Maybe some people are just dense…

Not a tin foil hat...Story in today’s Science Daily: Why Some People Don’t Learn Well: EEG Shows Insufficient Processing of Information to Be Learned. While you might initially want to say “because they’re stupid,” (or Republicans), the authors reach a different conclusion. It may be that some people just don’t process information efficiently:

…the main problem is not that learning processes are inefficient per se, but that the brain insufficiently processes the information to be learned.

Which made me think…. it’s like eating. If you don’t chew your food sufficiently, it doesn’t get digested as well. I know a lot of people who don’t chew their data very well and get intellectual gas after every PowerPoint presentation… but perhaps it’s the way that data is presented (infographics and data visualization can really change the way people absorb content). Maybe if we presented the data differently we wouldn’t be subject to so much online wind…

But what about multitasking? Do people who multitask lose the ability to learn because their sensory attention is flitting about all over the place? I multitask all the time. Is it a bad proposition? Does multitasking actually make you stupid? Scary thought. Consider that we all do it – driving is a multitasking experience with several tons of metal at your disposal.

I guess it all depends on your alpha waves. The higher your alpha activity is, the researchers suggest, the better you learn (reminder: find a way to check own alpha wave activity):

A high level of alpha activity counts as a marker of the readiness of the brain to exploit new incoming information. Conversely, a strong decrease of alpha activity during sensory stimulation counts as an indicator that the brain processes stimuli particularly efficiently. The results, therefore, suggest that perception-based learning is highly dependent on how accessible the sensory information is. The alpha activity, as a marker of constantly changing brain states, modulates this accessibility.

So maybe you need to kick yourself under the table while learning in order to digest the intellectual gruel better? Well, not everyone. Some folks just don’t learn very well to start with. It’s genetic:

How well we learn depends on genetic aspects, the individual brain anatomy, and, not least, on attention.

And maybe it’s cultural or social. Are those kids with the TV-fed attention span of a gnat slow learners as a result? And if so, can kicking them under the table help get their flitty little brains into gear? Maybe. Even if it doesn’t I know some parents who will enjoy the kicking anyway. But some of those kids learn very well in other areas (like spatial mapping for first-person shooter games).

In the experiment, patients received mild electrical stimulation for 30 minutes before engaging on a learning experience. Then they were put through the learning gauntlet. It seemed to helped most of them learn better. But the experimenters also found that:

The higher the alpha activity before the passive training, the better the people learned. In addition, the more the alpha activity decreased during passive training, the more easily they learned.

Which suggests to me that the ones already disposed towards learning (alpha highs, better attention span) start with an advantage, and the 30-minute sensory interlude acted like a meditation session; calming and slowing down the alphas and providing focus. Gee, Buddhists have know that for a couple of millenia.

It doesn’t explain, however, why some folks can apply critical thinking (i.e. skepticism, analysis, logic) to what they learn and others are so gullible they consume claptrap like creationism, homeopathy and phrenology without question. All learning is not equal. Like the Kalama Sutra (the Buddhist doctrine on free inquiry) says:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

This is the motto of my own life: in essence, question everything. Don’t accept blindly. Don’t believe blindly. I would never have become one of Hoffer’s “true believers.”

Learning (and retaining) also may have something to do with the way we’re taught. According to this post on, we only retain a portion of what we learn based on both how it is presented and how it it is used:

To summarize the numbers (which sometimes get cited differently) learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.

As a voracious reader, I’d have to challenge that statistic, at least from my own experience. I like to think I retain a lot from what I read (mostly nonfiction).

So what do you need to do to retain what you’ve learned? Here’s the author’s advice:

So how do you avoid losing 90% of what you’ve learned?
Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc. (I wrote this article, ten minutes after reading these statistics online).

In other words, share it, debate it, challenge it. Good advice.* That’s often what I do here: I read something, then dissect it as I write about it in this blog. I read my posts to my wife, who then challenges me, corrects me and reinforces me. Or sometimes tells me I’m full of codswallop… but that never stopped me from writing about it.

So now it’s off to eBay to look for an alpha-wave monitor…


* Okay, he also says (read his post for the details):

The next time you pick up a book or watch a video, remember this .
Listening or reading something is just listening or reading.
It’s not real learning.
Real learning comes from making mistakes.
And mistakes come from implementation.
And that’s how you retain 90% of everything you learn.

I would like to debate with him about his conclusions.

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    • Actually it has nothing to do with you, Colin. It was a response to an article posted on Science Daily, which led to a series of other articles on research in memory, learning and the brain. That got me thinking about the subjects, and writing down my thoughts as I read through them.

      And the conclusion, while perhaps satirically paraphrased, isn’t mine: it’s the what the authors of the research wrote (I trust you read the linked articles…).

      Why would you assume it was about you?

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