As human beings, we’re born to learn… and learn… and never stop. Learning is joy to the brain, an endless source of dopamine, the neurochemical of pleasure. So how did we come up with an education system that so often kills the appetite to learn, despite the heroic efforts of dedicated teachers?
According to JW Wilson, Education Advisor to Braincat and the best-selling author of Cracking the Learning Code, it’s because we’ve ignored the basic biology of learning. His research has identified 24 components of the inbuilt “biological code” that enables human learning. Of these 24, one stands out in particular: meaning.
It’s In Our Genes
Among animals, our ability to adapt to almost any environment (Mars next?) comes from our exceptional capacity for absorbing new knowledge and adopting new skills. From an evolutionary perspective, this remarkable capacity to learn is rooted in the demands of survival.
We learn so we can live, eat, reproduce and thrive. In other words, we learn what matters to us. As civilizations developed around the world, “what matters” expanded way beyond survival to embrace the rich tapestry of cultural, political and industrial activity. But the equation of learning with meaning never changed. It’s built into our DNA and into our brains. JW Wilson calls it “the meaning network.”
When the meaning network is switched on, physical changes occur in the brain and learning takes hold. When meaning is absent, learning fails: we may cram our heads with information, but it won’t stick because there’s been no biological response.
The Cure for Boredom
Of course, it’s easy to find meaning when you’re studying a subject you love. That passion will activate your dopamine channels and carry you through even the toughest challenges. But what if you’re faced with material that bores you? As students, employees or entrepreneurs, we’re inevitably required to learn things that don’t instantly excite our interest.
To solve this puzzle, we must get creative. Here are three steps to help.
STEP 1: Find your personal meaning
Simply ask yourself: “What’s most meaningful to me?” Welcome the first thoughts that come into your head, but don’t settle for them. Stay with this question, if necessary for a few days, jotting down the answers and coming back to them several times with a fresh eye.
Eventually, you’ll want a simple list of the three things that hold most meaning for you.
STEP 2: Create bridges from meaning to learning
Now take a look at your learning task, whatever it is, and ask yourself: “How could I connect this material with what’s most meaningful to me?” Again take your time and allow any ideas, however unlikely, impractical or silly they may seem.
If you’re an artist studying algebra, you might ask yourself how you can find beauty in math, or even fill the study process itself with color and art. If you’re a mechanic learning about poetry, see if you can picture each poem as a “verbal machine” and figure out how it works. Making these bridges may seem a little crazy at first, but you’ll be building the pathways that switch on your biological love of learning.
STEP 3: Implement the connections
Don’t wait! You’ve made mental connections between what you’re studying and what’s most meaningful to you. Now put those connections to work. This doesn’t have to be hard — in fact, it can be fun.
Even the smallest step will make a big difference, because even a small link to what personally matters to you will activate the meaning network in your brain. And then your learning will accelerate. Be sure to keep your “three most meaningful” list close at hand, because you never know when you’ll find new connections to your learning task.
In his epoch-making book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl argued that meaning is our most powerful motivator, even more fundamental than the drives to survive and reproduce. That’s why billionaires go on working when they have more money than they can spend, and why people give up their lives for a cause or belief.
Meaning is what makes us human. Once you tap into what’s uniquely and personally meaningful to you, you will learn more, achieve more, and enjoy more than you could ever imagine.