I would never send my kids to school

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Author: Piotr Wozniak
Date: 2017
For an extended modular version see: Problem of Schooling


Failure of schooling

Instead of educating, these days schools do a lot of damage to children. The school was to spark the new Renaissance, or the new Enlightenment. Instead, it became a tool of oppression that deprives kids of freedom and the love of learning.

Education systems around the world follow the same wrong design that needs to be abolished. This book provides a suggestion how this might be done with minimum side effects.

While dreaming about the Grand Education Reform, I took an unusual approach: instead of talking to adults, I mostly talked to kids. Moreover, I hope to have teen folks as my main target audience. My texts are hard, but they are easier for a smart kid who already knows and feels exactly what I am talking about.

I do not believe I will convince many parents, educators or authorities. I primarily hope for kids to start the revolution from the bottom up. Kids are more open, and they understand their own problems better. Moreover, given a bit of love, they are more likely to convince their own parents than I am. See: Why this book will fail

Scrapping the school system

I have spent over two decades in the school system, three decades working in the field of memory and learning, and my whole life learning on my own. The contrast between schools and self-directed learning is so stark that I wake up daily in disbelief about the survival of the old Prussian factory school model. The main thesis of this article is that schooling is the thing of the past. The future will be based on free learning. Before humanity is taken over by artificial intelligence, there is still a lot of room for progress. The human brain has an amazing potential. These days, most of that potential is wasted at school. There is no denying that schools have changed the world for the better. The same can be said about the combustion engine. However, these are the days for scrapping the old technologies and the old systems. It is time for a change.

Brain-based reform

Employing the principles of neuroscience, this book explains from grounds up how learning occurs, how it can be made dramatically more effective, how schools counteract effective learning, and how this can be remedied with a universal school reform.

Love for children

Most of my texts bring up old truths that have been reiterated by dozens of great educators and writers of the past and present. You will find echoes, in no particular order, of Gray, Holt, Greenberg, Mitra, Robinson, Locke, and dozens of others. I amplify the writings of giants with a bit of neuroscience and my own research into efficient learning. See: My qualifications.

True giants of educational thought had one thing in common: deep and unadulterated love of children. Many started their journey by setbacks in their own educational efforts as parents or teachers. They all based their thinking on detailed analysis and observation. They did not analyze test scores. They observed and consulted children.

What makes a great educator is love for children as opposed to the infatuation with what they might become

Some of the concepts in this book are unique and I credit those to my three decades involvement in free learning based on spaced repetition. The work of giants has been extended with a bit of research on memory, sleep, creativity, and problems solving.

I would like to believe that I care about kids no less than Gray or Holt, but I also bring an extra agenda that might be missing in their work: I am looking for a formula for mass-production of little Nobel Prize winners, researchers, engineers, and creative problem solvers. The good news is that this formula aligns perfectly with free learning philosophy for there is no true genius without true freedom. In other words, my departure from unadulterated love to the business of education is a minor one, and no kid shall ever be hurt by that deflection. Just the opposite, pure love that brings up a healthy and productive child is love fulfilled.

Executive Summary

This book is too long. You can best consume it with incremental reading. If this is still too much, go to the summary and follow the links to things you disagree with. The ultimate summary is that schooling undermines the brain potential carried by the young generation. We can do far better. Not 20% better, not 200% better, far more! I include some numbers in the text.

Kids are not adults in minature

An important thing to keep in mind when designing a perfect education ecosystem is that a child's brain works according to entirely different rules than an adult's brain. We need to set kids free and never forget that our brains differ, our memories distort the past, and that the kid knows his or her own brain better!

The key to resolving the problem of adults being unable to empathize with kid's brains is the appreciation of the power of the learn drive and the importance of the fundamental law of learning. In simplest terms, it can be shown in strictly scientific terms that pleasure is an inevitable outcome of efficient learning.

We need to provide kids with conditions for a flourishing learn drive that underlies self-directed learning. Free learning is based on learning skills. Learning at school is a passive process. This passivity stunts vital skills and habits used in efficient learning. Freedom is essential in decision-making, which is a starting point for developing the necessary skillset.

Fundamental law of learning

Adults claim that kids hate school because they are ignorant of its benefits. They say: "Children cannot see far enough". As a result, old folks believe that learning should be imposed in the name of grand educational goals. This might be #1 myth that underlies the concept of schooling. This is extremely dangerous because of the circular feedback between goals and knowledge valuations. As goal valuations are knowledge-based, they cannot be imposed extrinsically. At the same time, acquisition is knowledge-based. Consequently, all learning is incremental. This means that the opposite is true to what many adults believe: kids are best evaluators of what knowledge fits their current knowledge model.

Metaphorically speaking, if we want kids to get to Mt Everest, we may hint of its existence, but we cannot push the child in a straight line to the summit. Instead, the kid needs to incrementally find her way up by looking for the best options from her current position. We cannot scream instructions from the hills because it is the kid who can see best which stone is a threat and which path provides best opportunities.

The new brain science tells us that there is a detector of value in the brain. This detector is vital for top quality learning. It accepts the valuable knowledge that fits into knowledge models and rejects everything else. Schooling around the world, with not a single country exception, largely ignores that detector! By remedying this massive global error, we can increase the value of learning and the quality of knowledge. Due to the compound interest, change in strategy can have hard-to-predict dimensions. This is a massive potential for mankind that lays unused and ready to explode.

Message to our future selves

The biggest effect of schooling, instead of great learning, is the lifelong impact on the loss of interest in further learning. Instead of teaching kids how to learn, the school conditions children to hate school. However, the school ends, and a far worse side effect remains: hate of learning. Luckily, the human mind is inherently hungry for learning, and most people recover in a span of a decade. Upon recovery, the memory will whitewash the past, and adults will attribute their own successes to schooling. This perpetuates the vicious cycle. Adults do not understand kids. They do not even understand their own brains from years before when they were kids themselves. The memory has no way of sending an accurate message to the future. See: Schools suppress the learn drive

Dangers of early instruction

Early instruction is particularly dangerous. This book introduces the concept of toxic memory, which is monumental for understanding the harm inflicted by schooling. I have seen toxic memories thrive under the impact of SuperMemo. I saw them grow like you see plants or pet animals grow in your household. The faster we send kids to school, the greater the chance of the damage. Many governments around the world are eager to reduce the school age. They have no clue!

Futility of cramming

Cram schools are particularly dangerous. Not only they damage the kids. They may also provide fantastic short-term returns that dazzle the educators with a lesser understanding of neuroscience. This is why many ambitious educators marvel about copying Korean or Singaporean success. Having corrected for cultural differences, I suggest they should look at the correlation between academic success and future creative achievement. For example, see Nobel Prize per capita rankings where "lazy" UK ranks high as opposed to the Asian giants. An even more convincing example should come from biographies of great geniuses of the past: scientists, inventors, and discoverers. We need to study their unschooling to understand the principles that lead to growing giant creative brains! There is little or no cramming on the path to genius.

Learning skill impotence

Limited reliance on self-directed learning at school is like lack of exercise. It turns the intellect into a lazy slob. Many people hate to exercise because of years of neglect. When they resume at the middle age, at some point, exercise can be so pleasurable that it is rediscovered as truly addictive. The same is true of learning.

We have a boatload of evidence: behavioral, neurophysiological, cultural, anecdotal, etc. that suppressing individual freedoms at young age negatively affects creative powers later in life. What might be great for a conformist "harmonious" society of North Korea, or rather helpful in a rural community of an impoverished country, may be highly unwelcome in a high-tech society with an appetite for Nobel-winning achievements in science.

We can track a golden nugget of knowledge from its source to a big discovery. From the moment when the nugget meets the brain to the ultimate reward of a breakthrough. The travel of the knowledge through the brain is hindered by restrictions imposed by schooling at all stages. To see how this happens, read: Why schools fail.

Freedom of learning is the key to developing high skills in knowledge acquisition and creative problem solving.

Grand Education Reform

Once we free our own kids to do free learning we need to free the entire education system. Let all types of schools and ideas thrive (see: Grand Education Reform). The incremental and evolutionary school reform process should proceed with an important goal in mind: all brains on the planet should be set free to pursue free learning. After that, barring disaster, only the age of the machines can change the direction of mankind.

When school is a blessing

Schools can be a blessing. In a small village in post-Ebola Liberia, in a Rio favela, in a 10-house village in Poland, in the Mathare slum, in post-Taliban Afghanistan, or in a poverty trap of immigrant banlieue, a school is a blessing. It may be an escape from poverty, violence, or abuse. It may be a path to an enlightened future. In my vicinity, kids do drugs when they do not go to school. In a village, 15 km away, their prime entertainment is drinking beer in front of the local shop. In that sense, school is shielding kids from the poisonous effects of inaction, inert community, or pathological family.

However, schools are a blessing only early in those few tough circumstances, esp. early in the evolutionary process of a developing school system. After they are a blessing, schools become universal, and then compulsory. And then they evolve into a tool of oppression that optimizes in one direction only: more pressure for better scores. All that oppression comes with best intentions that are driven by ignorance.

At that side of the spectrum, the school is a suppressant of the best qualities of human character. The gifted ones suffer most.

The Optimization Error

Progress in schooling is measured by grades and test scores. PISA tests are the gold standard for international competition. As grading and test scores are largely based on short-term learning for short-term results, we optimize in a highly harmful direction. We optimize for cramming, not for learning. Much less attention is paid to how much kids actually bring out from school. Perfect knowledge of history on the test day may translate to vestigial knowledge of history on the last day of school.

If grades and test scores are used in optimization of learning, we arrive at absurd conclusions such as: learning all night is good, evening caffeine is good, cramming is better than learning, spaced repetition is ineffective, and other equally absurd propositions.

To improve schooling we add more material and raise the bar. This pushes kids in the direction of short-term memory, more homework, less sleep, less exercise, less fun, harder suppression of the learn drive, greater risk of depression and behavioral disorders. We drive ourselves into a corner! This is a corner of unhappy society!

Adding volume and speed to education to beat the scores is like hoping that adding speed to speed-reading will result in better learning. We improve scores at the cost of actual knowledge. Even worse, we improve scores while seriously undermining human creativity and problem-solving capacity.

There is an optimum speed of reading or processing information or learning, and it is specific to each individual. Optimum speed can easily be reached in free learning, where it is subject to self-regulation.

The problem with optimization of education is that, ideally, we should make incremental corrections today, and measure the outcomes 30-50 years from now. This is why effective optimization of education must rely on models derived from the learning theory. Luckily, those models produce a relatively simple picture. The brain has been equipped with all tools needed to easily achieve far more than what we today think is possible.

Fostering diversity

Homeschooling provides good grounds for free learning. A frequent complaint about homeschoolers and unschoolers is that they are weird or poorly socialized. That complaint ignores the fact that the opposite of weird is homogenized, faceless, and uninteresting. The opposite of society built on all colors of education and knowledge is North Korea. And for the sake of healthy variety, we need the example of North Korea too. At least to cherish our freedoms and learn a thing or two about what makes people and societies happy.

When I promote English as the unifying language for the world, a friend joked that I might as well promote one brand of beer for the world. I need to stress that we always need to balance standards vs. variety. One language for the world is an essential tool for global communication. Variegated education is essential for knowledge evolution. For an unconstrained growth of human knowledge, we need excellent access to knowledge, excellent communication, and a global language should serve that goal too.

Death of knowledge

Great people have great visions. However, great visions often fail to materialize and die with their fathering visionaries.

Great ideas about great education have been invented and forgotten and then re-invented or re-discovered over and over again. This has been happening for no less than two millennia now.

Aristotle, and John Locke have been dead for centuries. John Holt is dead. Ivan Illich is dead. Urie Bronfenbrenner is dead. So are Raymond Moore and Roland Meighan. They left great books that inspire new generations of educators. Their golden aphorisms are great memes for the web, but they have little impact on education driven by short-term demands of the day. The idea of free learning meets with the resistance of short-term goals worshiped by the majority affected by age's old ailment: short-sightedness.

Danny Greenberg and John Taylor Gatto are in their 80s. Peter Gray is in his 70s. Ken Robinson will be seventy soon. Even the new kid on the block, Sugata Mitra is past his mid 60s.

I have struggled now for 3 decades promoting spaced repetition and incremental reading. Spaced repetition is now slowly gaining popularity among students of languages, and in medical sciences. Incremental reading is still in the starting block. Apart from SuperMemo, only two incremental reading plug-in attempts for Anki have been made. The road ahead is long and winding.

With all those wise brains dead or aging, we still give preference to a form of schooling that was praised and skillfully employed by Hitler or Stalin. We still accept the totalitarian solutions with a good-hearted conviction that they are good for society.

My book will fail. If Nobel-winning Milton Friedman still gets ignored or misunderstood in reference to school choice, what are my chances of breaking through the wall of indifference or ignorance? I see some chance in social media and in the power of collective wisdom of homeschoolers, unschoolers, democratic schools, and free learners across the globe. I see a chance in the rebellious nature of the enslaved youth.

Prediction: Death of schooling

Radical dreams of Holt, Gatto, and Illich will come true soon. Not for whole societies though. One job of schooling will likely not end: schools will remain containers for storing kids while parents are at work. For this to change, we would need to take a collective breath, reprioritize, slow down, and take a more creative approach to life. I am not optimistic. The rush will continue.

However, more kids will get homeschooled and fight for changes in the law, more democratic schools will crop up, more Montessori schools and other freedom-based solutions will become popular. The old-style public school will rule the roost, but freedoms will be expanded by law. Nationalism and national curriculum will be curbed. The explosion of free learning is exponential.

I am glad I am not dead yet. Old Prussian school system will die soon. I wager I will see it happen!


It is pretty tragic to see that many solutions have already been known for centuries, but they keep getting overlooked. I chose the words of John Locke (1693) as the motto for this text:

None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burthen to them, or impos'd on them as a task. Whatever is so propos'd, presently becomes irksome; the mind takes an aversion to it, though before it were a thing of delight or indifferency

Brain science

The strongest argument against schooling comes from neuroscience. One of the most fundamental forces that can shape education is the learn drive. Understanding learn drive is essential for the realization that self-directed, self-paced self-learning is the most efficient way of developing a knowledgeable and creative mind. The neural principles of reward in the learn drive lead me to the formulation of the Fundamental law of learning. I hope no kid will ever accept any violation of that law.

In addition to inefficient learning, one of the most wasteful offences committed by the system of schooling is the disregard for the natural creativity cycle. This is the cycle in which knowledge is acquired, built upon creatively, expanded, and optimized in the course of the circadian cycle in waking and in sleep. School systems have been designed mostly in the 19th century when we did not know of the existence of the creativity cycle.

Learn drive

Learn drive is the neural mechanism by which the brain assembles the jigsaw puzzle of world knowledge.


The term learn drive is essential for proving the inefficiency of schooling.

The learn drive is a natural tendency of the brain to seek new information. The learn drive is generated by a guidance system hard-wired in the brain. This guidance system activates the reward centers upon detecting novel patterns in memory storage.


I purposefully avoid the term curiosity, which is often used in psychology. Without precise understanding of the mechanisms of the learn drive, my whole reasoning against the present school system would collapse. The need for a simple and precise term will become clearer when I explain why I do not want to employ other established terms that might easily be misconstrued.

Terms such as curiosity, novelty seeking, boredom susceptibility, openness to experience, need of cognition, and intellectual engagement are often used in various contexts to imply the existence of the learn drive. They are either misleading or mean different things. They all carry a baggage that may obscure the picture. This includes decades of disagreements in science, popular use, inappropriate connotations, and more.

