Being able to focus helps us succeed. Whether it’s focusing inward and attuning ourselves to our intuitions and values or outward and navigating the world around us, honing our attention is a valuable asset.
All too often though, our focus and attention get hijacked, leaving us feeling frazzled, forgetful, and unable to concentrate. In my coaching work with executives, these are the kinds of statements I most often hear when they’ve lost their focus (I may have uttered a few of them myself):
“I feel completely overwhelmed.”
“My workload is insane, and there’s never enough time to get things done when I’m in meetings and dealing with urgent issues all day long.”
“I’m mentally exhausted from the pressure and constant distractions in my office. I just can’t seem to focus.”
Constant distractions and a lack of time certainly interrupt our focus, but stress also plays a major role.
Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that short-circuits important cognitive functions. Researchers have studied the negative effects of stress on focus, memory, and other cognitive functions for decades. The findings are consistent – short-term stress raises cortisol levels (the so-called stress hormone) for short periods and can jump-start our adrenalin and motivate us to perform more efficiently in response to impending deadlines. Long-term stress, however, can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol and can be toxic to the brain. Scientists also suspect that high levels of cortisol over a long period of time are a key contributor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
When we can’t focus at work because of distractions, it may lead us to feel stressed about not being productive, which then causes us to focus less, further feeding the cycle. Unfortunately, most of us don’t notice our focus declining until we become completely overwhelmed. When mental and emotional exhaustion sets in, it further drains our ability to focus, concentrate, and recall information.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to break the cycle. I’ve found in my research that one of the reasons why some people get burned out and others don’t is because they use their emotional intelligence (EI) to manage their stress. You can use these same competencies, in particular self-awareness and self-management, to improve your focus. Here’s how.
Start by using your self-awareness to help you notice several things:
Why you feel stressed or anxious. Before you can deal with stress, you need to know what’s causing it. As simple as it may sound, it can be helpful to make a list of the sources of your stress. Write down each thing in your life and at work that’s causing you anxiety. You might categorize items into things you have the ability to change and things you don’t. For the stressors in the latter category, you will need to figure out how to change your attitude toward them.
How you lose your ability to focus. According to clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, you can learn to sharpen your focus, by understanding how exactly your concentration strays in the first place. By paying attention to the patterns that lead to your lack of focus, you can begin to develop your ability to dismiss distractions and stay with your original point of attention.
How you feel when you can’t focus. Does it make you anxious when you can’t recall information when you need it – perhaps during a job interview, a high-stakes presentation, or an important client meeting? Do you feel tense and dazed when you’re racking your brain trying to find just the right words for an important email? These can be clues that you’re more stressed than you may realize, and that your inability to concentrate is causing even more stress.
When you lose your ability to focus. If, for example, you find yourself worrying yourself sick over something while you’re driving 65 mph on the highway with a car full of kids, you’re putting yourself and others in real danger. This can be a wake-up call to bring your attention back to what you’re doing and make a decision to think about your concerns later.
Once you’ve increased your awareness of what’s causing you stress and how and when you lose your focus, you can use the following strategies, which depend on your self-management abilities, to make better choices that keep you focused.
Do a digital detox. In its 2017 Stress in America survey, The American Psychological Association (APA) found that “constant checkers” – people who check their emails, texts, and social media on a constant basis – experience more stress than those who don’t. More than 42% of respondents attribute their stress to political and cultural discussions on social media, compared with 33% of non-constant checkers. While it may feel impossible to take a cold turkey break from technology, the APA says that periodically unplugging or limiting your digital access can be great for your mental health.
Rest your brain. Most of us have experienced sleepless nights caused by ruminating over past events, or fears and anxieties about the future. But when you add a few of these nights together, sleep deprivation can set in, making it more difficult to focus, and more challenging to receive and recall information. Our interpretation of events and our judgment may be affected, too. Lack of sleep can negatively affect our decisions because it impairs our ability to accurately assess a situation, plan accordingly, and behave appropriately. Committing to the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night may seem impossible when you’re stressed and overworked, but the payoff is worth it.
Too many people feel like they need to work harder when they struggle to focus. But this strategy is likely to backfire. Instead, pay attention to the causes of your stress and inability to focus and then take actions that promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness
Stress is unavoidable in modern life, but it doesn’t have to get you down. Work, money and family all create daily stress, while bigger issues like politics and terrorism contribute to our underlying stress levels. But approach it the right way, and it won’t rule your life — it can even be good for you. Here are ways to deal with stress, reduce its harm and even use your daily stress to make you stronger.
Stress is inevitable; getting sick from it is not.
THE PERCEPTION OF STRESS
While we know that stress is associated with health problems, plenty of people with high-stress lives are thriving. How is that possible? In 2012, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published looking at how 28,000 people perceived stress in their lives. People in the study answered these two questions:
During the past 12 months, would you say that you experienced:
A lot of stress
A moderate amount of stress
Relatively little stress
Almost no stress at all
How much effect has stress had on your health?
The researchers looked at death rates in the study group over nine years. The results are startling. The study found that having a lot of stress in your life was not linked with premature death. But having a lot of stress in your life and believing it was taking a toll on your health increased risk of premature death by 43 percent.
CHANGING YOUR PERCEPTION
With stress, the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. You can view stress as something that is wreaking havoc on your body (and it can) or as something that is giving you the strength and energy to overcome adversity. Here’s a quick way to think about these two very different views of stress. Read the statement, and then think about your own reaction to the biological changes that occur during times of stress.1. When I’m stressed, my body releases adrenaline and cortisol. My heart is beating faster. This means that:
Common View: Stress is increasing my risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
Alternative View: My heart is working harder and my body is mobilizing its energy to get ready for this challenge.
2. When I’m stressed, my stress response is causing my breathing rate to increase. This means that:
Common View: My fast breathing is a sign of anxiety. I worry about how stress is affecting my mental and physical health.
