What is the first thing that you associate with the phrase ‘brain damage’?
Most of us will think in terms of an accidental or unforeseen head injury that impairs a person’s cognitive abilities. But you don’t need an accident to damage your brain. The increasing amount of information that we are bombarded with every day has the potential to do the same.
- Our brain changes physically every time we learn something new. In our brain, all information is channeled through neural pathways. When we learn something new, our brain either opens up new pathways connecting a new set of neurons, or makes an existing pathway stronger with more connections along the same route.
- Not everything we learn is good for our brain. Junk foods are edible, but they do not make us healthy. Similarly, a lot of the information that we come across everyday doesn’t actually make us smarter. If the data we gather is faulty, our reasoning based on that data will be faulty too, and so will our actions based on that reasoning.
This is ‘junk learning’. Just as junk food can make you sick, junk learning can make you dumb. Even more worrying still, the more your brain is fed junk learning the more prone it will be to pick up further junk learning because of the pathways that have already been opened in your brain.
With too much information available at our fingertips now, we are more and more at risk of being swayed by junk learning. So let us identify a few factors that lead to it, and how to get past them.
Change your approach to learning from knowledge acquisition to knowledge investment.
Most of what we know as ‘facts’ are changeable. Our ideas are based on facts that we learned in the course of our formal education, stretching over a good part of two decades. But science has not been sitting idle all these years. It has made strides and in those strides many of our ‘established facts’ have been debunked or updated.
Don’t accumulate facts; invest time in understanding the underlying principles and methods. Learn things that offer long-lasting lessons instead of just current trends. Invest in building adaptability and reasoning skills, so that even if you come across unexpected facts you are capable of assimilating and judging them correctly.
Assume you know nothing.
In 1999, psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning introduced what is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The idea is: we are most confident about learning anything new right before we start learning it. The more we actually learn, the more complexity and nuance we encounter, and the more unsure we become. This causes a loss of confidence, and subsequently of interest in many of us.
Ready your mind for new things by assuming a clean-slate mindset. Always assume that you know absolutely nothing about the domain before beginning to learn; that way you’ll be protected from the discouragement your brain receives once the threshold proves too difficult.
Avoid confirmation bias.
We are all guilty of confirmation bias. This is a tendency to look for and believe information that confirms what we already think. Our brain resists new learning by employing confirmation bias because making new neural pathways is energy-consuming, and the brain’s instinct is to get things done with as little energy as possible.
Teach yourself to listen in order to understand, not to argue. Several educationalists, philosophers, and psychologists of the past century have stressed that we learn a lot more by proving ourselves wrong than by proving ourselves right. Testing our acquired knowledge through independent verification and engaging with sources holding differing opinions are both crucial for our brain growth.
Avoid ‘celebrity’ influence.
There is a term called ‘Halo Effect’ in psychology. It refers to our inherent bias that makes us trust a person on one thing simply because they are an expert on a completely different thing. For example, when we trust a politician’s opinion on matters of climate over scientific studies, or a scientist’s opinion on foreign policy over a diplomat.
Before you acquire new information, always check whether the source is experienced or knowledgeable enough in that field to provide expert information.
Learning is a lengthy process; it eats away at both our time and energy reserves, which is why most of us are resistant to learning. And yet constant learning is the only way we grow in our lives and careers. So when you learn, make sure not to do so in vain by feeding your brain cognitive junk.