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Brain Sync
Michael Gelb : Tips for Making the Most of Your Learning

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Learning

From Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age by Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell

In school, most of us spent the majority of our time learning history, mathematics, social studies, and other subjects. But, unfortunately, the standard curriculum neglects the most important subject—how to learn. Here are some simple ideas that can help you enjoy learning more effectively.

1. Let go of the fear of embarrassment and failure.

The main impediment to adult learning is the fear of embarrassment and failure. Decide, as Susan Jeffers, PhD, counsels, to "feel the fear and do it anyway." Artist Georgia O'Keeffe stated, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

2. Cultivate childlike curiosity.

The best way for adults to learn is to approach new learning experiences in an open, playful way, as children do. Make learning fun. Don't take anything, especially yourself, too seriously. As Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw explained, "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."

3. Embrace the process.

The process of learning something new is more important than the result. The benefit to your brain comes from the attempt to learn. A successful outcome is a bonus.

4. Seek new challenges.

Welcome change and keep trying new things. Benjamin Franklin cautioned, "When you're finished changing, you're finished." Get out of your habit pattern. Learn something new and unfamiliar. Take a watercolor painting class, try ballroom dancing or singing lessons. Novelty yields brain benefits. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, PhD, and his colleagues emphasize that learning a new skill can "change hundreds of millions" of cortical connections.

5. Stretch your comfort zone.

You can accelerate your improvement by raising the degree of difficulty of your learning challenges: for example, try more complex crossword puzzles or play chess against a more advanced opponent. Marian Diamond, PhD, the world's leading neuroanatomist, observed that rats who ran through mazes without obstruction didn't demonstrate improvements in neural complexity, but rats who were challenged by having to climb over obstacles on the way to the proverbial cheese showed significant brain growth. Dr. Diamond argues that the same principle applies to humans. She writes, "Increase the level of environmental stimulation and you will increase the branching of dendrites and the thickness of the human cortex."

6. Invest fifteen minutes every day in new learning.

Neuroscientist Daniel G. Amen, MD, points out, "Spending just 15 minutes a day learning something new is all it takes for your brain to benefit from the activity."

7. Begin it now!

Start learning something new today. You've probably noticed that as you get older, time seems to go faster. So whatever it is that you've always wanted to learn, begin it now. You'll be good at it before you know it. Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, explains, "You can improve your mind as you age, and now is the best time to begin."

Next: Seven Essential Memory Tips »

Updated 1/7/14