Conditions needed to delineate the learn drive:

  • learn drive is innate (i.e. we are born with it)
  • learn drive is trainable (i.e. it can be enhanced with learning)
  • learn drive can be suppressed
  • learn drive is not spurred by stress
  • learn drive delivers its own reward
  • learn drive is not a personality trait (i.e. we all exhibit the learn drive, at least as children)

Learn drive is a vital evolutionary adaptation and employs information entropy to make judgements about the environment and internal inputs. Most of all, learn drive is a highly desirable property of the human brain.

In terms of neural networks, the learn drive can be run by very simple mechanisms that may produce a family of similar trajectories for exploring the environment. If you plot the movements of a toddler in a new environment, you may find it hard to distinguish from a graph generated by a cockroach. However, the ultimate memory effect is wildly different.

In many contexts, the term curiosity could be used instead of the learn drive. It has a precise scientific definition but it also has negative connotations in popular use. The learn drive is wholly positive. The learn drive is the instinct that makes humans land on the moon. We say "curiosity killed the cat". A Polish proverb says "curiosity is the first step to hell". I say "curiosity is the first step to knowledge". We use terms like "morbid curiosity" or associate curiosity with an older lady cranking her neck out of the window to suck in the latest gossip. Curiosity has also been tainted by its association with motivation and reward. Kids may be curious about what time a candy shop will open. This type of curiosity can be induced without the learn drive. Grades in schooling can generate "curiosity" that will not propel a child to greatness. The learn drive is information-based and is less likely to lead to a blind alley. The term curiosity drive could serve the role of the learn drive if it was based on a confirmed theory and defined precisely as omnipresent (rather than generated by uncertainty). Throughout this article I explain that we need to cherish and foster the learn drive in education. I hear this often: curiosity can wait, learning is a priority. There is no such ambiguity with the term learn drive. If I kept saying "we need to foster curiosity", nobody would take it seriously!

Boredom susceptibility or boredom intolerance is very close to the learn drive, however, it implies impatience. It is a repulsive force while the learn drive is based on hunger for new knowledge. Both may be based on the same mechanism, but this article needs to focus on the positive aspect of the learn drive. Substitute learn drive in my texts with boredom susceptibility and you will see a dramatic change in connotations.

Openness to experience is a personality trait. It might equally well be defined as the ability to control fears generated by explorations sparked by the learn drive. All people experience the learn drive but some will have it suppressed by situational anxiety.

Disposition to seek knowledge is a rare term that has never been properly defined. It is used by experts such as Dr Lilian Katz. The term is pretty fitting, however, it is inconveniently long and disposition is far less accurate than drive. Drive is better at expressing the innate nature of the phenomenon. In addition, knowledge seeking is a term often used in the field of information retrieval.

Need for cognition as the name implies is wider than the learn drive. Playing checkers may satisfy one's need for cognition, but it may easily fail to satisfy the learn drive. The term need for cognition overlaps with a subset of curiosity labelled intellectual curiosity. Both fail to precisely cover the conditions listed for the learn drive.

Novelty seeking is a concept widely used in psychology and behavioral science. It is often confused with curiosity. However, its right place is with the trait theory. Novelty seeking correlates with impulsivity and thrill or sensation seeking. It is then seen as a trait that may lead to behavioral problems. In contrast, the learn drive is the purest of human needs that makes us inventors and discoverers. Novelty seeking is part of Cloninger's model of personality. In some personality tests it is part of extroversion. It is hereditary, associated with dopamine receptors, and it might send you on a trip to Mt Everest. It might be associated with drug abuse. Mixed reports on correlation with D4 receptor gene have been interpreted as lack of consensus between psychologists on what novelty seeking actually is. The learn drive is universal, it is innate, but it is also highly dependent on the status of memory, i.e. it is shaped by experience.

Novelty and stress

In a lab, rats can be scared into novelty seeking. When a rat senses the smell of a predator, it will double its efforts to find a novel way out of its environment. This behavior shows a possible confusion between the innate drive and the induced drive. Rats behavior will depend on the balance between novelty seeking and the fear of risk. In other words, it is a balance between the search for the new and the fear of the new. One might wrongly use such rat experiments to conclude that kids might be scared into learning. The opposite is true. Chronic stress is one of the prime destroyers of the brain. It is a prime enemy in development, and prime suppressors of the learn drive. We then have a confusion between novelty seeking (behavior) and novelty seeking (instinct). Some procedures may increase the behavior without changing the instinct. You may scare an animal into novelty seeking (increase in behavior) while actually suppressing the instinct in the long term (instinct suppression). The attraction to the new and the fear of the new will always be present. In optimization of education, we need to focus on the attraction part, and eliminate the fear part. The learn drive is part of the attractive force in novelty seeking.

Anxiety may suppress or enhance exploration. If a child fears dark woods, its explorations will depend on whether it is in the woods (enhanced exploration), on its edge (inhibited exploration), or away from the woods (uninhibited exploration powered by the learn drive). In education, we want to maximize the learn drive and minimize anxiety.

The learn drive is a natural instinct to acquire new knowledge. It is present in all healthy students. It is a good force that changes the world.

Suppression of the learn drive

Boredom can now be redefined as the absence of reward from the learn drive system. A healthy brain will resist boredom, and perceive it as a penalty. Children at school are gradually conditioned to tolerate boredom via the mechanism of learned helplessness.

I will try to show how we systematically undermine the learn drive by the way we treat newborns and toddlers. We continue the process by employing low-quality daycare, and ultimately destroy the learn drive by means of compulsory schooling. By the time of high school graduation, the learn drive will often have already been entirely ravaged and vestigial. This is often wrongly attributed to the process of aging or even natural development. This is a dangerous falsehood. The learn drive can power a septuagenarian as much as it powers a 7-year-old.

Further reading

For a good discussion of curiosity theories, see:

Summary: Learn drive

  • learn drive is a natural tendency of the brain to seek new information
  • learn drive activates the reward centers upon detecting novel patterns in memory storage
  • learn drive is innate but is also trainable
  • learn drive is universal
  • learn drive can be suppressed
  • compulsory schooling is usually a suppressor of the learn drive
  • learn drive does not need to decline with age, it can be sustained till the end of a healthy lifespan
  • best enhancer of the learn drive is rich learning

Effect of schooling on the learn drive

Coercive schooling suppresses the learn drive and results in diminished long-term effect of learning.

Learn drive vs. age

The learn drive is a vital instinct that underlies the adaptive development of the central nervous system. Babies scan their environment for elements of novelty. This is a way of searching for and detecting things that are worth learning. A baby may randomly search the space above its head until it finds a moving object. This object may be classified as novelty from which a child can learn something. At a certain stage of development, the baby will taste all objects around it in order to learn what might be edible. A kid in a room of toys will zero in on a toy that he will deem as a best satisfier of young mind's curiosity. The learn drive is a powerful brain mechanism that gave babies their label of never-ceasing perfect learning machines.

Some scientists believe that we innately lose our novelty seeking and our learn drive with age. This claim is dangerously wrong. There are indeed many indicators of decline. An adult is no longer fascinated with all things that move. He will find a room of toys boring. He will spit out new tastes and often hate new dishes. Someone, who has never tasted a snail or a beetle, isn't likely to learn to love dishes based on snails or insects. Older people no longer show fascination with the world that is so typical to a young knowledge-hungry student. Older people's passions seem to be on a steady decline with age.

Understanding the learn drive and the mechanism by which it supposedly declines over time is essential for optimizing education

Learn drive vs. knowledge

The main factor that undermines the learn drive with age is the established knowledge. There are also secondary factors such as (1) declining "attractive power" of the current knowledge and (2) the actual aging of the brain. Aging may result in a decline in neural networks, synaptic pruning, lesser mental energy, etc. Those can be largely prevented with mental hygiene and learning itself. It is possible to retain the learn drive and passion for learning till the age of hundred. With healthy lifestyle, it is easier to retain vitality of the brain than it is to retain, for example, the vitality of the motor system.

Some of novelty seeking may be part of a developmental program (e.g. baby's taste-seeking stage). However, those programs would not play an essential part of explorations we tend to induce in the young generation in the course of their education.

Knowledge itself is the most powerful extinguisher of the learn drive. It can be illustrated with our interest in a particular book. A book is interesting in the first read. We are rarely interested in reading the book for the second time. Re-reading what we know is rarely exciting. Overtime, with some help from forgetting, the book may become interesting again. A forgotten book may reactivate reward circuits via the learn drive guidance system. Once the knowledge is established, it takes away the incentive to seek new knowledge. Forgetting is also helpful in other areas, e.g. the emotional effects of a song on the radio. The difference is that music is far less about declarative memory and far more about patterns and beauty. Like a nice sunset. You do not need to forget one to love another. This is why a catchy tune can stay addictive despite multiple replays, while a jazzy or classical masterpiece can retain its appeal for life if not played ad nauseam.

Knowledge undermines novelty. There is no novelty seeking brain center that would specifically decline with age. There is no novelty seeking extinguishing program activated in development. Novelty of an area of knowledge disappears once an area of ignorance is filled up.

The good news coming from our understanding of the learn drive is that it can be employed in lifelong passionate education. Learning can be as much fun at 80 as it is at 15.

Learn drive vs. learning

The main trick we can employ in keeping the learning passion alive is constant learning itself. Learning fills up the brain with new knowledge. However, it also identifies and magnifies the areas of ignorance. By an appropriate selection of the learning material, we can constantly look for new areas to fill up. This is best done with self-directed learning. Only a learner herself can effectively identify the areas of knowledge, the areas of ignorance, and the areas in-between that are suitable for learning.

Learning at school violates the principles of efficient learning by taking away the control from the learn drive guidance system. Passive learning at school will often hit the areas of established knowledge, which will make it boring. It will often hit areas of ignorance, which will make it incomprehensible. Rarely will it accurately hit the areas where new fascinating knowledge can expand the knowledge tree.

Passive pre-programmed learning at school suppresses the learn drive.

Metaphorically speaking, teachers throw pieces of knowledge at students and hope some of that knowledge sticks. Usually, it does not. Most of the courseware material is gone in a month. After a year, only repetition, review, duplication, and exams help a fraction of that knowledge survive in the brain. Self-directed learning based on the learn drive is extremely precise in rejecting unsuitable knowledge or finding those places in the knowledge tree that can adapt new portion of knowledge that fit the need.

This is one of the biggest ailments of schooling: students keep complaining that school is too boring or school is too hard. Students are not happy, and this works against the system. This problem cannot be effectively resolved if we retain the old classroom learning system. It is impossible to optimize learning in a group of students who will always diverge in their knowledge due to different passions, different interests, different talents, and different learning speeds. The only effective optimization solution is self-directed learning.

Teacher problem

A well-intentioned teacher may also contribute to the suppression of the learn drive even while facilitating self-directed learning.

If a child has a question "Where is New York? In which country?", a natural instinct of a parent or teacher is to provide the answer. If the child is exposed to the same question frequently enough, she will be able recall the answer on her own. Otherwise, she will need help again. Overall effect of such review would be similar to review in SuperMemo, except it would come naturally without the extra cost of the interaction with a computer, and it would come in a random manner without optimizing for the memory effect of each review. This type of interaction has both suppressive and enhancing effect on the learn drive. The interest in New York as part of the USA will gradually decline as the fact becomes known, i.e. no longer new. The interest in things related to the USA may increase in proportion to the interest in New York. The interest in things related to New York may increase in proportion to the interest in the USA.

A far more interesting interaction occurs when the child does not receive an instant feedback from a teacher. The question may remain unanswered, and knowledge will not increase. However, all questions asked that get no instant response contribute to the learn drive. The location of New York remains a mystery, which will get more interesting with each exposure. The increase in interest will progress along formulas similar to those that govern the increase in long-term memory stability (as predicted by the two component model). The increase in stability of interest does not have an immediate contribution to knowledge, but it has a powerful impact on the learn drive. The child will be curious to explore and find out on its own in a competitive process where all areas of interest will compete for child's focus that will be context dependent. For example, in the context of biology, New York might not even light up in memory. However, in the context of map inspection, or a geographic documentary, the question may pop up again and drive further explorations. Once the child finds answers to a burning question, i.e. a question with a high degree of relative importance burnt stable in memory, the reward of learning becomes magnified. The pleasure of learning increases. The reward propagates in associative memory and enhances positive associations related to knowing New York, knowing the US, and knowing things related to both. This is a reward propagation cascade whose depth depends on the level of reward and the original degree of curiosity. That cascade involves memory consolidation. This way, by not answering a question, a teacher may potentially increase consolidation in a larger areas of memory networks. By definition, this reduces the need for review of knowledge in the entire learning process.

Providing children with answers to their own questions can also be suppressive for the learn drive. In contrast, leaving questions unanswered may propel the young brain into rewarding explorations that will feed further progress.

This does not mean we should leave all questions unanswered. There are two factors that should prompt an answer from a teacher:

  1. the kid is absolutely crazy to know and his curiosity has been driven red hot. In terms of propagation and consolidation, there isn't much to gain. New branches of learn drive seeds will pop up and prompt further research
  2. the question is of highly fundamental nature in that in underlies many other vital pieces of knowledge that may be hard or slow to get on one's own. Fundamental questions are of universal nature and get re-consolidated by the sheer progression of learning into new areas. They simply come up in explorations over and over again

Learn drive distortions

There are dangers and inherent inefficiencies in the learn drive guidance system. It can easily be tricked into seeing novelty in areas which we would not classify as desirable. For an average student, the game of checkers quickly gets boring. To a sophisticated mind, a game of chess is more fun but it also may easily get boring. To a grandmaster, who can see chess as a colorful pattern of chessboard combinations with mnemonic stories that rival the most interesting book of history, chess may be a never-ending source of fascination. In other words, a chessboard and a few chess pieces can feed novelty seeking system with rewarding stimuli for eternity.

For a teen, a video game can easily employ the trick of a chess game by dragging a young mind into an endless labyrinth of new levels to explore and new combinations of tools or situations that never seem to get boring. With a competitive factor in teams, games can be addictive and dangerous.

In an adult, a passion for his favorite sport may also provide a never ending source of fascinating knowledge. One football league, from year to year, can provide all imaginable combination of outcomes, players, field combinations, strategies, personal stories, etc.

The above means that we cannot bank on self-directed learning to always feed our minds with useful knowledge. Social media thrives on gossip and trivia. Both teens and adults can sink untold hours in Facebook without coming up with useful goods. We seem to never get bored with social interaction and mobile phones keep buzzing with a chatter that satisfies our novelty cravings.

For many kids with talents, self-directed learning is all that is needed to soar. The universal formula for all kids for a drive in the quest for valuable knowledge is self-directed learning with a dose of trajectory-nudging guidance from any corrector system. This corrector can come from a parent, from a teacher, or from a peer (incl. older peers). The trajectory corrector needs to be placed in the optimum push zone to ensure correct trajectory without upsetting the system. Naturally, there is no better corrector than mature self-awareness with a pinch of self-discipline. An educated adult should understand the need for lifelong learning and understand the right direction for his learning to progress. Ideally, life itself is the best corrector of the learning trajectory.

School enthusiasm

Due to incessant conditioning and the war of the networks, schools suppress the learn drive, and may result in dangerous long-term adaptation that may skew young personalities for life.

