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  • Steven R. Campbell

Learning Takes Time

We have discovered your brain learns by recording images and connecting them together to form patterns. So, if I am learning about a city, these images (which are composed of groups of neurons I like to call “neural clusters”) include ones for people, cars, and buildings; all the things a city contains. When the brain then discovers similarities among these images, it connects them together using axons, dendrites, synapses, neural transmitters, etc. Over time, they become a “pattern” of a city; one of the trillions of patterns we carry around in our head.

But this takes time.

By the end of the first week in my medical terminology course, I could always sense a lot of fear in some of my new students, especially the older ones. I would hear them exclaim “This is too much to learn”, “I am too old for this”, or “I have been out of school too long.”

Although they have recorded the new images in the first few days of a class, their brains have not had the time to connect them to form any patterns. Without these connections, the images are figuratively floating around their brains lacking any real understanding of where they belong, or how they should be connected to the other images.

This creates a lot of fear and frustration.

It is at this point that the brain begins to tell them lies like “I am too old for this”, “I just can’t learn this”, or “I am not very smart”. Unfortunately, these messages could not be farther from the truth. Our brains are simply endeavoring to make sense out of what they have been given. However, connecting all the images takes time, and we sometimes become very impatient.

What can you do with these feelings?

Well of all the facts in brain research I have studied, one of the most important facts is this: “The brain detects, constructs, and elaborates patterns as a basic, built-in, natural function. It does not have to be taught or motivated to do so, any more than our heart needs to be instructed or coaxed to pump blood. In fact, efforts to teach or motivate the detection of patterns, however well meaning, can often have inhibiting and negative effects.”[1]

Therefore, most of our fear comes from wanting our brain to work faster. However, remember that your brain has been creating patterns since the dawn of mankind, and it does not like to be rushed. In fact, if we attempt to rush our brain, the neural connections that are made will not be clear and may not “stick.” This is the reason that cramming for tests usually does not work.

So here are some new principles you can apply to your life:

1. Your learning is totally unique.

Remember that the patterns your brain is learning are unique to each one of us. It is composed of everything you have learned and are continually learning from your parents, spouses, books, TV, movies, friends, school, church, job, trips, vacations …and on and on and on. This not only makes what you have learned totally yours, but a permanent part of your memory, and ultimately who you have become, and are becoming.

2. You build on what you already know.

When one of my students protest, “I am too old for this”, my response would be very different from what he expects. I would congratulate him, and we would discuss the significant advantages his age gives to his educational experience. He has this advantage because he has far more life experiences than my younger students. And although it may take a bit longer, his brain will soon learn new information more easily and quickly and deeply.

3. And finally…nothing you learn is wasted.

When Michael Fox was asked if he felt cheated by having Parkinson’s disease, he responded, “Absolutely not. It’s been a detour I wouldn’t have planned, but it’s really led me to amazing places.”[2]


[1] Leslie Hart, Human Brain and Human Learning, p. 60

[2]Time Magazine, April, 2009

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Mr. Campbell is an award-winning author, speaker and mentor to individuals and organizations. Known as “the Brain Whisperer,” he teaches how your mind can be your greatest adversary and, when understood, can be transformed into your greatest friend and ally. He wants to help shift the mindset of Chopsticks Alley readers. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Zoology from San Diego State University and a Masters in Information Systems from the University of San Francisco and has been exploring and teaching the discoveries of cognitive psychology in various universities and colleges for over 25 years.

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