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Program Your Brain for Optimal Performance

Stop what you’re doing for a second and listen to whatever sounds are in your immediate environment. Are there people chattering? Is there a fan humming? Maybe an air conditioner? Unless you’re sitting in absolute silence, you’re probably now aware of these sounds that weren’t apparent just a moment ago. In doing this exercise, you’ve just observed a psychological phenomenon called habituation, which is your brain’s ability to tune out background noises like the humming of a fan, a refrigerator, or birds chirping outside while you focus on a more pertinent task. You no doubt are aware about your mind’s ability to separate various stimuli, to focus on what’s critical and what’s not. But consider what an impressive computational system your brain is for supporting this ability without you having to think about it. There’s a reason you’re conscious mind focuses on some things and not others. Your brain, while amazingly complex and more sophisticated than that of any other known species, has its limitations. Your brain is constantly receiving a deluge of stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, sensations from within your own body, and even your own internal thoughts. And your brain must receive and process all of this, using a finite amount of “storage space”. If each and every stimulus—every sound, every visible object, etc.—were brought to our conscious attention, we would be overwhelmed with the stream of information and be incapable of functioning—at least at a human level of development. In certain circumstances, the ability to filter what’s important—and do it quickly has been critical to survival. You’ve been training since you were born...

Throughout your life, your brain has made decisions, often unbeknownst to you, on what to pay attention to and what’s worth forgetting about. I won’t go into gory neurological detail, but suffice to say that your brain follows a rule that goes something like this:

Forget information that doesn’t seem harmful or useful, BUT if it comes up repeatedly, and I’m called upon to act on it, make it more readily accessible.

For this reason, you’re an expert in knowing how to respond to a closed door. In a sense, it says to itself, Obstruction ahead. Ah—this is a door, I’ve encountered these before. Look for the knob. Turn the knob. Push...) Opening doors is something done so frequently that it requires near-zero conscious thought. Part of the reason the task is so effortless is that you’ve had a lifetime of practice with it. So much practice in fact, that your brain has developed neural pathways specifically for this commonly-encountered situation. By linking neurons together that weren’t linked before, your mind has moved the task from what was a thoughtful process in problem-solving when you were a toddler, to a much more efficient task, run on your brain’s “auto-pilot”. Your brain has actually physically rebuilt its structure over time to respond in a way that minimizes the disruption—in terms of time and brainpower—of a closed door standing between you and your destination.

I tutor economics to students at Harvard and Boston College, and the biggest predictor I’ve observed in a student’s preparedness for an exam is the extent to which s/he has does so by exposing their mind to a concept, and then repeatedly requiring his- or herself to recall and reproduce that information.

Many students don’t realize that learning economics by watching a PhD do math on a whiteboard isn’t going to get them the grade they want, at least if they’re looking to be a top-performer. I once tutored a finance major at a very respected university in Washington DC, who came to me having not yet studied for an exam he was to take in less than a week. I worked with him for a few sessions, helping to prepare him as best I could and when he came back the next week to tell me he did terribly, I wasn’t surprised. But not because he’d waited ‘till the last minute—that was certainly part of it, but not the most critical factor; rather, it was the way in which he studied that proved ineffective.

In disciplines like economics, statistics, accounting, etc., “learning” is more than just memorizing facts and terminology—it’s really developing a set of skills.

When George (that’s what I’ll call him) and I sat down to review the concepts, I would introduce the idea, describe it, draw the graphs, and then I’d ask him to re-apply the concept to a different problem—he’d be using the same concept, but with different numbers and a different scenario. But George was resistant to this idea—he was looking for expediency. Each time we reviewed a new topic, George insisted that I move on to the next, rather than practice using the skill I just showed him. It wasn’t that George was being rude or intentionally ignorant (I actually enjoyed his company); he just wanted to study the way he felt was was best-off. But what he didn’t realize was that having a method of analysis described to him—no matter haw effective—is not the same as actually exercising the procedure himself.

Let’s say your kid has never gone swimming, so you pay for swimming lessons. The friendly instructor begins his lesson by asking your child to watch him swim for the first twenty minutes of the lesson, so he will have the requisite skills once he jumps in the water himself. After the twenty minutes of watching is over, the instructor invites your kid to dive right in (no floaties). Think that’s a good idea? Why not? He just watched an expert do it, so surely he knows what to do. Great. So where is the chase, and how do I cut to it?

What students should do to prepare is:

1. Review the concept.
2. Recite the concept’s key takeaways or steps–without looking back at the source material. If this isn’t yet possible, review the material again until you can recite the key takeaways. This part is the key to things like: remembering a speech, memorizing directions, or generally any skill that involves an ordered sequence of steps.
3. Engage in new scenarios where the concept can be applied again. This part is key to things like algebra, mental arithmetic, learning vocabulary. In studying vocab for the GRE, it’s recommended that you focus not on memorizing definitions, but using them in your own, self-generated sentences. Notice that algebra, mental arithmetic and verbal reasoning are skills that one uses to find an answer to an implied question (What is 4 x 5? What is x equal to? Which of the following words best describes the character’s demeanor?).

The message is that, to perform well in just about anything, your brain will be best equipped by repeatedly being called upon to perform the task. Doing so will—literally—cause your brain to begin restructuring itself, connecting neurons together that are critical to the practiced task, thereby integrating the process chain associated with that behavior. An audiobook I regularly listen to features a psychologist, one of whose favorite phrases is, neurons that fire together wire together.

In fact, I’ve increasingly encountered recommendations of mental exercises like crossword puzzles, memory games and Sudoku as a preventative measure against Alzheimer’s disease.

So here’s what you need to know:

A task is best learned by performing it repeatedly. It’s become widely accepted in the neuro-science community that the brain works like a muscle, in that repeatedly exercising causes it to adapt, and physically restructure itself into to be more effective the next time. But if you neglect to practice them with regularity, the brain will assume it no longer needs to make this a priority, and will to abandon its “construction project”. Just like muscles atrophy without regular use—so to do neuro-pathways.

To prepare for any event in which you’ll require this skill, you’ll want to rehearse under circumstances that simulate—as closely as possible—those in which you’ll find yourself when it actually counts. Conditions and context can greatly affect performance. An interesting study showed that students who studying for a test in the same room as the one in which they take it, increases performance. My college roommate’s SAT-prep course was held in the actual testing room for this reason. So exposing your mind to the conditions you’ll eventually be facing will have a similar effect to the sound of a fan I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Think of how much easier it is to make a speech in your own home than it is to do so in front of an audience.

Start small, and increase incrementally. I should be clear in saying that mimicking your “event’s” precise conditions need not happen right away. Rather, that should be your goal. You wouldn’t start training for a marathon by running 26 miles per day.

Notice this principle pervades across very disparate disciplines: riding a bike, strength training, public speaking and math. Do your self a favor and gain an edge by putting the principle of neuroplasticity into practice.