April 30, 2016

Funny enough, I am taking this Coursera course on learning to learn at the same time that I am about to make an Angular app that is a Pomodoro timer. The stars are aligned.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is simply 25 minutes of sustained, distraction free concentration followed by 5 minutes of a completely different task.


When faced with a topic they do not like, we humans actually endure negative feelings from the part of the brain associated with pain. This is what drives us to procrastinate - we then seek out something pleasurable to shut off the pain center (termed 'neurodiscomfort'). Fortunately the research also shows that this pain dissipates once we start doing the thing we dislike.

You say Pomodoro, I say Tomato

Pomodoro is Italian for Tomato. Because the timer for the Pomodoro method is shaped like a tomato. So this triggers a couple of questions for me.

  1. Is there any reason my Pomodoro Bloc project should not be tomato-themed? It must be tomato themed. Maybe the timer is a giant rotating tomato. I think I would make this with 30 pictures of a tomato and every minute I show a different picture which represents 360 / 30 = 12 degrees of movement. I am sure I can use JavaScript animations to make this sort of smooth.
  2. So there isn't a Dr. Pomodoro? I am very disappointed that doctor tomato is not a thing.

Becoming Good at things

Our minds are mostly malleable. Some people (see the Malcolm Gladwell 'Outliers' book) truly had the stars align and had a talent discovered in early childhood nurtured plus were obsessive at practicing their craft plus the craft was lucrative so they became Bill Gates or a pro athlete or a Beatle.

Practice makes Permanent

Dr. Oakley reports that as a kid, hated math and science, though later in life she became an engineering professor. Math and science often involve abstract concepts that do not come as naturally as language, where a word represents something in the physical world. This implies that to learn math and science, one needs to practice, because repetition builds neuron connections. Each time you solve a problem, a neuron connection is strengthened. Practice and repetition build these raceways for thought that save energy - instead of learning something, you know something, because it has been physically etched into your brain, like when you have tiny muscle tears that are repaired and strengthened and enlarged.

The best way to learn and to study is with a switch between focused and diffused modes. The diffuse mode, where you are letting your mind wander and relax, allows your "neural mortar a chance to dry" from the focused building time. This is neatly analogous to interval training. Cramming is the opposite - you make a jumbled mess of concepts and don't give your mind time to process. So the ideal approach to learning is to study a specific topic with intense focus and then take a break. Repeat this cycle, remembering to repeat things you have already learned at times to reinforce the thinking.


Memory is divided between long-term memory and working memory. This is very similar to computer RAM and storage concepts. Working memory is based in the pre-frontal cortex. While once thought capable of holding 7 chunks, researchers now believe working memory can hold 4 chunks. What is a chunk? A chunk is a memory item of related ideas.

Working memory is termed a 'not very good blackboard.' We need to repeat things like phone numbers over and over to fight 'metabolic vampires' (natural dissipating processes) trying to clear our memory slots. That is why we have to shut our eyes at times to make sure we don't forget something - new stimuli can displace thoughts we are trying to keep in working memory.

Our long term memory is distributed all over the brain. We need to revisit these memories repeatedly to make sure we can locate the information we need. Again, practice helps ensure we can recall these memories. Long term memory is crucial to comprehending abstract concepts and techniques. So making sure we move things into long term memory effectively is critical to learning.

Spaced Repetition

How do we get things into long term memory effectively? Repeat new concepts, vocabulary or technique over the course of several days. Practicing something over the course of several days results in far better outcomes than cramming and practicing over and over in one night.

Sleep and Learning

Being awake creates toxic products in your brain. Sleep allows the brain the chance to clean out the brain, removing these toxins. Brain cells also shrink during sleep to provide wider channels for fluid to cleanse the brain. In short, sleep is a requirement for healthy brain function. Lack of sleep can cause any number of physical and emotional problems.

