I’m sure you know the scene all too well.
You’re sitting at your desk, head between your hands, eyes closed, feeling like your head is just going to explode from all the information and wondering how on earth you’re going to cram even more info into it.
Welcome to the world of “brain-cramming”.
This pattern can be true in other cases as well, like with language learning for example.
Students learning a language, especially in an intensive language learning program, are often faced with the same difficulty, of trying to cram more vocab, more grammar rules, more tenses, more, more, more, into their heads but their brains refusing to cooperate at some point.
At this point, every minute you spend trying to learn more is wasted time, because it’s become pointless.
This is one reason I am not really in favor of intensive language learning programs. You can’t “force” your brain to learn more than it can in a given time frame anyway.
Just like you can’t really (healthily!) force your stomach to eat more than it can hold.
Whether you try to eat 4 plates in a meal or just 2, your body will only take what it needs and either evacuate the rest or store it up as fat. Over time, you get heavier, feeling less agile and less healthy and so on and so forth.
People sometimes forget that the brain is an organ too and that there is only so much new information it can take in at any given time.
I firmly believe that whether you sit in a classroom learning French for 8 hours or if you’re learning “only” 2-4 hours a day, the result will be much the same.
I can say that because I have taught in both settings and, to be totally honest, people who only attended class in the morning and had some homework for the afternoon made just as much, if not more, progress than those who had 8 lessons a day plus 1-2 hours’ worth of homework at night.
I’m not joking.
PLUS, the first group was not in a French-speaking environment but the second group was!
The other difference between the two groups were that the first usually stayed fresh and motivated until the end of the course, while many of those in the second group faced increasing discouragement, bad sleep (because the brain would take forever to wind down) and slower progress as a result.
It’s a waste of time and money.
You cannot fill a full glass endlessly. It’s just going to run over and the energy and time you spend continuing to pour will be totally wasted – never mind the water. You have to empty the glass first before you can fill it again.
Just like your computer only has a limited amount of RAM space, so it is with your brain. You save files to the hard disk and eventually to an external disk, to make space both in the computer’s RAM and then its hard drive, before you can download any more heavy files.
Likewise, saving a large file can sometimes take a little longer for the computer to process than a small file.
That’s exactly what is happening with your brain. It is full. It needs time to process and to “save away” to make room for more “information download”.
So how can you help the brain in this process to avoid information overload and “brain block”?
There are two distinct steps to take.
1. Take a Break
Rest to give your brain time to process à read post on how to rest adequately to help your brain process
The best thing you can do for yourself, your brain, time and money right now, is to STOP LEARNING.
- Put the pen down.
- Close the book (I KNOW how hard it is! Why is it that we love to keep books open just because it gives us the illusion that we are still learning even though we aren’t??)
- Get up from your chair.
- Get your favorite drink (please let it be healthy, it helps you to learn well!)
- Go outside.
- And breaaaathe (fresh air!)
Once you’ve taken at least a 15min break, you alone can feel if your brain is ready for another stretch or not and how long that stretch can be.
Remember also that revising familiar information is not the same as learning new information. It typically takes the brain longer to “digest” new information and be ready for even more new information.
The risk you run in going on for hours cramming one new info after the other in your head, is that at some point, if there is unprocessed information overload in your brain, anything else that comes along will be filtered out by the brain right through one ear and out the other. No chance of retention.
So you might as well just take a break.
Once you get used to that rhythm (learn-break-learn-break), you will start to know intuitively when your brain has finished “processing” and is ready for new information intake. If it isn’t, you will find out soon enough when you sit down to learn some more. If you find you still can’t learn, it’s time for a longer break or time to just call it day.
Just like for drivers, I recommend a maximum of 2 hours learning straight before getting a minimum of 15-20min break. I wouldn’t recommend going past a 30min break though, because it might be harder to get your brain back into “mode” after that time span.
If you feel like your brain is fried and you need a bigger break, indulge. Your brain will be more productive if it’s well rested and alert.
When taking a break in order to process new information that you have just learned, note that there are certain activities you should avoid doing during your break. Make sure to stay away from all activities that somehow stimulate your brain or require concentration, that includes TV. Even though you might find it relaxing, it is still new input to your brain and you want to avoid that.
Learn more about which activities to do or to avoid during your “brain break”.
2. Use What You Have Learned
The other reason why you might not be able to learn any more, is because you are not actively using what you have already learned. In other words, your “RAM” is full and things need to be saved and filed away on your disc drive or transferred to an “external hard drive”, that is, your long-term memory.
The only way you can do this is by actively using the new words and sentences you have learned every time an opportunity arises. That way you will “seal” your knowledge into your long-term memory and at the same time make room for your “RAM” (aka short-term memory) again.
You can create these opportunities yourself by playing scenes in your own head, if you’re not around native speakers.
Learn more about how to start speaking a language without natives around you.
Wherever possible, try to study regularly as opposed to “binge-studying” or “binge-cramming”. It’s not as productive. And even if some people will tell you that it’s possible to “express learn” for your exam (I used to do that with success), fact is still that if you want to remember all that information long-term, binge-learning just won’t cut it.
In the same way, it’s possible for you to go without food for a week and then binge-eat on Sunday. But those who have done that will tell you that the stomach doesn’t usually thank you for it and your meal was in vain.
So, I invite you to follow the steps mentioned above and take a well-deserved break.
And please remember to stop studying one hour before going to bed, to give your brain time to unwind.
Please also note that any kind of screens keep your brain alert and active. So, if you want to be able to fall asleep quickly once you’re in bed, make sure to turn off TV, computer and yes, smartphone, one hour before going to bed, for the same reasons.
Enjoy your break!