The Biology of Learning

Educators often overlook the physical side of a good learner.

The learner who is lacking in good health and environment is at a mark disadvantage of their better prepared peers.

Hours available to study

Malcolm Gladwell makes an interesting observation in his book, Outliers, regarding the intelligence of upper income children.  It is not so much that the wealthier children have better schools and home as much as they study more than their lower income counter-parts.  For instance, during the summer breaks, most low-income and middle-income children play in the streets, go to camps or hang around home.  Meanwhile, the wealthier children are going to summer school for at least an extra month or two.  So after 12 years of schooling the wealthier children have 12 to 24 months of more schooling and tutoring than their lower income counter-parts.  That is roughly 2,400 to 4,800 more hours of learning.  Just the shear volume of learning puts them ahead.

Learning Environment

Obviously, the student who has a stable home life, with a loving family and clean quiet location to study has the advantage over the student in a chaotic home and constant interruptions.

Learning environment also includes good lighting, proper chairs and isolated locations.


In his book, Writing, Stephen King writes about his high school days when children came to school with rocks in their lunch boxes to simulate lunches.  School breakfast and lunch programs go a long way to ensure that a student has enough to eat so that they can concentrate.


Both the adult and young learner can benefit from outside fresh air and exercise.  Exercise strengthens the back and stretches the hamstrings, minimizing back strain from sitting too long.  The extra oxygen improves brain function.  Exercise also releases stress and produces endorphins which makes a person feel good.


A neglected component of memory is the ability to sleep.  Sleep enables the brain to sort out the problems of the day and retain information.

–Doug Setter BSc.

Beating the Three Week Learning Relapse

Week 3 is usually turning point for most people. Students drop out (or fail exams), athletes go stale and even army recruits become listless or rebellious. Fitness classes in particular always start thinning out in the first week, but keep most of the students after the third week. It is like the whole universe wants to yank you back to where you started.

Whether it is family, career or personal problems, there are almost always reasons or excuses to drop the class, stop the diet, go back to a bad relationship or take up drinking again. It often happens just before that magic number of week 3. Day 21.

In his book, Psycho-Cybernetics, Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed that it took generally 21 days for amputees to stop feeling sensations from their “ghost limbs.” Since then, the 21 day habit change has become an accepted theory in self-help and behavior modifying programs.

Memory traces (engrams) can produce neuroconnections and neuropathways if they are bombarded for 21 consecutive days.

So, here is the key. Small efforts over a 21 day period are generally stronger at programming a new habit than what most people do: large sporadic attempts at changing their behavior.

Obviously, instant habits can happen due to physical, mental and emotional trauma. These are under special circumstances. Generally, the human mind can be cultivated into that new habit within 21 days.

Now, what do you do to stop the relapse? How do you stop yourself from skipping workouts, staying out late or eating junk?

Answer: You make a plan to anticipate problems.

For instance:

1. Avoid situations and places where you can be to back slide. This can be pastry shops, coffee shops or bars.

2. In unavoidable situations, like meetings at bars or coffee shops. In these situations, bring the minimal amount of money and position yourself away from the pastries or alcohol.

3. Avoid overreaction to the occasional setback. Even the most disciplined people have relapses. Belittling yourself just weakens your resolve to keep trying.

4. Keep track of your successes. Mark on a calendar every day that you stuck to your plan.

5. Keep a journal of your progress. Your personal notes will keep you aware of other factors, like stress.

6. Give yourself small rewards at the end of each day, such as reading or telephoning a friend. These small rewards will assist your mind into taking on a new habit.

–Doug Setter, BSc.

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The Five Minute Rule for Learning Faster

One of the most effective methods of getting something unpopular done or doing what you don’t feel like doing is the 5 minute rule.

A case in point is this article. I really don’t have the time or the inspiration or the feeling or rush of creativity. There is no guarantee that this will be accepted, promoted, published or even read, but I agreed (with myself) to write a couple of articles every week. So, I just do it for 5 minutes.

5 minutes is usually spent doing what? Channel surfing? Waiting for a list of shows to go through? Waiting for a bus? Waiting in traffic at a light? Waiting for a tea? A grocery store checkout line up?

