This episode is an awesome conversation that I had with educational neuroscientist Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath. We talk about common misconceptions about the brain, how it actually works, and what that means for learning information or trying to teach other people information in effective ways. He has a new book called “Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insight from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick“, which I highly suggest checking out!
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With that said, let’s get into the interview.
About Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath
Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath is an Educational neuroscientist who focuses on how the brain learns. He opens the interview by talking about what that means and what his job involves. Jared is classed as a cognitive neuroscientist who sits at the level of examining how the brain creates the mind and uses tools such as fMRI and EEG to look at how the brain is working. Jared was originally a teacher and thought that figuring out how people learn would make him a better teacher. So he went back to school to learn more about the brain with the intention of going back as a better teacher. Jared talks a bit about the roadblocks he hit in teaching and what made him pursue a path to become a better teacher. He felt like he was performing more than teaching, like he was winging it.
Jared talks about his journey over the past 15 years, where he started with the educational neuroscience and then got the idea that he could help people learn better by using magnetic currents through the use of non-invasive brain stimulation, which spun into a 6 year research window that ended in nothing. However, it did change his philosophy and he learned that you can’t externally drive these things…it’s not as simple as just priming the brain physically. Jared discusses this in more detail.
Knowing how the brain works
Jared explains how people generally have no idea how the brain works and that it’s not their fault. The metaphors we tend to use in pop culture are just wrong. We look at the brain as the driver when actually it turns out that the brain is actually super passive and it adapts to your demands. Jared talks about the concept of emergence, where as you move up levels of organization, new things emerge that didn’t exist before. We have always been looking at the brain in a reductionist way, but it makes more sense to look at it in an emergent way because as soon as you step back from the whole, you start losing pieces of the picture. It’s much more complicated than focusing on one particular area or cell. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its part when it comes to the brain and body.
It’s a two-way street
It’s not about whether you have a ‘good’ brain or not. Much of it is about our schemas and the internal stories that we have. If you have a kid with a negative learning story who thinks they are bad at math and you have them go study for a few hours, they aren’t going to learn very much. But if you help them change their story into a positive, they can learn so much more. The story drives what is allowed to stick. Jared discusses how just because something is a placebo doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It means we changed something just by thinking and that’s amazing.
The brain and mind connection is a two-way street. You can certainly cause specific problems by destroying certain areas of the brain. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that part of the brain was the absolute center for that functioning. It just means that that part of the brain was integral to some larger process. Jared describes how “We” are more than the brain. We are the combination of the brain, the body, and the mind, in some special process. It’s empowering and terrifying to know that you are more than just your brain. Jared shares the incredible example of Sharon Parker and how her FMRI shows she has 15% of her brain, yet she is still able to properly function. We know a lot about the brain, but we are actually so far from knowing 100% how this stuff works.
What can be done with this information?
Jared talks about how he hopes it will provide empowerment. Medication, therapy, and other intervention are going to go nowhere if you don’t allow them to work. So you have to make sure you have the right story going. Know that you’re doing this because it can help or will help. It can be hard to change people’s stories about their capabilities, though. We talk about this in detail and how there is no simple answer. Jared shares how knowledge about how the brain works is a good first step in understanding your capabilities. Also knowing that you are more than just your thoughts might crack the door open.
Not only does our story change what we experience now, but how we remember the past. This is a powerful tool in treating trauma. Jared explains how there are emotional markers to every memory. The reason we remember highly emotional memories more is that we continue to play it over in our mind. Every time you think about it, you drive it deeper. You can get stuck in loops of pulling out the memory, remembering that it’s supposed to be bad, and storing it again as even worse than before. This same mechanism means that you can make memories better. You can tweak your memories and change your stories to create a positive loop – you are in control. Your interpretation of your body’s physical sensation plays into how you feel about it and also impacts the actual cascade of what happens in your brain. Jared shares a cool example involving skydiving!
How can we use this information to learn and move forward?
