Fearless Learning 2: Organizing Information Versus Actually Learning

In order to get the most out of anything that you’re trying to learn, you need to ask yourself, “How is this different?” By doing that, you activate the learning part of your brain. That’s because, in order to make things easier for us, our brain tries to organize things as often, and effectively, as possible. One way it does that is by placing new information into a particular “category” for easier organization and access.

Another word for categorizing information, of course, is to “stereotype” something. The problem with this mental habit is that the moment you stereotype something, you immediately lose the ability to learn something new from it. For example, let’s say you were raised in a fairly sedentary family and, growing up, every time you tried to engage in a physical activity or organized sport, you had a bad experience – sprained your ankle, did poorly, got chewed out by the coach, humiliated by your teammates, shoved around in the locker room, smashed a finger with the free weights, whatever.

As a result of this negative reinforcement, now anything tagged as “exercise” or “sports” is bad; your brain immediately sends that signal as new information comes in. So now, as an adult, every image of exercise or fit people or advertisement for a gym or even a running shoe gets categorized, labeled and stereotyped into a particular category. The problem is that if you

believe that all exercise is bad, then you’re completely limiting yourself from an entirely worthwhile, beneficial and stimulating side of human life.

We are meant to move, to be fit and healthy and our lives are generally improved by things that fall under the umbrella of fitness, but not if you close yourself off to the possibility because of how your brain categorizes that information. It’s not your fault the brain has built up negative associations with fitness and processes the way it does, but it is your fault if you don’t recognize how the brain works and use that power to overcome negative associations and stereotypes.

So, how does the brain work? What you need to understand is that your brain is like Google on steroids. It adds and filters and searches and arranges data in a very particular way so that, whenever we need to call upon it, it’s there at our convenience. To do that, just like Google or any search engine, it has particular categories, shelves, rows or filing cabinets.

Categorizing is very big in the brain! So, for instance, to continue with the previous metaphor. If you believe that working out and fitness are bad then your brain will give you a bunch of reasons why it is bad and why you shouldn’t do it, and vice versa. So if you consider a certain activity as “bad” – like going to the gym or work or the dentist’s office – then your brain will find ways to “reinforce” that belief through a variety of negative emotions. We call this positive and negative reinforcement.

According to Kendra Cherry, Psychology Expert for About.com, “Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.”

So, for instance, getting an “A” on your report card is positive reinforcement for doing well academically while, later in life, getting a bonus for high performance at your job is a positive reward for professional achievement. In real life, we continue to feed our good impulses and ignore our negative ones. As you’ll see later on in the chapters, this mechanism is key for gaining reference experience, which is ultimately the key to becoming fearless – and why I’m getting so technical on your ass all of a sudden!