There once was a parody written in MAD magazine about activities to do during television breaks. There were all sorts of products to make the most of the 15 second to 2 minute commercial breaks. Activities included: 3 word crossword puzzles or half-filled in games of X’s and O’s. The more sophisticated products included sure grip shoe soles and a hallway-mounted-hand grip for those quick sprints to the washroom. As ridiculous as it was, it just went to show how many things one could do during those short, boring breaks.

So, what about something productive, like exercise, reading a non-fiction book, cleaning out your desk, booking an appointment or spending some quality time with a family member. Even a few minutes of petting the family dog goes along way for improving the pet’s trainability.

In the case of exercising, there are some days when I do it to clear my head, some days when I really enjoy it and some days I take it like bitter medicine. Most days I start off taking it like bitter medicine. It is to be expected. You are going from slow to fast, so you need to warm up the engine. The best way, is just to start moving. Of course, when you are in a sleeping bag and you have to answer the call of nature, there is plenty of motivation to get you out of the bag. Or if you have a dog that has to be put outside. I am sure that most parents never had to worry about an alarm clock when they had kids. It is a different story with teenagers.

The same can be said for studying, writing or getting down to the nasty business of learning or school work.  You must engage yourself in the activity and overcome the START that makes most people stop.

This is where the 5 minute rule comes in. Almost anyone alive can exercise, read or write for 5 minutes. The same goes for avoiding eating the wrong foods or drinking or smoking. You can usually last for 5 minutes without eating junk food, drinking alcohol, making sarcastic remarks or smoking. This delay tactic can often work for people who are trying break a habit. Often, it only takes that short period to overcome the craving.

Getting back to exercise, if you really, really feel bad after 5 minutes of exercising, then it might not be your best day. Even then, you can often just push it for 15-20 minutes. If you still feel lethargic, then it is not one of those days for training.

The beauty about the 5 minute rule is that most of us can endure 5 minutes of just about anything boring. It is getting started that is the most important. So, stop reading this and do something useful for 5 minutes. It works.

by Doug Setter
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Positive Reinforcement and learning

As a teen, I often saw education as something that was done to you.  Aside from English class, schooling was a force-fed process.  It was not until age 39 that I figured out how to build the study and writing habit.  Basically, it was like exercise or other habit.  You re-program yourself to do it on auto-pilot.

What not to do.  Too many people make two large mistakes when trying to develop new habits:

  1. They delay their reward
  2. They give themselves huge rewards for minor accomplishments

A common example of the delayed reward is the person who plans to go to Greece or get their parents to buy themselves a car after they graduate university.  The problem with this thinking is that there is little incentive to study on a daily basis.  If they were to break down every hour of study or writing into a small car payment or a television break, then the habit of studying and writing would become more natural.

An example of a huge reward is like the weekend athlete who drinks a case of beer after playing baseball or eats half a cheesecake after going for a walk.  It just does not impress the brain to earn that reward when the effort is so small.  A smarter approach would be to have a glass of lemonade after either event.  In the case of studying, it is important to follow each study session with a small reward of something simple as playing with the family dog, walking, reading fiction or talking with a friend.

With consistent practice, one can overcome the reluctance to study and improve their ability to learn.

–Doug Setter, BSc.

Sleep and learning

Deadly Sleep Deprivation

It was tragic to hear about Indonesian copywriter, Ananda Paramita working herself to death. It reminded me of a script writer friend of mine who insisted on writing for 24 hours at a time every Saturday. This just worsened his diabetes and led to several health problems and a heart attack.

Unfortunately, self-imposed sleep deprivation is nothing new. Sure, sometimes you have to push yourself. I know as a former soldier, paratrooper and even U.N. peacekeeper, sleep was often a luxury. (I once went 30 hours without food or sleep.) Most university students will know the rituals of “all-nighter” study sessions before their final exams. In an old Writer’s Digest article, I once read about Sylvester Stallone re-writing the script to Rocky over 24 hours straight, while staying awake on caffeine pills and coffee. Endurance athlete and former marine, Allan Jones once swam for five days straight.

