How to Learn Programming, Neuroscience, Lock Picking and Engineering With Accelerated Learning

By on March 27, 2016

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In all honesty, I have found my experimentation with nootropics to be largely disappointed. I wasn’t sure what I expected but I hoped that it would lead to measurable improvements in my comprehension and performance. I wanted to be able to work faster and more efficiently, stay motivated to train/work on projects even when I was tired and potentially expand my mind so that I would gain new insights and perspectives. Possibly this could lead to new ideas, like a breakthrough app that would make me rich. Then I could retire and spend my days working out, running around and eating sandwiches. This is the dream.

As it happens though, my focus and efficiency are already pretty good (on a good day I can write 30,000 words) and this is more thanks to CBT-style self-talk and discipline than anything else. As for working out, that’s just a matter of work – the best way to get that kind of energy is to work out even more frequently thus improving things like VO2 max.

And as for expanding my mind and being able to understand more and come up with more ideas… that’s way beyond the scope of any pill. Nootropics often amount to increasing your attention slightly or improving your memory slightly. Often this comes at the expense of other mental faculties but in the best case scenario it’s negligible. The ability to memorize numbers is not the ‘bottleneck’ that prevents most of us achieving our full potential!


What is the best way to expand the mind then?

Simple: learning. The more you learn, the more ideas, concepts, reference points, data and more you will have to work with. This will allow you to look at situations from new perspectives, to use new frameworks for thinking and to apply yourself in a number of different ways.

Knowledge, or ‘crystalized intelligence’ as it is known in psychology, is massively underrated.

Project: Fantastic

This is why I have been working on a personal project I call ‘Project: Fantastic’. The idea behind this project is to expand my knowledge to the point where I could hold a conversation with Mr Fantastic, Tony Stark or other fictional scientists.

mr fantastic brain

It’s a bit of nonsense of course and an impossible task (there’s a reason most researchers specialize in a specific subject) but I love the way these characters are well-versed in everything from quantum physics, to calculus, to mechanical engineering, to chemistry, to astrophysics… And I’d love to have at least a basic knowledge of some of those subjects. I’d love to be a genuine Polymath and to make breakthroughs through my own research and study. It’s harder now that most fields have progressed far beyond the Renaissance era; but by combining programming, engineering and a bit of engineering you could definitely do some very cool stuff. Just look at Palmer Luckey who put together the Rift in his spare time…

Also cool would be to have some of the knowledge of some more practical skills… like navigating using the stars, picking locks, understanding Morse code, tying knots…

To some small extent my job also helps with this ambition to acquire diverse knowledge. As a writer, my preferred subjects are fitness and technology; but I find myself often writing about things like cars, locks, trading, insurance, animals and more. If the price is right, I’ll write 10,000 words on pretty much anything… It sucks a lot of the time but I love occasionally surprising people by knowing about a completely bizarre subject, or being able to fix a broken cistern.

Just a few things I’m planning on working through include:

  • Electronic engineering
  • Physics/quantum physics
  • Calculus
  • Networks
  • A new language (German)
  • Lock picking
  • Manufacturing
  • Computer hacking
  • Chess

Right now what I want to learn though is electronic engineering. I’d love to be able to create my own simple devices and eventually maybe some basic robotics.

The limit of course when engaging in a project like this is how much I can learn and how fast. In the past I’ve struggled with picking up certain new topics and I’m sure everyone reading this has at some point given up trying to work through a textbook of some kind.

So how can we go about learning faster and more efficiently?

Learning by Connecting Ideas

This blog post by Scott H. Young (who runs learning courses) offers and interesting theory on what the ‘best’ way to learn might be and it’s one I’ve seen elsewhere.

Basically, the conclusion is that learning is easier when we focus on connecting ideas. Instead of simply ‘rote learning’, the advice is to try and understand concepts, ideas and information within context.

So if you were trying to learn about neuroscience, you could learn names like ‘axon’, ‘dendrite’ and ‘synaptic terminal’ and a brief description of what each thing does. This way, you might be able to pass some exams but it doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding the subject. Can you rearrange that information in new ways? Can you visualize it?

Conversely, learning by connecting ideas means you understand how each point relates to each other point and how it relates to you. Learning facts is very hard but the brain loves spotting patterns and connections and these tend to last much longer. This makes a lot of sense when you think about how neural networks actually operate – by giving your understanding context you create more ‘in-roads’ to retrieve that information in future.