Figure: This is how school destroys the love of learning. Learn drive is the set of passions and interests that a child would like to pursue. School drive is the set of rewards and penalties set up by the school system. Learn drive leads to simple, mnemonic, coherent, stable and applicable memories due to the fact that the quality of knowledge determines the degree of reward in the learn drive system. School drive leads to complex, short-term memories vulnerable to interference due to the fact that schools serialize knowledge by curriculum (not by the neural mechanism of the learn drive). Competitive inhibition between the Learn drive and the School drive circuits will lead to the weakening of neural connections. Strong School drive will weaken the learn drive, destroy the passion for learning, and lead to learned helplessness. Powerful Learn drive will lead to rebellion that will protect intrinsic passions, but possibly will also lead to problems at school. Storing new knowledge under the influence of Learn drive is highly rewarding and carries no penalty (by definition of the learn drive). This will make the learn drive thrive leading to success in learning (and at school). In contrast, poor quality of knowledge induced by the pressures of the School drive will produce a weaker reward signal, and possibly a strong incoherence penalty. The penalty will feed back to produce reactance against the school drive, which will in turn require further coercive correction from the school system, which will in turn reduce the quality of knowledge further. Those feedback loops may lead to the dominance of one of the forces: the learn drive or the school drive. Thriving learn drive increases rebellion that increases defenses against the school drive. Similarly, increased penalization at school increases learned helplessness that weakens the learn drive and results in submission to the system. Sadly, in most cases, the control system settles in the middle of those two extremes (see: the old soup problem). Most children hate school, lose their love of learning, and still submit to the enslavement. Their best chance for recovery is the freedom of college, or better yet, the freedom of adulthood. See: Competitive feedback loops in binary decision making at neuronal level
Copyright note: you can republish this picture under a Creative Commons license with attribution to SuperMemo World, and a link to the updated version here

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
With an amazing regularity, I started all my schools with great expectations and in happy anticipation. That was the case in the primary school, high school, and both my colleges. In all cases, the enthusiasm was gone fast. Often after the first day or the first lecture! However, there were moments when the opposite process occurred. When I was thrown away from one school, on disciplinary grounds, I came to a new one with lowest expectations. This actually helped me rise for a while. With a help of a good teacher, I had a few months of a great school adventure. Similarly, a great teacher or freedom of self-directed learning helped me extract some fun from schools later on. If I was to simulate my own life over and over again in conditions of Polish schools, it would be loss of love of learning most of the time. The opposite happy process is reserved for a lucky few who hit lucky circumstances or lucky own predispositions.

Powering learn drive with SuperMemo

Enhancing the learn drive

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
The most powerful artificial activator of the learn drive I know is incremental learning. Spaced repetition in SuperMemo tends to bring up the same old material over and over again. Leeches in learning can poison the fun of review. Incremental learning makes it possible to dose in novelty with the inflow of new material interleaved with the review of the old material. The never-ending consolidation of the knowledge tree provides a constant growth of the "unfinished" leaves. Those act as attractors of novelty. In classical learning, forgetting tends to disintegrate the fabric of knowledge and leads to an asymptotic stagnation of the "surface of the tree". In incremental learning, that surface keeps increasing providing an ever increasing potential in novelty discovery. If your passion for learning is in decline, consider incremental learning. Slowly! Alternatively, inspirational reading can play a similar role.

If you encounter a boring or incomprehensible subject at school, you may need to suffer 45 minutes of inaction. In incremental learning, you can switch subjects in seconds, change priorities, reschedule learning, or suffer the pain of excess complexity in the optimum window of time in hope of finding some fruit of knowledge (see: Push zone). In incremental learning, you are likely to stay in your comfort zone, enter the push zone on occasion, and stay away from regressive areas that waste your time. A subject that seems too hard today will become easy tomorrow. You do not ever need to suffer complexity in vain. You can venture into the same field once you are ready. In incremental learning, you optimize your choices using your learn drive as a powerful guidance.

Incremental learning is the most powerful activator of the learn drive

Stunting the learn drive

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Conversely, the learn drive can be suppressed with SuperMemo. If the student stops learning new things and only keeps retaining old knowledge in SuperMemo, forgetting will prune all attractive surfaces on the knowledge tree. Only the dry core will remain in SuperMemo. While knowledge maintained with active learning and incremental learning resembles a lively tree full of hungry tendrils, dead knowledge maintained with SuperMemo is like a rejected Christmas tree with ever decreasing number of dried out branch endings. For an advanced learner, the effort that comes with spaced repetition may still evoke the pleasure of knowing. However, this kind of pleasure is best ignited with the actual use of the learned knowledge. Regurgitating old knowledge with no new material has the same suppressive effect as schooling. Similarly, it undermines the love of learning. If you happen to experience a decline of your love of repetitions, add new value to your collection, and redistribute old material in manageable portions into the future. This should apply primarily to old unused exam material that you retain half-heartedly without a true conviction about its usefulness.
SuperMemo with no new material is similar to boring classes at school. Both suppress the learn drive

Learn drive at middle age

Instead of noticing a decline in my own learning passions, I observe the reverse. This is why I violently disagree with researchers who tend to attribute the decline in learn drive to chronological age. I employ incremental learning to keep my passion for learning alive. I explain how it works for me in a personal note below.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I was never too interested in history, in a chapter devoted to self-directed learning, I explain that my learning can be divided into three stages:
  1. learning at school with zero efficiency,
  2. learning with SuperMemo with some progress, and
  3. employment of incremental reading that truly exploded my understanding of history.

This is a good example how a subject that is boring to a teen, given the adverse schooling circumstances, may be re-awakened into a nice passion at middle age.

I was always interested in human biology. Here again I claim to have learned little at school, a lot at home, even more with SuperMemo, and a truly great deal with incremental learning.

I keep saying "the greater the clearing the greater the perimeter". The more I know, the more I know I don't know. Understanding one's ignorance is the best drive for more learning, and the more I know, the more painful the ignorance is. Forgetting plays a role too. I keep getting angry with realizations that even a kid in primary school knows things I do not know. Even a 5-year-old can ask better questions. I think those realizations will keep my passion for learning alive for as long as I retain my solid mental faculties.

As for food tastes, I am not sure how much of that is really programmed into the brain, and how much comes from the same mechanism as knowledge in a conservative brain. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I had my first ever chance to taste mussels. I was 28. That's the age when we are supposed to have lost our ability to expand our taste range. When taking in my first nibble, I was pretty sure I would vomit. It felt like torture. I could say to myself a dozen times "this is just healthy food, many people enjoy it, use your reason, why get emotional...", it did not help much. I managed to swallow a few pieces and was relieved when my portion was over. However, I did not give up. I tried again. I tried to fit my optimum push zone that got very narrow. If I tried too hard or too early, I would hate mussels for life. If I tried too late, I would have forgotten what I had learned in my first experience. My second take at mussels was a bit more relaxed. I was able to find some nice tastes in there despite suffering a lot. A few months later, I enjoyed mussels as much as anyone introduced to the food at earlier stages. There was no novelty seeking in that experience. However, my tastes have been reshaped. Today, I love mussels. Delicious! Am I really deprived of novelty seeking in the area of foods? Not entirely, I love experimenting with various spices and spice combinations. My friend ate a scorpion in Thailand yesterday, his happy face made me intrigued. If I was in Thailand...

As for boredom, my own professional life is subject to the same mechanisms of saturation and boredom.

As a student, I tried out dozens of programming languages. The more exotic the language the greater the fascination. SuperMemo was developed in Pascal in 1987. Since then I settled on Pascal and stopped my explorations. A cynic would attribute that to aging. My interpretation is different. I use the tool that works best for me. I reserve my exploration time for other things. I do not explore less. I explore differently. My learn drive in the area of programming languages has been satisfied, however, my overall learn drive is still pretty hungry.

Like an immature student, I also got bored with spaced repetition and memory saying "there is not much to learn or discover in the field". My colleagues, esp. Krzysztof Biedalak and Janusz Murakowski, gave me a tiny corrector push saying "The two-variable model of memory could make the algorithm simpler and easier to implement, license, and promote". Once I started exploring the dried up area, I have discovered a million things I did not know, and re-ignited my passion for spaced repetition. Ironically, the algorithm did not get that much simpler, but the truth is that dead passions can be re-awakened.

Perpetual learn drive

Passions come and wane. This process is controllable. Self-directed learning is the best expression of that control. Spaced repetition helps retain gains from waning passions. This, in turn, helps passion re-awakening in need.

Love of learning can be suppressed quite effectively, and then it can also be restored and revived

The process of building up enthusiasm for learning is easily trainable and easily suppressed. There is a strong neural component. Damage done by bad schooling is reversible, and one can go well above his or her original baseline. Some of the original potential, however, may be lost for ever.

Summary: Changes to the learn drive

  • learn drive is not subject to aging beyond natural aging of the brain
  • learn drive can stay vibrant at the age of hundred
  • loss of learn drive in development is most often caused by schooling or lifestyle. It is not an inherent part of the life cycle
  • healthy learn drive is the basis of good learning
  • self-directed learning grounds its efficiency in the learn drive
  • one of the main goals of any modern education system should be to help learn drive flourish
  • established knowledge undermines the learn drive
  • lifelong learning keeps the learn drive vibrant
  • passive learning at school undermines the learn drive and contributes to the dislike of learning
  • providing children with answers to their own questions can also be suppressive for the learn drive
  • learn drive corrections within the optimum push zone can improve learning and its direction
  • incremental learning is the most powerful tool for developing a strong learn drive
  • poor employment of SuperMemo can undermine the learn drive (the mechanisms is similar to schooling)
  • in conducive conditions, learn drive and learning can form a positive feedback loop that leads to maximization of the love of learning
  • schools have been extremely efficient in destroying my enthusiasm for schooling (at all levels of education)

Learn drive and reward

The main problem in education

The main problem with regards to education is the belief that learning may cause displeasure, and that this displeasure should be endured to achieve more learning.

There are countless educators who believe that school should be like work: it is unpleasant but it just needs to be done. In this chapter, I will explain that the opposite is true:

Good learning is inherently pleasurable, and without pleasure there is no good learning.

The displeasure myth is so prevalent that even good teachers believe that pain is part of learning.

In this chapter, I show that the pleasure of learning is wired into the brain, and how we systematically destroy this gift of evolution at the cost of mankind's health, learning, creativity, and ultimately future.

The main problem of education is also one of the main problems of society. By destroying the pleasure of learning we are contributing powerfully to the destruction of the pleasure of living. We have built an education system that sets millions of people up for a life of unhappiness.

Chances are you are skeptical of my words, as the myth of unpleasant learning is a potent side effect of schooling. Therefore this chapter is an attempt to convince you. And all that is necessary to abolish this myth is an understanding of the simple mechanism by which new knowledge is encoded in the brain.

Learn drive and entropy

The concept of entropy is helpful in understanding why most kids do not learn much at school.

You may recall from your physics class that entropy is a measure of disorder, and that the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. This is the type of sexy law of physics that we tend to remember for life. It is universally applicable.

There is a sister concept in information theory called Shannon entropy. It can be understood as the average value of information transmitted by a source. For example, take a channel that is continually transmitting a string of identical letters into infinity (e.g. a string of As: "AAAAAA..."). It is entirely predictable and carries an entropy of zero. We do not learn from such a channel.

Claude Shannon proposed the concept of information entropy in 1948. Soon after, scientists were hypothesizing as to whether the entropy of an information channel may have a powerful impact on how the brain perceives the value of the channel. In 1957, Meyer hypothesized that the entropy of music determines the perception of its beauty. He concluded that a higher entropy may result in subjective tension, which correlates with more meaningful musical moments.

Meyer's thinking was later refined to better understand the perception of music and information in general. There is more to music than just information. This is visible through the phenomena of a song being entertaining and fun for many playbacks. But this is rarely the case with books.

Music is a universal message. If you were given a choice of a radio channel, you would quickly tune out from noisy static and you would also not be too excited about zero entropy silence. However, most people will respond positively to a regular beat of a drum. As long as it wasn't being drummed on broken glass, which we are wired to dislike, we would find a radio channel with a regular drumbeat more interesting than a silent one. This will naturally last only for a while until the drumbeat itself becomes boring and too predictable.

Today, we can finally test the response of the brain to information entropy. Neuroimaging shows that the anterior hippocampus responds to the entropy of a visual stream, and similar findings have been confirmed for the ventral striatum. Therefore we are now certain that the brain responds to information entropy. The entropy sensor is important in scanning the environment for learning opportunities. This is the prelude to the reward that underlies the learn drive.

Prior knowledge in information seeking

We need to distinguish between information and meaning. Entropy is not a good measure of the latter. The measure of meaning must involve the brain itself in addition to the information channel metric. Prior knowledge is essential in learning. Imagine that in your search for an interesting channel on the radio you find a news service. If the service is delivered in Thai and you do not speak Thai, you will prefer a service delivered in English. In information sense, news channels may have the same entropy, yet your prior knowledge will make you opt for the English channel. While the Thai channel delivers a stream of sounds, the English channel delivers a stream of concepts. Without understanding the knowledge of the recipient, information entropy tells us little. We cannot determine a signal-to-noise ratio.

Every listener will have his or her own preferred level of information entropy. For most music lovers, the regular beat of a disco or techno will be somewhat more interesting than the isolated beat of a drum. This type of music carries a higher average level of information. For a more sophisticated listener a bit of syncopation will be welcome. However, syncopation requires a degree of prior learning. Those with lesser knowledge of music may get confused with increased rhythmic complexity. If there is too much information in the beat it may no longer be possible to dance to the music. To an average ear, the genius of Wynton Marsalis may be hard to perceive. Top shelf jazz music is reserved for only a small fraction of highly educated listeners, as for most of the population, as the complexity increases, the music slowly disintegrates into the direction of radio static.

Entropy detectors in the brain

The brain cannot effectively detect the entropy of the signal hitting the retina or the eardrum. Like pixels of a monitor, retinal cells are not aware of what they display. If the detector, such as the hippocampus, is to light up in response to entropy, it must operate on the inputs from the entorhinal cortex (i.e. the input to the hippocampus itself). Those inputs will present the signal after a high degree of processing. Instead of pixels, it may present a concept. A high entropy signal at the sensory inputs will lose most of its noise component early in the process of neural selection, completion, and generalization. The signal-to-noise ratio will determine how much information is lost. The bigger the noise, the bigger the loss. The smarter we are, the more selective this processing will be and the more information will be lost at that stage. That's good. We become blind to detail. Pattern recognition will act like a deterministic function, which by definition, results in a drop in entropy. Complex patterns may become simple concepts. Those concepts will provide the actual input to the detector, e.g. the hippocampus.

Note that the visual stream produced in experiments that prove the response of the hippocampus to signal entropy has a highly symbolic nature. As such, the stream will lose far less information in processing. That highly simplified and conceptualized message will be scanned for surprisal and provide guidance to the entire learn drive system. This is why, in this case, the hippocampus appears to be responding to input entropy.

The above reasoning explains why both low and high entropy sensory signals can be uninteresting. After a degree of processing, a high entropy signal may lose all its noise and deliver a low entropy input to the hippocampus. We then observe the illusion of an "optimum entropy" level at sensory input. We need a new concept, learntropy, that will help us accurately determine the attractiveness of the signal. Learntropy needs to take into account the high degree of processing of information before it can activate reward centers in the brain. Learntropy is discussed later in this text.

Speed of information processing

An under-appreciated factor in sensory information scanning is the speed of information processing in the brain.

For every piece of music, there is a tolerable playback range where the beauty of the music is appreciated. A high speed playback can be annoying and the music may become hard to decode, as the high speed goes beyond our processing power. The same piece of music slowed down can quickly lose its appeal. The same happens in speech delivery or in classroom lecturing. For the same information and the same entropy level, we may accomplish highly different levels of signal attractiveness. There is always an optimum speed of delivery and that speed depends on all other factors that power the learn drive, incl. prior knowledge. As such, speed of delivery is highly individual.

