How Your Brain Works: The Learning Process

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Intentional learning is the process by which we deliberately and consciously try to learn something of value that we intend to store for future use…

NoteUnconscious learning, which includes powerful conditioning processes such as classical and operant conditioning, is a vast subject on its own, outside the scope of this discussion.

A full appreciation of how to make the most of your integrated memory system during the learning process can turn poor students and teachers into great students and teachers.

An Example of Expert Learning

Let’s describe how to use your brain’s memory system to create a stable long-term memory.

Suppose we want to learn how a major triad sounds and feels. This is “Something New”.

Furthermore, suppose that you have already mastered how the music theory for forming a major triad by combining three notes. This is “Something you Already Know”.

Step 1. Pay attention to “Something New”.

Pay attention to the sound of a major triad played on the piano. The sound enters your ears and is perceived by your Sensory Register. When you pay attention to it, the sound is automatically loaded into your Working Memory.

Step 2. Relate this “Something New” to “Something You Already Know”.

Realize that you have pre-existing knowledge of the notes that comprise a major triad. This is a very relevant “Something You Already Know”. Connect the sound you hearing to this “somethingg you already know”.


Step 3. Keep “Something New” and “Something You Already Know” in your field of attention.

Maintain the sound you hear and your knowledge of the notes in a major triad in consciousness at the same time. Do this until you feel something “click”.


When you feel that “click”, it means that you’ve made a meaningful connection–a connection that’s made an impression on your long-term memory. Such learning is likely to be permanent after only a handful of, and maybe after just one, exposure.

An Interesting Paradox

The simple process of connecting something you want to learn with something you already know is a way to create an endless stream of new and useful long-term memories. And each new long-term memory expands the library of things you already know. And so, the more things you already know, the more ways you have to understand and relate to new information. In other words, the more you know, the more you can learn… which leads to a very curious paradox: Unlike a computer memory which can get filled to capacity, every useful thing that you master — every fact, concept, attitude, and skill — makes your brain effectively bigger!!!

Implications for Students and Teachers

  • If you want to learn the right things, you have to pay attention to the right things.
  • If you want to remember something, you need to relate to it in a way that is memorable.
  • If the information loaded into your short-term memory is perceived as meaningless (not related to any patterns you already know), the potential to be stored in your long-term memory is very low.
  • If the information loaded into your short term memory is perceived as meaningful (related to patterns you already know), the potential to be stored in your long-term memory is high.
  • Without meaningful associations between something you are trying to learn and something you already know, all you can do is memorize stuff. Such memories are likely to be fleeting and unreliable.
  • Complex tasks–such as ear-training or learning a precise physical movement–may require multiple exposures (also known as practice) to become permanently stored in long-term memory.
  • Be skeptical. Never blindly accept that “Something You Already Know” to be true. If your teacher can’t explain why something is so, it’s time to find another teacher.
  • Every lesson needs to be designed with the student’s pre-existing knowledge in mind. Always. No exceptions. I’s crucial to meet the student where they are, not where the teacher is. Such masterful teaching requires an uncommon set of attitudes, experience, and commitment. This is why great teachers are extremely rare.
  • If the lesson being taught can be related to patterns the student has already mastered, learning will be fun and efficient. All great teachers use this process of scaffolding to build an ever-expanding repertoire of useful patterns.
  • Always strive to make more than one connection to pre-existing knowledge. The more connections, the better. Strive to build rich networks of associations. Mastery is with built upon the rock-solid foundation of such networks.

learn more… How Your Brain Works: The Power of Attention

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