The Importance of Learning

The Importance of Learning

Any kind of growth or personal development requires a very fundamental skill: Learning.

In my new book Resilient I offer practical strategies for growing the 12 inner-strengths you need for lasting well-being in a changing world. 

In the excerpt below, we’ll explore one of those: Learning.

Going on a long hike, we need to bring food and other supplies. Similarly, on the road of life we need psychological supplies such as compassion and courage. How do we get these supplies into the neural “backpack”?

The Growth Curve

We do it by learning. This is a broad term that goes far beyond memorizing multiplication tables. Any lasting change of mood, outlook, or behavior requires learning. From childhood onward, we learn good habits, character strengths, and skillful ways to interact with others. Healing, recovery, and development are forms of learning as well. About a third of our attributes are innate in our DNA, while the other two-thirds are acquired through learning. This is very good news, since it means we have great influence over who we become, who we learn to be. Suppose you would like to be calmer, wiser, happier, and more resilient. Having read many comic books as a kid, I think of these inner strengths as sort of like superpowers.

Learning is the superpower of superpowers, the one that grows the rest of them. If you want to steepen your growth curve in life, it pays to learn about learning.

Any kind of learning involves a change in neural structure or function. These changes occur in two stages, which I call activation and installation. In the first stage, activation, there is an experience such as feeling liked. All experiences – all thoughts, sensations, daydreams, worries, and anything else passing through awareness – are based on underlying neural processes. A particular experience is a particular state of mental/neural activity. Then in the second stage, installation, this experience is gradually consolidated in long-term storage in the brain. Over time, passing states become installed as lasting traits. (I’m using the term “trait” broadly.)

There’s a saying in brain science based on the work of Donald Hebb: neurons that fire together, wire together. The more they fire together, the more they wire together. In essence, you develop psychological resources by having sustained and repeated experiences of them that are turned into durable changes in your brain. You become more grateful, confident, or determined by repeatedly installing experiences of gratitude, confidence, or determination. Similarly, you center yourself increasingly in the Responsive, green zone – with an underlying sense of peace, contentment, and love – by having and internalizing many experiences of safety, satisfaction, and connection.

The Essence of Self-Reliance

This is the fundamental “how-to” of healing, training, and personal growth. You can apply it to developing interpersonal skills, motivation, peace of mind, or anything else you want inside yourself. It’s the essence of self-reliance. Even the most fulfilling situations, occupations, and relationships may change. Sooner or later, one way or another, the bottom could fall out. But whatever you have inside yourself is with you always. Just like you can’t unlearn how to ride a bicycle, you won’t unlearn the inner strengths you grow over time. And the harder your life is and the less support you’re getting from external sources, the more important it is to look for those little opportunities each day to highlight a useful or enjoyable experience and consciously take it into yourself.

Unfortunately, this process of deliberately internalizing beneficial experiences is rarely taught explicitly. In schools, workplaces, and trainings, people are instructed in various things – but they’re not usually taught how to learn.

When you learn how to learn, you gain the strength that builds the other strengths of resilient well-being.

HEAL Yourself

You can guide the structure-building processes of your brain in four steps, which I summarize with the acronym HEAL:
1. Have a beneficial experience: Notice it or create it.
2. Enrich it: Stay with it, feeling it fully.
3. Absorb it: Receive it into yourself.
4. Link it [optional]: Use it to soothe and replace painful, harmful psychological material.

The first step of HEAL is the activation phase of learning. You start with a useful or enjoyable experience of some kind. The rest of HEAL is the installation phase, in which you begin the process of turning that beneficial experience into a lasting change in your brain. The fourth step, Link, involves being aware of positive and negative material at the same time. It is optional for two reasons: the first three steps alone are sufficient for learning, and sometimes people are not yet ready to engage their negative material.

Additional References

Rick Hanson, Shauna Shapiro, Emma Hutton-Thamm, Michael R. Hagerty & Kevin P. Sullivan (2021) Learning to learn from positive experiences, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.2006759

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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