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Here’s what you might not know about your brain and learning

Use music to help you learn

Music may help us learn because it alters our physiology and makes us feel more relaxed.

“Listening to music right before you have to concentrate on a challenging exercise or exam may boost your chances of success”, said professor Minna Huotilainen, brain researcher from the University of Helsinki, at the “Armoa aivoille” (Mercy for the brain) webinar held during the FSHS day.

Listening to music while performing the task, on the other hand, is different: it suits some, but not all. Huotilainen encouraged everyone to test and see whether listening to music while performing tasks is helpful or distracting.

Exercise improves study motivation

Another benefit of music is that it motivates us to move more.

“Movement and exercise have a big impact on our energy levels. Even simple things such as the number of daily steps influence study motivation”, Huotilainen told the audience.

Huotilainen considers dance a very special case – from a brain perspective, possibly even the best form of exercise. People who begin dance training often experience improvements in everything from memory, attention, body positions, lifestyle and reaction times to fine motor skills of the hands.

“Exercise boosts concentration!” Huotilainen said, underlining the importance of exercise.

Sitting to study wasn’t the way people originally learnt

The human brain wasn’t built to sit in one place. Hunter-gatherers learnt by doing and experimenting, through their bodies and physical experiences.

“Researchers believe that hunter-gatherers had the optimal environment for learning. They were healthy, creative and innovative and came up with new ideas. Of course we are also healthy and learn well, but learning is different today than it originally was.”

Huotilainen said that an important part of old-fashioned learning was that everyone was able to use their own specialised skill set. Today the expectation often is, perhaps too much so, that everyone knows a little bit about everything in their field of study.

“This doesn’t honour our uniqueness or the fact that we all have our own interests, which we might benefit from learning in more depth.”

The everyday basics are key

Many background factors in our daily lives influence concentration. We should pay attention to the acoustics and lighting in our work space – if we hear talking, for example, this takes our focus away from the task at hand. Similarly, nutrition has an impact on energy levels.

Sleep pays a key role in concentration and the ability to memorise things.

“The brain is by no means idle at night. While we sleep, our brain processes new information and connects it to previously held information. One could even say that half of all learning happens at night”, Huotilainen stated.

How do you control the information flow around you?

Today’s way of life is stressful for our brains. We constantly receive information and experience interruptions from numerous different channels. We try to multitask and aren’t able to finish things. All this impairs our ability to concentrate and to learn and remember new things.

Huotilainen stressed the need to control the information flow in some way so that information doesn’t merely flood on to us from every direction. How many different information channels we follow at the same time is our choice.

We also need time to relax and recover while not being constantly bombarded with new information. Evenings, in particular, should be reserved for calming down.

“We’re constantly being robbed of this space for calming down. Just think of all the social media algorithm developers who, even as we speak, are trying to think of ways to get you to log on to that mobile app and spend a few extra seconds on it.”

According to Huotilainen, if we teach our brain to constantly jump from one thing to another, it’ll soon start anticipating the next interruption. The good news is that you can train your brain and lengthen your attention span.

“We need to use our brain for things that we’re able to focus on for a longer period of time. If that isn’t work or studies for you, maybe a hobby will allow you to spend a couple of hours without even checking your watch or cell phone!”

Expert answer to student questions

Social media algorithms don’t support cognitive ergonomics – they do just the opposite. They erode our decision-making step by step, getting us hooked and making us spend longer on social media than we intended. This trains our brains to have a shorter attention span. The algorithms take no responsibility for our sleep schedule or our ability to concentrate.

When learning something new, the appropriate time to spend on uninterrupted learning is 15 to 25 minutes for most people. After this time, it’s a good idea to take a break – five minutes, for example. After a couple of hours, you should take a longer break.

Things that make concentrating more difficult are described in the Health information section on our website.

Regardless of diagnoses, everyone’s concentration is different. Attention deficit disorder is something of an umbrella term, and under this umbrella term, everyone’s concentration is different – no two people are alike. For those who’ve been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder, the goal is the same as for everyone else: getting to know your own attention skills and exercising them. Of course, those with attention deficit disorders can be supported by professionals, and it’s often a good idea to ask for help sooner rather than later. If you’ve been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder, you may be entitled to support and accommodations in your studies, which can be set up by professionals such as study psychologists.

It’s also important that students’ unique attention skills and other related characteristics are taken into account in teaching. Teachers should make use of a range of assignments so that their students are able to showcase their own different strengths.

Mental and physical overload can have an effect on almost anything. It definitely affects sleep, and poor sleep can influence a very wide variety of things, including risk of illness. When we allow ourselves to end up in a situation where we constantly have a hundred things to do, we keep ourselves in a constant state of alertness. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for this – we need time to recover, not only for our brain, but also for our body.

Some people develop burnout; they can no longer deal with the stress, and their body tells them it’s time to stop and recover. Recovery takes a lot of time. If studies have been very stressful for several months, recovery will take weeks. Recovery starts when we start making changes to the way we behave, by reducing interruptions and deepening our concentration.

There’s no one answer to this question, but knowing how to prioritise tasks has become part of working-life skills and is also needed during studies. While prioritising, it’s good to stop and think about what’s most important and what to devote your time to if you don’t have enough time to complete everything. The most important factor is the work target, or the person you’re working for – what’s best for them should always be your guide.

A figure that looks like a brain works out with dumbbells.