Jared talks about how once you recognize that there are some mechanisms you can game, game the system, then you can really start to push and own your own learning. It’s important to get your story right to start with. Once you do, you can think about how we can use these patterns. For instance, if we think about recall, deep memories have little to do about how you put the information into your brain and more about how you pull the information out. So when studying, re-looking at notes or re-reading does not work so well. You need to be actively pulling that information out by quizzing yourself, teaching others, having discussions etc. This is a much more efficient use of your time and what leads to the deep memory and speeds up learning. One hour of active recall is more effective than 5 hours of re-reading material.
Jared explains how the brain has some legitimate limitations like multitasking or listening and trying to read at the same time. It actually makes more sense to do one or the other as you physically can’t listen and read at the same time – it’s a hardware issue. So if you have large lecture slides or handouts and are trying to listen to the lecturer as well, just pick one and don’t try to do all three. Trying to do more than one will actually result in more information being forgotten.
So, do people actually learn in different ways?
We have different preferences, but it doesn’t actually play out in our ability to learn. It has more to do with the story we tell ourselves. We learn best when the method is tied to the thing we are trying to learn and not how we think we learn best. So if you are learning to dance, actually dancing is going to be the most effective method. We can also learn even better when we integrate multiple sensory inputs, but we still have the issue of making sure we are not clashing or overloading ourselves. For example, if we look at a picture on a slide and listen to someone talk about it, no clash and we will learn more. However, if there are a dozen pictures or a complicated graph, then it is too much to integrate and a clash occurs. Then you must choose what to attend to.
We also talk about how sleep is also really important for successful learning. When you sleep, your memories find a home (consolidate). This helps you store memories and then make room for new information the next day. If you don’t get enough quality sleep, you just don’t learn anywhere near as well and lose the opportunity to consolidate the days information. Jared explains how the two most important aspects of learning are spacing your study out, and sleep!
How to help high school kids learn?
Jared shares his top three tips on helping High School, adolescent kids learn and set them up for success. Firstly, routine, recognize that good routine is important and try to stick to it. Can be a tough one to apply to life, but if you can get kids to at least recognize the importance of it, that’s when you can really help them out. Next, try to separate school from home. Still talk to them about school and what they are learning, but make home life different from school. If they experience the same pressures at home as they get at school, they are likely to shut down and not learn – why care if everything’s the same? Finally, when you do talk to your kids about school, focus on feedback and errors. It sounds counterintuitive, but focusing on feedback and mistakes helps with learning. Rather than going into defense mode, this helps them embrace learning.
Learning is making mistakes
If all you worry about is your performance and how you look when you’re learning, you’re not going to progress in the way that you should. Whereas if you embrace mistakes, you’re working more towards mastery rather than performance. Monday Motivation Email: Learning to love the mat
And it works! We chat about this and Jared explains how when your brain makes a mistake, it brain switches into learning mode. It’s open now to learning something and your brain is ready to change. At that point, we have a choice to embrace the change or revert to normal. But most people choose to shut it down because it feels uncomfortable, in the same way that an anxious person might avoid a situation as it increases their anxiety. Similarly, in mental health, trying to embrace mistakes or missteps leads to a deeper understanding as well. Nothing kicks the brain into learning mode quicker than mistakes.
The easiest way to learn is to screw up
There are actually functional differences in the brain between people who can admit and engage with mistakes rather than denying them and how having the willingness to engage with error is largely related to success. Journaling and tracking events can really help here! We chat about this and Jared shares a really neat example.
Final thoughts with Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath
Jared finishes up by telling us about his new book “Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insight from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick”. Each chapter presents a key learning principle and is great for people of any age. He believes that once you have a better sense of how people learn, you can influence and impact people in a better way. You leverage knowledge of how people learn, to make better decisions in your teaching and in your influence. Each chapter then goes into how you can apply each of these principles. Be sure to check it out!
That’s it! It’s been awesome having Jared on the show and I would like to thank him for this super interesting interview! If you’d like to learn more about Jared, you can follow up with him over on Twitter or on his website!
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