I am the first to admit that sometimes you have to push yourself to accomplish a project, a mission or just prove to yourself that you have that kind of will. But, the human body and mind needs recovery and many ambitious people do not give themselves the needed recovery time.

Sleep deprivation is often the sole reason why so many people can follow the best fitness and diet routine and yet fail to gain muscle or lose weight. Their bodies cannot recover from the exercise. Their muscles are inhibited from re-building and the stress-induced cortisol will cause an increase in fat weight.

Sleep is also nature’s method for the mind to recover and process the day’s information. So, less good sleep means less productivity the following day. Plenty of people will argue this as they still go to work and run on coffee, cigarettes and energy drinks all day. But, these folk almost always crash in the end.

So, just for the next week, try the following:

  1. Drink less caffeine. Limit yourself to a couple of cups of coffee a day. Drink more water or tea instead.

  2. Start a wind down routine 30 minutes prior to bedtime. Don’t try to race home after work or think that you can turn off the computer and flop into bed. Read a book. Go for a walk. Give yourself wind down time.

  3. If you are starving, eat some complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, muffin, brown rice or cooked lentils. They digest easily without disturbing your sleep.

  4. Before bedtime eat turkey as it is high in the amino acid tryptophan which encourages sleep. As a supplement, tryptophan should be taken about an hour before bedtime. It is non-addictive and very effective.

  5. Turn the temperature down slightly in your bedroom.

  6. Block out the excessive light. Use a sleeping mask if necessary. In some situations, I used to wrap a t-shirt around my head to cover my eyes. Darkness sends a message to the pineal gland that it is sleep time. So, if you keep turning lights on and off, it inhibits the brain from entering the sleep mode.

Rest up, so that you can hit the ground running the next day.

In Health,

Doug Setter

Action Environment

By Doug Setter

There is something subconscious or almost occult the way that some people get stuck in their own ruts. It is hard to change when you are surrounded by the same places, people and routines.

One of the strongest influences in my life was changing my environment. In my case, I moved out east away from my home town, Surrey, B.C.  I worked, studied and became healthier.

So, what is your current environment like? Do you get constant criticism from spouses, parents, students or co-workers? Whether you are a working adult or teenager living at home, you can still have some control over your environment (also called “situational inducement). You can:

  1. Change your location of your training or studying. You don’t need cat-calling, criticism or distractions when you are trying to train or concentrate. Find a friendly place to train or study. It can be a park, studio, basement gym. If you are trying to do mental work use the library or a nearby college. It might be farther away. But, you will get more quality study time.

  2. Change the people around you. As mentioned, train and study around positive people. Even if they are strangers, you are more likely to train or study more intensely surrounded by motivated people. Instead of pulling you down, the right people will help pull you up.

  3. Change positions. If this means facing a wall while studying or working out in a corner of a gym, then position yourself to the best position for optimum concentration. While instructing martial arts classes, I was constantly separating the teenagers so that they would train instead of socializing.

  4. Change the time. I am a morning kind of guy. I get more done in the early morning when there are fewer distractions than during the day or late at night. Some people like to workout during their lunch breaks so that they can break up the work day. Later, they just eat at their desks. Even getting up 15 minutes earlier for a short walk or light exercise makes me far more alert during the day.

Making any kind of the four changes can offset the way that the world tries to contain you. For the next week, try any or all of the following:

  • Get up earlier to study or exercise.

  • Go to work or school 15 minutes earlier and stay 15 minutes later.

  • Book yourself some personal time and stick with it. Even if it is sitting on a park bench for 20 minutes. It is your time.

  • Unplug your land line phone and turn off your cell phone for two hours at a time.

  • Avoid media for a week, a day or even a morning. This is a big one. No newspapers, television, radio or internet news for a day or even a morning. (I used to go weeks without seeing a television or newspaper and it did not bother me at all.) If something really important happens, someone will let you know.

  • Go to bed 30 minutes early.

By breaking away from your normal routine, you also create a different environment. As you change your environment, you will find that you have more control over the rest of your life.


Reference, Martin, G & Pear (1999) Behavior Modification. Prentice-Hall:Upper Saddle River. pp.222-226