Alternative View: I should take a deep breath. My faster breathing means more oxygen is getting to my brain so I can think more clearly.
3. When I’m stressed, my heart and circulatory system respond, causing my blood pressure to rise. This means that:
Common View: I can feel my blood pressure rising. This can’t be good for my health.
Alternative View: Circulatory changes are allowing more oxygen and nutrients to fuel my muscles. I’m feeling stronger and ready for the challenge ahead.
It’s probably clear to you that the alternative view is the better choice for thinking about stress. It may be hard to believe that such a small shift in thinking could make a difference, but that’s what when they paid 50 study subjects $25 each to take part in a lab experiment designed to induce stress. The test involves giving a talk in front of a group of unfriendly evaluators, followed by a tricky word test. (Researchers have consistently found that this formula of public speaking plus testing in front of a hostile crowd is incredibly uncomfortable and stress-inducing for the poor people who agree to take part in the study.)
Before the social stress test, one group was allowed to play video games; another was taught to simply ignore stressful feelings if they experienced them during the test. But a third group was given advice similar to the quiz above. They got a primer about the physical stress response and were told how a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters were all tools for making you strong during a stressful event. They were told how the body’s stress response evolved to help us succeed, and that the increased arousal symptoms of stress can aid your performance during times of stress. The bottom line of the lesson was this: In a tough situation, stress make you stronger.
The group that learned to rethink the role of stress in their lives did far better on the test. They gave better speeches and were rated as more confident. They smiled more and had more-positive body language. And physiological indicators showed that their bodies were also managing the stress response better than those of test subjects who were taught to ignore stress or given no advice at all.
The Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has been a champion of rethinking stress, noting that the right approach can make you smarter and stronger. Her TED talk on the subject, has been viewed 14 million times.
“What I learned from these studies, surveys and conversations truly changed the way I think about stress,” Dr. McGonigal wrote in her book “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
Learn skills to better handle stress.
The best way to get better at stress is to practice it. Scientists call this “stress inoculation,” and just as exposure to a virus will inoculate you from contracting a virus a second time, regular exposure to small amounts of stress can inoculate you from the most detrimental effects of stress when you suffer a big stressful event in your life.
Stress inoculation has
1. Education: Learn what to expect. If you need chemotherapy, are experiencing a divorce or have had a setback at work, talk to people who have been through it and learn what to expect going forward so you can be prepared, rather than blindsided, by the stressors ahead of you.
2. Rehearsal: While you can’t rehearse for life’s biggest moments, you can live your life in a way that prepares you for stress. It can be a physical challenge like competing in a triathlon or conquering a mountain. It can be an intellectual stressor like reading your poetry in public or giving a speech. The point is that you need to rehearse stressful situations in order to perform your best under stress.
3. Implementation: When the stressful event hits, you are prepared. You know what to expect, and you’ve experienced stressful situations before. You’ve got this.
Think about how firefighters train. They educate themselves about fire and how it behaves in different situations. They put themselves through grueling physical training to practice carrying heavy equipment, navigating smoky, dark buildings and stairwells, and braving the heat of a raging fire. They practice running into burning buildings. The training is hard and highly stressful.
Now imagine you are out for a nightly walk and you see that a neighbor’s house is on fire. Your heart races. You panic. You fumble with your phone. You take a step toward the house. You hesitate. What do you do? Fortunately, the firefighters arrive and race into the home without hesitation. Your moment of stress and anxiety is just another day at the office for them. They know what to expect. They trained for it.
You can practice for everyday stress in similar ways, by putting yourself in challenging situations. The good news is that practicing stress can actually be enjoyable, even thrilling. The key is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Here are some suggestions:
Run a marathon
Play in a Scrabble competition
Read an original poem at a poetry slam
Climb a mountain
Tell a story in front of a crowd
Take on a tough project at work
Kayak the Colorado rapids
Train to scuba dive
Attend a boot camp
Not only will challenging experiences give you more confidence, but the repeated exposure to stressful situations can also change your body’s biological response to stress. Your stress hormones become less responsive, allowing you to better handle stress when it comes.
Dr. Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, notes that programs like Outward Bound and basic military training are all designed to make people uncomfortable and build their skills so that they will be better able to handle stress later on. When his children were young, he took them on adventure trips that included “a degree of anxiety” like exposure to wildlife or kayaking in remote areas as a way to build confidence and prepare them to deal with stressful events. Putting yourself or your children in difficult social situations or speaking in public can help adults and children accumulate social and intellectual skills that help in times of stress.
“Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress,” says Dr. Charney. “Put yourself out of your comfort zone.”
AN RX FOR RESILIENCE
Another factor in how you handle a stressful situation is resilience. The defines resilience this way:
Resilienceis the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.
You can boost your resilience in a number of ways. In the book the authors, Dr. Steven M. Southwick and Dr. Charney, studied people who experienced great stressors — prisoners of war, men in the special forces, victims of trauma or survivors of catastrophic events. They found that people with the most resilience in the face of extreme challenges shared several behaviors and mind-sets. From that research, the duo identified 10 factors associated with resilience. You don’t need to practice all 10 behaviors to build resilience; just pick the two or three or four that speak to you.
1. Adopt a positive attitude. Optimism is strongly related to resilience.
2. Reframe the situation. Just like the stressed-out study subjects were taught to reappraise stress as their friend, people who are resilient typically reframe a negative situation as an opportunity for growth, learning or change.
3. Focus on core beliefs. People with a deeply held core belief, strong faith or a commitment to altruism often show more resilience.
4. Find a role model. Seeing someone else who has come through adversity can strengthen your own resilience.
5. Face your fears. Confronting a challenge rather than avoiding it will help you cope and build confidence.
6. Fall back on religion or spirituality. For many people, strong faith or spiritual beliefs can fuel resilience.
7. Seek social support. People who reach out to friends, family and support groups fare better during stressful times.
8. Exercise. It improves mood, relieves stress and makes you physically stronger.
9. Inoculate against stress. Challenge yourself regularly in the areas of emotional intelligence, moral integrity and physical endurance.