By being able to visualize the information and understand it, you’ll also be encoding it in multiple ways. Not only will you have learned the semantics but you’ll also have an idea of how that thing looks and how it operates. If you subscribe to the theory of embodied cognition this makes even more sense; we comprehend abstract concepts by relating them back to physical sensations.

And actually understanding a concept is also just a lot more useful. Is it better to rote learn a few sums or to learn how to do additions and long multiplication yourself?

The Importance of Having a Goal

So understanding what you’re learning and how it relates to things you already understand is important and you can do this by reading and trying to visualize what you’re learning and maybe using metaphors.

With the best will in the world though, this isn’t always easy. Sometimes a topic is just too dense and there is too much information out there to know where to start. This is why Scott Young describes the first ‘stage’ of learning as ‘confusion’. He says the way to get past this is by seeking out more information and rereading until you create a seed of understanding.

I feel there must be a better way though. And for me at least, that all relates to having a goal. Having an end goal of some sort is what gives an abstract concept meaning and what allows you to work through it.

I remember learning to create Android apps. At first I was overwhelmed by all the information out there. Not only did I have to learn Java and object-oriented programming but I also had to learn how to set up Eclipse (before the days of Android Studio), how to use XML files, what the Android Manifest was, how to set up emulators… And a lot of the information I was reading would refer to other things I didn’t understand or just seemed completely detached and not useful. What’s a class? Why do I need to learn about trycatch blocks?

The solution was to simply forget trying to ‘learn to code apps’ and instead to just get started and build a simple project that I wanted to make. In doing this, I learned what I needed for that specific project and I could see it working and in action. That gave it context and meaning and it gave the motivation to keep going.

This is what provided me with the ‘seed’ that allowed me to build on my knowledge and to start relating more advanced concepts to something I already understood.

Likewise, I’m finding that for electronic engineering the best strategy is to work on simple projects. I recently bought a magazine on robotics and this has been great for learning some simple things about circuits and logic gates (which I am also able to relate back to my understanding of programming).

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The Neurotransmitter Bonus

For this to work the project needs to be relatively simple and also something that you genuinely want to make/will find useful. This motivation will also help to create salience: it makes what you’re learning far more interesting and useful which results in the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. In other words, by believing what you’re doing is important and useful, you send signals to your brain that it needs to focus and memorize. Dopamine literally increases our production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which in turn encourages neuroplasticity (1). The more important something seems to you, the more your brain will adapt to try and learn it.

This is why it’s so much easier to learn something that we find ‘interesting’ or that we can see a use in. And by creating a project that relates to you, you instantly make that topic more interesting and useful.

For Non-Practical Topics

Now you may already see a flaw in this plan: what do you do if there is no practical application for what you’re trying to learn? If you’re trying to learn neuroscience, what ‘project’ can you work on?

The answer in this case is to have a goal or to ask the right questions.

So in the case of neuroscience, you might set out to learn one specific thing. Interested in nootropics? Then how about learning enough neuroscience to grasp them? Or how about asking a simple question like: how does the brain interpret sight? If it’s learning a new language, how about learning enough language to do your weekly shop?

You don’t have a project in this case but you have a ‘mission’ to find out something that interests you and you have a way to relate the information to something tangible that you do understand.

DiSSS, Memorization and Some Further Reading

I also recommend reading some of Tim Ferriss’ ideas on accelerated learning. His approach involves breaking the learning process down into four steps (called ‘DiSSS’):

  • Deconstructing – Break the skill down to its essential parts which can involve reducing the skill to its more important parts and interviewing experts as techniques.
  • Selection – Choosing the most important parts you need to learn – for instance the most-used vocabulary of a new language. You can get by in a lot of conversations with just 250 words.
  • Sequencing – Choosing which order to learn the blocks of information. He suggests that sometimes it can help to learn things in a less obvious order to get a better idea of their importance. An example he gives is learning the finishing moves in chess first.
  • Setting stakes – Giving yourself extra motivation by creating an arbitrary punishment/reward.

In some ways this approach is similar. Using unconventional sequencing might be seen as another way to give a concept context and to demonstrate its importance. Likewise, setting stakes is another way to make something more pressing and to produce the right neurotransmitters.

