The brain is good at learning, but it usually needs a lot of repetition to make new knowledge stick permanently. If we remembered everything we ever glanced at, there would be no room for storing anything important.
When you consciously want to retain information, you need to “tell” your brain that this is vital information it can’t afford to ignore. You can boost your brain’s learning speed by presenting learning material in ways that make it faster for your brain to recognize and more likely to retain.
1. Use Novelty
The brain’s primary job is to learn things that help us to survive as human beings. In the days when we had to escape from predators, it was really useful for the brain to pick up on anything especially unusual in the environment. So, presenting information in novel, unusual ways really helps the brain to take notice.
If you keep forgetting a certain fact, make an exaggerated mental image of it. Make it as outlandish and ridiculous as you like — you’re unlikely to forget that striking image again.
2. Bring in Other Senses
When we learn new material, we build a memory network in the brain. In order for us to access that memory again, we need a trigger to help us recall it. By using many senses to learn (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) we build a more complex network with a larger amount of cues to facilitate recall.
Studies have shown that smelling strong scents while studying can improve recall later on. Researchers found that the aroma of freshly-made food can help you remember what you’re studying. It probably isn’t that surprising when we know that human minds pay attention to things that help them survive — food is one of those very things.
Teaching someone else what you’ve studied can give your own understanding a massive boost. When we explain things to others, we need to find our own words and a sense of why we understand something. So teaching someone else a subject helps us to store it in the brain in a way that makes our own understanding more concrete.
4. Use the Power of Patterns
The human brain loves things that make patterns, from numbers and shapes to rhymes and rhythms. It’s how we best understand information and make sense of the world. You can exploit the brain’s fondness for patterns by organizing learning material in a special way.
Make up a rhyme or a song about key facts to help you retain what you’re learning. Use mneunomic devices like acronyms, as shortcuts for remembering facts, phrases, or principles. Highlighting patterns in material makes it less taxing to remember.
5. Use Many Modes
It is much easier to learn, and recall, new information if it is presented in several different formats. If you want to learn a subject quickly and deeply, use as many modes as possible. Watch videos or demonstrations, listen to audiobooks, and look at pictures and models.
Doing something active is also much better than just passively taking information in. Copying information down, making notes, and drawing mindmaps, pictures, and diagrams can all help you learn more quickly.
6. Make the Human Connection
The human species survived, in part, because of our ability to form tribes and families. What this means for the modern brain is that it is drawn strongly to representations of others. We naturally pay attention to anything that reminds us of sanctuary and community.
Faces, stories, and characters tend to stay in the memory for a long time. Choose learning materials which have case studies about people or tell stories to emphasize main points — or make up stories of your own from your notes.
7. Find the Familiar
If you link new information with old knowledge, it makes more sense and seems more familiar. So-called “relational learning” has long been known to help the brain recall new information more quickly.
There must be some sort of natural tie between the information you’re linking up. For example, if you’re reading a business strategies book, it may help you to link the information to other similar strategies you know, books by the same author, or other books on the same topic.
8. Split Up Information
The mind processes information more easily when it is separated into manageable chunks. We tend to organize data into lists, topics, chapters and bullet points, so we don’t overload the brain with too much information at once.
Divide each new thing you are learning into categories and sub-categories to break it down. A number of psychological experiments have shown that people tend to recall no more than seven items in any sequence, so try to stay under that limit. Groups of three seem to work particularly well for the brain, and are remembered easily.
One of the fastest ways of learning is to demonstrate what you’re studying physically. Studies at Arizona State University found that reading comprehension was enhanced when students acted out a written text. Physically moving your body wires information in the brain more thoroughly, moving it from theoretical to practical.
If you are not able to demonstrate physically, due to lack of space or equipment, mental rehearsal is just as good. Imagine demonstrating in your mind to learn more quickly and solidly.
10. Rest after learning
Take a nap, or at least a break, after learning anything new. Most long-term memory networks are laid down when we’re resting, so don’t jam more things into your brain until you’ve had a chance to process what you’ve just been studying,
Scientific research shows that people perform much better on tests the day after studying than they do if they’ve learned the same material 20 minutes before. If you can’t take a break, then do something different, or less demanding, after studying.
Other experiments have shown that ‘over-learning’ does no good. It’s best to take a break when you’ve just about grasped the material. Returning to it after an interval helps you learn it better than reading it again immediately after you think you’ve “got” it.