10. Find meaning and purpose. Having a clear purpose in life can boost your emotional strength during difficult times.
Numerous studies have shown us that exercise can improve your mood.
Exercise can channel your stress response into something constructive and distract your mind from the challenges at work or home that make you feel chronically stressed. In many ways exercise appears to be a form of stress inoculation. In studies, mice given access to running wheels and tubes to explore for just two weeks became resistant to stress compared with mice who had not exercised. They measured this by exposing the mice to an aggressive mouse. After the bullying, the exercising-mice bounced back, but the sedentary mice continued to show signs of stress. The bottom line: Exercise doesn’t eliminate stress, but it does give your body the physical conditioning it needs to recover from it.
How Much Exercise Do I Need to Manage Stress?
It doesn’t take much. Even small amounts of exercise can help you manage your stress. The key is consistency. Don’t let the stress of your day push exercise off the schedule.
Does the Type of Exercise Matter?
The exercise that is best for relieving stress is the one you will do consistently. Find something that fits your schedule and that you enjoy. For some, that will be a morning spin class or an evening run. For others, it will be a 30-minute walk at lunch time. found that people who engaged in any exercise, evan a small amount, reported improve mental health compared with people who never exercised.
What About Weight Training?
One study showed that six weeks of bicycle riding or weight training eased symptoms in women who received a diagnosis of anxiety disorder. The weight training was especially effective at .
Indeed, some research suggests that when it comes to reducing stress, you’ll get more out of exercise if you incorporate some weight training. Studies show that anaerobic or resistance exercises (working with weights) taxes muscles more than aerobic exercise like walking or running. The result is that weight training, done right, may produce more mood-boosting endorphins than cardio exercise. Exercises that stress the large muscles seem to have the biggest effect, like squats, leg presses, incline situps, military presses and bench presses.
Don’t go for a powerlifting record. The best weight training to manage stress consists of three moderate-weight sets of 10 repetitions with one minute of rest. found in a small study that this 3-10-1 moderate weight strategy produced more endorphins than using heavier weights for five reps and a longer rest.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
Simply taking your exercise outdoors can have a significant effect on your mood.
In a volunteers who walked outdoors reported enjoying the activity more than those who walked indoors on a treadmill. Subsequent psychological tests showed outdoor exercisers scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue.
A found that those who exercised outside did so longer and more often than those working out indoors. The outdoor exercisers averaged about 30 minutes more exercise each week than those who walked or otherwise exercised indoors.
A that people have lower blood levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, after exerting themselves outside as compared with inside. There’s speculation, too, that exposure to direct sunlight, known to affect mood, plays a role.
found that almost all the participants reported that the outdoor effort had felt less strenuous to them than their time on the treadmill. And they enjoyed it more.
from the University of Essex found that exercisers exposed to the color green found it easier to exercise and were in a better mood than exercisers exposed to gray or red. (Think green trees versus a cement-walled gym.)
Exercise your mind and let it rest to help it better process stress.
GIVING YOUR MIND A REST
For people dealing with high levels of stress, it can be hard to fathom how a few moments of meditation will help. After meditation, the stressors are still there — you’re still getting divorced, caring for an aging parent, struggling with the demands of a high-stress job. How can a few moments of deep thought possibly help your life?
It may help to think about how muscles get stronger. Unrelenting exercise simply tears down a muscle and leads to injury. Smart exercisers know the value of a day of rest — that’s when your muscles regenerate and come back stronger than before.
Now think about your mind as an emotional muscle. Unrelenting stress without a break will not make it stronger. Your emotions, your brain and your body need moments of recovery to get stronger from stress.
“It’s about stress and recovery. Just like you build a physical muscle, just like you build biceps, you have to take the same approach to life stressors,” says Jack Groppel, co-founder of the , which offers a course called “The Power of Positive Stress.“
Think of meditation like high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) for the brain. During H.I.I.T., you go as hard as you can, then you give yourself a few minutes of recovery before returning to the exercise. This cycle is repeated multiple times and has been shown to be more effective for building strength than long, slow bouts of exercise.
Now imagine a high-intensity, high-stress workday. But every hour, you take two minutes to let your brain recover. “Stress is the stimulus for growth,” says Dr. Groppel. “Recovery is when growth occurs. If there is no recovery, there is no growth. That’s how we build the resilience muscle.”
has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. The Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.
Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.
One study who were seeking work and experiencing considerable stress. All of them participated in stretching exercises, but half of them were also taught formal mindfulness meditation. After three days, everyone said they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.
To learn more about meditation, try the introductory exercise below.
WRITE IT DOWN
Another way to cope with stress: writing. It is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health. It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.
Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and author of “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.
There are a
Journal every day. Just writing about your thoughts, feelings and experiences every day can help. Explore your thoughts and feelings about an issue. Don’t just re-live the stress in your life but try to find meaning in it or explore how well you’ve handled certain situations. Be disciplined and write at the same time every day so it becomes a habit. In a University of Texas study, students who wrote about stressful or traumatic events for four days in a row reaped the benefits for months after. For the next six months, the writing students had fewer visits to the campus health center and used fewer pain relievers than the students in the experiment who wrote about trivial matters.
Change your story. Use writing to force yourself to confront the changes you need to make in your life. On the first day, write down your goals, then write down why you haven’t achieved them (“I don’t have the time or the money,” “Too many family responsibilities,” etc.) The next day review your writing. Now ask: What is really standing in the way of your goals? Change the story so you have control. Maybe the answer is: I don’t put myself first. I don’t make exercise a priority. I let other people talk me into spending money rather than saving.
