The rate at which you learn will dramatically impact your effectiveness in our fast-paced world. Your entire professional life will be built largely on your ability to keep up with an ever increasing barrage of information. Your personal life is also controlled largely by your ability to learn. Keeping up with information for your health, finances, relationships and virtually any area of your own growth will be dependent on your ability to absorb, process and understand information.
One of the skills I have found incredibly useful in my own life is the ability to learn new things rapidly with excellent comprehension. I hear a lot of talk about how learning abilities and styles are predetermined and our learning rate is fixed. I think this is garbage. Certainly our genetic predispositions and childhood environments give us certain biases towards learning, but if there is anything I have found to be true is that our learning rate can be improved markedly through the use of simple methods to help process that information more quickly.
How has mastering those skills for rapid learning helped me? Well I now read 1-2 books each week along with dozens of articles. I received the second highest grades in my graduating class including placing first of three provinces in a national chemistry exam, an exam I didn’t even study for. I have been able to master skills incredibly quickly, learning several programming languages, learning how to write and even completing half of my assignments for a Competent Toastmaster award in three months.
Is it just talent and natural ability? While I believe there is certainly a degree of talent, I believe that most of the talent for rapid learning lies in adopting a certain process that rapidly facilitates learning. I tutored other students and I would often be the one asked for help understanding an assignment. I believe that the skills for rapid learning can be used to greatly improve our own ability to learn and perform.
The Power of Story
Why do humans have such large brains? We have the most powerful computing device on the planet, something capable of processing trillions of bytes of data in a complex three dimensional matrix of neurons and electrochemical transmissions. For once, scientists may be able to offer the answer. The reason that we have such large brains is directly related to the fact that humans form relatively large groups. Keeping track of hundreds of interconnecting relationships requires a considerably powerful computer.
Unlike modern computers devised for expert calculations, storage and logic, our brains were built to keep track of relationships in a large group, in other words, gossiping. As a result, human brains don’t reason through logic or linear patterns. We reason through relationships. Knowing who was the leader of your tribe, who your potential mates were and whether Betty got over that feud with Susy is the primary function of your obscenely large and powerful brain.
What are stories? They are relationships. Stories is a sequence of events guided by relationships. Every story ever written has been about relationships in some form. In order to become a story it must be about relationships. If I told you a story about a stray photon that escaped the event horizon of a black hole and traveled away, thus reducing the black holes mass, I am still forced to use relationships. In this case it was the relationship between a photon and a black hole.
By understanding that humans can reason primarily by relationships we can use this knowledge to improve our own ability to learn new concepts rapidly. By linking an abstract concept to a story, you can easily remember hundreds of details and intricacies about an immensely complex subject. You are simply using your brain in the way it was intended, to understand relationships.
Immediately you will recognize that good teachers have already done this to some degree. In programming, I often see references to children, parents, siblings within classes. Once again this is designed to take an incredibly abstract subject of a logical algorithm and make it about relationships. Reading the work of Brian Green in his books on physics and he can take complex abstract ideas and use a metaphor to make you understand them more easily.
But, unfortunately, there will be times when we don’t get a perfect metaphor handed to us. In this case we must create our own story to understand an idea. By creating characters, relationships and even a narrative we can easily understand complicated subjects. To do this simply take the abstract idea you are being presented and describe it with relationships instead. If you have a procedure you need to follow, create a little story.
Different elements in chemistry each have a different amount of valence electrons. These outer electrons want to form a perfect shell. As a result, different elements will react with other elements to take or give these extra electrons in order to have a full amount of valence electrons. Sodium, with one valence electron is very likely to give up a valence electron to Chlorine which only needs one. This is a pretty basic chemistry topic but it can also be pretty abstract. But what if you use a story to describe it?
Each element has a set of clothes. Knowing its cold out, some elements put on layers of clothing. But each element wants to have a full set of clothes on the outside so that all their colors will match. As they wander around looking to have a complete set of outer clothing, Chlorine, missing only one sock, bumps into Sodium who only has one sock so they decide to trade.
This may seem pretty basic, but it can work for any concept you are having trouble understanding. By inventing characters and likening an abstract idea to a metaphor and story you can easily relate to, complex ideas become easy. In describing my initial story you may have felt a little confused if you didn’t study chemistry. But the story I described seems almost childishly easy.
Often these stories will have flaws in it. You may later learn an aspect that doesn’t quite fit into your story to help you understand. Updating your story to more accurately describe the situation can allow you a better understanding of the concept. Using relationships can be a powerful way to speed up your learning rate. Creating just one story isn’t always the best idea. Being able to quickly create multiple stories to describe the same events can give you a far greater understanding of the idea than just using one.
Stories, metaphors and analogies are a powerful way to facilitate your own rapid learning. By creating connections to something your brain already understands you can utilize its incredible power. If you are presented material in a way you can’t quite understand or remember, try using a story to help the material sink in. Use stories and metaphors and you can speed up your own learning rate.