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Building brain hooks to make you smarter

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Last year I went to a conference called Purple Beach where I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Orit Wolf. Ironically, while I don’t remember many of the details of the talk there was one thing she said that really stuck in my mind:

“We listen to 20% of what we hear and only recall 20% of what we listen to but we remember 100% of the experience” Orit Wolf

I do remember the experience of that conference very well. I remember her playing the piano, I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable during a mindfulness session and I also remember feeling even more uncomfortable watching the audience being pulled up on stage to dance. And while they might not all seem like the most positive memories those memories stuck. And I think they stuck because they elicited an emotion.

Learning without emotion is like food without seasoning. It fills you up but it’s bland.

I strongly believe that learning isn’t just about the content but also the delivery. Great teachers bring topics to life through their passion and enthusiasm. They communicate an idea so it becomes a memorable experience rather than just a process of memorisation.

At high school I had an amazing physics teacher called Mr Young. He was a key influence on me choosing to study physics at university. I have vivid memories of his lessons because of the way he brought them to life with humour and energy. In one class he demonstrated the immense power of matter by showing how a cooling iron rod could split a nail in half. There was an enormous bang and bits of nail pinged against the perspex shield protecting us. In another class we were shown the existence of radioactivity as he exposed a mini Geiger counter to various radioactive materials. While that in itself doesn’t sound particularly memorable the reason I remember that lesson is that one of my classmates decided to try and steal one of the radioactive pieces. At the end of the lesson Mr Young noticed that one of them was missing. In order to get the student to confess he told us all about how having a piece of Radon in our pockets wasn’t going to do our chances of starting a family much good.

Many of the things I’ve learnt are tied to memorable experiences. These experiences provided the extra “seasoning” that made these facts unforgettable.

“Stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts” Jennifer Aaker

When our learning is based purely around attaining goals and retaining facts then we find it much harder to store and recall that knowledge. However, if we can combine that learning with actual experiences they add to the story of our life and that learning sticks with us forever.

brain hooksA great analogy for how ideas stick can be found in the book “Made to Stick”. The analogy compares how ideas stick in our minds in the same way Velcro sticks together. Velcro works because one surface is covered in tiny hoops and the other in tiny hooks. When you push the two surfaces together the hooks attach themselves to the hoops and they stick together.

So think of your brain as being covered with tiny hoops and ideas covered in tiny hooks. When we are just retaining facts then we’re only using a single hook to get the idea to stick to our brain. However, if we add further hooks to that idea like the personality of the speaker, the unique location, the humour used or the relationships built with the people around you, then these ideas become more sticky. More hooks link to more hoops.

So if experiences matter to our learning what should we do to get smarter?

1. Learn with others

Learning in groups can accelerate our learning. You can compare notes; help each other when you get stuck and therefore avoid “comprehension cul de sacs”. Learning in a group also means you can encourage each other when the going gets tough.

2. Learn by doing

Learning just by reading blog posts and watching videos is far less effective than trying out the ideas in practice. Trying out the things you’re learning and making mistakes are all part of accumulating the brain hooks that help ideas stick.

3. Learn by teaching

If you’re able to explain an idea to someone else then it means you’ve built a deeper understanding of it. Teaching also adds purpose to your learning as you’re also trying to help others rather than just yourself. That sense of purpose will drive you to learn more and deeper.

4. Don’t focus on attaining goals

Measuring your learning against other people’s achievements or external benchmarks can be detrimental. It adds extra pressure to the learning process which will make you less creative about how you learn. We all learn at different paces and so while setting milestones are helpful for seeing progress you should try to set your own personal milestones rather than have them imposed by someone else.

5. Learn by a lake…

Rediscover the joy of learning without the constraints of a classroom. Find inspirational locations that will ignite your passion to learn as well build beautiful stories and memories. Being somewhere different and novel will provide a countless number of brain hooks for new ideas. This is why we plan events like Alptitude and Summercamp.


Psssst. We’ll be closing the doors to our Home School program until we run it next in October. If you’d like to give your startup the best chance of success, join our community and learn how to build a happy, thriving business. It takes just 2 mins to apply and we’ll let you know within 24 hours whether you’ve been accepted – visit home.thehappystartupschool.com for more info. If you’re still not sure if Home School is for you, see this infographic below.

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Apply before we close the doors ›› home.thehappystartupschool.com

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