Learning how to learn
Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
In proportion to our body mass, our brain is three times
as large as that of our nearest relatives. This huge organ is dangerous and
painful to give birth to, expensive to build and, in a resting human, uses
about 20 percent of the body�s energy even though it is just 2 percent of the
body's weight. There must be some reason for this evolutionary expense .
Recently, I lost one of my aunts. She was a self-made
woman who came from very humble beginnings. She grew up in a village and did
not have much in terms of any formal education. Despite these challenges, she
managed to make a living by providing tasty food to the multitude of city
workers during breakfast and lunch in a small stall in the city. She raised a
family and had several grandchildren. When I think of her and compare her with
my late father, I see a major difference. Even though my dad was also born in a
little rural village, left his family when he was a child, came to another
country, had minimal formal education, and did a multitude of different jobs,
he learnt to read and write in several languages, he managed to send all his
children for tertiary education and was knowledgeable about what was happening
in the world. In addition, he was a respected community leader. Both were
successes in their own different ways considering the limitations imposed on
them as a result of their backgrounds.
Why is it that some are able to rise above their
backgrounds while others are not able to do so? Are the differences genetic or
environmental or a combination of both, the perpetual nature versus nurture
question? Why is it some are never happy with where they are, always striving
to do better? How can we have better means of communicating and learning? Why
is it learning how to learn has never been an important part of our curriculum?
Do we know that we have to unlearn what is no longer relevant so that we can
learn new things? What measures can we take to reduce our stress levels? How
much more each one of us could achieve if we truly knew the extent of our capabilities?
Can we �regrow� bits of our brain that we lost? Can we improve our task
performance just by thinking about it? How much better the working environment
could be if we let people know their potential? What more can be done to push
and drive people to excel, to discover themselves? Are there better ways of
organising thoughts, have better retention and recall, and achieve higher
creativity? How can one become more creative? Is it all about the mind, the way
we think and act?
The current dilemma we face regarding the mind has been
partly due to the metaphysical divide propounded by Rene Descartes, the great
French mathematician and philosopher of the 17th Century. Even those of uswho
come from the eastern traditions where the mind and body are seen as one have
come to accept this duality to some degree from the western-based educational
system that we have been through. Today, scientists, neurologists,
psychologists and those dabbling in the brain recognise that the body and mind
are not different but that they are just an invisible continuum. The mental and
physical well-being of an individual is intimately intertwined since they share
the same nervous, circulatory, endocrine and immune systems. What happens in
the brain e.g. stress is directly transmitted to the adrenals, which secrete
more cortisol and affect the entire body. An unhealthy body can lead to an
unhealthy mind, and an illness of the mind can trigger or worsen diseases in
the body. Fixing a problem in one place, moreover, can often help the other.
Heart disease is one of many illnesses that worsens with depression. People
with such afflictions as cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and osteoporosis all appear
to run a higher risk of disability or premature death when they are clinically
depressed. Depression really is a systemic disorder.
Our understanding of how the human mind (and maybe brain)
functions has expanded tremendously over the last two decades. This has been,
to a large extent, due to developments in medicine especially in imaging. With
the advent of functional imaging with MRI, PET/CT as well as SPECT, the field
of functional neuroimaging has exploded. How will this change what
radiologists/images have been doing all this while. The change from looking at
disease entities to using imaging to better understand the functioning of the
brain, in current paradigms, is something that has not been emphasized. Unlike
other areas of the body where imaging has not had much role� in looking at
normal physiological processes, the brain has been different. It has been an
area of interest for neurologists, neurobiologists, neuroanatomist,
psychologists, psychiatrists, and others using EEG, EMG, MEG, etc. to better
understand the functioning of the brain. With the extensive knowledge the
images have in this area, they can certainly add a lot more to the overall
discussion and contribute towards a better understanding of the intricate
functioning of the brain; its role in addiction, drug discovery, forensic
diagnosis, in memory creation, learning, etc. However, this raises questions as
to who has right to look into our heads when the times comes; the government,
your employer, your family or your spouse? Does it then give the companies the
right to sell you things you do not really want by seeing how you respond to
different forms of advertising?
What has been even more troubling is our lack of emphasis
on how all this new knowledge can be and should be spread amongst our trainees
and staff who would be better able to learn and unlearn, to be more creative,
to be able to better handle stress, to be life-long learners and also to
understand how we could deliver better services for our patients and community.
Both teachers and learners are not exposed to this crucial area of competency
but have focused too much on acquiring professional and task-specific
knowledge. Why is that so? Probably because we have forgotten the importance of
understanding the functioning of the mind, too much to learn about one�s own
area of expertise that there is not enough time for anything else, we were
never taught about optimising learning and teaching the most updated knowledge,
the constant discussion of the rights and wrongs of a particular study,
familiarity, force of habit and desire to keep things the way they are, it is too
much work to change things around when we are already doing fine!
