In Curated Content, Learning

Unfamiliar situations can be uncomfortable, but they play an important role in learning. The article below shares more about how the brain’s ability to learn operates best under these circumstances. CK

Article written by Jessica Stillman originally appeared in on August 14, 2018.

Not knowing what’s going to happen next is generally stressful. Uncertainty signals that you’re unsure of your environment, your skills, or both. But uncertainty also signals the brain to kickstart learning, new Yale research published in the journal Neuron has found.

That means crazy, unstable situations might be uncomfortable, but they’re also essential if you want to make the most of your brain.

Stability is a shut off switch for your brain.

If you want to maximize learning you need to make sure you’re doing hard things 70 percent of the time, five-time entrepreneur Auren Hoffman has advised. It’s tough to face the possibility of failure for such a huge chunk of your working life, but this new research confirms Hoffman is on to something. If you’re not at least a little stressed about the outcome of what you’re doing, your brain shuts down learning.

To figure this out scientists taught a group of monkeys to hit various targets for a reward of  tasty juice. Sometimes the odds of a particular target producing a sweet treat were fixed — the monkeys consistently got a reward 80 percent of the time, say. Sometimes the target was more unpredictable — the frequency with which it paid and the amount of juice the monkeys received varied.

The team of neuroscientists then measured the monkeys’ brain activity while they played with the targets. A clear pattern emerged. If the monkeys could predict how often a target would pay off, brain regions associated with learning basically shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t guess what would happen, their learning centers lit up.

This makes sense. Once you’ve figured out the best way to behave in a given environment learning new techniques or approaches is pointless. If you’ve found the faster route from your house to your work, varying your routine is just going to get you stuck in a traffic jam (unless, like Spanx founder Sara Blakely, you think up your best ideas in the car. Then you just might get the idea for a billion dollar business).

For this reason, stability kills learning. Which is fine if you’re trying to master your golf swing or figure out how many minutes to boil an egg. But in many areas of life — including the professional domain — we want to continually improve and learn. And to do that you need to avoid the easy and comfortable in favor of the unpredictable and probably hard.

Or as Yale neuroscientist Daeyeol Lee put it to Quartz, “Perhaps the most important insight from our study is that the function of the brain as well as the nature of learning is not ‘fixed’ but adapts according to the stability of the environment… When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more information.”

How to add strategic instability to your life

How should we humans put this insight to use? There are, as I noted above, some occasions when a tapering off of learning is fine. But it’s all too easy to get into a rut that leaves your brain idling. Avoiding that outcome if you’re everyday reality isn’t inherently changeable and challenging (many entrepreneurs can stop reading now) means consciously building variety, uncertainty and newness into your life. You could try:

  • Traveling abroad. Learning guaranteed, especially about your own capabilities, likes, and values.

  • Changing your routine. Even a new lunch joint or afternoon activity might jolt your brain into learning mode, helping you master new skills or see old ideas in a new light.

  • Starting a new project. It might fail but you’re guaranteed to learn something.

  • Searching out weird, new ideas. Here’s a list of sources.

  • Talking to people you disagree with. It’s both an empathy and a learning booster.

The goal should be to inject unpredictability into your life to keep your brain learning. Stability can be restful, but science shows it will teach you pretty much nothing.

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