I’ve often mentioned the importance of lifelong learning to your success and happiness. I want to now tell you a few things about the actual mechanisms of learning. How does the brain actually convert your experiences and efforts into knowledge and skills? How do you recall what you learned when you need to recall it and adapt that memory to new situations?
I believe this is an important topic because to be intelligent is more than simply a capacity to apply knowledge and skills. To be intelligent is to adapt your behavior (1) using your senses, and (2) in pursuit of goals. In this letter we are mostly focused on your senses and the adaptation of your behavior in pursuit of goals specific to learning.
All that knowledge and skill you have emerges from a lifetime of using your senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Some animals can see or feel things that we cannot, like seeing ultraviolet/infrared or feeling electrical or magnetic radiation. From there they develop the skills to survive and communicate within their species. Survival and communication skills evolving from our human senses include reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Never underestimate the importance of improving these communication skills to your larger goals of success and happiness.
Successful people are not born successful. They are successful because they are effective learners. Learn how to be a more effective learner, and you should find more success in pursuing your goals.
The short answer to effective learning is this: get enough sleep, get enough exercise, use all your communication skills, and make efforts to think about what you are thinking about.
The longer answer follows.
Learning boils down to the creation and management of long-lasting electrical paths in the brain. It’s all about firing those electrical paths enough times for the “glue to set” in the gaps between neuron cells in the brain. These gaps are called synapses. Some statistics might be useful or interesting to you: you have about 100 billion neurons in your brain, each within 1-hop reach via synaptic connections to several thousand other neurons. The adult human has 100 to 500 trillion synaptic connections, which is only about one tenth what you started with as a child.
Electrochemical signals travel across each synapse and through cells to collectively form a neural network that is analogous to a…