Write a mission statement. People deal with stress better when they have a strong moral compass. This means knowing what you value in life and using that as a guidepost for all decision. By creating a mission statement people can begin to identify the underlying causes of behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to change. “A mission statement becomes the North Star for people,” says Dr. Groppel. “It becomes how you make decisions, how you lead and how you create boundaries.” To learn more, read our article
How to Meditate
Learning how to meditate is straightforward, and the benefits can come quickly.
STRESS AND YOUR APPETITE
Stress can have a huge impact on your eating habits. During acute stress (the hours after a car accident or the shock of a layoff announcement at work), the stress response can shut down appetite. The fight-or-flight response is designed to suppress hunger — you won’t be effective in battle or run that fast if you are thinking about food. But chronic stress has the opposite effect. Repeated doses of cortisol in your body due to high stress can lead to an increase in appetite.
According to the gender can play a role in how you eat during times of stress. Some research suggests women are more likely overeat due to stress while men turn to alcohol or smoking.
And the reality is that food really can make you feel better during times of stress. So-called comfort food like chocolate cake and ice cream to chronic stress. The problem with continuing to self-medicate chronic stress with comfort foods is that it will lead to weight gain and poor health.
Just as you need to reframe your view of stress and exercise and meditate to give your body a break from stress, you can also adopt strategies to use food to help you better cope with stress.
During times of stress, we can be particularly careless about what we eat and resort to mindless snacking, grabbing sweets from the office treat table or eating bags of junk food on the run. During times of stress, it’s particularly important to engage in “mindful eating,” which involves eating slowly and relishing every bite.
How to Be Mindful at the Holiday Table
Holidays are often filled with expectations. Take a moment to appreciate the present.
“The question isn’t what are the foods to eat, in my mind,” a holistic physician who oversees , a holistic-living center in Bedford, N.Y. “Most people have a general sense of what the healthy foods are, but they’re not eating them. What’s on your mind when you’re eating: That’s mindful eating to me.”
Here’s a simple exercise to try next time you are sitting down to a delicious meal:
Place a forkful of food in your mouth. Make it something you love.
Put the fork down and resist the temptation to take a second bite.
Chew slowly. Tune in to the texture of the food, the flavor, the aroma. Focus on the colors on your plate.
Be present in the moment and think only about the food in your mouth. Reflect on the effort that went into growing or producing this food; the effort it took to prepare this meal.
Savor the moment.
To learn more, read
Support and Relationships
Your friends and family can be both a cause of stress and a cure for it.
LEAN ON LOVED ONES
The pressure of family responsibilities is one of the most common forms of stress. But during times of stress, our friends and family members are most likely to give us the support we need to get through it.
One of my involved a steep hill, a heavy backpack and 34 university students. Students were fitted with a backpack full of free weights equivalent to 20 percent of their body weight. They stood at the base of a hill on the University of Virginia campus with a 26-degree incline. Wearing the heavy backpack, they had to imagine climbing that hill and guess the incline. When a student stood alone, he or she tended to guess that the hill was very steep. But when they stood next to a friend, the hill didn’t look as daunting. Overall, students in pairs consistently gave lower estimates of the hill’s incline compared with students who were alone. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.
The lesson: The world does not look as challenging with a friend by your side.
For people who study stress, the role of friendship, family and support networks can’t be overstated. Time and again research shows that social support is a defining element in our happiness, quality of life and ability to cope with stress.
MAP YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK
During times of high stress we have a tendency to retreat. We cancel social plans and focus on the work, money crisis or trauma that is our source of stress. But friends and social support are among the best forms of therapy to help you escape stress for brief periods of time. Friends can also make you feel better about yourself, and that mountain of stress in your life won’t look so steep.
When Dr. Southwick, Yale Medical School psychiatrist, co-wrote his book on resilience, he interviewed a number of people who had shown resilience against all odds, including former prisoners of war and people who had survived trauma. One thing they had in common was social support.
“The resilient people we interviewed actively reached out for support,” said Dr. Southwick. “They don’t sit around and wait.”
Even POWs held in isolation devised a tapping method of communication with their fellow prisoners. “Most, if not all, said it was life-saving to know they weren’t alone and they were cared for,” said Dr. Southwick.
When Dr. Southwick, a psychiatrist, meets with a new patient, one of the first things he does is construct a diagram of the patient’s social network. Sometimes they just talk about it; some patients want to map it out on paper. “Who is in your life? Who can you count on?” asks Dr. Southwick. Make your own list of your social network and keep it handy when you need to call on someone for support.
DON’T JUST SEEK SUPPORT, GIVE IT
If you lead a highly stressful life, the solution may be to add one more task to your daily to-do list. Give back.
Research consistently shows that helping other people and giving social support is a powerful way to manage the stress in your life and boost your resilience. Volunteer work, mentoring, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, listening to a friend who is struggling — all these can enhance your own ability to manage stress and thrive.“
Time spent helping others, sharing our knowledge and providing social and emotional support gives meaning and purpose to our lives,” said Adam Grant, a Wharton management professor and co-author of the book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy” with Sheryl Sandberg. “Getting out of yourself and helping others may be even more powerful than receiving social support.”
REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE
The simple act of touching another person — or being touched — can ease your stress. James A. Coan, an assistant professor of psychology and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, recruited 16 women who felt they had strong support in their relationships. To simulate stress, he subjected each woman to a mild electric shock under three conditions, all while monitoring her brain. The shocks were administered in no particular order while the woman was 1) alone, 2) holding a stranger’s hand, and 3) holding her husband’s hand.
Notably, both instances of hand-holding reduced the neural activity in areas of the woman’s brain associated with stress. But when the woman was holding her husband’s hand, the effect was even greater, and it was particularly pronounced in women who had the highest marital-happiness scores. Holding a husband’s hand during the electric shock resulted in a calming of the brain regions associated with pain similar to the effect brought about by use of a pain-relieving drug.
