Learning is Easy

When you are motviated, learning is a snap. Why?

Well, the reason appears to lie with three neuromodulators in your brain. These are chemicals that influence how neurons interact and respond to one another.

These three neuromodulators are:

  1. ACh - Acetylcholine affects focus and attention
  2. Dopamine affects our perception of rewards and pleasure
  3. Serotonin affects our social life and risk taking behavior

These three neurotransmitters can convey not just information but the importance of the information and the value it has to you and your future.


Acetylcholine was the first neurotransmitter to be discovered. ACh neurons form connections to the cortex that are important for focused learning. They also activate circuits that control synaptic plasticity, which leads to forming new long term memories.


Discovered in the 1950’s, dopamine is now recognized as a critical part of human brain operation. Dopamine is our reward function. Located in the basal ganglia, they control reward learning and thus human motivation. It is not merely immediate rewards but future rewards and even sensory information are all impacted by dopamine. Addictive drugs artificially (and temporarily) increase dopamine activity to make us feel good. Loss of dopamine leads to a lack of motivation, such as anhedonia, where things that used to give us pleasure no longer do. Severe loss of dopamine leads to tremors and Parkinson’s disease.


Much of our sense of ourselves as essentially moral beings is derived from serotonin. It also impacts our social life. Prozac raises serotonin levels to help cure depression. Alpha males in monkey packs have higher serotonin than the other members of the troop. Low serotonin levels are associated with risk taking and violent behavior.

Emotions and Learning

Emotions are intertwined with learning in the human brain. The amygdala in the brain integrates emotion and cognition.

Here is a fascinating video on marijuana and how it impacts the brain. In short, THC looks exactly like Anandamide and blocks CB1 receptors, among a number of other impacts.

Chunk Library

To enhance your knowledge and gain expertise, build the chunks in your mind. Successful people spend time each week reading and learning new things to expand their minds and hold more varied ideas, making new connections.

Transfer is when we draw analogies between seemingly unrelated fields. We often find that one chunk is related to another in a new and surprising way, and this helps us cement a new concept. The neural patterns become longer and darker (ingrained). The diffuse mode helps make these connections.

There are two ways of solving problems in the human brain. One is the focused thinking step-by-step cookbook way, called sequential thinking, and the other is the diffuse thinking, holistic, intuition approach that calls on a diverse set of chunk connections. Most cognitive leaps of understanding hard concepts are made through intuition but one should be careful, as sometime the intuitive approach yields the wrong answer.

The Law of Serendipity (Luck favors the one who tries) comes into play with studying. If you feel overwhelmed, remember that ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’ and that with the human brain, each chunk builds on a prior chunk and it becomes easier and easier to synthesize and collect information.

Overlearning, Choking, Einstellung effect, and Interleaving

An average 20 minute TED talk takes about 70 hours of prep! So yes, practice can make perfect. But for students, there is something called Overlearning which can suck. With practice, things become automatic. This is great for Kobe Bryant who was known for obsessive practice. It can help overcome nervousness, ‘choking’ and performance anxiety.

However, with studying, too much focus on something we already know is dangerous for a couple reasons. For one, we might get cocky because we have mastered a subset of the things we need to know and bomb the test on things we never picked up. We can also suffer from Einstellung effect, which is the ‘to the hammer, everything is a nail’ approach to problem solving where we rely on the thing we know too much and apply techniques inappropriately, from overreliance on the thing we know. We want to repeat a study session to cement knowledge but repeating too much can build these Einstellung ruts and inappropriate intuitions our brains get stuck in.

We want instead deliberate practice. This is where we focus on things we do not know and things we find difficult. We also want to jump back and forth through the material to different problems and situations - this is called Interleaving. For example, deliberately explain why an approach is appropriate for a certain type of problem, or do varied problem sets. This helps train your brain to expect different types of approaches and apply different tools for various jobs. At an even broader scale, interleaving subjects can produce more independent thought and builds our creative power within a discipline. It can also spark more creative thoughts about a field of study.

Thomas Kuhn found that paradigm shifts in science are brought about by the young and people from other disciplines, which makes sense in terms of Einstellung and the power of interleaving to drive insights.

Learning is not limited to formal study of books. It comes from teaching, from real world problem solving, and our interactions with the world around us.


Chunking is a collection of information bound together through use and meaning. Chunks can be thought of as a collection of neurons bound together to fire at once to synthesize ready-made ideas and actions. Chunks can be woven into bigger chunks, or plunked into one of the working memory slots. We build chunks with focused, distraction free attention and with understanding of the basic idea of the chunk and the bigger picture idea of where the chunk fits. Practice strengthens our understanding and helps us contextualize the chunk.

