscle, repetitive patterns of thinking or doing things will reinforce those pathways and those connections in the brain associated with doing that thing, so it'll become easier to recall.

So through the process of neuroplasticity, you're making these brand-new connections.

And that takes energy, requires fatty acids, requires lots of little proteins to be made.

It's a big job. It takes a lot of energy.

And the brain's not going to want to invest all of this energy in creating these new connections if it's something that you've only done once.

That is why repetition is so important for learning.

It's basically flagging to your brain at the cellular level that "Hey, this is the thing that keeps coming up in my life. So in order to be more efficient, I need to reinforce this and do it better."

Here's what you should do.

Repeat the thing that you are trying to learn as many times as you can in that learning period, and use the spacing technique.

So space your learning out over multiple days so that way your learning has a chance to build on those new long-term memories.

We know that two shorter learning periods over different days will result in significantly better learning than using that same amount of time on a single day. (Primacy and Recency)

Sometimes we can learn things in one session.

And this is a thing called "one-trial learning" in psychology and neuroscience.

And it basically happens when there's a really strong emotional component tied to that experience.

For example, if it makes us really happy or really sad or scared, especially if it makes us afraid, actually, and there's a really important biological reason for that if you think about it.

Your brain wants to remember in exquisite detail everything to do with a scary event.

So that way, you know how to respond the next time you encounter it or just so you can avoid it completely.

And when things go wrong with that process, you can end up with things like PTSD.


Breaks are incredibly important for learning as well and there are two main reasons for that.
  • First of all, it gives our brains a chance to replay that information.

    It happens completely subconsciously.

    For example, if you were learning a sequence on the piano, then if you were to take a ten-second break afterwards, your brain will actually be brain recording so that you'll be replaying that sequence, and you'll be doing it 20 times faster.

    And it looks like it might be even better if you spend 10 to 20 minutes afterwards either just having a quiet break - no phones, of course - having a nap or doing a round of Non-Sleep Deep Rest

  • The other reason why breaks are important is because that newly encoded information isn't very stable.

    And if you were to use those same networks to learn something else soon afterwards, what will happen is that newly encoded information can be destroyed in a process called "retrograde interference."

    Kids stabilize pretty quickly, within a few minutes.

    But in adults, as far as we know, they're still unstable after an hour, maybe longer.
So here's what you should do.

Make sure you take a 10- to 20-minute break after you finish learning.

And if you're at work, well, then just try and do those mundane tasks that you can do without thinking too much and wait at least an hour before trying to learn something similar, preferably do it on a different day.


Making mistakes is terrifying.

It is really scary, but there's a biological reason behind that.

That feeling of anxiety and stress you get when you make a mistake serves a really important purpose.

So when you make a mistake, what happens is you're releasing neuromodulators like acetylcholine, and you're getting increased activity in your focused attention networks.

And that increase in attention and that feeling of anxiety serves a really important purpose.

It's basically saying to us, "Hey, you made a mistake. You need to change and do better and become more efficient."

And it's opening up this window for neuroplasticity.

So, whatever happens next, your brain is ready to take in.

If you make a mistake and you feel a bit anxious, and you walk away from it,
  • You're not going to learn that thing,
  • and you're actually learning to be less able to cope with failure.
Here's what you should do.

You should set yourself up for a little bit of failure.

Quiz yourself on that topic as you go. Don't wait until you're ready.

If you're learning something - for example, golf - don't just hit it straight at the target.

Change the angle. Make it more difficult, so you make mistakes. (Variabe practice)

Don't wait for everything to be perfect before you make your swing, because at the end of the day if you make a mistake, you'll be releasing neuromodulators that improve your attention.

And when you get it right, you'll be releasing things like dopamine in your reward circuits, which makes you feel good, which makes you feel more motivated, and consolidates the learning of the thing that you just did correctly.

So when you make a mistake, don't view that anxiety as a bad thing.

Lean into that feeling and keep going because it's really your brain's way of helping you be your best.

It's helping you be better than the person that you were yesterday.

By understanding the brain, you will have the keys to unlock your potential to learn faster and more effectively.

Those keys are:
  1. Attention
  2. Alertness
  3. Sleep
  4. Repetition
  5. Breaks
  6. and Mistakes.
So next time you're trying to learn a skill:
  • get rid of those distractions, increase your attention
  • increase your alertness - maybe through a little bit of exercise
  • repeat the thing that you are trying to do as many times as you can in that training period, and repeat it over multiple days
  • make sure that you prioritize that sleep in between
  • embrace your mistakes,
  • and make sure you take a 10- to 20-minute break after learning
Your brain is going to thank you.

Try it, you'll like it.

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[ Lessons from Tom Tucker - Class "A" Teaching Professional - WGTF "Top 100 Golf Teacher" ]