Coan says the study simulates how a supportive marriage and partnership gives the brain the opportunity to outsource some of its most difficult neural work. “When someone holds your hand in a study or just shows that they are there for you by giving you a back rub, when you’re in their presence, that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion,” “The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.”
ANIMALS CAN HELP
Spending time with your pet can offer a temporary reprieve from stress. Spending time with your dog and taking it for a walk is a twofer — you get the stress reduction of a pet plus the stress-busting benefits of a walk outdoors.
The evidence that pets are a source of comfort and stress relief is compelling. At Veterans Affairs hospitals, therapy animals including dogs and parrots have helped patients undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress
have shown that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise.
In a controlled among patients with heart disease, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a significant reduction in anxiety levels and blood pressure in the heart and lungs in those who spent 12 minutes with a visiting animal, but no such effect occurred among comparable patients not visited by a dog.
Excessive stress can take a physical toll if it’s not managed correctly.
While some stress is essential for human function, chronic stress creates a throughout your body.
Heart: During a stressful event, — cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. In some parts of the body (skin, digestive system, brain) blood vessels constrict, allowing blood flow to increase to larger systems (heart, large muscles). The body is redirecting oxygen and nutrients to the areas where they are needed most to give you the strength to fight or flee. But blood flowing to a smaller area causes blood pressure to rise. Normally the effects are temporary, but some research suggests that in people with chronic stress, the effects on the heart are unrelenting, raising the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Immune System: Chronic stress can depress the immune system and make you more vulnerable to colds or more serious illnesses.
Diabetes Risk: During stress, the liver increases glucose production for a boost of energy to propel you during an emergency. Chronic stress can lead to extra blood sugar, increasing risk for diabetes, especially among those already at high risk, such as the overweight or those with a family history of the disease. According to the , learning to manage your stress can be nearly as effective at controlling blood sugar as medication.
Stomach and Digestion: Stress can affect how fast food moves through your body, stomach acid and the absorption of nutrients. Chronic stress can also lead to overeating or alcohol use. All of these factors can contribute to a number of gastrointestinal issues including acid reflux, heartburn pain, nausea, stomach pain, ulcers and diarrhea.
Sex and Reproduction: In men, chronic stress can affect testosterone levels and sperm count, and contribute to erectile dysfunction. In women, stress can create irregular menstrual cycles and painful periods and exacerbate premenstrual syndrome. Stress can also worsen the symptoms of menopause, including more frequent and more severe hot flashes. In both men and women, chronic stress can dampen sexual desire.
About the Author
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award-winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day.
The trauma and adversity that students are carrying into classrooms are changing how educators need to address learning and academic performance. Fifty-one percent of children in public schools live in low-income households, and when poverty levels exceed 50 percent, there’s a significant drop in academic performance across all grade levels. At the same time, 25 percent of all adolescents—including 30 percent of adolescent girls—are experiencing anxiety disorders.
Adversity and trauma reside in our biology, not our psychology and cognition, so we educators need to prime students’ brains for learning. This calls for a deeper understanding of how our brains develop and how they respond to adversity and trauma, and how building relationships and providing strategies that promote emotional regulation can positively affect students’ emotional, physiological, and cognitive health.
I’d like to describe some practices that not only address the stress response in the limbic brain areas, but also attend to sensory and motor systems in the brain stem area. Often these systems are compromised because of chronic stress that has neurobiologically reprogrammed how the brain of a child or adolescent responds to adversity.
Brain breaks stimulate many areas in the brain that pay attention to novelty and curiosity, sparking the motor and sensory systems while initiating emotional regulation in the more reactive and primitive areas of the brain. Here are a few brain breaks you can try in class.
Funny talk: Have students loosely touch the roof of their mouth with their tongue and begin to speak. Create a class chant to say altogether, or the teacher can address the class, modeling what he or she would like students to say.
Tongue stretch: Have students use clean hands or a Kleenex to stretch their tongue as far as it can go. This relaxes the throat, palate, upper neck, and brain stem. What could you add to this to make it funny?
Hum: There are many ways you can incorporate humming as a break or to begin class. Lead students in Simon Says or Name That Tune, or have them move their arms and legs to someone’s humming. This activity releases stress and blockages in the brain stem.
Bilateral scribbles: Have students hold a different color marker in each hand and draw or scribble to the beat of some music for 30 seconds. When they’re finished, see if the drawings turned into anything familiar or strange. Have them share with a classmate and then give their art a name.
Name scribbles: Have students write their favorite word four times with their dominant hand and then again with their other hand. Discuss how it felt, which they found more difficult and why, and what happened in their brains when they used their non-dominant hand.
Focused-attention practices calm the brain’s stress response and stimulate sustained attention and emotional regulation. A regulated and calm brain is a brain that is ready to deeply learn.
When we consciously use sensations, breath, movement, and our body’s awareness, we activate those areas in the brain that pay attention to what is happening in this moment, while supporting areas we need for learning, attention, and engagement. I’ll share four focused-attention practices here.
Ice cube: Give each student an ice cube and a paper towel or napkin to hold. As they hold the ice cube, ask them to focus on what it feels like in their hands and what the sensation reminds them of. Can they sit still and wait for the ice cube to melt?
Deep breathing: Have students scrunch their toes and cross their legs at the ankles. Then they should cross the left arm over the right arm, clasp their hands together, and—keeping their hands clasped—bring them toward their chest. Have them hold that pose for 30 seconds as they take five deep breaths, and then have them take another 30 seconds to uncurl their toes, uncross their legs, extend and unclasp their hands, and uncross their arms while taking another five deep breaths. How did that feel?
So what? As students close their eyes and sit up nice and tall in their chairs, they should visualize a golden thread that connects their hearts to their stomachs. As they breathe in, have them picture a pulse in the thread moving from their stomachs to their hearts; with each exhale, the pulse travels from the heart back down to the stomach. As the students breathe, have them say, “So what?” to themselves if a negative thought occurs.