I like to listen to lectures at 1.4x speed. I use 1.3x for more ambitious pieces. I never speed up Fareed Zakaria though, but rather relish every piece of information in this show. Students in a classroom lecture do not have a speed-up or slow-down button. Even the pause button, if available, is hard to hit as it may annoy other students.

In schools, all too often, the speed of delivery surpasses student's processing capacity. This results in negligible learning and high stress. There is no time to enjoy the landscapes in the window of a high-speed train. At MIT they call it "drinking from a firehose".

Probability vs. knowledge

Low probability events carry more information. Average information determines entropy. Prior knowledge determines the perception of an information channel's entropy.

If you happen to tune in to radio news and you hear that "Janet Jackson has delivered a baby", your degree of interest will depend on the probability of the event. If you have no idea who Janet Jackson is, this is a high probability event. If some 350,000 women deliver babies every single day, this is no longer news and is not new or interesting. The first death of a soldier in a war makes news, but when deaths incrase into the thousands, young lives become just a statistic.

If you happen to know Janet Jackson or like her music, the probability of a baby delivery drops dramatically to the level of "once in a lifetime" (for Janet). This can make you become interested. However, if you recall Janet as a beautiful girl from some ancient sitcom, her baby delivery may go into the category of "Impossible!". If you realize Janet is 50 years old, and you know about menopause, you may instantly become morbidly curious about her case. Your prior knowledge determines how you respond to the message. There is no optimum entropy level for a channel. There is only an optimum entropy level that fits a specific brain. At this point you may see that we need to introduce a new derived concept, which we will later call learntropy. Learntropy will determine the attractiveness of a given channel for a given brain.

If you love Janet-like gossip, the channel rich in that gossip will provide the right level of surprisal for you. It will provide the learntropy match. If you lack knowledge or your priorities differ, you will tune out. Your learning priorities will also determine your level of knowledge in particular areas and your response to any particular channel and its information entropy.

Predictability and surprisal

Probability and complexity are not the only components in information perception. We seem to look for a balance between predictability and surprise. I like funk. In this type of music, the bassline is often highly predictable with the optimum dose of syncopation. It makes it easy to synchronize the body motion with the rhythm. However, funk would not be interesting if it did not carry surprise. This is where the sophisticated jazz riffs tickle the neural system responsible for the detection of surprisal. In addition, after decades of learning, there is a whole database of signals that my brain responds to. There may be that one backup singer voice that I recognize and like. My brain is ready for funk.

I love Ken Robinson lectures on creativity. In one way, they are highly predictable. I totally agree with Robinson, so you can say that Robinson feeds my confirmation bias. This is pleasurable. When people agree with us, we like to say "great minds think alike". But if Robinson just kept repeating the same dry mantras on how schools kill creativity, he would lose his appeal. Entropy can be interpreted as the average expected surprisal. Robinson's delivery carries a great deal of nice surprises. He may paint the same models in a different and unusually creative way. As a result, the brain receives new information, produces a generalization, and confirms the existing models. Generalizations derived from new contexts increase knowledge coherence. This a very pleasing type of complementarity in a message based on a known model.

Robinson lectures find a good balance between predictability and surprise.

The most pleasing information channels will keep delivering surprises that confirm existing models and arm them in new semantic twigs on which new knowledge can be built. A surprise that destroys existing models may not be pleasing at first, but may lead to a highly pleasing revolution in thinking.

Metaphorically, you can imagine this as the information channel massaging your tree of knowledge and adding new branches like a potter who adds new layers of clay to his perfectly shaped creation.

Detecting surprisal

Human learn drive is based on detecting surprisal. We have known that for ages. All models of human and machine learning involve that concept under different names. Piaget wrote about schemata that fall into disequilibrium under the impact of surprisal. In his models of the neocortex, Jeff Hawkins speaks of prediction errors that underlie learning and intelligence. I like to speak of models, their elaboration (when new information fits the model), contradiction (when new information requires changes to the model), and generalization (when forgetting and memory optimization sculpt out new quality from the model).

For the reward of learning, a new surprising piece of information needs to fit pre-existing knowledge (models, schemata, predictions, or so). For the reward to be delivered, neural processing is necessary. Information on the input needs to be processed, and compared with information stored in the brain. One of the chief processors of input information in the brain is the hippocampus. It is the brain's information switchboard that is able to compare the input with prior knowledge.

Measuring the entropy of the visual stream is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the pleasing power of the information channel. All information streamed to the hippocampus undergoes a high degree of processing. A stream of pixels representing a beautiful beach will be processed into a series of shapes and textures. Those in turn will model palms, sand, and the sea. This highly compressed simple information will determine the original response to the information input.

Scanning for information in the environment is equivalent to scanning for scents of food. The scent is enticing, but only the actual feeding is a true reward. This is why entropy scanning does not need to be rewarding. All it needs to do is to lead to a reward. The anterior hippocampus responds to entropy, as noticed earlier, however experimental design made sure that the entropy refers to the combination of simple shapes that do not lose much information during input processing. Instead of speaking of signal entropy, we should rather focus on the input entropy at the information comparator such as the hippocampus. It is not the retinal pixels that matter, but the shape of the palm as represented on the comparator input. For the comparator, the high entropy pattern of grayness or static noise will not differ from whiteness or silence. They will all bring the same entropy on input: zero. This is why I used the term learntropy to accurately refer to the attractiveness of the information channel.

The anterior hippocampus that responds to signal entropy is famous for the discovery of the Halle Berry neuron (see more). Using electrodes implanted in a consenting epilepsy patient, researchers were able to pinpoint a single neuron consistently responding to images of Halle Berry in various contexts. The same neuron would also respond to Halle Berry's name. At the same time, posterior hippocampus might respond less consistently to Jennifer Aniston (perhaps an indication of a preceding layer of neural processing).

Most of us have no idea how Halle Berry smells and her smell might not be unique enough to activate Halle Berry neuron in the hippocampus, however, even the smell signal can get there fast via just a few synapses in the olfactory bulb, olfactory tubercle, piniform cortex, and the entorhinal cortex (see picture). However, if one could hear the sound of Halle's voice, it might meet the sound signal in the olfactory tubercle, contribute to recognition, and result in the subsequent activation of the Halle neuron in the hippocampus or further down in the neocortex.

Olfactory system anatomy
Olfactory system anatomy

Figure: Olfactory system anatomy. The smell signal can get to the hippocampus fast via just a few synapses in the olfactory bulb, olfactory tubercle, piniform cortex, and the entorhinal cortex. (source: Wikipedia)

Does it all mean that Halle resides permanently in the patient's hippocampus? Due to the association of the hippocampus with formation of new memories, we may rather think that Halle shows up in hippocampal neurons as a result of the recognition. Her permanent place in the heart of the patient is likely situated further downstream in the neocortex. We now know that in the process of memory consolidation, knowledge engrams move from the hippocampus to the neocortex. We are also pretty sure that this process is happening in sleep. It is in the neocortex that we should look for concept neurons representing Halle or one's grandmother. This last possibility gave rise to a hypothetical type of neuron called the grandmother cell.

In monkeys, researchers could identify grandmother cells in the visual cortex that respond to faces. There we might find cells that more consistently fire up in contact with Halle's image. However, the concept of Halle might still reside elsewhere and be activated, among others, by visual cortex cells upon noticing Halle.

Another activation route might come from hearing Halle's name on the news. The entire recognition process would be orchestrated by the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus while the ultimate Halle neuron would light up somewhere in the layers of the neocortex.

For information rich signal to generate a reward, there must be a low probability event detected on input and encoded via association as new knowledge in the cortex. Where anterior hippocampus would respond to the entropy, the activity of the extensive bilateral thalamo-cortical network would be modulated by the surprise factor. There we shall search for the roots of the pleasure of learning. There are also other comparator centers that might be involved depending on the type of the message. The amygdala has also been found to likely produce rewards when detecting novel visual signals. The same amygdala neurons that respond to rewarding visual stimuli may respond to novel visual stimuli. Rolls hypothesized that this may implement the reward of novelty via the amygdala.

We know that the hippocampus connects directly with the nucleus accumbens (the brain pleasure center). This connection might be used in two contexts:

  1. the anticipation of pleasure and
  2. the ultimate reward.

The anticipation would follow the detection of a high learntropy signal and would result in active pursuit of high value messages. Detecting a message by the hippocampus might then simultaneously send associative learning messages to the neocortex and the reward signal to the pleasure center. That would spell the moment of learning something new!

The wow factor

In the summer of 1977, while looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI researchers discovered an unusual radio signal coming from Sagittarius. In the bland low-level noise of cosmic space the signal was highly unlikely. Low probability marks high surprisal. Astronomer Jerry Ehman circled 6 letters corresponding with the signal on a printout and mark it with "Wow!".

A scan of a color copy of the original computer printout, taken several years after the 1977 arrival of the Wow! signal

Figure: A scan of a color copy of the original computer printout, taken several years after the 1977 arrival of the Wow! signal. (source: Wikipedia)

"Wow!" is how the brain responds to a sudden discovery. The moment is highly pleasurable. The entire purpose of the learn drive is to look for wow factors in the environment. These are the most valuable nuggets of knowledge that complement what is currently known: the current model of reality. The pleasure of incremental reading comes from the condensed power of wows streamed into the student's brain.

Thus far, we have seen the impact of entropy, surprisal, predictability, and current knowledge on learning. In this case, the mere probability of the signal does not fully explain its power. It is the interpretation that stands behind it (see: Knowledge valuation network). At the moment of making his note, Ehman could sense the enormity of its implications. This had been the most powerful evidence thus far and ever since for the existence of intelligence other than human intelligence. If the same signal represented detecting sardines in the ocean, there would be no "wow!". Not even in the Arctic.

The reliability of the information channel is important. If the error rate is high, the learn drive may weaken. When Penzias and Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964, there was no "wow!". Perplexed researchers went on to remove pigeon droppings from their radio antenna. Pigeon droppings received a priority in their explanation of the mysterious noise. In 1978, for their discovery, Penzias and Wilson received a Nobel Prize.

When a scientist makes a discovery, he may exclaim "Eureka!" and punch the air. A neural network somewhere in his brain has produced a generalization that results in sending a reward signal. This propagates further and makes an old man jump around the lab like a child.

The same happens early in life. A toddler in an empty room will scan the environment for low probability components like colorful objects, new toys, etc. When a toddler experiments with a spoon dropping off the table, she is like a little scientist. However, when the brain makes a generalization "all falling spoons make noise", she is rewarded too. She may celebrate in the exactly same way as the happy scientist, independent of the age. A big smile is the first clear sign.

The same happy thing occurs to a lesser degree in all forms of learning controlled by the learn drive. It does not matter if we learn about a celebrity or the chemical composition of a rock. Things are interesting because they reward the brain through the learn drive mechanism.

A creative process will also produce rewards. An association deemed useful is rewarding. An association that leads to a solution to a difficult problem is even more rewarding. Clearly there is a gradation of rewards. The system can quantify the probability of information, association, or a solution. The lower the probability, the higher the reward.

Knowledge valuation network

Knowledge valuations

All granular pieces of knowledge processed by the brain are instantly evaluated for their relevance, coherence, and value. We instantly know if information is understandable and useful. We also often instantly notice when it is inconsistent, incoherent or irrelevant.

Unusual and surprising bits of knowledge are highly valued, however, the probability isn't the best reflection of value from the brain's point of view. There are highly unlikely events of low significance (e.g. asteroid strike in a remote planetary system), and likely events that change one's life (e.g. the answer to "Will you marry me?").

Knowledge valuation relies primarily on the applicability of knowledge in achieving personal goals.

The emotional brain and the rational brain

Knowledge valuation network is an evaluation system based on a resultant of emotional and rational valuations of knowledge. In literature, it may be referred to broadly as neural valuation circuitry, which is not necessarily knowledge-specific.

In the valuation network, emotional valuations will connect information with rewards in the primitive brain centers responsible for hunger, thirst, sex drive, etc. Rational valuations will be knowledge-based. An example of a pure emotional valuation comes from an answer to "Where is the nearest fast food shop?". Knowledge-based valuations may be more complex and highly networked, i.e. dependent on a network of subvaluations. Answer to "Which book is best for my exam?" is evaluated through one's goals that include passing an exam leading to getting a degree affecting one's job prospects, and contributing to lifetime goals. Emotional and rational valuations segregate anatomically. The emotional valuations come from what has metaphorically been described as older portions of the triune brain: reptilian and paleommamalian structures. For example, a specific stimulus processed by the thalamus may send separate signals to the amygdala for an emotional evaluation, and to the neocortex for a rational valuation. The emotional brain is philogenetically older. Personality and education determine if rational valuations can control or override emotional valuations.

Decision tree in fast thinking

Knowledge valuation network is the network of memory connections that determine the value of an individual piece of knowledge. If learning is interpreted as a task, valuation network will determine the perceived task value (see: Problem valuation network).

In computational terms, knowledge valuation network can be compared to a decision tree. Goals and emotions determine core values at the root of the tree. Semantic connections between pieces of knowledge can be interpreted as fractional value transfer from goals to details. A well-organized semantic network of well-consolidated and well-chosen knowledge will need mere milliseconds to make expert decisions. This is what Kahneman calls automatic fast thinking (if you are interested in tough problems that require slow problem solving, see How to solve any problem?). The same kind of processes, that underlie decision making or problem solving, participate in knowledge valuation. Like many expert decisions, the valuation is fast and it is often running with low participation of conscious intentionality. In short, we sometimes die to know things without fully being able to explain why. This process is hardly under our own control, let alone the control of the teacher at school. For efficient learning, valuations must be high.

Xefer is a tool that helps understand knowledge as a network. It relies on semantic links between Wikipedia articles
Xefer is a tool that helps understand knowledge as a network. It relies on semantic links between Wikipedia articles

Figure: Xefer.com is a tool that helps understand knowledge as a network. It relies on semantic links between Wikipedia articles

Valuation network in education

The brain builds a valuation network in the course of learning over years and decades. Through optimization in sleep and via forgetting, the network is polished and smoothed up for efficient operation. This makes it easy to take valuation shortcuts. A student choosing a book may no longer see his exam in the full context of his whole life. He might have developed a quick shortcut: "In the next 3 months, all I want to do is to pass geology".

Knowledge valuation network is highly specialized and very different from individual to individual. The balance between reason and emotions will differ. The balance between goals will differ. The valuation network will shape differently in the mind of a criminal, and differently in the mind of a researcher with lofty goals based on the good of mankind.

The development of the network will depend on the personality, lifetime experience, and the environment. Childhood trauma or personality characteristics, e.g. impulsivity, may favor developing a more criminal mindset. Some traumatic events in early life may favor developing biased networks based on single-minded obsessions (see: falsity vector). The environment and the available knowledge will determine passions, interests, goals, and network subvaluations (see: conceptualization).

The ideal path towards developing healthy network valuations is a childhood sheltered from trauma and chronic stress, with no external stressors shaping emotional valuations, plenty of play, and free learning in large behavioral spaces

All strategies that promote healthy brain development will also promote rich, highly-individualized, and efficient valuation network. Those will underlie a sparkling learn drive. All educators agree that we want to help kids have a good grip on their emotional life and build smart, creative, and knowledgeable brains.