The best way to chunk-ify data is with the recall method, where we look at the information and then try to recall it without looking at the source. Even better, if we recall the information in different physical spaces, we can reduce our brain’s reliance on visual cues.

Transfer is when we apply one chunk to acquire another, by noting commonalities and really building more connections between chunks in the brain. Interleaving - where we practice variety in our learning - helps develop the insights that lead to transfer. Chunks do not build flexibility, so we have to use interleaving to make us more creative and build multiple connections.

There are pitfalls, called illusions of competence. One is overlearning easy stuff. Another is Einstellung, where we apply the same technique inappropriately to different problems because we have overlearned it to the point where its our instinctual answer to everything. Test ourselves frequently to make sure we catch mistakes and identify areas where we are relatively shaky. We don’t want to just be good at the easy stuff. Deliberate practice and mini-tests allow us to take on more complex, difficult items. And remember the Law of Serendipity - luck favors those who try! Take one step at a time, learn on chunk at a time, and you will kick ass.

The journey of 1,000 chunks begins with a single chunk.

-Lao Tse Chunk Chunk

octopus of attention


Dr Norman Fortenberry has a BS, MS and PhD from MIT, and is an MIT professor. He has some good advice on finding a team and balancing ego. Don’t be a lemming, but do not let your ego get the best of you. He spent a lot of time in groups and would go over material 2-3 different ways to make sure he got it.

For his diffuse thinking, he takes breaks. He will watch cartoons on TV, watch inane television shows to relax, and turn off his conscious mind. He also exercises.

He uses multiple modes of input - see it, write it, say it, do it - to saturate yourself with learning modes. The mechanical act of writing can help you internalize the material. And try to explain it to someone else, or discuss it with peers and colleagues.

The Marco Polo of Learning

Scott Young compressed a 4 year MIT CS degree into a one year program, and is learning 4 languages by total immersion in 4 countries (3mo in 4 countries to learn a language). The MIT Challenge is the compression of the 4 year MIT BS in CS into one year.

He avoids illusions of competence by diving into a position where he could be wrong as quickly as possible. For example, he would dive into the problem sets and test himself as frequently as possible. He is also into self-explanation, which he cribbed from Richard Feynman. Mr Feynman would find a paper he didnt understand, and then rigorously going through the paper and the paper’s source was, and write an explanation to try to explain the concept as best as he can. Then, in the areas where one is vague, those are the parts of the process that need attention, because that is where the understanding is shaky. Young also likes to use analogies and metaphors to comprehend new, abstract ideas.

He has a passion for learning and motivation through being better at things, and he becomes better by pushing himself to take on small, mini projects and tests. He also doesn’t allow failure to be a scarlet letter but that it meant he had a lot to learn - it identified mistakes.

Benny Goodman has a saying - “Always have a mission.” Having concrete goals with specific timelines and guidelines. Maybe just have a month where you focus on something to make it exciting.

He recommends MIT’s Open Courseware because of the variety, the exams and the problem sets as well as the textbook. He also says he can learn more by studying less. He recommends higher intensity studying - think of exercise with interval training. He picks specific pieces of time where he studies. So for learning Korean, he has highly focused 2-3 hour sessions with flashcards and one on one tutoring.

Amy Alkon, Author

Writing is a form of learning! She takes frequent breaks to assimilate information, and makes sure she is working on her current work a little bit every single day. Waiting until the last minute means that she loses out on the diffuse mode, and doesn’t have the interesting insights the diffuse mode can bring. This lets her sit with her writing and chew it over.

She prevents procrastination by turning on a timer. She uses an hour to get into the flow state where she can lose herself in the work and push through any initial junk writing she isn’t happy with.

Her rule for reading a book a day is that she skips parts of books. She treats books like a buffet instead of a death sentence. She reads a book a night just by skipping around. She is a critical reader, and doesn’t waste time on things she already knows.

For picking out key points, she writes it down. It ingrains it into her brain and tapes it to the wall in my shower to inspire a diffuse mode of thinking while showering.

She learns most efficiently by re-reading tough passages a few times. Sometimes she will go to reference material in the event that their idea is good but their writing is bad.

Ms. Alkon also slows down her breathing to be able to take a nap, and sets an alarm to sleep for 20 minutes so she avoids being groggy.