Feeling phrases: To begin the day, have students share through a picture or description how their bodies feel. Some example phrases: cold/warm/hot; twitchy/butterflies/soft/stuck; sharp/dull/itchy; shaky/trembly/tingly; jittery/weak; empty/full; relaxed/calm/peaceful; flowing/spreading; strong/tight/tense; dizzy/fuzzy/blurry; numb/prickly/jumpy/tearful/goosebumpy.
Sensations are different than emotions in that they describe the way the body feels physically. Children who struggle with speaking can point to places on their body that hold a sensation. Sensory awareness promotes cognitive growth and self-awareness. When students can begin to identify their sensations, they begin to tap into where the negative feelings and images are. This focused-attention practice can be implemented several times a day after different experiences. Questions to ask as part of this practice:
What are you sensing? As the teacher, begin by sharing and modeling your own sensations.
Where is this in your body?
What might be the reason for these butterflies?
Can you draw what fuzzy, tingly, tight, etc. looks like?
JOSÉ URBINA LÓPEZ Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.
Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.
And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.
The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.
AT HOME IN Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.
He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.
“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”
He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”
Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.
“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”
IN 1999, SUGATA Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.
Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.
Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”
A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”
Mitra’s work has roots in educational practices dating back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.
In recent years, researchers have begun backing up those theories with evidence. In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and reflect images, among other things. For one set of children, a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them play with the toy. Another set of students was given no information about the toy. This group played longer and discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children, she says.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS
New research shows what educators have long intuited: Letting kids pursue their own interests sharpens their hunger for knowledge. Here’s a look back at this approach.
470 BC Socrates is born in Athens. He goes on to become a long-haired teacher who famously let students arrive at their own conclusions. His questioning, probing approach—the Socratic method—endures to this day.
1907 Maria Montessori opens her first Children’s House in Rome, where kids are encouraged to play and teach themselves. Americans later visit her schools and see the Montessori method in action. It spreads worldwide.
The first Waldorf school opens in Stuttgart, Germany. Based on the ideas of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it encourages self-motivated learning. Today, there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries.
1921 A. S. Neill founds the Summerhill School, where kids have the “freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days … or years if necessary.” Eventually, such democratic schools appear around the world.
1945 Loris Malaguzzi volunteers to teach in a school that parents are building in a war-torn Italian village outside Reggio Emilia. The “Reggio Emilia approach”—a community of self-guided learning—is born.
1967 Seymour Papert, a protégé of child psychologist Jean Piaget, helps create the first version of Logo, a programming language kids can use to teach themselves. He becomes a lifelong advocate for technology’s role in learning.
1999 Sugata Mitra conducts his first “hole in the wall” experiment in New Delhi, India. On their own, slum kids teach themselves to use a computer. Mitra dubs his approach minimally invasive education.
2006 Ken Robinson gives what will become the most frequently viewed TED Talk ever: “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue their own creative interests, Robinson argues.
2012 The Common Core, a new set of curriculum standards that include student-centered learning, is adopted by 45 US states. Math students, say, should “start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem.”
CREDITS: WALDORF SCHOOL: COURTESY OF WALDORF SCHOOL; ROBINSON: ROBERT LESLIE; MALAGUZZI: COURTESY OF REGGIO CHILDREN; REMAINING: GETTY IMAGES
Evolutionary psychologists have also begun exploring this way of thinking. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.”
Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is taking this approach even further with his One Laptop per Child initiative. Last year the organization delivered 40 tablets to children in two remote villages in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team didn’t explain how the devices work or even open the boxes. Nonetheless, the children soon learned to play back the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters. They also figured out how to use the tablet’s camera. This was impressive because the organization had disabled camera usage. “They hacked Android,” Negroponte says.
ONE DAY Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?”
“Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.
While the kids murmured, Juárez Correa went to the school cafeteria, where children could buy breakfast and lunch for small change. He borrowed about 10 pesos in coins, worth about 75 cents, and walked back to his classroom, where he distributed a peso’s worth of coins to each table. He noticed that Paloma had already written .50 and .25 on a piece of paper.
“One peso is one peso,” he said. “What’s one-half?”
At first a number of kids divided the coins into clearly unequal piles. It sparked a debate among the students about what one-half meant. Juárez Correa’s training told him to intervene. But now he remembered Mitra’s research and resisted the urge. Instead, he watched as Alma Delia Juárez Flores explained to her tablemates that half means equal portions. She counted out 50 centavos. “So the answer is .50,” she said. The other kids nodded. It made sense.
For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”
He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea of drawing the different shapes—prisms and pyramids. By layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a noisy, slightly chaotic environment—exactly the opposite of the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the answer.
“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of a prism divided by three.”
Juárez Correa was impressed. But he was even more intrigued by Paloma. During these experiments, he noticed that she almost always came up with the answer immediately. Sometimes she explained things to her tablemates, other times she kept the answer to herself. Nobody had told him that she had an unusual gift. Yet even when he gave the class difficult questions, she quickly jotted down the answers. To test her limits, he challenged the class with a problem he was sure would stump her. He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777.
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost instantly.
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked.
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and soon realized it would take a long time. Paloma, working with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked at them for a moment. Then she raised her hand.
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Juárez Correa felt a chill. He’d never encountered a student with so much innate ability. He squatted next to her and asked why she hadn’t expressed much interest in math in the past, since she was clearly good at it.
“Because no one made it this interesting,” she said.
PALOMA’S FATHER got sicker. He continued working, but he was running a fever and suffering headaches. Finally he was admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated; on February 27, 2012, he died of lung cancer. On Paloma’s last visit before he passed away, she sat beside him and held his hand. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Study and make me proud.”
