The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

Learning new skills is one of the best ways to make yourself both marketable and happy, but actually doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. The science behind how we learn is the foundation for teaching yourself new skills. Here’s what we know about learning a new skill.

Our brains are still a bit of a mystery. We’ll likely be learning about how our brain works for years to come, but we are starting to get a better idea of how we learn new things. To that end, let’s start by talking about what happens in your brain as you take on a new skillset before moving onto some of the scientifically effective ways to learn.

How Your Brain Changes As You Learn a New Skill

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

Every time you learn something new, your brain changes in a pretty substantial way. In turn, this makes other parts of your life easier because the benefits of learning stretch further than just being good at something. As The New Yorker points out, learning a new skill has all kinds of unexpected benefits, including improving working memory, better verbal intelligence, and increased language skills.

Likewise, as you learn a new skill, the skill actually gets easier to do. Cornell University explains what’s going on:

Specifically, training resulted in decreased activity in brain regions involved in effortful control and attention that closely overlap with the frontoparietal control and dorsal attention networks. Increased activity was found after training, however, in the default network that is involved in self-reflective activities, including future planning or even day dreaming. Thus, skill mastery is associated with increased activity in areas not engaged in skill performance, and this shift can be detected in the large-scale networks of the brain.

Essentially, the more adept you become at a skill, the less work your brain has to do. Over time, a skill becomes automatic and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill. Scientific American breaks it all down like so:

Many different events can increase a synapse’s strength when we learn new skills. The process that we understand best is called long-term potentiation, in which repeatedly stimulating two neurons at the same time fortifies the link between them. After a strong connection is established between these neurons, stimulating the first neuron will more likely excite the second.

In addition to making existing synapses more robust, learning causes the brain to grow larger. Optical imaging allows researchers to visualise this growth in animals. For instance, when a rat learns a difficult skill, such as reaching through a hole for a pellet of food, within minutes new protrusions, called dendritic spines, grow on the synapses in its motor cortex, the region that allows animals to plan and execute movements.

The more connections between neurons are formed, the more we learn, and the more information we retain. As those connection get stronger, the less we have to think about what we’re doing, which means we can get better at other facets of a set of skills.

We’re still learning about learning. So, while we can see how learning skills affects the brain, we’re still digging into exactly why it happens and all the benefits of doing so. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect, but how we practice is just as important as if we’re practicing.

How You Can Use This Science to Learn Faster

Knowing how your brain adapts to new skills is just part of the process. That knowledge is worthless if you don’t know how to apply it. With that in mind, let’s dig into some of the tried and true methods of learning new skills as quickly as possible. It’s all about boosting your brainpower in one way or another. Thankfully, it’s surprisingly easy.

Force Yourself to Learn Without Guides or Help

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

When we’re learning a new skill it’s easy to rely on YouTube, tutorials, walkthroughs, and guides to help get the process started. That’s great for those beginning days, but if we keep doing that we won’t ever actually learn because we’re not solving problems on our own.

In order to learn, we need to fail. Science writer Annie Murphy Paul calls this productive failure:

We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail — by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported (in the Journal of the Learning Sciences) that people who try solving maths problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer — but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information.

Take the example of learning the guitar. You can easily hunt down the tablature for “Paint it Black” online, but that’s not going to help you learn the actual sound of each chord you’re playing. Instead, try to figure it out on your own instead of seeking out the answer. This is essentially learning by trial-and-error, which is frustrating, but works really well. The same goes any number of other skills. Sure, sometimes you need to break down and search for a solution, but you’re going to be better off if you don’t.

Spread Out Learning Over Time

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

When we’re picking up a new skill or learning something entirely new, it’s easy to binge-learn and obsessively work on it over time. However, that’s not always the best idea. In fact, spreading out learning, also known as distributed practice, is thought to be a better way to learn. A review of studies in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that spreading out learning is far more effective than cramming:

Dunlosky and colleagues report that spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.

“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit,” says Dunlosky.

Distributed practice is an old technique, but it actually works really well for the busy lives most of us lead. Instead of sitting down for hours on end to learn a skill, distributed practice is all about shorter, smaller sessions where you’re stimulating the link between the neurons more often throughout time. So, instead of trying to learn a skill by taking an hour long class every night, give yourself a lot of time overall, and small chunks throughout the day. Heck, even 15 minutes a day to spend on projects is enough for many of us.

Choose Your Study Time Wisely

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

You wouldn’t think it, but when you study or practice is just as important as how. The body’s internal clock is tuned to work better during certain points in the day, and that goes for learning as well. According to one study published in the journal PLOS One, we learn best when we do so before sleep.

The study found that subjects who went to sleep right after learning something did significantly better in a series of memory tests. We’ve seen this before with naps, and know that sleep has a big impact on memory retention in general. Basically, when you learn a new skill before bed, you’re helping fortify the link between the neurons in your brain. This means you retain information better.

Apply Your Skills Every Day

The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills

We’re big proponents of experiential learning here at Lifehacker, and that’s because it’s often the best way to learn the types of skills we talk about here. The more you can apply what you’re learning to your every day, the more it’ll stick in your head.

The reason is simple. When you’re learning by doing, you’re implementing everything that makes our memory work. When you’re able to connect what you’re learning with a real world task, that forms the bonds in your brain, and subsequently the skills you’re learning will stick around. This is especially true with learning a foreign language, where application is the key to learning quickly.

You can do this in a number of ways. For some skills, like music, deliberate practice is a way to be more mindful of what you’re doing so you can actually improve. Deliberate practice is all about tracking what you’re learning, focusing on short learning sessions, and practicing as smart, not hard.

Just like memory, we learn best when we have context, and that applies to new skills as much as it does random facts in school. That’s why something like the transfer of learning is helpful when your learning a new skill. This means you’re applying your new skills in your day to day life in a context that matters. For example, if you’re learning about mathematics, make sure you find a way to work that into your daily life, even if it’s as simple as figuring out your gas mileage every day. It’s simple, but it’s about forming connections in your brain that actually matter to you.

Everyone prefers to learn a little differently, so unfortunately you might need to experiment with different methods as you’re taking on a new skill. The above list certainly doesn’t include everything, but it’s a starting point to learning more effectively. You’re bound to hit plenty of barriers along the way, and sticking with it isn’t always easy, but the benefits are worth it: a bigger, smarter brain that can process things easily.

Pictures: Vladgrin (Shutterstock), Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier, Pierre-Olivier Carles, Harald Groven, PinkMoose

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