Now, in my opinion, negative experiences in the classroom do indeed promote the formation
of long term memories, but they aren’t the memories the instructor intended. The student is
likely to remember, and loath, the instructor for the rest of their life but is not more likely to
remember the material except sporadically in association with particularly traumatic episodes.
They may well be less likely, as we naturally avoid negative experiences and will study less
and work less hard on things we can’t stand doing.
For the instructor, then, positive is the way to go. Creating a warm, nurturing classroom
environment, ensuring that the students know that you care about their learning and about
them as individuals helps to promote learning. Making your lectures and teaching processes
fun – and funny – helps as well. Many successful lecturers make a powerful positive impression
on the students, creating an atmosphere of amazement or surprise. A classroom experience
should really be a joy in order to optimize learning in so many ways.
For the student, be aware that your attitude matters! As noted in previous sections, caring is
an essential component of successful learning because you have to attach value to the process
in order to get your amygdala to do its job. However, you can do much more. You can see
how many aspects of learning can be enhanced through the simple expedient of making it a
positive experience! Working in groups, working with a team of peers, is fun, and you learn
more when you’re having fun (or quavering in abject fear, or in an interesting mix of the two).
Attending an interesting lecture is fun, and you’ll retain more than average. Participation is
fun, especially if you are “rewarded” in some way that makes a moment or two special to you,
and you’ll remember more of what goes on.
Chicken or egg? We see a fellow student who is relaxed and appears to be having fun because
they are doing really well in the course where we are constantly stressed out and struggling,
and we write their happiness off as being due to their success and our misery as being caused
by our failure. It is possible, however, that we have this backwards! Perhaps they are doing
really well in the course because they are relaxed and having fun, perhaps we are doing
not so well because for us, every minute in the classroom is a torture!
In any event, you’ve probably tried misery in the classroom in at least one class already. How’d
that work out for you? Perhaps it is worth trying joy, instead!
From all of these little factoids (presented in a way that I’m hoping helps you to build at least
the beginnings of a working conceptual model of your own brain) I’m hoping that you are coming
to realize that all of this is at least partially under your control! Even if your instructor is scary or
boring, the material at first glance seems dry and meaningless, and so on – all the negative-neutral
things that make learning difficult, you can decide to make it fun and exciting, you can ferret out
the meaning, you can adopt study strategies that focus on the formation of cognitive maps and
organizing structures first and then on applications, rehearsal, factoids, and so on, you can learn to
study right before bed, get enough sleep, become aware of your brain’s learning biorhythms.
Finally, you can learn to increase your functional learning capabilities by a significant amount.
Solving puzzles, playing mental games, doing crossword puzzles or sudoku, working homework prob-
lems, writing papers, arguing and discussing, just plain thinking about difficult subjects and problems
even when you don’t have to all increase your active intelligence in initially small but cumulative
ways. You too can increase the size of your hippocampus by navigating a new subject instead of
a city, you too can learn to engage your amygdala by choosing in a self-actualized way what you
value and learning to discipline your emotions accordingly, you too can create more conceptual maps
within your brain that can be shared as components across the various things you wish to learn.
The more you know about anything, the easier it is to learn everything – this is the
pure biology underlying the value of the liberal arts education.
Use your whole brain, exercise it often, don’t think that you “just” need math and not spatial
relations, visualization, verbal skills, a knowledge of history, a memory of performing experiments
This is, in fact, physics! This is what physics is all about – coming up with a set of rules (like
conservation of matter) that encode observations of object permanence, more rules (equations
of motion) that dictate how objects move around, and allow me to conclude that “I put a ten
dollar bill, at rest, into my pocket, and objects at rest remain at rest. The matter the bill
is made of cannot be created or destroyed and is bound together in a way that is unlikely to
come apart over a period of days. Therefore the ten dollar bill is still there!” Nearly anything
that you do or that happens in your everyday life can be formulated as a predictive physics
• The hippocampus20 appears to be partly responsible for both forming spatial maps or visual-
izations of your environment and also for forming the cognitive map that organizes what you
know and transforms short term memory into long term memory, and it appears to do its job
(as noted above) in your sleep. Sleep deprivation prevents the formation of long term memory.
Being rendered unconscious for a long period often produces short term amnesia as the brain
loses short term memory before it gets put into long term memory. The hippocampus shows
evidence of plasticity – taxi drivers who have to learn to navigate large cities actually have
larger than normal hippocampi, with a size proportional to the length of time they’ve been
driving. This suggests (once again) that it is possible to deliberately increase the capacity of
your own hippocampus through the exercise of its functions, and consequently increase your
ability to store and retrieve information, which is an important component (although not the
only component) of intelligence!
• Memory is improved by increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain, which is best accom-
plished by exercise. Unsurprisingly. Indeed, as noted above, having good general health, good
nutrition, good oxygenation and perfusion – having all the biomechanism in tip-top running
order – is perfectly reasonably linked to being able to perform at your best in anything, mental
• Finally, the amygdala21 is a brain organ in our limbic system (part of our “old”, reptile brain).
The amygdala is an important part of our emotional system. It is associated with primitive
survival responses, with sexual response, and appears to play a key role in modulating (filtering)
the process of turning short term memory into long term memory. Basically, any short term
memory associated with a powerful emotion is much more likely to make it into long term
There are clear evolutionary advantages to this. If you narrowly escape being killed by a
saber-toothed tiger at a particular pool in the forest, and then forget that this happened by
the next day and return again to drink there, chances are decent that the saber-tooth is still
there and you’ll get eaten. On the other hand, if you come upon a particular fruit tree in that
same forest and get a free meal of high quality food and forget about the tree a day later, you
We see that both negative and positive emotional experiences are strongly correlated with
learning! Powerful experiences, especially, are correlated with learning. This translates into
learning strategies in two ways, one for the instructor and one for the student. For the in-
structor, there are two general strategies open to helping students learn. One is to create an
atmosphere of fear, hatred, disgust, anger – powerful negative emotions. The other is to create
an atmosphere of love, security, humor, joy – powerful positive emotions. In between there is
a great wasteland of bo-ring, bo-ring, bo-ring where students plod along, struggling to form
memories because there is nothing “exciting” about the course in either a positive or negative
way and so their amygdala degrades the memory formation process in favor of other more