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Brain “Cheats” to Maximize Learning

Your brain has “cheats” and shortcuts to make it work more efficiently, just like some video games! There are things students can do to “glitch” their brains so they soak up information like a sponge. All of these “cheats” are things we should do to keep our brains healthy to ensure they keep working at maximum capacity throughout our lives. This article lists four brain “cheats”, how they help students learn, and a brief explanation of why they work.

Brain “Cheats”

When I started playing video games in the 1980’s, gamers were nothing like they are today. The Internet (GASP!) didn’t exist. We couldn’t look up articles or videos on how to finish the hard sections of the video games we played. Some gamers did learn “cheats” anyway: ways to get advantages you could use to make it easier to finish all the levels. For example, the cheat for “Space Invaders” on the system I played had (Atari 2600!) was to hold down the “reset” button while turning your console on to get 99 lives. (I have no idea how this was discovered.)

The following brain cheats are like holding down the “reset” button. They’re ways to bypass or work with our brain’s traits – things we can’t change about them – to boost our learning capacity. These are just a few examples:

1. “Chunk” information you need to remember. If you have a lot of information to remember, group three or four things together in common sense categories. This cheat helps you bypass your brain’s information limit (which is about three to four new pieces of information). Think about it. If you tried to remember your phone number by memorizing each number independently, you’d need to remember 10 numbers. But, if you group numbers together, your brain can remember it very quickly. We recite phone numbers in three groups: area code, first three digits, last four digits. In fact, this is why credit card numbers and driver’s license numbers are written as four groups of four numbers on your card!

2. Use acronyms to remember lists of information. This cheat also works around the brain’s new information limit. For example, Science teachers tell their students to remember the colors of the rainbow by remembering “roy g biv”. Each letter represents a word students must store in their long-term memory: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The acronym “roy g biv” fits in the brain’s three to four item limit. Your brain can easily process these three items instead of remembering all seven colors individually.

3. Avoid TV, radios, and all other distractions while studying. I’ve had many people swear that they can do two things at once. However, it is biologically impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Human memory and learning are affected by our immediate environment. This includes things like room temperature and noises coming from inside and outside our homes. These distractions cause us to stop concentrating on what we’re trying to learn, which creates holes in our memory. When we try to recall the information later, we can’t quite do it.

Think about the last time you tried studying while watching TV. If you watched a sitcom, you probably looked up from your book when you heard laughter to see what was so funny. You probably kept watching to try to pick up context clues to find out what you missed, too.

My point is this; you stopped paying attention to your book and focused your attention on the TV. Studies of students in grades K – 12 have shown that, on average, it takes students five to ten minutes to return to full concentration after an interruption. Limit distractions for maximum concentration.

4. Eat a balanced diet for maximum brain performance. Our memories are actually the result of patterns that our neuronal cells (neurons) “learn”. Neurons communicate with each other using special chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters pass back and forth across tiny gaps in neurons called “synapses”. Synapses can both send and receive neurotransmitters from surrounding neurons. This creates a small electrical charge, which scientists can track using MRI scans. Scientists have discovered that when humans form long-term memories – memories lasting days, months, or years – our synapses have to grow a bit to make room for the new memory. Synapses are built from something we need to eat everyday: protein!

So, in order to make new, long-lasting memories, your brain needs protein to make the “ports”, or synapses - which are tiny gates that open and close to send or receive neurotransmitters – larger. You also need to drink plenty of fluids because water is essential for proper nervous system operation. The Institute of Medicine recommends that men drink 3 liters (about 13 cups) and women 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) of fluid a day. (“Fluid” includes water, tea, fruit juices, and any other liquids you drink.) However, if you exercise, live in a hot or humid climate, or are sick, you need to drink more than that. This can add between 1 ½ to 2 ½ cups of fluid to your daily requirement.

Students can use their knowledge of the brain and brain chemistry to trick their brain to maximize learning. They can chunk information into three to four pieces and use acronyms for long sentences or lists to bypass the new information limit. They should also avoid external distractions to maintain concentration and avoid holes in their learning and eat a balanced diet, including drinking plenty of fluids. Adding these four brain “cheats” to their study plan will help them learn more information and store it in their long-term memories.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please take a minute to leave a comment, Like this post on Facebook, or Tweet the post via Twitter using the buttons on the right side of my blog page. If you have questions about whether a tutor is right for you or if you would like advice for your unique situation, feel free to E-mail me using the “E-mail Jeff S.” button on my Wyzant tutor home page.


This is really interesting - do you have any citations on this stuff? I'd like to read what you read :)

Damian J. - Thanks for your comment! I love studying psychology, too. In fact, it's one of the subjects I'm licensed to teach.

Most of my information comes from textbooks, lectures, and research I read in Psychology classes I took a couple of years ago. However, here are a few places to look for more information:

* Article on "chunking", human memory, and language learning titled "Memory for Language", by Nick C. Ellis:

* Article on general memory techniques including mnemonics titled "Mnemonic Memory Techniques" by The Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Center: (I used to shorten the link location; it was a very large link.)

* A final article is titled "Long-Term Working Memory", by K. Anders Ericsson and Walter Kintsch: This is a great article that includes a review of relevant memory-related research and interesting information on the phenomenon of "selective retrieval".

Have a Great Day!
Jeff S.