Paloma missed four days of school for the funeral before returning to class. Her friends could tell she was distraught, but she buried her grief. She wanted to live up to her father’s last wish. And Juárez Correa’s new style of curating challenges for the kids was the perfect refuge for her. As he continued to relinquish control, Paloma took on more responsibility for her own education. He taught the kids about democracy by letting them elect leaders who would decide how to run the class and address discipline. The children elected five representatives, including Paloma and Usiel. When two boys got into a shoving match, the representatives admonished the boys, and the problem didn’t happen again.
Juárez Correa spent his nights watching education videos. He read polemics by the Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río (known as Rius), who argued that kids should be free to explore whatever they want. He was also still impressed by Mitra, who talks about letting children “wander aimlessly around ideas.” Juárez Correa began hosting regular debates in class, and he didn’t shy away from controversial topics. He asked the kids if they thought homosexuality and abortion should be permitted. He asked them to figure out what the Mexican government should do, if anything, about immigration to the US. Once he asked a question, he would stand back and let them engage one another.
A key component in Mitra’s theory was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”
As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.
Juárez Correa also brought something else back from the Internet. It was the fable of a forlorn burro trapped at the bottom of a well. Since thieves had broken into the school and sliced the electrical cord off of the classroom projector (presumably to sell the copper inside), he couldn’t actually show them the clip that recounted the tale. Instead, he simply described it.
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began. It wasn’t hurt, but it couldn’t get out. The burro’s owner decided that the aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he would just bury both. He began to shovel clods of earth into the well. The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling. Eventually, the burro fell silent. The man assumed the animal was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, the burro leaped out of the well. It had shaken off each clump of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was able to jump out.
Juárez Correa looked at his class. “We are like that burro,” he said. “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.”
When the two-day national standardized exam took place in June 2012, Juárez Correa viewed it as just another pile of dirt thrown on the kids’ heads. It was a step back to the way school used to be for them: mechanical and boring. To prevent cheating, a coordinator from the Ministry of Education oversaw the proceedings and took custody of the answer sheets at the end of testing. It felt like a military exercise, but as the kids blasted through the questions, they couldn’t help noticing that it felt easy, as if they were being asked to do something very basic.
RICARDO ZAVALA HERNANDEZ, assistant principal at José Urbina López, drinks a cup of coffee most mornings as he browses the web in the admin building, a cement structure that houses the school’s two functioning computers. One day in September 2012, he clicked on the site for ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam, and discovered that the results of the June test had been posted.
Zavala Hernandez put down his coffee. Most of the classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.
The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.
He printed the page and speed-walked to Juárez Correa’s classroom. The students stood up when he entered.
“Take a look at this,” Zavala Hernandez said, handing him the printout.
Juárez Correa scanned the results and looked up. “Is this for real?” he asked.
“I just printed it off the ENLACE site,” the assistant principal responded. “It’s real.”
Juárez Correa noticed the kids staring at him, but he wanted to make sure he understood the report. He took a moment to read it again, nodded, and turned to the kids.
“We have the results back from the ENLACE exam,” he said. “It’s just a test, and not a great one.”
A number of students had a sinking feeling. They must have blown it.
“But we have a student in this classroom who placed first in Mexico,” he said, breaking into a smile.
PALOMA RECEIVED THE highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.
Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world- class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.
His other students were congratulated by friends and family. The parents of Carlos Rodríguez Lamas, who placed in the 99.99th percentile in math, treated him to three steak tacos. It was his first time in a restaurant. Keila Francisco Rodríguez got 10 pesos from her parents. She bought a bag of Cheetos. The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors, teachers, and politicians.
Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method, one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had distinguished themselves because of a conventional multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do.”
Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding outside the mainstream. For example, the 11 Internationals Network high schools in New York City report a higher graduation rate than the city’s average for the same populations. They do it by emphasizing student-led learning and collaboration. At the coalition of Big Picture Learning schools—56 schools across the US and another 64 around the world—teachers serve as advisers, suggesting topics of interest; students also work with mentors from business and the community, who help guide them into internships. As the US on-time high school graduation rate stalls at about 75 percent, Big Picture is graduating more than 90 percent of its students.
But these examples—involving only thousands of students—are the exceptions to the rule. The system as a whole educates millions and is slow to recognize or adopt successful innovation. It’s a system that was constructed almost two centuries ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. Now that our society and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools must also be reinvented.
For the time being, we can see what the future looks like in places like Juárez Correa’s classroom. We can also see that change will not come easily. Though Juárez Correa’s class posted impressive results, they inspired little change. Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”
More than ever, Juárez Correa felt like the burro in the story. But then he remembered Paloma. She had lost her father and was growing up on the edge of a garbage dump. Under normal circumstances, her prospects would be limited. But like the burro, she was shaking off the clods of dirt; she had begun climbing the rising mound out of the well.
Some schools are finding new ways for technology to fuel students’ curiosity so they can steer their own learning. —J.K.
Brooklyn Free School
Founded just under a decade ago, the Brooklyn Free School builds on a tradition of democratic education. In this “real, practicing democracy,” students are allowed to direct their own learning. There are no grades or mandatory assignments.
New Technology High School
No desks, no bells, and teachers who lecture by invitation: pretty much what you’d expect of a school dreamed up by Silicon Valley types. Students at this school in Napa, California, must demonstrate technology literacy, mastering skills like digital video production and Flash programming.
Laptop-toting students at this small school in Manhattan participate in an “online collaborative space” in which they interact with teachers and experts. And not just any experts: A NASA scientist and other luminaries have delivered lectures remotely.
High Tech High
Originally a single charter school in San Diego, High Tech High is now a 12-school network that serves more than 5,000 K-12 students. With access to sleek facilities—including labs for subjects like biotech, mechanical engineering, and graphic design—students develop multimedia research projects, consult with experts, and even present their work in professional venues.
