The Neurology of Optimal Learning

The Neurology of Optimal Learning

  • January 2017
  • Posted By Steve Shoffner
  • 0 Comments

Stress & Success

I often hear: “Stress can be a good thing” or “Having butterflies in my stomach makes me feel alive.”

To these statements, I have the question: “Would you rather be nervous or in ‘The Zone’ while taking tests, where you have complete confidence in what you are doing?”

Nerves & stress are a part of life. They can be a good sign that you are encountering a situation that lies at the edge of your comfort zone.

Ultimately, the goal is to become a stronger person until this “edge” lies firmly inside your comfort zone so you can face an even greater challenge.

This growth is precisely what mindfulness practice facilitates: the ability to stabilize deeper states of relaxation so we can enjoy enhanced composure during pressurized situations.

Symptoms of stress (butterflies, sweaty palms etc.) are characterized, accompanied & perpetuated by tension in the body.

Mindfulness practice deepens our ability to feel our bodies, a process that by its very nature releases tension. Tension is a sign that we have not yet felt our body to a certain level of depth.

We release that tension as soon as we gain the ability to feel it and relax to an even deeper place.

 

Absorbing New Information

I have observed in my students (and periodically myself) the tendency to tense up while learning new information, as an attempt to better retain it.

This inclination is indicative of a misunderstanding of the neurology of learning.

The more relaxed we are when learning new things, the more readily & deeply we absorb new information. This state of relaxation is more “yogic” not “couch-potato.” It involves good posture and a healthy breathing pattern. No slouching!

When you are feeling particularly present and optimally registering new facts, your body actually enters an even deeper state of relaxation that is extremely pleasurable & healthy.

Metaphorically, relate to new information as if it is a liquid, not a solid. Progressive relaxation enhances your ability to soak up information like a sponge.

Tensing up to “grab on” to new information makes learning an uncomfortable struggle, like trying to bite or chew water.

Don’t chew water…even if it’s solid

The truth is, students have so many pieces of information to learn and retain that trying to “hold on” to all of them is both implausible & neurologically backwards, especially when you examine the nature of memory & recall.

 

Optimal Memory & Recall

The more free your body is of physical tension, the more easily the appropriate & accurate information arises when necessary.

Smelling a distinct scent often reminds us of a very distance memory involving that fragrance.

Humans are commonly able to recall & draw parallels to moments that often lie decades apart with extraordinary, instantaneous accuracy.

Smell, like all five senses, brings your awareness into your body & activates a sense of presence, alertness & mental acuity.

This is what enables you to draw such impressive associations & connections. Tensing yourself up impedes your ability to access this heightened intelligence; progressive relaxation nurtures & promotes it.

Consider the “shower thought.”

Water relaxes your body, especially your scalp, which improves blood flow to your brain & catalyzes famously deep insights to happen during these moments of morning hygiene.

These realizations are not the product of straining & struggling, so why should achieving better test scores be any different?

Lastly, consider a much more direct example: when you actually recall information correctly during a test. Did you push yourself & exert effort or did it seem to “come to you.” This is not a matter of luck: your hours of preparation & presence of mind during the test allowed it to happen.

With these three examples in mind, does it make any sense to tense yourself up while taking tests or studying, or does doing so actually impede your ability to excel?

It’s time to learn a different way to move through our academic lives. Practicing progressive relaxation (the body scan meditation is a good place to start) will help you enjoy the improved ease & performance that come with mindful living.

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