The chief problem of educational systems is a cookie-cutter approach in which all kids are fed the same knowledge in an industrial fashion with little respect to the key component of efficient learning: the learn drive. Learn drive is a perfect computational device that matches the current status of the semantic network representing knowledge in the brain with current input produced by the knowledge valuation network in response to information available in the environment. If the kid insists he must see that YouTube video, his own brain is the best authority. All interference will affect future independence and creativity.

While a lecturing teacher may spend 45 minutes to feed a child with a long string of symbols that produce low valuations, and negligible memories, the same kid, with access to Google, within 3-5 minutes, will identify pieces of information with high valuations, and easy coding for lifetime retention (for an opposing view see: The morbid myth of Digital Dementia). For kids well trained in the process, the efficiency of knowledge acquisition may be an order of magnitude higher in self-learning. When I say "order of magnitude", I am just being cautious and conservative. I do not want to run into accusations of hyperbole. I included a couple of examples of specific comparisons in this text elsewhere (e.g. 13 years of school in a month or 1600% acceleration of learning during vacation).

Where I speak of golden nuggets of knowledge, Peter Thiel speaks of the power law: a small set of core skills honed to perfection can produce power returns.

Small investments in learning can produce dramatic changes to individual lives and to the entire planet!

Knowledge valuation in the brain

The research into the actual anatomical implementation of the knowledge valuation network in the brain is of paramount importance for the understanding of the human mind. It is essential for prevention of depression and addictions. Knowledge valuation underlies efficient learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Good learning is pleasurable. Rewards of food, sex, or drugs tend to saturate. Happy learning does not have this property. It is easy to avoid unhappy learning. This is done instinctively via the learn drive. This is why learning is of supreme hedonic importance. It can literally lift societies to a new happier level.

Orbitofrontal cortex

The networked nature of knowledge valuation is indicative of the use of cortical resources. Indeed, most of researchers seem to lean to the belief that the entire system of valuations might be centered in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) with the level of abstraction increasing towards anterior areas. There are many models and hypotheses on how individual subsystems affect valuations (e.g. common currency, common scaling, somatic marker, appraisal-by-content, multiple component, cognitive-motivational interface, parallel appraisal, locationist vs. constructionist models, etc.). In the common currency model, all valuations from all sub-systems (hedonic substrates) are integrated and provide the ultimate signal of "wanting" or "liking". For example, (1) knowledge-based valuations from medial OFC (mOFC) might combine with (2) reward anticipation from the nucleus accumbens (NA), and (3) food appraisal messages from the insula to affect decision-making in the choice of a restaurant for the next meal.

Common currency model

OFC is a fantastic research area due to the convergence of many lines of human interests: drug addictions, ahedonia, learned helplessness, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. The common currency model seems to indicate that the high associated with explosive creativity or explosive learn drive is neurochemically and neuroanatomically comparable to the high produced by low doses of cocaine.

There is a lively dispute on whether all rewards are translated into a reward signal that converges on the same type of neurons, or if they retain the origin of their character. I think the discussion is redundant as specificity can be conferred by individual concept map activations, while the ultimate valuation generated by a single output can constitute the common currency. In all valuations, we need to have a convergence due to the existence of a single answer corresponding with a single concept map activation. Some OFC neurons seem to specifically encode high-level value.

In knowledge valuation and in decision-making, we need a single boss. Redundancy can be used to restore the valuation system, but there is no escape from a concept neuron decision. We cannot have two decision makers that would make a hand with a fork stab an itching eye during a dinner even though competing neural forces make such a scenario possible due to a computing error.

Emergence of knowledge valuations

Building up the valuation network may occur via the interaction of individual concept maps. For example, if the exam concept is valued because of the job prospects concept, they may be coactivated, and the valuation of the employment concept may confer a valuation on the exam-related concept map. The degree of the activation and the associated concept valuations may determine the ultimate appraisal. Myelin concentration may increase in pathways targeting the ventral striatum, which may be one of the ways to explain how the learn drive can be boosted with learning (or suppressed with coercive learning a school). The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in determining valuations might be similar to the role of the hippocampus in establishing long-term memories. Those highly connected regions of the cortex may play a role of a switchboard that connect areas of interest only to relinquish the role of a matchmaker while the linked concept maps (or centers) develop their own wiring for fast connectivity (e.g. in sleep). With new wiring, highly valued concept might affect pleasure centers with no mediation from the OFC. This way, some concept cells (e.g. associated with one's favorite actor) could generate pleasant valuations by sheer solo activation.

Harms of reversal learning

In case of a negative school conditioning, we may associate irrelevant contexts (e.g. colors of items in SuperMemo) with low valuations. In this scenario, the concept of a white item, or the coactivation of the concept of item and color, will suppress valuation by providing a strong negative input. Outwardly it looks like a cut-off signal that blocks valuations (perhaps in the lateral OFC). In such contexts, association of concepts would still be possible, and short-term retrieval might be likely, however, low valuation would prevent consolidation of memory (e.g. by blocking the transfer to long-term cortical storage)(see: How school turns off memory). Reprogramming reward (e.g. swapping template color in SuperMemo) could occur in reversal learning. We know that animals with OFC injury are impaired at reversal learning (Mishkin 1972), which adds to the evidence for the anatomical location of the supreme valuation networks. If we keep overriding valuation signals, we might end up with the war of the networks, which is my hypothetical claim on the origins of learned helplessness induced by schooling. School coercion might be seen as a form of perpetual reversal learning that will wear on network plasticity leading to long-term adverse effects on the ability to evaluate rewards in decision-making. In that light, human memory might be seen as an EPROM with limited number of erase cycles. If long-term learning is seen as a buildup of the synaptic substrate that is then pruned in the process of stabilization (which in turn reduces synaptogenesis), reversal learning might lead to an unresponsive system in which learning is no longer possible.

Endless fake rewards and micro-penalties may turn off knowledge valuations and undermine long-term learning at school

Goals vs. habits

The knowledge valuation network is central in healthy free learning. In contrast, passive schooling leads to learned helplessness. Coercion converts goal-oriented behaviors into the acceptance of passive habits (as opposed to healthy habits honed in the pursuit of goals). The output from the knowledge valuation network is suppressed by lower valuations in the system (i.e. lower activation of concept maps of interest). This naturally leads to a less joyful state of mind. When learn drive withers, when curiosity dies, life becomes a series of habits executed with little reward (see: 50 bad habits learned at school).

Without the pleasure of learning, human existence becomes a joyless set of habits

Knowledge valuation that affects the course of life

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My school tried to block the best thing in my life

I have my own striking example of the power of the valuation network in confrontation with the education system:

In 1985, I computed the approximate function of optimum intervals for knowledge review needed for developing long-term memories. This was the birth of spaced repetition. Originally, the function was applicable using a pen and paper. Within a few months, I realized the system was extremely powerful. I knew that I could double its power with the use of a computer. However, I did not know anyone who could write learning software based on my math. In those days, the entire population of programmers in Poland was made of old timers doing Fortran or Cobol on mainframes, or a growing mass of amateur enthusiasts working with microcomputers such as ZX 81, Commodore 64, or ZX Spectrum. I decided to write the program myself. I had no programming skills though. I was a student of computer science, and I asked my teachers for help. However, our only course of programming was the assembly language of Datapoint. Those skills were great for playing with registers and coming up with 11*11=121. I wanted to learn something more useful for programming SuperMemo. My school kept demanding that I learn to compute the resistance of an electronic circuit, or learn symbolic integration. My knowledge valuation network produced a simple output: programming skills would lead to SuperMemo, which would lead to faster learning (in all fields, incl. electronics or calculus). I was determined to learn programming. My school was determined to stop me (by loading other compulsory courses). In desperation, I enrolled in the University of Economics in Poznan, which had a course of algorithmic languages. The course focused on Pascal. I had to do my normal load of classes and do my Pascal in extra time. That course was nice, but we did all learning in theory, and on paper. There were very few PCs at Polish universities in those days (1986) and most practical applications ran on mainframes called Odra (produced for Soviet block in Poland as of 1960). When I finally got my first computer: ZX Spectrum (Jan 4, 1986), I could finally start learning to program real computers. Before my computer arrived, I started writing my first program. I wrote it on paper! It was a program for organizing my day (sort of Plan in SuperMemo). Not much later, I was able to learn Pascal too. First I had to reduce the bad impact of school and cut the load of classes. I struck a deal with my teacher of electronic circuits. I would do some high-pass filter calculations for him, and this would be a chance to improve my Pascal skills. The program took many hours to write and was a monumental waste of time. It was a perfect example of bad learning. I hardly understood how my own program worked. However, it was still better than just learning diagrams. For my programming skills, that learning was good, and I improved a lot.

It is hard to express it in words to those who do not know programming, but the difference of knowledge valuations between university courses and doing one's own programming is comparable to the size difference between the plum and the Jupiter. While my colleagues suffered through boring lectures in electronics and metrology, I could make my start. I would learn nothing at school. I would learn a bit in my extracurricular course of Pascal. However, only the practical knowledge backed up by passion and clear goals mattered. By December 1987, my effort culminated in writing the first version of SuperMemo, which totally changed the course of my life. Open mind of my supervisor Dr Zbigniew Kierzowski let me devote my whole Master's Thesis to the subject of SuperMemo. Happy 80th birthday Professor Kierzkowski! It was pretty unusual for a student to make his own determination on that scale, and then compound it with the fact that the thesis was written in English (less than a decade later, Polish parliament tried to make such efforts illegal). This involved a big administrative and tactical battle back in 1989.

My school almost destroyed SuperMemo, i.e. the major source of my present joy. There was no malice involved. Most of my college teachers were fantastic people. It was the system that was designed to squeeze students through a rigid curriculum rather than give them space for creative expression that is the best basis of education

My school was actively trying to block me from accomplishing the most important thing that underlay my entire professional life and future. If I was a bit more compliant, more conformist, more prone to social pressures, I would be a "better" student, invest more time in the theory of electronic circuits, calculus, metrology, and abstract algebra. As a result, this article would have never been written. This site would not exist.

I would not trade my present life for any other type of career in research or industry. I survived the denial attack by providing resistance based on strong knowledge valuation network.

We need to design an education system in which kids do not need to battle for the right to develop


There are many factors that affect how messages and information channels are perceived and valued by the brain. In preceding sections we have noticed that the brain does not respond just to entropy. There are many factors that modulate the impact of entropy or surprisal of individual messages. Those factors include: encoding, speed of delivery, pre-processing (e.g. generalization, completion, recognition, etc.), prior knowledge (incl. valuation, emotional valence, channel reliability, etc.), optimum level (affected by speed of processing), and more.

The complexity of the process calls for a better concept that can encapsulate all those nuances. I suggest the use of the term learntropy to describe the attractiveness of an educational channel or signal from the point of view of an individual brain in a specific context.

Learntropy is the attractiveness of any educative signal as determined by the learn drive system.

Lectures can be boring or attractive. Learntropy expresses their attractiveness from the point of view of an individual.

While entropy has a precise mathematical definition, learntropy would probably best be measured by the response of the reward system to the act of learning from the analyzed signal. As much as entropy depends on the probability of individual messages, learntropy will depend on the rewarding power of these messages (pictures, sounds, sentences, etc). That rewarding power will be associated with probability, but the valuation will largely depend on the knowledge valuation network.

For good learning there is a reward. However, there is also bad learning. There is a decoding failure penalty. If a student makes an effort to decode a message and fails, he is penalized. This is how frustration is born. This is how the dislike of learning begins. If learntropy is low, reward is little, penalty is high, and the net result may be negative. If we take negative reward signals into account, learntropy could actually assume negative values. A boring lecture could carry negative learntropy. It will result in suppressing the learn drive.

High knowledge valuations contribute to high learntropy, which in turn is necessary for attention and semantic slotting in of knowledge for long-term retention. In a powerful feedback loop, learntropy enhances the learn drive, which underlies valuations that determine learntropy. This feedback loop is kept in check by forgetting, learned helplessness, aging, injury, and the sheer availability of mental resources. With rational learning and lifestyle management, esp. with respect to the natural creativity cycle, the equilibrium can be maintained at the high learn drive level for decades.

Signal timing vs. learntropy

The degree of reward obtained from individual messages in the learning stream will determine the level of signal learntropy. A lecture on a boring topic will carry low learntropy. Surfing the net for titbits of information needed to solve a specific problem will carry high learntropy.

Unlike Shannon entropy that is based on averages, learntropy will be more of a trailing average where recent messages will carry a higher weight than messages delivered earlier in time. In addition, learntropy is rooted in rules that govern the consolidation of memory, incl. the spacing effect.

The learntropy of a boring lecture will shoot up once a golden nugget of knowledge fills an important gap in understanding. The increase in learntropy will be proportional to the expression of the stability of the memory trace determining knowledge valuation (incl. descending traces in the knowledge valuation network). The impact of a golden nugget will wane in time. The cumulative effect of those happy discoveries will determine the level of learntropy at any given time (e.g. during a lecture).

The above shows that educators can influence learntropy, enhance the learn drive, and enhance long-term learning outcomes. Feeding passive knowledge is a bad strategy. Providing answers should be selective and should favor high importance abstract and universal questions. Free explorations of self-directed learning are the best formula for lifelong sustainable learn drive and lifelong learning.

All forms of schooling tend to suppress the learn drive. As a result, many adults may find it difficult to internalize the message on the importance of learntropy in learning. However, in the modern world, nearly everyone is faced with the need to solve a minor technical or health problem on their own. The problem may be as simple as a trivial change to setup in Facebook options. The harder it is to find the solution to a problem, the greater the reward in finding answers. The harder it is to find answers, the more persistent and extensive the search and exploration. Those feelings should be familiar to everyone. However, suppression of the learn drive always results in lesser knowledge, lower self-esteem, and all explorations might come to an end earlier. In other words, those who lost their creative drive at school, or later in life, will give up earlier, or perhaps never even try. In that sense, all technical problems and glitches that come with computers, Internet, technology, etc. have some positive side effect of stimulating the vestiges of the lost learn drive even in the most passive individuals. The only requirement is that those quests need to end with a degree of success. Otherwise, the opposite may happen. The penalty signal may lead to conditioning a withdrawal from exploration.

You can quickly answer this instant quiz about your own learn drive. If you face a minor problem in life, do you seek a human expert or you rely on Google? If your car fails, or you computer crashes, or you get injured, or you got a stomach ache, where do you go?

Learntropy and learn drive

In a process similar to forgetting, the impact of learntropy reward will decline exponentially over time. Like in spaced repetition review, the new reward will bring back learntropy to a high level. Like in a spacing effect, longer breaks may result in the same message being more rewarding.

There is a major difference between the reward signal determining learntropy and the consolidation signal determining recall in learning: once you learn something, repeated review in short spaces of time is pointless, once you drive recall probability to 100%, you can let time pass before the next review. The upper limit on learntropy might be hard to reach. If you love a lecture, with some twists of facts or delivery, you can love it more. If you remember a singular memory, you cannot remember it better by tricks employed in a short space of time. You can reformulate the memory using mnemonic techniques and affect its durability, but once the probability of recall is 100%, the best thing to do for the memory might be to leave it unused for a while or employ it in varying context, which may essentially lead to developing new memories that will form redundant connections to the original singular memory.

Extinction of learntropy occurs via lack of reward signal. Extinction of learn drive is a matter of forgetting (incl. forgetting through brain cell loss).

Learntropy will be additive over individual messages with exponential decline and diminishing returns. By optimizing the timing of rewarding messages, we can drive learntropy high and make learning become one of the most pleasurable activities on the par with rewards of food, sex, drugs, etc. If you are skeptical, recall obsessive videogamers who can literally starve while playing nights. Videogames can highjack the learn drive and combine it with the reward of gambling. Rewards of gambling might also be governed by similar rules of decline and boost as learntropy, however, they are subject to variable reward which can lead to addiction. It is important to distinguish between the pleasure of learning and harmful addictions (see: Addiction to learning).

