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How Fast Can We Learn?

By April 1, 2015Blog

In the physical sciences, “power” is the measure of work performed over time.

But our brains aren’t always working hard, and they’re rarely resting. We can’t measure the amount of work performed in our brain at any given time…but we can measure its capacity at a given point in time.¬†We can also measure processing speed at a given point in time.

And we can improve BOTH.

Your capacity for recalling facts and data, and making connections, vastly exceeds our typical use. Just ask Nelson Dellis, who won the USA Memory Championship again last weekend. This time, Dellis recalled 215 first and last names correctly after a 15-minute memorization period. That’s a demonstration of both work (capacity) and time (recall.)

The questions we ask about brain capacity, intelligence and memory are changing. Barely three decades ago, top neuroscientists believed in a “fixed” intelligence: that your genetic makeup placed a ceiling on your learning potential. We now know this to be false.

In fact, we’re now asking, “How fast can you learn something?” and “How much of your education can you retain?” Our research is now focused on optimization and strategy instead of proving the concept.

Popular media is beginning to broach the same subject. Tim Ferriss’ experiments in “lifestyle design” are interesting not because he holds the best answer, but because he’s asking the question in a friendly way. He’s telling a good story and passing the question along to his viewers.

CrossFit coaches are excellent at deconstructing movement; what if it was in their best interest to speed up the learning process? What if there was an incentive to teach a client how to squat…before tomorrow? How would you approach the problem?

Financially, there’s no incentive to impart physical lessons quickly, because we all want long-term clients. And our education system is set up the same way: a new student is a guaranteed client of the school system for at least 14 years. But our economic system is at odds with our educational model: there’s very little reward for attendance after high school. Rather, the great financial success goes to the innovator who can conceptualize, formalize and deliver quickly. Are we training our students to learn slowly?

Training to optimize capacity and processing speed is the best preparation for the real world. Current schoolchildren won’t be required to bank on many of the skills they’re being taught in the classroom, but they WILL be required to learn new things rapidly. They’ll need to learn how to learn. Who will teach them?

Thought problem: if you wanted to learn something quickly, what strategy would you employ? Use Spanish or guitar as an example.

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