Rote Learning and Memorization

None of this is to say there is never a time and place for rote learning or memorization. If I want to learn Morse code for instance, then I’m pretty much left with no other choice.

It’s important though: what if I get stranded on an island and am the only one who can interpret the signal coming through on the radio?

This is something that I’ll be writing about again in future. There are a host of amazing memory techniques so stay tuned for some posts on memory palaces and the like.

For now though, check out Spaced Learning which is a useful technique for quickly creating long term memories (2). It involves showing a stimulus/learning for 15 minutes three times with two ten minute breaks in between that introduce ‘distractor activities’ (like press ups). The idea is that you’re reinforcing ideas while leaving just long enough for them to be internalized and to begin fading from the short term memory.

I also recommend Derren Brown’s book Trick of the Mind which has some cool strategies for learning lists and other things. He also has a resource on his website here.

But I’ll be diving into all that more in future. For now, go and learn how to build that giant robot!

robot

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.

  • NootropicNovice

    Another great article. Really enjoying this site, so many thanks for writing.

    Do you have any thoughts on Optineuro as a commercial nootropic stack? I’d value your opinion.

    • thebioneer

      Thanks a lot, I’m glad you’re enjoying it 😀
      I took a look at OptiNeuro and it’s interesting. I’m not a big fan of the website (a few typos and errors which is always disconcerting) but it’s up-front about the ingredients (with quantities) and they read pretty well. I like the inclusion of choline, CoQ10, piperine… it looks quite well thought out. You don’t get tons of CoQ10 per dose but that’s fair as that’s expensive stuff. The price seems reasonable for what you’re getting and for 30 servings…
      My only issue with it personally would be the large amount of guarana (caffeine). I don’t know why nootropic companies insist on doing that. You can get caffeine easily from a cheap coffee and if it wasn’t for that, this would be a much more versatile supplement. Actually that’s a lie – I do know why they do it: it’s cheap and gives you a ‘buzz’ that will make you feel like the thing you just bought is working. It’s a bit tricky to work out exactly how much caffeine you’d be getting from one of these caps. They say 500mg of their own guarana preparation which includes 101mg of caffeine and 300mg of ‘active’ guarana. Well, the active component of guarana is guaranine – which is just caffeine. Maybe they’re talking about tanins? Or maybe you’re essentially getting 400mg of caffeine… which would be a lot. Seeing as they recommend not taking additional caffeine I’m inclined to believe you’re getting a fairly high dosage either way.
      Overall it’s one of the better ones (there are lots of products like this popping up at the moment), I suppose it depends on how you feel about caffeine. You know I’d love something like this that would be just nutritional. Hopefully I can create something of my own some day 🙂
      If you do give this a try please let me know what you think, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks!

      • NootropicNovice

        Thanks for the reply! The caffeine doesn’t bother me too much; I drink a lot of coffee anyway, and while I do worry a little about this affecting creativity, I’m not realistically going to stop being a caffeine fiend any time soon! I’ve been taking OptiNeuro Xcel (which has more stuff per dose) from amazon for a week or so and think I can feel the effects, but don’t know to what extent this is just placebo, simply caffeine, or the l-theanine mellowing the caffeine (a combination I haven’t tried before). I’m given to understand that, with the other ingredients, the effects build up a little over time (the company would say that, though, wouldn’t they?!), but my knowledge of the biochemistry is still much too limited to judge a stack with so many ingredients. It’s encouraging to hear that the stack looks promising to you, and I may think about buying again. (Expensive, though!)

        I’d be very interested to see what you would come up with as a stack. I totally agree with your perspective on the nootropic issue: increase overall energy with nutrition, rather than stimulating a synthetic narrow focus. I had a few good days with modafinil once, but after that it went downhill for me and I’ve never really got along well with it since; likewise with noopept. Have pretty much given up on these supposed wonder drugs now. The best results I’ve probably had have been from simple MCT oil, exercise, and a good diet!

  • Blaine Webster

    Hey, Adam! If you want to start with learning a little bit about robotics, why don’t you try buying a Lego Mindstorms kit? I used to play with a set a couple of years ago, and it was crazy bonkers what you could do with them bits and pieces. You could program them to move around on their own. Good luck, and thanks for posting the wonderful articles!