Learntropy will determine the learn drive, but both will be sustained with different rules. Learn drive is knowledge dependent, and as such will be subject to spaced repetition. As knowledge is a network, speaking of optimum stimulation of learn drive is probably pointless. To maximize learn drive, we should engage in lifelong learning, respect natural creativity cycle, and take care of the brain health (i.e. health in general).

Optimum information delivery

In schooling, we might envisage a lecture delivered at optimum learntropy level, in which a student keeps saying "wow! wow!". She keeps taking down notes as fast as humanly possible. More often though, the lecture will buzz a high entropy signal or ooze boredom. Its learntropy will be low or even negative.

If optimum learntropy levels depend on the student, how can a teacher optimally deliver knowledge to a classroom? Sometimes universal delivery is impossible. In other cases, it is difficult enough to require genius teaching skills. For most teachers, lecture delivery keeps most kids bored or frustrated.

In lecture delivery, a lucky few may get most of the message. For a fraction of the gifted, the lecture may carry nothing new. For them it is boring. For other kids, message complexity goes above their comprehension level. In such cases, the lecture can be frustrating if they try to decode it. A lecture on string theory might be comparable to a noise of randomly shuffled English words. Lecturing is an exercise in timewasting. Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman compared it to blood-letting.

To avoid the frustration of negative learntropy, students will tune out like you tuned out from that Thai channel I mentioned earlier. Children will ignore the static noise coming from the teacher and tune in to other channels that carry more appropriate levels of learntropy (e.g. Facebook on a phone under the desk). Even if their comprehension is good, the knowledge delivered may not complement their current knowledge. If it does not generate high-quality high-value generalization, it will be considered obvious or irrelevant.

Low learntropy, even if occurring occasionally, conditions the student to tune out. After a while, students will develop a filter that will turn a teacher into a silent radio channel carrying zero entropy and zero learntropy. Improvements to lecture quality will become futile. The teacher disappears!

In a classroom setting, a student will often not be able to zero in on a better signal. The same signal is dished out to all students and they all may get equally bored. In contrast, Googling for good keywords can bombard the brain with perfectly timed low probability messages that will fit the current knowledge tree like a jigsaw puzzle. Google is a very cheap and efficient generator of "wow!".

In incremental learning, the learntropy scanner will pick best channels, prioritize those and employ perfect timing for maximizing semantic connectivity and memory consolidation. This should make it easy to understand why I am extremely happy, I will never ever be forced to sit in a school bench! I love learning too much!

All the above examples illustrate how intricate the interaction between the signal and the brain is in recognizing things worth learning. The reward of learning is the best known indicator of learning quality. When students are happy, we are on the right track. When schools are the place of misery, we are failing on a societal scale.

The only reliable detector of knowledge complementarity and coherence are the neural networks of the learn drive system. This is why knowledge cannot be prepackaged and imposed on students.

This is explained using a crystallization metaphor. The neural details of the reward system follow in the section: Learning rewards.

Gripping lectures

We love learning, but we usually hate to be taught. Those feelings correlate with creativity, which can probably be explained by the fact that creative elaboration is essential for pattern completion that underlies comprehension.

In learning, we decide what to investigate. The learntropy evaluation strictly depends on the status of the brain and current memory activations. In teaching, knowledge is dished out independent of what we think of it. Many students list boring subjects as their number one reason for disliking school. Not bullying, stress, or early waking. Excruciating boredom! I write about the astronomical difference between self-directed learning and learning at school here. It is all about the learn drive!

I am amazed with how many resources are wasted on research that looks for ways to keep kids interested during lectures, while it should be obvious that lectures are just a poor educational tool. Eye contact analysis? Engagement analysis? Efforts to quantify passion? All kids are equipped with natural learn drive and our priority should be to ensure we do not destroy that drive. Force-feeding knowledge is the prime destroyer of the learn drive. In addition, there are many socioeconomic factors that prevent a great chunk of kids to thrive even in the best circumstances. Some kids will never show passion for learning. In most cases, it is not their fault. Only a tiny fraction are limited by disabilities, health, and less fortunate genetic endowments. The exponential decay in the learn drive with age is caused primarily by compulsory schooling. Passive lecturing is a huge contributor to that process.

Naturally, there are lectures that work. Khan Academy is jam-packed with good examples. Even a spoken lecture with no slides can work. A TED talk on YouTube can be fun. It can satisfy the learn drive. MOOCs are founded on the principle that one rock-star teacher is better than thousands of rank-and-file teachers repeating the same mantra. You can learn a lot even if you are just a passive listener. There are conditions though: you need to be intensely curious about the subject, or you need to love the speaker, or both. There is only one sure mechanism for ensuring the lecture is interesting: you need to choose it on your own! This is just one more aspect of the need for self-directed learning.

In addition to choice, in lecturing, you definitely need a pause button in case you need to take a toilet break, or quiet the hunger pangs. Nothing can ruin a lecture as effectively as a bursting bladder. Last but not least, most lectures could benefit from Netflix's Skip Intro feature.

Naturally, the lecture will work best if you enhance it with your own creative thinking or even quick research. This is why pausing for a minute, or for a day might be essential for learning efficiency. Against the claims of some psychiatrists, creative breaks and a wandering mind have nothing to do with ADHD. As long as they are remotely relevant, they are hallmarks of great learning.

I use two methods for consuming lectures incrementally. My first method is to listen and exercise. Exercise improves focus. Good focus reduces the need for a pause, however, it also reduces the creative aspect of learning. For subjects of highest priority, I use incremental video where I can pause and resume multiple times. I can even keep the most important lecture extracts for future review. However, even incremental video isn't the best approach to learning. It cannot compete in speed and volume with incremental reading. Sometimes it makes better sense to employ incremental reading and process the lecture transcript than to listen to the lecture itself. This is particularly visible in fact-rich lecturing.

I choose my video materials mostly on the basis of speakers who I just love to listen to. In the context of this article, I know you would love Ken Robinson lectures! Go and see: Robinson: Schools kill creativity!

Learning rewards

The pleasure of learning might be one of the most satisfying possible pleasures. As opposed to eating or having sex, the pleasure of learning does not terminate with the act. The pleasure of learning is sustainable and wanes slowly only with the overload of networks involved in learning. It can be reset back to the baseline with sleep. The pleasure of learning has been shown to involve the same mechanisms as the pleasure of heroin or cocaine. Unlike feeding or sex, pleasurable learning can fill most of the waking time. In that sense, the pleasures of learning, creativity, problem solving, and productivity might be great tools in stoic hedonic therapy. Whereas the need for food is easily satisfied in a healthy individual, the need for learning may never end. The learn drive depends on the status of current knowledge and this status can be manipulated with learning itself.

All people with mood swings should consider learning as therapy.

Learn drive reward

I have mentioned a couple of examples of how the learn drive leads to a reward signal in the brain. We know that low probability information can be rewarding. So can a generalization that contributes new knowledge. A snippet of information that leads to a great goal of understanding is highly valued. A missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle carries a great reward. One obscure word, once decoded, can make a whole long text switch from a tangle of sentences into a clear line of reasoning.

Confirming a model via a generalization or laying foundations for a new better model both feel great. In addition, all model confirmations associated with strong emotions can lead to euphoria: "My team is the best in the world!", or "Yes! My newborn is healthy indeed!", or "Yeah! I knew that hard work will earn me that promotion!". However, when discussing the learn drive, I would like to filter out that extra emotional layer that may obscure the picture. We need to remember that learning is pleasurable independent of whether it brings rewards from employing the knowledge.

The Aha!, Wow! or Eureka! of discovery is the purest and ultimate prize in learning. It does not need to entail further reward in accolades or praise from others. Here, the knowledge is its own reward.

The common denominator of this reward is the encoding of new highly-valued information in memory.

The learn drive reward comes from high-value knowledge ready for long-term storage.

In our quest to understand reality, while the total amount of information stored in the brain increases, the entropy of stored knowledge drops. With learning and modeling, it takes less and less effort to understand the complexity of the world.

Evolution of the learn drive

Scientists say that smart animals play more. I say that it is even more interesting to note that species that play more are smarter. I hypothesize that the learn drive may have been the trigger factor in the explosion of the human brain size. It is not that birds or mammals faced a change in environment that required more thinking. It is not that humans suddenly faced extinction had they not blown up the size of their cortex. It may have been the emergence of the learn drive that suddenly allowed better usage of the expensive increase in the number of brain cells. Before there was the learn drive, adding brain size might leave an animal with an extra head weight to carry and an extra set of cells to feed. Without the learn drive, the extra brain space might remain unused and likely undergo wasteful atrophy. If schooling attempts to override the learn drive, it will contribute to the disuse of that evolutionary advantage. It will contribute to society that is less smart and less creative.

If we plot the brain size over the timeline of human evolution, we can see a powerful upswing around 2 million years ago. Paleoanthropologists tend to attribute that swing to better brain nutrients in the diet, cooking, and the like.

If the hypothesis on the emergence of the learn drive is correct, Homo habilis would be a candidate for the starting point of the breakthrough. This could point to the transition from a simple procedural play drive of birds and mammals towards a more sophisticated declarative learn drive that ultimately leads us to building abstract models of reality, which underlie human intelligence. Homo habilis has also been hypothesized to lead to the emergence of childhood dominated by brain growth (from weaning to an average of 7 years old).

The late arrival of the learn drive in evolution would suggest that it is not a simple property emergent in neural networks (see: Biederman model). Otherwise it might easily show up in fish or earlier. The learn drive requires a dedicated set of neural structures that are able to send a reward signal at the point of detecting an incremental contribution to a coherent structure of declarative knowledge. This signal and the underlying structure might differ in procedural learning and declarative learning. It might also differ for different classes of sensory input.

Procedural learning reward

I hypothesized about circuits that might run procedural learning back in the 1980s. In my Master's Thesis, out of ignorance, I used my own term "stochastic learning". I had no idea that two decades earlier, back in 1969, David Marr proposed a theoretical model of the cerebellar cortex that fit my own thinking. In the new millennium, there is a lot of data to confirm the model.

The idea of a procedural learning circuit is very simple. Imagine you ride a bicycle. You apply your conscious mind to learn individual moves needed to mount the bike and to then continue pedalling. However, once you are on the way, the procedural learning system makes sure you can execute all moves automatically with minimum neural effort without participation of conscious supervision or minimal supervision over a set of command neurons. Procedural learning will determine your motor program. This procedural learning system will make minor random adjustments to the sequence of signals sent to the motor system (hence the name "stochastic learning"). You can view those random changes as procedural creativity. Each time your bike loses balance, a penalty signal will be sent from the error-detecting network to cancel proposed corrections. That penalty signal will play the role of a teaching signal for the motor program.

During sleep, memories will be reorganized to eliminate the need for conscious input, simplified, optimized, and garbage signals that have a low contribution to the skill will be rejected. With each kilometer cycled, the sequence of signals will be perfected by trial and error. With each bout of sleep the wrinkles will get smoother. Riding a bike will become a pleasure. That pleasure seems to peek in the transition from clumsy conscious rider to a natural.

In a similar fashion, with each sentence typed on the computer, you will strike fewer typos. Do you know where ")" is on the keyboard? How about "}"? The more fluent you are in typing, the more likely you are to forget this detail. When the conscious control of motor sequences is taken away, declarative knowledge of the position of ")" on the keyboard may be thrown away as "garbage". It is no longer needed.

Declarative learning reward

Things are a bit more complex in explaining the declarative learn drive. There is a definite reward to declarative learning. Some things are just interesting, and finding out the truth is pleasing. At the neural level, the brain will scan inputs and neural activations to look for areas of high learntropy with the maximum delivery of new knowledge matching the current status of memory. Any meaningful message of low probability will be deemed more attractive. A bright fractal pattern will be deemed beautiful. A gray randomness of colors will be deemed boring. The same will occur in the case of a more complex visual message. A vibrant forest is beautiful. The same forest may seem unattractive in winter, in draught, or under the impact of environmental pollution. Steven Pinker remarked that we are attracted to images that ooze vitality. I disagree. The attraction is much wider. We may be equally well attracted to a deathly volcano or a frozen landscape of Antarctica. We love environments, signals, messages, or brain activations that can express complex information using simple models. The picture of a beautiful beach can be represented by a couple of simple shapes and textures.

Entropy of information is related to the compressability of data. Signal processing begins on the input. The retina performs a 100-fold compression of the visual input signal. The visual cortex receives simple representations of shapes and relationships. The hippocampus receives that information in an episodic context. Those signals may end up changing the status of a single synapse in the neocortical long-term memory storage.

The learn drive is based on seeking effective ways of representing knowledge in neural networks. Learn drive, memory optimization in sleep, and forgetting are essential to maximize compressibility, abstractness, applicability, and performance. This is how the brain makes sure that we can see a complex world using simple representations. That's the core of human intelligence. If artificial intelligence researchers could equip robots with a human-like learn drive, given sufficient memory, their learning capacity might be inexhaustible.

Reward centers in learning

In 2014, researchers reported that the activity in the nucleus accumbens was increased in the state of "high curiosity". They have also demonstrated what we have always known: this state improved memory performance. In addition, that improved performance spilled onto incidental learning, i.e. learning that would not spark curiosity on its own. This research was widely reported in media with a wrong interpretation: "curiosity primes the brain for better memory". For example, Scientific American headlined "Neuroimaging reveals how the brain’s reward and memory pathways prime inquiring minds for knowledge". The paper itself suggested the need for "stimulating curiosity".

As reward centers can be involved in the anticipation of pleasure, we should rather see the results of the research as an indicator that the learn drive is associated with pleasure. It is the learn drive that causes learning. It is learning that is pleasurable. The headline should be "Neuroimaging confirms that efficient learning is pleasurable". In other words, the sequence is not "drive -> pleasure -> learning", but "drive -> learning -> pleasure".

Instead of speaking of the need to "stimulate curiosity", which should rather speak of the need to "develop the learn drive". The key difference is in perceiving stimulation as quick-fix approach that might be used in a classroom as opposed to a long-term process that takes months and years. An advertising campaing may use cheap tricks to stimulate our curiosity, while a lifelong passion is a formula for insatiable and unwaning learn drive, which is a perfect warranty for unceasing learning.

It is true that the state of curiosity will improve attention and this will improve overall learning, however, this should not ever be used as a classroom strategy. Gamification of learning makes sense only if rewards come from target learning, not from learning that surrounds the target. Many learning programs for children use bright colors, unusual sounds or smiling faces to attract attention to induce learning. However, once habituation sets it, this form or artificial gamification stops being effective. Moreover, incidental knowledge does not last. Any effort to employ curiosity to spark incidental learning is non-specific and inefficient. Equally well we might hope that pharmacological intervention, e.g. with Ritalin, could improve learning. Instead, learning must be its own reward.

The nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area are involved in pleasure, in anticipation of pleasure, and in signal evaluation. The signals from the knowledge valuation network converge into those areas in both their motivational and affective valence. Dopamine is involved in the anticipation of pleasure. As dopamine is involved in attention, anticipation of pleasure alone would lead to improved learning due to a better focus on the source of information that is expected to deliver the pleasure.

If you are unconvinced, think of how much you hate your news channel when they do their tricks to pique your interest, and then say "find out after the break". You can get even more livid when they ruin it all with "Breaking News!". Anticipation can lead to frustration too. Only actual learning provides the reward. Only actual learning reward makes sense from the point of view of evolution. We do not want to reward an animal for the mere sight of food.

