Maximise Your Learning Potential: A 4-Step Protocol for Rewiring Your Brain

"To achieve great things, two things are needed:
a plan and not quite enough time."
Leonard Bernstein

Yesterday I watched my youngest son’s horror as he rushed downstairs moments after re-reading his mock A level exam timetable, to discover that with only 24 hours to go, he had two exams the following day and not just the one he had been revising for. 

In that moment, his brain sprang into action, releasing noradrenaline (the brain’s version of adrenaline) & as he rushed back upstairs to his desk and stared at the first words on his revision cards, his brain followed on with acetylcholine and he had the perfect built in cocktail of drugs to give him alertness and focus. 

As he continued through the day, interrupted by mother every hour or so, bearing tea and biscuits, he benefited from the third ingredient, maximizing his natural ultradian cycles, having a break every 90 minutes to rest and recover. 

Finally, as he fell into bed and slept deeply, all the great knowledge he had harvested from his books and cards was laid down into memories, stored in his hippocampus, ready for regurgitation in the confined and anxious space of the exam hall the following day.

Now his young brain is primed for learning and he didn’t really need to worry about a four step method for maximizing his exam success. Fast forward to me, his 50 something year old mother and it’s another story. I need help. Learning and retaining facts is harder and my brain needs a conscious kick start, help staying focused, scheduled pauses, followed at the end of the day with uninterrupted sleep to burn all the precious information into new neural connections.  

So to summarise the four steps (before I forget):


1. Get motivated 

To turn your brain on to full alert for maximum release of noradrenaline, give yourself a sharp self-talk about why you need to learn xyz. The motivator can either be positive (I want to learn Portuguese so I can propose to this beautiful Portuguese woman, in true Love Actually style) or negative (extra surprise exam in 24 hours), your noradrenaline really doesn’t care.

2. Focus your eyes

Once you’ve sat down, to get focus and maximum acetylcholine release, try this wonderful trick courtesy of my favourite neuroscientist Andrew Huberman. He reminds us that mental focus follows visual focus, so by simply giving your entire focus to a corner of your page or word for 1-2 minutes, reducing your blinking if you can, you move into tunnel vision as your visual world shrinks and your brain starts paying full attention.  

 Now that our ready-made cocktail of noradrenaline and acetylcholine are in circulation, you can start learning & they highlight the neural circuits that will need to change. 

3. Work in bursts

Consider the first 5 minutes the warm up act, as you move full flow. If your mind starts to wander, don’t worry, simply refocus on a word again and put distractions (phone) in another room. Then keep going, but to take full advantage of your brain's natural rhythms, keep it to a maximum of 90 minutes before you take a break. 

Most of us know about our circadian rhythms, our bodies' 24 hour internal clock. We actually have mini ones during the day called “ultradian cycles” naturally designed to manage the cycles of energy production, output and recovery. So to maximse your study, leverage them, work at your peak and then give yourself a 20-minute breather, relax, get up, move around, take a walk, before you start again.

4. Get a good night’s sleep

So you’re feeling good about how much you’ve done in the day. However, unless you give yourself a decent night’s sleep it will all have been in vain. The new neural connections you’ve formed only get properly wired and turned into memories in your hippocampus during deep sleep.

 So are you ready to try and see if it works for you? Of course, we are all wonderfully different so what works for one doesn’t work for all, so have a play and refine. And please share any feedback or other tips or techniques in the comments box. _________________________________________________________________________

And as for my son? Well it sounded like the exams went well, this time he got away with it & has learnt to double check his timetable when it comes to the exams proper in the summer. 

 If you are interested in digging deeper, check out the Huberman Lab “Neuroplasticity Super Protocol” here which gives more detail and tips. 


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