Learning is my biggest passion. I love reading books, listening to podcasts or watching documentaries when I do household chores. As I got older, I realized that learning has only truly happened when I have been able to apply the cognitive information that I have acquired to change a behavior or habit. This involves both mind and body, and there is no shortcut.
Learning starts with what catches your attention. It could be something that surprised you, something novel or new, or something that’s emotionally arousing such as an issue that’s been lately on top of mind. The first two hold temporary attention, but something that has emotional significance to us generally holds our sustained attention.
The other way to keep things in our long-term memory is by building new neural pathways – it’s easy if there has been no previous connection between two things (a rare case). Usually, we need to disassociate a previous learned behaviour and then create a new one. Cognitive information is usually not enough, and what is required in this case is a movement practice.
For example, I am fascinated with how we maintain being fit as we get older, and this is important for me because I want to spend a long healthy life with my husband and daughter, and it is also a financial investment if I stay healthy and not spend money on medical care later in life. Five years ago, I started reading about toning muscle, eating healthy and what happens to our body during aging. For muscle toning, I first watched videos about the different types of exercises and started buying simple equipment to be used at home. I then subscribed to the Sweat app which has good visual and written instructions for each exercise. It has a recommended number of sessions each week and gives you a sticker for having completed one. It also encourages you to take a before and after photo of your body for comparison. The first few weeks were really hard because it was exhausting. I had to get up and complete my workout by 6:30am so I can be at the breakfast table before my daughter goes to school and before I go to the office. After 8 weeks, I noticed some toning in my muscles and it was like magic – the results gave me more motivation!
Psychophysiologically, this happens because a neurotransmitter called dopamine (also called “motivation molecule”) is released whenever we see results from our hard work. Dr Andrew Hubermann, a neuroscientist from Stanford University, says dopamine keeps us on the right path as it is released anytime we achieve a milestone. It takes norephinephrine and adrenaline down (neurotransmitters that give us energy when encountering a challenge) and gives us more space to increase our focus. It is one wonderful cycle, and only after going through the initial consistent effort is when flow is achieved. There is no trick to this -- this is where our emotional engagement comes in handy, as it reminds us why this is important to us. Some people recommend the 25-minute rule, where you do not let in any distraction and literally set your timer to focus on that one activity for 25 minutes regularly.
And one last point, I make sure to refill my energy tank, because the effort to change can leave me exhausted! Every week, I designate one day to rest and indulge. While I have been successful in getting my meal choices to regularly be healthy, I make it a point to enjoy treats that bring back good memories like ice cream or comfort food that I grew up with. I allow myself to not feel guilty about not working out when I’m on vacation. I modify the exercises when I feel my muscles are still strained from a previous session.
In summary, to truly embody learning something new, you must:
· Find meaning and emotional significance. Why is this important to you? What emotions are present to indicate it is important?
· Understand that there is no shortcut – get in the hard work regularly, both cognitively and by movement practice. Schedule a regular time of day and days in the week to establish rhythm.
· Find pleasure points! Measure your results, share it if you’re the type that basks in social encouragement, and give yourself some self-care for a successful week.