An overhead view of school books, pens and hands


So much to learn: how to hack your brain

The modern mind is easily distracted, which means memory skills have taken a back seat. Matthew Jenkin looks at ways for people to reinvent their learning patterns to improve their productivity


In the spring of 2006, Joshua Foer was crowned the USA memory champion and set a new record in the ‘speed cards’ event by recalling the order of a shuffled deck of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds. This amazing feat of mental athleticism was not, however, the result of his genius. It was the fruit of a year’s training in an ancient technique for memorising called the loci or ‘memory palace’ method.

The mnemonic device, famously used by the Greeks and Romans to recall long, complicated speeches, combines visualisations with the use of spatial memory – familiar information about one’s environment. And the technique is not just for memory athletes. It can help anyone improve their recall. A 2017 study(1) found that after just six weeks of training, non-athletes could achieve similar feats of memory.

The importance of learning

From giving word-perfect presentations to training in a new skill, the applications for learning in the context of the workplace are obvious. So why aren’t we already using this and other highly effective methods to learn better? And why is it necessary for us to look for new ways of learning to become more productive in our jobs?

Because, according to the experts, our current approaches to learning are fundamentally flawed. The ‘learning styles’ theory(2) popular with school teachers (the idea that some people are more visual or auditory learners), for example, was recently debunked by scientists who don’t believe there’s evidence to support the case that tailoring lessons to the individual improves learning.

Formal education is also struggling to prepare people for the demands of the modern world, claims Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. The business psychologist explains that the traditional, linear approach to transmitting knowledge from one person to another no longer engages modern, digitally savvy learners whose attention spans are shorter(3).

“We have to move towards a more experiential form of learning,” he says. “If you look at the success of projects like TED, which is really mixing education and entertainment, [the presentations] work because they are shorter, they are more concise, but there is a lot of work going into highlighting the key messages, telling a story and providing an experience that people are more likely to remember later on.”

Learning animals

The rapid pace of technological and social change in the modern world means there is now more demand for employees who are adaptable and willing to learn rather than simply possessing technical expertise. For example, corporations such as Google have said the most important thing they look for when hiring is “learning animals”(4).

Thankfully neuroplasticity(5) – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself both physically and functionally – means that adults can overhaul their deep-rooted learning patterns through focused attention, determination and hard work. So, if the modern-day worker needs to learn how to keep up or be left behind, what practical methods can they use to overcome conditioned ways of learning?

A schoolboy leaning over his books

Learning doesn’t stop when we leave school


Cultural considerations

It is important, first, to find out what role culture plays in how we learn. While learning by rote is perhaps the most popular method in East Asian countries such as China and South Korea, there is evidence to suggest it is not the only factor for children’s high scores in international tests.

A study by the Institute of Education(6) showed that, even when educated elsewhere, children of immigrants from these countries continue to score just as highly within no-better-than-average school systems.

Dr John Jerrim, author of the study, concludes that “the attitudes and beliefs East Asian parents instil in their children make an important contribution to their high levels of academic achievement.”

With increasingly multicultural offices, what, therefore, is the impact of working with colleagues from around the world whose approach to learning may be radically different? Research shows there are business benefits to having more diverse teams.

A 2015 McKinsey report(7) on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians.

Working with people who are different from you may also challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which conducted mock jury panels, scientists found that ethnically diverse teams were better able to focus on facts(8).

In another study, published in Economic Geography, the authors concluded that businesses run by culturally diverse leadership teams were more innovative and more likely to develop new products than those with homogenous leadership(9).

Dr Chamorro-Premuzic believes that developing an understanding of the behaviour of colleagues from other cultures and countries is a talent that is much sought after in today’s global workforce. “The main benefit of that is that you are more capable of interacting with a much larger number of people,” he says. “When you send somebody on a diplomatic mission or business development mission abroad, you want that person to not just speak the language but to understand what people value in a different country.

“That is a fundamental type of learning and is highly sought after in the people who make up the in-demand, cognitive elite of knowledge workers, who actually not only have the opportunity to live in different places, but want to do it.”

Imaginative approach

Of course, it’s hard to talk about learning without looking at memory. The loci method is just one way in which average Joes can hack their brains to improve focus and ultimately become more productive in their jobs. According to Bradley Love, professor of cognitive and decision sciences in experimental psychology at UCL, spacing out the study of information has a huge impact on retention.

It’s a method that at first feels counterintuitive, particularly for those of us used to cramming for an exam or presentation the night before. Love claims that while this may be effective for recalling information in the short term, it is unlikely to help you really master that knowledge and recall it months or years later.

Context is also very important(10). If, for example, you are preparing a presentation, try to recreate the environment you will be in on the day. “It sounds strange, but if I’m giving a really big talk at a conference, even if I am not doing it in that room, I will find a similar room and walk through it, go to the lectern, imagine the talk and imagine the start of the talk,” explains Love. “It’s more realistic training and I am more likely to remember what I am supposed to say because I am actually in the context that I will do it.”

Distracting times

Distraction is a major obstacle for modern learners, Love adds, claiming that many people underestimate the cost it has on productivity. “The little distractions don’t seem like much but if you add them up you have lost 25 per cent of your day, 10 minutes or 30 seconds at a time,” he says. “Everyone thinks they are a great multitasker but nobody really is. What people think feels good isn’t always what is good for performance. So be aware of what really works for one’s self.”

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review(11) , experts recommend a three-part method to help people improve their focus. Paul Hammerness, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Margaret Moore, founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation, claim the technique will help you apply the brakes on your distracted mind. The technique involves first becoming aware of your options, then breathing deeply and considering those options, and finally, choosing thoughtfully which option to take.

Sleep(12) and mindfulness(13) meditation have also been shown to boost learning by improving concentration and memory. But, whatever method you choose, intention is crucial to success. So follow your passions, because, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic adds, “It is when people’s own values and interests align with the tasks, role or job that they will learn the most. These two things might sound superintuitive and obvious, but they are the main reasons people don’t learn more – they don’t know what they are good at and they are working in the wrong field.”


Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers