A mixture of acetylcholine, noradrenaline, and dopamine prime the brain for learning. Brain hacking can help coax them out.
Illustration: Jinhwa Jang
I told everyone I was going to learn German—“just give me a couple months” I’d brag to a friend. I was taking writing classes in Berlin and had visions of myself effortlessly conversing, Club-Mate and rolly cigarettes in hand like a true Berliner. Cut to two months later: I’m really feeling myself as I order my coffee because I’m pretty sure the barista is flirting with me. “She said ‘my place or yours,’” I gush to that same friend.
My friend laughs and rolls her eyes. “She said ‘for here or to go.’”
It turns out, learning a new skill isn’t something you can just magic into existence. So as I prepare for a return trip to Germany, I decide to look for help in the world of neuroscience. I pick the mind of Dr. Hans W. Hagemann, who specializes in something called “brain based leadership”—using cognitive neuroscience research to help people to perform at their best.
Acetylcholine helps you to focus on tasks, noradrenaline is released when you feel mild fear, and dopamine is our brain’s feel-good response to something we view as a reward
But first of all, what exactly is happening in our brain when we learn new skills? Hagemann explains that learning happens in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. “When we learn, our neurons fire and wire together and create connections,” he says. “Neurotransmitters are released in our brains to enhance this process—the most important ones for learning are dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine.” Each neurotransmitter has its own role to play:
Acetylcholine helps you to focus on tasks, noradrenaline is released when you feel mild fear, and dopamine is our brain’s feel-good response to something we view as a reward, he explains. “If these three are released in an optimal mix, and the experience is repeated at least three times, learning takes place,” he says.
So how do you trigger your own “optimal mix” of these neurotransmitters? “When it comes to achieving peak performance, the same stimulation that invigorates one person may be overwhelming for another,” Hagemann explains in The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, Happier, which he co-wrote with neuroscientist and neuro leadership coach Friederike Fabritius. They suggest reflecting on actions that make you feel like you’re in the zone when you learn. For example, If you’re the type of person who needs a calm environment to learn best, then create a tranquil study space. Or if you’re someone who works best under pressure and requires a little noradrenaline to get focused, you might need to manufacture some.
I ask a good friend to nag me at a certain time one afternoon to see if I’ve actually practiced speaking German. This creates an external deadline, adding a tiny bit of pressure that does actually make me feel motivated and, in theory, triggers noradrenaline.
I take inventory of my other learning triggers. I’m pretty reward-motivated, meaning I’ll sit down and focus on learning something new if I have a strong coffee or some dark chocolate to nibble on. I start stashing chocolate bars near my flashcards. Both caffeine and chocolate are linked to triggering dopamine, so I’m not going to argue with the science of indulging here!
Cognitive learning requires two prerequisites: “the information must be new, and it must be emotionally relevant.
Once you’re in the zone, try some of Hagemann’s learning hacks. He explains that cognitive learning requires two prerequisites: “the information must be new, and it must be emotionally relevant.” He explains that most people checking into a hotel remember their room number, since they know there’ll be real-life complications if they forget it (triggering noradrenaline), yet they’ll forget a license plate number in seconds, as it has no emotional relevance.
So how do I make learning German emotionally relevant? I schedule a phone call with a good German friend. We usually speak in English, but I ask her to switch to German for a bit. I hear myself struggling to update her on various members of my family —and suddenly the conversation becomes emotionally charged. I look up some words as I’m speaking. When I’m reflecting on our conversation later that afternoon, I am able to recall those words.
Repetition can also help cement a new skill as it will aid in the formation of new habits. “The brain is a most efficient and also lazy organism,” Hagemann says. When we repeat the same actions again and again, it stores these processes in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which enables us to go on autopilot mode. “If you want to learn to play ‘Last Christmas’ on the piano, play it a hundred times,” explains Hagemann. “If you keep all circumstances the same—same room, same piano, same music—you will be an expert in playing ‘Last Christmas’ after a hundred repetitions. And if you play it every evening before dinner, it might have become a habit,” he says.
“Most of the activities that you do when you are driving a car are automated, and once they are, they are very hard to ‘unlearn’ since they have created ‘neuronal highways’ in your brain.” He’s right to note that habits are really hard to break: MIT researchers found that neurons associated with habit formation fired in rats’ basal ganglia at the beginning of a task—solving a maze—and when they got a reward of chocolate at the end. When they removed the chocolate, the rats broke the habit, but as soon as they re-introduced the reward, they reformed the habit again.
You will be highly specialized on that one song, you will repeat it every evening in the same way, and you will do it on autopilot—but you are far away from being a great piano player
Hagemann cautions us not to solely rely on our brain’s lazy mode though, as relying on habits can lead to rigid thinking. Back to the example of trying to learn to play the piano—learning to play a single song on autopilot mode won’t actually make you a good musician: “You will be highly specialized on that one song, you will repeat it every evening in the same way, and you will do it on autopilot—but you are far away from being a great piano player,” says Hagemann. If you actually wanted to learn to play the piano, he suggests varying your practice each time you play. “This gives you the challenge of experiencing something new every time, based on some expertise that you already have gained and that is constantly growing,” he says. “The pros still do this on the highest level— they always challenge themselves by playing variations during their concerts in order to get better and better.” Science backs this up: A study from John Hopkins Medicine found that people learned new skills twice as fast when they modified their practice sessions.
And how should you structure your learning sessions? Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that short breaks made people learn new skills more effectively, after having subjects focus for ten seconds intensely, then break for ten seconds.
So I test this out when quizzing myself with flashcards, setting a timer every ten seconds. At first, these forced mini-breaks feel awkward, like I’m wasting time. But I find myself replaying the words I’ve just learned in my mind, so maybe they’re actually sinking in a little more.
And if you really want to remember your newly-formed skills, it turns out jogging for 15 minutes after learning might help with brain hacking too—at least when it comes to learning motor skills. Canadian researchers from McGill found that 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise performed right after practicing a new motor skill improved long term retention of that skill. Exercise also slashes the body’s stress hormones, which makes our brains more receptive to learning.
When we push ourselves too hard and feel stressed, our adrenal cortex is producing cortisol and releasing it into our bloodstream which can have a negative impact on learning and memory. “Under stress, cortisol is released to strengthen the muscles preparing our system for a fight, flight, or freeze reaction,” cautions Hagemann. “At the same time, the prefrontal cortex reduces its activity very significantly—which means all creativity for new solutions gets lost. Our limbic system takes over, and as a consequence, we will try very hard to come up with proven patterns”—meaning we rely on old ways of doing things, rather than coming up with new ways. “Survival comes first, not options. No learning is possible.”
So on a particularly hectic day, I pair my German study session with my morning meditation sessions to calm myself down. And no surprise, I feel more relaxed and focused. Research overwhelmingly shows links between meditation and the reduction of psychological stress. And mediation appears to positively impact learning as well: A study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that mindfulness meditation is actually linked to increases in gray matter in brain regions associated with learning and memory.
So now that I’m armed with some brain hacking tips, here’s hoping my German study sessions will stick! And at the very least, I’m glad I’ve found a scientific justification to reward myself with chocolate!
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