We, as professionals, are guilty of concentrating on our
core competencies and staying in touch with the rapid advances so much so we
have forgotten that new information in the understanding of the mind will
drastically change the way we teach, what we teach and how to keep learning by
unlearning previous concepts and theories. Our teaching material is from the
dark ages, in a sense, with emphasis on rote learningand didactic lectures, which
are almost entirely in textual form, involves minimal interaction and are
static. Newer ways of e-learning with the use of interactive, computer-based,
dynamic and learner centric tools based on more current understanding of
learning are the future of learning .
What about mind maps? Contrary to long-held beliefs of the
brain being unchanging and that certain psychiatric conditions are hard-wired,
it is now being accepted that the adult brain retains impressive powers of
"neuroplasticity", which is the ability to change its structure and
function in response to experience. This has been shown in those who experience
phantom limbs over their faces or groin. Studies have shown practicing a move
or action repeatedly in your brain over time can cause areas in the brain,
which cover those movements, to expand. The effect is better than if you had
done all this physically. This mental rehearsal of actions has been used by top
athletes for a long time. They go through every step of their task from start
to finish while visualising their bodies at every step. Should we be practicing
our barium enemas, radium seed implants for brachytherapy or procedures for
calibration of a CT scanner over and over in our heads so that the actual
procedure would be easy? I have been doing this after learning about it from
athletics. Constraint-induced movement therapy, a new form of therapy has been
proposed to help stroke victims recover function by developing new areas (in
Learning how to handle stress in our increasingly
complicated and rapidly changing world is also important. When one thing
changes, all the other related areas change to some degree and finding the new
balance may not be all that easy. The mind has a desire to make a decision
(hopefully right) quickly and this period of uncertainty is probably the reason
why change is so difficult and traumatic. When too many rules change, when what
used to work does not work anymore, your ability to reason takes a hit and you
may get into a state of helplessness.
Can we learn to be more creative or is it god given?
Contrary to what most believe that creativity is a thing or a state of mind
that occurs suddenly or is even a gift, creativity is truly a process. It is a
process that can be observed, analyzed, understood and even replicated, taught
and managed . When you're creative, your brain is using the same mental
building blocks you use every day. Creativity does not happen in one brilliant
flash but in a chain reaction of many thought processes ruminating on a
problem. The creative process is basically the same: generating ideas,
evaluating and executing them, with many mistakes over time. Collaborating with
others is also key! When we take time off from working on a problem, we change
our context, which can activate different areas of our brain where the solution
may be. If we are lucky, in that new and different and totally unrelated
context, we may hear or see something that relates distantly to our problem
that we had temporarily put aside, and the solution miraculously appears. That
is why the three Bs - for the bathtub, the bed and the bus are places where
ideas have famously and suddenly emerged . Did you know that? Did we even
want to find out about it? Probably everything we know about it is from the
newspapers or television. And why not? Most often we probably did not think it
was important enough. How much more each of us could contribute if we could be
10% more creative? How much more could be achieved if we could help the people
we live and work with, learn it?
The ultimate question that needs to be asked, knowing what
we know about the mind thus far, is can we learn to be happy? The doom and
gloom crowd would say without a doubt it is absurd. Eastern philosophy has
always said that we can and that happiness is a full-time job. It is a state of
mind. It is the ability to keep things in proportion by having a sense of
humour. It can be practiced and mastered by leading purposeful lives for causes
bigger than oneself and immersing yourself completely within your life.
Scientific research is now understanding and agreeing with them . Learn how
to be appreciative of all that you have and share your love. Studies show that
when people engage in appreciative activity, they are using more neocortical and
prefrontal, i.e. higher-level, brain functions.
What we do in our working/professional/student lives is
important since we are all contributing to our society and community in
different ways but we often forget that work is actually another means of getting
us to where we wish to go. Work provides learning opportunities for us to do
better, to make a difference, to push our abilities even further, to make our
workplace more enjoyable, to learn to love a little more, to live a lot better,
and to give without expecting. If we miss these opportunities at work then we
have not really learnt while we are �living� and working.
Be careful what you think because you can become it!
Figure 1 Mind map of learning to learn
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Wilson S. What can the arts bring to medical training? Lancet 2006; 368:S15-6.
The science of creativity. Management Development Review 1997; 10(6/7):203-4.
Saywer R. Explaining creativity: the science of human innovation. United States: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Seligman M. Authentic happiness: using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Australia: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
|Received 26 April 2007; accepted 30 April 2007
Correspondence: Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tel.: +603-79492069; Fax: +603-79581973; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (Basri J.J. Abdullah).
Please cite as: Abdullah BJJ,
Learning how to learn, Biomed Imaging Interv J 2008; 4(1):e10