The buzz in the nucleus accumbens can be a direct expression of pleasure or might also indicate the state of pleasure seeking. In the end, the actual interpretation does not matter for the ultimate conclusion: boredom and displeasure are the enemies of learning.

For efficient learning in which new knowledge complements current knowledge, we need to follow the learn drive. In simple terms, this means that the pleasure of learning is desirable in education. We should never learn in the state of displeasure (cf. Desirable difficulty). Painful learning comes from the brain letting the student know that, in information theoretic sense, the new knowledge does not fit! It will be rejected. Pleasure is a good guide!

From the above neural reasoning we derive the obvious, the best warranty of efficient learning is to let students learn on their own and follow their own passions.

Biederman model

Pleasure of reading about the pleasure of reading

In 2006, Irving Biederman and Edward A. Vessel, published a paper that gave me unforgettable pleasure to read. The article itself explained the pleasure of reading to me. In a paper titled "Perceptual pleasure and the brain", Biederman hypothesized that a gradient of opioid receptors in brain structures responsible for visual perception might contribute to the pleasure of viewing nice scenes such as beautiful landscapes. Biederman's idea seemed to explain to me what I have known for ages: learning is pleasurable. I always liked to learn, however, I never truly understood what underlies my liking in terms of brain science. Biederman's explanation was a perfect fit and it was powerfully pleasurable. It explained something that bothered my mind for a longer while. At the moment of reading, I was very self-analytical. While reading about the pleasure of reading I was trying to "feel" how the enlightenment of reading provides the pleasure. The pleasure of reading about the pleasure of reading became unforgettable.

What Biederman and Vessel proposed is monumental. Let me therefore name their thinking for simplicity: the Biederman model (name choice by seniority). In visual perception, successive layers of neurons are responsible for more abstract representations of the visual scene. Metaphorically speaking, it starts from pixels and colors, then it moves on to edges, textures and surfaces, then to objects, then to faces, places, and collections, and then to meaningful episodic scenes that, at the end of the chain, may activate a representation of a "beautiful mountain", and be remembered as such with only a few details perpetuated beyond the first impression in working memory. Millions of pixels of a photograph will turn into a meaningful scene that can be verbalized in just a few sentences and remembered as such for years, at a very little neural cost.

Biederman model capitalizes on an earlier discovery (Michael E. Lewis et al., 1981) that there is a gradient of mu-opioid receptors along the visual perception pathway. The more meaning the neuron carries, the more opioid receptors it is likely to have. We know that opiates are rewarding and addictive. Biederman model is based on the hypothesis that this gradient of opioid receptors is the source of perceptive pleasure.

There is a similar hierarchical system for processing speech and music. A temporal cortex involves processing sounds from pitch to melody. The processing of the rhythm involves yet other areas of the brain. Chances are, all those perceptive networks work along similar principles. This is the study subject of neuroesthetics.

Opioid vs. dopamine pleasure

There is a slight problem with the Biederman model though. The pleasure of learning can be analyzed consciously. The pleasure of reading about Biederman model, in my own case, could be decomposed and tracked down to individual components of the model. This fact implies that the pleasure is integrated with conscious experience. Consciousness is a notoriously hard nut to crack for neuroscience. Most of what we know about consciousness is either speculative or based on hard and expensive experiments in which electrodes implanted in the brain can be used to elicits effects that can later, or concurrently, be reported by the affected individual. The evidence seems to be converging on the integrative model of consciousness in which an activation of several structures in the brain gets integrated and perceived as conscious self. In that line of thinking, activating a Halle Berry neuron somewhere in the cortex is not enough to bring Halle to one's consciousness. Millions of concept neurons can get activated at the same time and a thinking mind can only operate on a few pieces of the model of the perceived reality (see: attention). To bring Halle to one's mind, the activation must get integrated with other components of conscious perception, including the reward of the perception.

For those reasons, opioid receptors in cortical neurons will not do much for the ultimate reward of learning. An opiod antagonist, naloxone, can take away some of the pleasure of music in some people. However, the opioid pleasure of learning should rather produce a mild bliss of first-time micro-dose heroin or morphine use. In that sense, release of endomorphins and activation of opioid receptors can make a contribution to the pleasure of learning. Nevertheless, this pleasure isn't specific enough to give one a jolt of "wow!", "aha!" or "eureka!" (Biederman calls it "click of comprehension"). For that ultimate learning reward, there must be an integrative reward experience coming from the pleasure centers in the brain.

Pleasure of association

That ultimate pleasure jolt of discovery will come from a meaningful association. It can be explained using the pleasure of understanding the Biederman model itself. When thinking about the model, we activate two important concepts in our minds: (1) a gradient of meaning (derived from understanding neural structures involved in visual perception), and (2) a gradient of pleasure (derived from the observation on the content of opioid receptors in visual pathways). Once these two concept come up in mind, there is a glue of analogy: the concept of "gradient". That glue helps bring up the association that gives a jolt of pleasant enlightenment: MEANING = PLEASURE! That's exactly what I experienced when reading Biederman's paper. For that jolt to happen, it is not enough that there are more opiate receptors associated with the concept of the gradient of pleasure than with gradient's mathematical underpinnings or its association with the word "gradient". It is not enough that there is more opiate associated with the novel concept of "gradient of meaning" than with the often used term "meaning". The jolt happens when those two highly priced concepts collide: meaning + pleasure.

Biederman noticed that the gradient of receptors proceeds far into the associative areas, incl. the parahippocampal cortex. We may remember that further downstream, in the hippocampus we have found the Halle Berry neuron. To illustrate the difference between the opioid pleasure and the associative pleasure, let us imagine meeting Halle on a beautiful beach. While walking on a beach, we may experience a delicate heroin-like breeze of bliss, which comes from the realization that our environment is perceptively beautiful: "the beach I walk on feels great". Once Halle shows up on a horizon, visual analysis may provide another breeze of opioid pleasure coming from the signal "beautiful lady approaching". Then the visual processing unit may identify the lady as Halle, which might activate cortical representation of Halle, which could be opioid-rich. However, only the ultimate association of Halle and "my beach" would trigger a major discovery, perhaps an atavistic reproductive dream: "Halle walks the same sand like me!". This is where the reward from the ventral striatum and the nucleus accumbens might come to play in "liking" the situation, and a jolt of dopamine might trigger a behavioral program of "wanting". The details of that behavioral "wanting" program have been cut out from this text by censorship. Nevertheless, execution of that program would inevitably be halted in highly-developed individuals by executive signals from the prefrontal cortex. In short, an injection of dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain may give the brain some indecent ideas, while the release of opioid peptides might just result in an associative bliss.

The pleasure of learning does not need to involve attractive representatives of the opposite sex. Halle showed up in my example only because of the discovery of the Halle Berry neuron. For the pleasure of learning, all that is needed is a powerful and highly-valued association of ideas that activates the pleasure centers in the brain. The pleasure happens each time we learn something new, and the jolt is most powerful when we learn something of high value. The pleasure of discovering the Biederman model came from high valuations of the pleasure of learning itself in my knowledge valuation network. High valuations lead to high reward, which may facilitate memory (see: Dopamine may modulate plasticity in learning)

Impact of memory on the pleasure of learning

I would also add to Biederman's hypotheses on desensitization, i.e. the decline in pleasure with repeated exposure. Biederman suggests that children love repetitive videogames because of the gambling factor. However, gambling is no less potent in adults. I posit that children enjoy repetitive learning more because of childhood amnesia. Some of the repeat pleasure may come from limited comprehension, but some will simply be explained by accelerated forgetting. Poor comprehension and forgetting are the primary differentiators between the adult and the child brains.

We should also notice that a great deal of decline in pleasure of review will come not from competitive learning but from long term-memory consolidation that might result in signals flowing efficiently in the system. Competitive learning may be important in pattern recognition but in associative learning, it will be high retrievability that will undermine the pleasure of repeated exposure.

Stages of learn drive evolution

When I hypothesized on the emergence of powerful learn drive in humans, I had in mind the direct channel from knowledge to reward centers. It would ultimately be a higher level of learn drive than the one implied by the Biederman model. Each time receptors are involved, evolution has a simple and grateful material to work with. Receptor gradient has originally been discovered in a rhesus cortex. Similar mechanisms might be involved in simpler brains or even more primitive nervous systems deprived of central control. I have no idea what an ant thinks or how it feels, but finding a great food source must definitely be a source of some kind of ant pleasure. From this we can conclude that the pleasure of learning might not be much phylogenetically younger than the nervous system itself. However, in the course of evolution, the drive has built up new layers of functionality and efficiency. Playful creativity seems to emerge only with some birds and with mammals. That evolutionary process might have ultimately peaked as human learn drive. This will naturally, at some point, be implemented in thinking machines. Understanding the power of the learn drive will be vital for survival of humanity: both in its need for artificial intelligence and the threat of having AI turn against mankind.

Desirable difficulty

Desirable difficulty is a concept that might be an excuse for tolerating the displeasure of learning at school. Here I explain why this excuse is unjust and dangerous.

Robert Bjork might be the best expert on learning theory. If he tells you that difficulties can be desirable in learning, he is right and it does not stand in contradiction to the fact that good learning is always pleasurable. Desirable difficulty is a conglomerate of concepts in which obstacles in learning lead to better learning. Let's tackle those one by one in the light of the pleasure of learning:

  • active recall: active recall is superior to passive review. Active recall is harder. This is a desirable difficulty. We need active recall in learning because it is the only procedure by which a memory engram can be effectively reconsolidated in spaced repetition. Active recall occurs each time we employ useful knowledge in practice. This use is pleasurable because it leads to productivity, which is a reward independent of learning. Humans simply love to achieve goals. If review is planned artificially, like in SuperMemo, it does not lead to a productive act and it may easily lose its appeal. All successful users of SuperMemo link the review with their goals. They see each item and each repetition as a step to a better future. Not all users have this imaginative capacity. This is why SuperMemo has not swept mankind off its feet despite its amazing efficiency.
  • spaced repetition: memory consolidation is more effective if retrievability of memory is less. This leads to difficulty in recall. This is a desirable difficulty. Like with active recall, the reward of review comes from the employment of knowledge and productivity. In SuperMemo, by default, most of review ends with successful recall and there might be some link between difficulty and pleasure. Again, only a subset of users of SuperMemo can find this process pleasurable. Those who don't usually do not last long and drop out. We tell all users, make SuperMemo fun, or it won't work for you! See also: Pleasure of knowing
  • incremental review: SuperMemo advocates learning in spaces. It is more efficient from the point of view of memory and creativity to read an article in small portions over a longer period of time. The same refers to watching a video or listening to a lecture. This results in minor battles for context retrieval. However, it brings an extra bonus in creative elaboration. It also improves memory encoding, generalization, and long-term memory consolidation. Paradoxically, those extra difficulties result in extra learning efficiency that makes incremental reading one of the most pleasurable forms of learning.
  • learning context: changing the context in retrieval is a very simple and effective type of desirable difficulty. If the encoding is correct, retrieval will be successful, it will be more effective and it will be rewarding. If context change leads to generalization and better memory encoding, the effectiveness of learning will increase and the reward of learning will increase.
  • problem solving: solving problems can be very pleasurable. The harder the problem, the greater the pleasure of a solution. Problem solving involves a learning process as the solution requires intermediary steps that result in storing new knowledge in memory. All those steps are pleasurable. If the student struggles with the task and makes no progress, he will learn nothing and receive no reward. The tasks turns out too difficult. If the students fails to solve the problem, but makes progress with intermediary steps, even if they are unrelated to the solution, the learning will be there and the reward will be there. Again, if the difficulty is desirable, it will lead to a reward. If there is no reward, the difficulty appeared insurmountable. As such, it is neither rewarding nor desirable.
  • learning by doing: learning by doing may involve play, creativity, problem solving and more. Learning by doing takes more time and often brings better results and more reward.
  • delayed feedback: delayed feedback, in some circumstances, may result in more processing. In simplest terms, if the teacher does not tell you how well you have done, you may wonder for a while longer. This can benefit memory. If it does, the ultimate effect will be rewarding.
  • help withdrawal: I write about help withdrawal in the context of schools suppressing the learning drive. Kids who receive no answers may become more curious. Curiosity increases the reward of learning. Students who do not receive assistance in correcting their false models of reality, get stronger rewards for resolving inconsistencies on their own.
  • other difficulties: the number of obstacles that can improve learning is endless, some of those can be hormonal in nature, some can involve motivational forces. The common denominator of all those obstacles seems to be some form of deeper processing, memory consolidation, improved attention, and more. Inevitably, obstacles that lead to better learning also involve better reward.

Desirable difficulty does not take away the pleasure of learning. Just the opposite, it makes learning more effective and more fun. If difficulty goes too far, and it results in displeasure then the difficulty is no longer desirable. This simple equivalence comes from the mechanics of the reward system in learn drive.

Note that reward bonus for efficient learning due to desirable difficulty does not need to correspond to high learntropy. Learntropy is a metric for an information channel. Active recall, for example, is unrelated to novelty. It refers to memory reconsolidation. Similarly, problem solving may in part come from the need to achieve goals unrelated to learning, or be rewarded by productivity other than gains in new knowledge.

Note also that nearly all of the above desirable difficulties are inherently wired into the process of incremental learning.

Addiction to learning

Inborn addiction

We are born in love with learning. That love usually wanes fast during the years of compulsory schooling. The longer we can sustain the love of learning, the bigger the benefit for the brain, health, and mankind. Love of learning has nothing to do with addiction. The definition of addiction includes adverse consequences that are a result of compulsive engagement in an activity.

Negative side effects of learning are tiny in comparison to benefits. If there is a degree of voracity or even compulsion, it can boost the positive effects even further. It is possible to boost one's love of learning. Good learning provides the best boost to further learning.

Learning and gambling

There is a close connection between the reward systems involved in learning and in gambling. Gambling and learning new words both activate the ventral striatum in a similar fashion. This close connection with gambling may confuse the picture for learning. A gambler at a slot machine does not learn much. Addictive videogaming is better. It can be pretty educational. Many team game addicts achieve fluency in English having made no progress at school before. Addiction to sports news may also involve a degree of learning. I learned about Cabinda only during the Africa Cup of Nations (football). Addiction to Facebook updates is not different either. It is based on variable reward in anticipation of specific gains, however, it can also involve a great degree of learning. That learning may involve gossip, celebrity news, fake news, or actual useful learning. Even political poll updates can cause an addiction. In the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the polls were balanced enough to produce the cliffhanger effect. Compulsive checks for new polls have all hallmarks of an addiction. This kind of addiction, however, can lead to a great deal of learning. It is up to the student to separate gambling from learning. Voracious learning is good. Learning derived from an addiction may be good too. However, gambling on its own brings little value to human existence. This is why it is very important to understand Reward diversity in preventing addictions

Learning and sleep

Obsessive learning may encroach on sleep time, and may contribute to the epidemic of insomnia and DSPS. Creative minds with powerful learn drive may stay up learning till the early morning hours. This violation of sleep pattern was difficult or impossible before the arrival of electric lighting. The good news is that the learn drive tends to wane with network fatigue. The longer we learn, the greater the degree of saturation in memory circuits. Only sleep can bring relief. This is why even most voracious learners tend to get sleepy and give up learning at some point. If a reader skips the night over a novel, this may be a likely combination of insufficient sleep drive, reduced learning, and increased variable reward that is typical of suspenseful fiction.

