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Strategies for understanding a concept.

In my last post on learning (found here), I presented a different way to think about the learning process. In this post, I'll focus mainly on the struggle phase and detail strategies for reaching your "a ha" moment.

Think like a lightning bolt

Have you ever watched a lightning bolt in slow motion? Take a minute to learn how lightning develops.

Alright, wasn't that neat? Before seeing this video, I had no idea that was how lightning worked. I've realized that the birth of a lightning bolt is actually a great analogy for the birth of a eureka moment.

When you're trying to grasp a subject, you're not quite sure how to approach it at first. So try different things, go different directions, look at the concept from as many different perspectives as possible. Get weird with it, be creative - that's often the way to make things stick. Be like the step leader and it's "tortuous channel that it's taking as it divides back and forth."

When you've found the right path, the right intuition, your "a ha" moment happens in a flash.

Make sure you have the right challenge/skills ratio

It doesn't make sense to try to understand multivariate calculus if you don't know how to add. In flow state research, a fine-tuned challenge/skills ratio is one of the 17 identified triggers for flow, which is essentially a state of peak mental performance.

Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what’s scientists call the “flow channel” — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap.
This sweet spot keeps attention locked in the present. When the challenge is firmly within the boundaries of known skills—meaning I’ve done it before and am fairly certain I can so again — the outcome is predetermined. We’re interested, not riveted. But when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we pay more attention to the next.

Focus on what you're learning, not how you're performing

The good news is if you can find yourself in flow by tackling a challenge appropriate to your skill level, you'll likely do this inherently. One of the characteristics of flow is transient hypofrontality (read: your prefrontal cortex effectively shuts down) which silences your inner critic and allows you to be fully present in the moment.

Now, it is important to understand how you're performing, but not while you're learning. When you're struggling to understand a new concept, it doesn't make sense to waste mental bandwidth agonizing over the fact that the concept hasn't clicked yet. Rather, you should dedicate the entirety of your mental capacity towards grasping and understanding the concept at hand. This allows your brain to take in a maximum amount of data, which increases your chances of having something click and make sense.

Get some sleep

Speaking of which, make sure to prioritize a restful mind. Seriously, healthy sleep is incredibly beneficial for pattern recognition and learning.