It appears that sleep also has a relationship to learning. During sleep, the brain is able to strengthen certain memories and erase others. It can rehearse parts of things you want to learn, building the neural pathways that we want to strengthen and deepen. As the pre-frontal cortex - where our conscious self lives - shuts down during sleep, it appears that the rest of the brain activity picks up and communication across different parts of the brain increases. It is if we need to get our of our own way to make our brain work, which should be familiar to anyone who has stopped studying for emotional reasons (like being frustrated or annoyed).

As a hot tip, it is recommend that you study immediately before bed or a nap. Research has shown that this increases the probability of dreaming about the topic, which improves retention and enhances our ability to learn the subject. Sleeping consolidates our memories into easier to grasp chunks. It appears that if you make an intention of dreaming about the material, setting in mind that you want to dream about the topic, you are more likely to dream about the topic, and get more benefits from sleep-learning.

Interview with Dr Sejnowski

Apparently this professor is a real bad ass. He is one of ten scientists to have been elected to the boards of all three national academies (engineering, science, medicine). He is a professor at UCSD's Salk Institute. The goal of his research is to build linking principles from brain to behavior using computational models.

When you look at something completely new, the good doc recommends jumping in with learning by doing and learning by osmosis from people that are experts. Asking questions can give rise to more interesting conversations and learning is in fact increased by active engagement.

Jogging and physical exercise spark the diffuse mode and thoughts seem to bubble to the surface. Although remembering the ideas is an issue, so he brings a notebook when he jogs.

Multitasking is a fact of life for the professor, however, he has some periods such as the evenings he can get into a reflective mode and gets his best work done. However, one can not do two things at once efficiently. Multi-tasking is really just context-switching between topics. He seems to find context switching easy.

Dr. Terry applies neuroscience to his life. While it was thought that the total sum of neurons doesn't net change over time. An enriched environment in tests results in stronger connections between neurons, as does physical exercise. New neurons are being born and survive in the hippocampus for rats in a social environment.

Being in a creative environment enhances your own creativity. The isolated genius is an outlier - for most, being around people, explaining ideas to people, bouncing ideas off of other people, and being in a creative environment can help facilitate our own creativity.

Test taking

The biggest advice he has is move on when you are stumped. Do not dwell on a question you do not understand.

Life balance

He claims that being around youth keeps himself youthful and keeps him sharp and inspired. Success also does not come necessarily from being smart. But success does come to people who are passionate and persistent. People that do not let go and do not give up tend to be successful.

Francis Crick's Brain

Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, didn't notice that this giant brain model he kept in his office was far bigger than an actual brain would be. This underscores the importance of seeing things with a fresh perspective and taking a new look at things for continued discoveries.


Focused thinking allows for the mind to use well worn paths to quickly process and evaluate data. The mind uses neuron paths like a well worn rut in the dirt to make transfers happen as quickly as possible. However, this is not a great state for learning new ideas. The focused mode is a direct approach for solving problems you have seen before, and allows for intense concentration. It is rational, logical, and likes step by step instructions.

Diffuse thinking is more helpful when you are trying to learn something new and the mind is in a neural resting state. Accessing the diffuse mode more directly has been a secret of some great thinkers. Diffuse mode sees the brain making random connections in a relaxed fashion. Exercise and day dreaming help induce the diffuse mode of thinking.

Alternating between focused thinking and diffuse thinking helps maximize the impact of studying.

The Pomodoro technique - 25 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of relaxation - is the best way to learn. Ideally you remove all distractions during the 25 minutes and provide a reward at the end of each session.

Practice and repetition are key for learning abstract topics. Transferring things from working memory to long term memory is also enhanced by repetition. Exercise and sleep also enhance brain function in terms of memory and learning. Long term memory is in essence a giant storehouse of thoughts that are made better accessible by repeated access which builds new connections between thoughts. AS the video states, practice makes permanent - we learn via repetition.

We can get new neurons in the brain by being immersed in an enriching environment and via exercise. Learning itself changes the structure of the brain for the better.