Mooresville Graded School District
The eight schools in this district outside Charlotte, North Carolina, provide students from the fourth through twelfth grades with MacBook Airs. That means less lecturing and more projects, with students seeking answers online and sharing their discoveries with one another.
School of One
Multiple skills are taught at the same time in different parts of open-space classrooms in New York City. The program’s approach blends traditional lectures with computer exercises and virtual tutors, and a learning algorithm generates a daily plan for each student.
Being developed in India and England, cloud schools are education maverick Sugata Mitra’s vision for the future: spaces in which children learn on their own, with occasional encouragement from teachers via Skype.
Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.
In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.
“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”
The Forgetting Curve
We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.
Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.
So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.
The Persistence of Memory
The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.
MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.
Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:
For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.
5 Teacher Strategies
When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.
Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:
Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).
So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.
The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.
When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).
There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.
Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD):PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.
Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughtsthat you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.
Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if it’s a creative taskyou have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.
Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.
When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.
For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.
Srini Pillay, M.D. is an executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also a technology innovator and entrepreneur in the health and leadership development sectors, and an award-winning author. His latest book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He is also a part-time Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, and is on internationally recognized think tanks.
The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room that smells faintly of cat urine. (At the end of every video session, the Oakleys pin up the green fabric that serves as the backdrop so Fluffy doesn’t ruin it.)
This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.
Dr. Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., created the class with Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and with the University of California, San Diego.
Prestigious universities have spent millions and employ hundreds of professionally trained videographers, editors and producers to create their massive open online courses, known as MOOCs. The Oakleys put together their studio with equipment that cost $5,000. They figured out what to buy by Googling “how to set up a green screen studio” and “how to set up studio lighting.” Mr. Oakley runs the camera and teleprompter. She does most of the editing. The course is free ($49 for a certificate of completion — Coursera won’t divulge how many finish).
“It’s actually not rocket science,” said Dr. Oakley — but she’s careful where she says that these days. When she spoke at Harvard in 2015, she said, “the hackles went up”; she crossed her arms sternly by way of grim illustration.
This is home-brew, not Harvard. And it has worked. Spectacularly. The Oakleys never could have predicted their success. Many of the early sessions had to be trashed. “I looked like a deer in the headlights,” Dr. Oakley said. She would flub her lines and moan, “I just can’t do this.” Her husband would say, “Come on. We’re going to have lunch, and we’re going to come right back to this.” But he confessed to having had doubts, too. “We were in the basement, worrying, ‘Is anybody even going to look at this?’”
Dr. Oakley is not the only person teaching students how to use tools drawn from neuroscience to enhance learning. But her popularity is a testament to her skill at presenting the material, and also to the course’s message of hope. Many of her online students are 25 to 44 years old, likely to be facing career changes in an unforgiving economy and seeking better ways to climb new learning curves.
Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it.
She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.
Sitting in the Oakleys’ comfortable living room, with its solid Mission furniture and mementos of their world travels, Dr. Oakley said she believes that just about anyone can train himself to learn. “Students may look at math, for example, and say, ‘I can’t figure this out — it must mean I’m really stupid!’ They don’t know how their brain works.”
Her own feelings of inadequacy give her empathy for students who feel hopeless. “I know the hiccups and the troubles people have when they’re trying to learn something.” After all, she was her own lab rat. “I rewired my brain,” she said, “and it wasn’t easy.”
As a youngster, she was not a diligent student. “I flunked my way through elementary, middle school and high school math and science,” she said. She joined the Army out of high school to help pay for college and received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Once out, she realized she would have a better career path with a technical degree (specifically, electrical engineering), and set out to tackle math and science, training herself to grind through technical subjects with many of the techniques of practice and repetition that she had used to let Russian vocabulary and declension soak in.
Along the way, she met Philip Oakley — in, of all places, Antarctica. It was 1983, and she was working as a radio operator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (She has also worked as a translator on a Russian trawler. She’s been around.) Mr. Oakley managed the garage at the station, keeping machinery working under some of the planet’s most punishing conditions.
She had noticed him largely because, unlike so many men at the lonely pole, he hadn’t made any moves on her. “You can be ugly as a toad out there and you are the most popular girl,” she said. She found him “comfortably confident.” After he left a party without even saying hello, she told a friend she’d like to get to know him better. The next day, he was waiting for her at breakfast with a big smile on his face. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, he walked her over to the true South Pole and proposed at the stroke of midnight. A few weeks after that, they were “off the ice” in New Zealand and got married.
Dr. Oakley recounts her journey in both of her best-selling books: “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)” and, out this past spring, “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” The new book is about learning new skills, with a focus on career switchers. And yes, she has a MOOC for that, too.
Dr. Oakley is already planning her next book, another guide to learning how to learn but aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds. She wants to tell them, “Even if you are not a superstar learner, here’s how to see the great aspects of what you do have.” She would like to see learning clubs in school to help young people develop the skills they need. “We have chess clubs, we have art clubs,” she said. “We don’t have learning clubs. I just think that teaching kids how to learn is one of the greatest things we can possibly do.
Four Techniques to Help You Learn
FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.
TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”
As a bonus, the ritual of setting the timer can also help overcome procrastination. Dr. Oakley teaches that even thinking about doing things we dislike activates the pain centers of the brain. The Pomodoro Technique, she said, “helps the mind slip into focus and begin work without thinking about the work.”
“Virtually anyone can focus for 25 minutes, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.”
PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.
Practice brings procedural fluency, says Dr. Oakley, who compares the process to backing up a car. “When you first are learning to back up, your working memory is overwhelmed with input.” In time, “you don’t even need to think more than ‘Hey, back up,’ ” and the mind is free to think about other things.
Chunks build on chunks, and, she says, the neural network built upon that knowledge grows bigger. “You remember longer bits of music, for example, or more complex phrases in French.” Mastering low-level math concepts allows tackling more complex mental acrobatics. “You can easily bring them to mind even while your active focus is grappling with newer, more difficult information.”
KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.