The brain: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the collective MLC cohort. Their six-year mission: to explore how late one can leave their assignment before they are guaranteed to fail. To seek out new shortcuts and new hacks. To boldly go where many students have gone before!
So I have a confession: I’m a psychology student. I chose it with the intention of hacking my brain to pull top marks with as little cognitive effort as possible. However, here I am, typing this at 10:27 pm with a poorly prepared for evolution test chilling at my front door; suffice it to say, I have not achieved that goal. I might be struggling more than ever, because I’m always looking for the easiest way out of things–and the easiest way out is usually to forcefully inflict a dopamine-induced coma through mediocre anime in unintelligible Spanish dub.
In this little vignette, I turn on the television while my parents and my brother temporarily become rabid badgers at each other in the background. Staring back at me in 1080p is Indiana Jones, perspiring profusely and soaring over spike-filled crevices to escape the eternal fury of possibly the most famous boulder in the history of film. At that point, I hit a record low: I thought, “gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be that boulder? Getting all of this incidental success just by following the natural course of gravity?” Feeling put out, I changed the channel. It was Star Trek. “gee wouldn’t it be nice to be Captain Kirk? Beating the Kobayashi Maru by cheating the system?” (The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional training exercise from Star Trek designed to test cadets of Starfleet academy in an unwinnable situation. Captain Kirk, however, reprogrammed the simulation and beat the test.)
I was stewing in vats of self-pity when out of nowhere, a voice began reverberating throughout my living room.
At this point, I did indeed follow the natural course of gravity, exerting a total of 529.2 newtons on the fragile wooden floor. (In case there are any physics students out there, yes you can calculate my weight from this, and yes, I did indeed fabricate it to ward against the overly zealous. If you went and did it anyway, here’s a virtual handshake).
NO YOU IDIOT. IT’S CAPTAIN KIRK.
“Oh. What’s up man?”
YOU’VE PROCRASTINATED TO THE POINT OF HALLUCINOGENIC VISIONS OF FICTIONAL TV CHARACTERS. YOU SHOULD KNOW WHAT’S UP.
“Hmm…so it would appear. Just so we’re clear, what are you here for? Presuming you are a figment of my hyperactive imagination, what do I need to tell myself?”
I’M HERE TO TELL YOU THAT YOUR CHANCES OF GRADUATING ARE SLOWLY YEETING THEMSELVES OUT OF THE WINDOW AS WE SPEAK.
“Actually? Oh man, that sucks.”
“But you must be like some sort of yoda…what advice have you got for me?”
THE ONLY THING I CAN SAY IS…LOOK INSIDE YOURSELF. YOU ALREADY HAVE ALL OF THE ANSWERS.
With that, the voice faded away.
“That’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard.” Suddenly acutely aware I was talking like a lunatic to myself, I sat there and introspected.
All of a sudden, it dawned on me in the form of a fly–not unlike Mike Pence’s spirit animal.
“That’s IT! It’s the Kobayashi Maru!”
And so it was. The true way to good grades is to reprogram my brain so that I can beat the challenge! I needed to get out of this pothole using ingenious thinking, intellect, and most importantly, persistence. It took Kirk three tries to come up with his plan; it would take me probably more tries, but I was determined that I’d get there
But what was it that Kirk said? You already have all of the answers.
So I sat there a little longer and wondered.
Once again, I was attacked by a frenetic member of the insecta family.
Earlier this year, I got hooked on a productivity youtuber called Ali Abdaal, a medical student from Cambridge and an extremely sweaty guy. He introduced me to two key concepts, the powers of which I did not fully comprehend until this ah-hah moment.
Now, based on this article, you really should not be taking advice from an incredibly lazy student such as myself; however, I can guarantee that this dude is the real deal.
Make your own judgement.
These two concepts are called active recall and spaced repetition. They are basically the high school equivalent of the long-awaited prophets: real techniques, backed up by real meta-analyses and the elusive scientists themselves. Now join me in a voyage through the mysterious New World known as the brain as I explain these strategies.
When we read or hear information, a bunch of neurons in our brain go nuts. They send electrical impulses to each other, which go along the grapevine to the hippocampus, where information is encoded and sent to our long term memory. Each time we remember something, these same neurons fire, and their links with each other get stronger–ie. it becomes easier to remember this piece of information. Active recall is how we ‘learn’ things: we remember them over and over again. This is why flashcards are extremely effective, and allow us to remember things for ages. Why do you think that ‘the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’ are the last thoughts of 95% of people who took bio in high school?
To now use active recall as a pervasive brain hack, check out the free app anki for an insanely powerful flashcard tool.
However, we cannot abuse our use of flashcards, for what strengthens these neural connections is also our linking them to other pieces of prior knowledge. For this, a great strategy is to construct spider diagrams. You’ve got bits of information tied to questions on your flashcards, but using tree/spider diagrams integrates the information into one homologous blob.
Over time, if the neural trace of a memory is not reinforced, the imprint fades: ie. we ‘forget’ information. This is the true bane of high school existence. In fact, its influence is so perfidious that scientists mapped it out in an effort to eradicate it forever! This is the Ebinghause forgetting curve.
The rationale behind repeatedly recalling information after certain intervals of time is that you reinforce the memory just when you’re about to forget it. As you’ll see, the forgetting curve gets shallower and shallower the more frequently you repeat, until it becomes embedded in your long term memory.
According to a Quora user, the ideal number of days between when you review things follows the Fibonacci sequence: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233,377. To give you an idea of how powerful this could be, to learn 18,000 words of a new language in a year, you simply have to learn 50 new words a day. It’s grueling work, but actually quite simple.
Again, try out anki. It could potentially save your life.
So here’s a brief summary of the above.
In order to hack one’s brain, one must:
- Learn, using active recall methods like flashcard software (Anki or quizlet)
- Integrate, using spider or tree diagrams
- Reinforce using spaced repetition and the Fibonacci sequence
This was just a brief summary: if you want the full rundown, have a look at Ali Abdaal on youtube, or talk to the nearest psychology teacher to your convenience. If we as a collective MLC society commit to these basic tenets, we could see our grades skyrocket to stratospheric levels. I hope that I’ve cheered you up a little bit knowing that we can science our brains into remembering basically anything, and I’m crossing my fingers that you do brilliantly on your next test!
Remember: wisdom can come from the most unexpected places.