Learning and exercise

I hear that obsessive learning can lead to less exercise. That would be bad. However, I think that it is bad learning that is more likely to have this effect. Good learning is joyous and sparks extra energy. A happy kid should not survive long sitting over a book or over a computer. There must be a way to vent energy. Perhaps we should rather say that reduced exercise is a hallmark of learning addiction, while good learning has neurotrophic effects and should make one burst with extra energy to burn?

Learning restraint

Learning has its cost and it takes time. This is why it should be judicious. However, good learning is nearly always a good long-term investment. This is why we should never fear an addiction. Just the opposite, we should cherish and stoke up the learn drive to provide for happy lifelong learning.

Displeasure of learning

When I claim that all learning is pleasurable, I hear a chorus of voices like "I had to go through an awfully stressful exam that gave me lots of good knowledge for life". Those voices confuse the pleasure of good learning with the displeasure of factors that turn learning into a horror for many students. Those horror factors are bad teachers, harsh parents, deadlines, stress, bad sleep, awful textbooks, excess volume, and more.

I hear that without deadlines or school-imposed goals, the learning would be replaced with videogames, novels, TV, hobbies, sports, etc. This might be true for many reasons. Some of those activities may carry pleasures unrelated to learning. However, they will also be beneficial for reasons of learning or exercise. A well-rounded student should be free to slow down, allocate his time for fun learning and other fun activities. Slow progress might bring more benefit.

There is no way the equation of learning could produce unhappiness in the wake of good learning. The blame will always be elsewhere. All negatives should be studied and eliminated.

In the ultimate account, even if there is a displeasure related to exams, certificates and duties, this displeasure should be imposed on the student by herself.

Pleasurable learning can be buried in displeasure caused by stress, bad people, bad schools, bad textbooks, and more.

Learning and procrastination

If learning is the most sustainable form of pleasure, why do half of the students procrastinate? This is nearly a triple of the figure for the general population.

The answer is simple and important: students procrastinate because as much as good learning is a pleasure, bad learning is highly unpleasant. Most of assignments at school or even college carry a great deal of mismatch with the needs of the learn drive. This kind of learning is ineffective and unpleasant. Those kids will often play computer games in the evening claiming they need to rest their brains. I doubt their brains are at rest. They actually do jobs that they find pleasurable. A great deal of that pleasure comes from new learning. Unfortunately, there are no credits at school for good gaming, so the sinusoidal cycle of chores-and-fun begins on the next day or even the same day with homework.

I never stop being amazed how many students call themselves lazy. At the same time they can do many heroic feats of physical of mental work as long as these are enjoyable or serve their own goals. Even those with thousands of memorized items in SuperMemo often give themselves low conscientiousness scores. Goals of learning can be hazy, but even if they are crystal clear, poor match between the input and prior knowledge can result in significant displeasure. If learntropy is low, assignments can be boring. If it is negative, they will be repulsive.

The battle between high goal valuations and negative rewards of bad learning will result in procrastination. Procrastinators often call themselves lazy even if they are nothing but.

If you think you are lazy about learning, you need to re-evaluate your materials and your methodology. Even simple violations of the natural creativity cycle can kill the fun of learning.

Learning and depression

Learning is a sustainable and non-addictive form of pleasure with hardly any side effects other than cost in time. In addition, good learning tends to absorb the mind, and promote more learning by boosting the learn drive. This means that learning should be employable as therapy in depression.

Learning at school

If learning is a source of pleasure and reward, why do we see rampant depression in kids of school age? Despite being institutions of learning, schools are more likely to contribute to depression than to act as a remedy. Without the freedom to learn, it is hard to achieve good learning. For learning to be pleasurable, it needs to be powered by the learn drive. It cannot be coercive or mandatory. It must be free.

Impact of memory on mood

Free learning is fun, however, the pleasure of learning is not what makes learning a great weapon against depression.

Memory is a factor that may trigger or suppress depression. Memories determine how input signals get routed in the brain. Memory determines what concepts get associated with inputs or neural activations. Memories determine how we react to the sound of a passing car. It may bring up the memories of a happy vacation, the inspiration of Elon Musk, or memories of a car accident that crippled a loved one.

For memories to have a significant impact on mood, we need many of them. It is not enough to sit down a session with psychotherapist and learn a few key facts about the brain, our lives, or coping strategies. It takes months and years of learning to develop healthy tracks in the brain. We may build associations that are inherently optimistic or inherently pessimistic. We need thousands of such associations to swing the balance. However, even years of learning may easily be overturned by a pathology or trauma. Neurohormones can instantly change the mode in which the brain works. A switch in neurohormonal profile will instantly give preference to a subset of memories that may affect mood in a negative way. Trauma can plant memories that will stoke up new source of activation that will override activation from other sources. In other words, an armament of good memories may count for nothing if a switch changes the tracks in use or if a new source of activation is born in the brain. It is hardly possible to mitigate the death of a close person with learning.

Once depression hits, the affected individual faces a double whammy. Not only are good memories on defense. Bad memories start circling around facilitating their own new tracks and gaining upper hand. The brain reprograms itself and swings the balance of mood in a wrong direction. When this process becomes a runaway, we may have a clinical depression at hand. To complete bad news, depressed patients lose their love of life and their love of learning.

Can learning disrupt this cycle? It can be extremely hard! Respect for circadian cycle is the first step towards recovering the derailed brain. In the circadian cycle, peak creativity window needs to be captured to attempt remedial learning. Learning needs to be prolific, intense, effective, and pleasurable. Incremental reading would be fantastic if it was not that difficult. For a depressed individual with no skills in the department, SuperMemo is no remedy. It is too late. Trying to master incremental reading in a bad state of mind could only make matters worse. It could result in a hate of incremental reading.

If learning is possible, it can act as a refuge, which might help suppress negative memories and build new connections. As of that point, the process of building new tendrils of knowledge may begin. This process that should take the mind towards a more optimistic interpretation of the world is slow and laborious. In most severe cases, it may take months or years of hard work and the outcome is not guaranteed.

The ultimate conclusion is that learning is not a panacea, however, it can play an important role in therapy. Most of all, the risk of depression can be staved off years in advance by rich and effective learning. That learning must proceed in conditions of freedom and respect for the learn drive. In short, love of learning is a good way towards the love of life.


I am a medical Luddite. For a healthy body, I stick to the rule "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I avoid all forms of pharmacological intervention. I believe in powers of homeostasis and dangers of homeostatic intervention. The strongest drugs I use are coffee and beer. I do not even use aspirin. I am most dismayed by the misuse of antibiotics, painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants. It has been decades since I last took an antibiotic. Long enough to forget. I will use one on a death bed if necessary. All drugs have their legitimate use and so do anti-depressants. As they result in receptor downregulation, once taken, they make the neurotransmitter status quo worse. This usually means, the more the drug is taken, the more it needs to be taken to avoid a setback. However, in severe cases of clinical depression, the drugs may stop the runaway process. They may protect the brain from self-injury. Once a depressed patient starts losing brain cells, the road to recovery becomes long and bumpy. The moment anti-depressant therapy begins, if it works, is the best moment to use learning as therapy. As long as the brain is willing to proceed, learning can start up those delicate tendrils of knowledge that will hook onto reality to produce vestigial learn drive. In the ideal case, once the drugs are withdrawn, that learn drive should survive to begin a process that is a reverse of depression: positive feedback of learning, creativity, good sleep, and good mood. This is not easy, but it is very important. If drug therapy is the only thing that changes in a patient's life, it will work only as a break in the pathological process. It will not set the brain in a better state than the one from before the problem started. Improvements require active effort. Without a healthy learn drive, building up positive memories will not begin.

Learn drive and optimism

Toddlers seem to show the most exuberant learn drive. No wonder, healthy children are born optimistic. There is a correlation between optimism and the learn drive. Happy mind might act as an energizer of the learn drive on the neurochemical basis. Pessimism will definitely act as a suppressant or filter that will prevent the expression of the learn drive. In that sense, pessimistic mind may mask the learn drive. In depression, the learn drive may disappear entirely. No wonder Dr Robert Sapolsky called depression the worst disease in the world.

A consensus seems to emerge that schools are a major contributor to depression among teenagers (and later in life). The mechanism isn't clear, but learned helplessness and the suppression of the learn drive emerge as possible keys to the pathology.

Can learning help you?

If you are reading this, and you are not sure learning can help you, ask yourself the question: Are you in a good mood today? As mentioned above, when you are on a downswing and looking for a solution, your interpretations are darker, and you may not find this text comforting enough. Remember then about the concept of activation energy: you need a little first step to begin, and you may then be pulled in by a vortex of interesting things to learn.

If you are in no mood for quantum mechanics today, start from petty celebrity news, or sports news. Lowly learning is better than no learning! Alternatively, if trivia make you even more depressed, see this fun-to-read text from Susan Engel about learning and depression.

Further reading

Optimization of education: Global or Local?

Is there a risk in using pleasure as a guiding light in education?

Perfect model of education

Over long years of schooling, we slowly develop an imaginary model of a perfect academic learning process in which we set long-term goals, follow the curriculum, add important pieces of knowledge, and get to the point when we receive a college degree with rock solid knowledge in a given area supported by extensive general knowledge needed for an efficient function in society. The longer we stay in the school system, the harder it is to step away and have an objective view of that model. Paradoxically, verification of that model comes hardest to those minds who do well at school and start believing they have succeeded thanks to that perfect model of academic learning. Smart people suffer less pain at school, and, as a result, think less of the problem of the school system. Successful students internalize the model and perpetuate it by providing the same fixed path for future generations.

The model in which we design student's knowledge via curriculum is wrong! The model of a perfect school gives credit to the system and the teachers, while all actual learning should be credited to the student. When kids fail school in droves, we tend to blame the kids, or their parents, while a small fraction of successful students will continue dreaming of the perfect school model for their own kids, and keep pushing the model on the less fortunate ones.

Optimization based on the learn drive

Unlike the curriculum, the optimization mechanism behind the learn drive has been perfected in the course of human evolution. It is capable of driving individual knowledge to the level needed to disentangle all complexities of science or engineering. Before the arrival of compulsory schooling, mankind has achieved all imaginable breakthroughs needed to start Enlightenment or Industrial Revolution. Compulsory schooling has originally helped to lift the "unenlightened" masses to a new level, however, it is increasingly driving itself into the optimization corner in which enlightenment is replaced by suppression of creative minds.

Designing a child's mind

I hear this all the time from highly educated and very smart people that education is too important to let it rely on self-learning or on the blindness of the learn drive. Apparently, education is so important that we should plan it and design it globally with the best tools of science and using the best experts. While I was preoccupied with efficient learning, and before I really started thinking about the education system, I lived with the same conviction. It is quite natural to default to expert opinion.

Highly educated people often utter the following claims:

  • children are incapable of long-term planning, therefore a curriculum is needed
  • learn drive is a type of local optimization, while we need to plan education globally
  • following student interests is a recipe for disaster: they will all end up immersed in mind-numbing videogames

The problem is that global optimization of education sets performance targets that keep getting tighter. Global optimization keeps employing the same inefficient learning tools in an attempt to transfer more "necessary" knowledge to student minds. The outcome is misery for millions of students. While Stalin optimized globally for massive achievements of the Soviet Union, it was the market economics with its simple optimization algorithms that lifted the western world to new heights. See: Modern schooling is like Soviet economy

Currently employed optimization of education uses knowledge tests as the measure of performance, but relies on cramming and short-term memory to achieve more in a shorter period of time. As a result, it keeps losing its grip on the learn drive. Competition between nations also employs performance tests. Instead of optimizing for actual long-term knowledge, we optimize for the speed of knowledge turnover in student heads. The result is unhappy students with knowledge that is tiny relative to the time invested and to the actual human potential.

Reliance on emergence

Optimization of education can employ the concept of emergence. The learn drive is a mechanism by which knowledge is self-organizing with no effort from teachers, and no pain from a child. Natural learning may take long hours, but it is pleasurable, and healthy kids don't mind learning all day long as long as this is learning of their own choosing.

There are two vital facts we should hold in mind in reference to the local optimization of learning based on the learn drive:

  • without a reliance on the learn drive, there is no good learning. All attempts at override will be massively rejected by human memory
  • learn drive brings amazingly efficient long-term optimization of the learning process. Nearly all human achievement before the 1850s has been accomplished with the guidance of the learn drive

A skeptic would notice that human progress has accelerated since the introduction of compulsory schooling. He would be right. However, we have been on an accelerating ascent of progress ever since the emergence of the first forms of life 4 billion years ago. I see Guttenberg and Tim Berners-Lee as more significant contributors to that acceleration than that of the respectable Johann Julius Hecker.

Local optimization based on the learn drive is highly unintuitive. Creation science comes from a similar unintuitive feelings about the mechanism of natural selection. How can a local evolutionary optimization based on random mutations lead to a marvel of a human being? Global design/optimization/guidance by the hand of God seems unavoidable. Fewer people subscribe to the creation science today, however, a vast majority of the population has no idea what mechanism underlies the learn drive, and why ignoring it is the chief problem of the Prussian education system.

The tree metaphor

Given enough time and access to knowledge-rich environments, without the need for an education system, the knowledge of an individual grows into a large, comprehensive, and coherent body. This is true of all free, and healthy individuals. The size and the quality of the tree may depend on one's personality, interests, and the starting point of the intellectual development. However, one of the chief myths of education is that the organic growth of knowledge leads to multiple biases and areas of ignorance. Those blank spots are allegedly larger than those that remain after years of schooling. Due to the computational power of the learn drive, and the phenomenon of emergence, the opposite is true. The metaphor I like to use to explain the power of the learn drive is that of a tree growth.

Natural growth of individual human knowledge can be compared to a growth of a tree. Individuals cells in the meristem of a tree twig know very little of the tree and its global growth goals. The meristem follows simple hormonal, biochemical, or biophysical rules (e.g. apical dominance). Those simple rules guiding growth towards light are highly efficient and the tree can shape its crowns beautifully. It will also efficiently organize into a canopy with other species. Force of gravity is tackled optimally. Redistribution of nutrients is easy. Absorption of light is excellent. All obstacles, e.g. other trees, rocks or lamp posts, are handled with ease. Similar mechanisms ensure an efficient growth of a plant root system. A simple set of local rules is also employed by the growth cone in sprouting new neural connections in the brain.

The tree of knowledge works along similar principles. The learn drive mechanism makes sure that individual leaves of memory crave light of new discovery and sprout branches in the direction of inspiration. Locally, the learn drive may seem simple and blind. Globally we grow great individuals with erudite knowledge needed to support all vital human functions in society. Self-learning brains can fit any environment and fulfill all imaginable human goals.

As much as trees need water, CO2, some nutrients and light, brains need energy, rich input, and unconstrained freedom. All attempts at coercive regulation suppress the learn drive and the tree of knowledge fails to germinate on its own

Another metaphor that can help explain the emergence in building up coherent knowledge is the Knowledge crystallization metaphor:

Crystallization metaphor of schooling and unschooling
Crystallization metaphor of schooling and unschooling

Figure: In perfect schooling we create a perfect crystal of knowledge. In college, we add an extra crystal of specialization. In reality though, learning looks a bit less perfect. For most kids, knowledge never builds sufficient coherence and falls apart due to interference (i.e. fast forgetting). As a result, in real schooling, knowledge asymptotically reaches a certain volume and keeps churning around from that point on with little progress in stability or coherence. In contrast, in free learning, the acquisition of knowledge is chaotic and uneven. However, as long as it is based on the learn drive, the volume of knowledge is very large. Individual crystals of knowledge collide, and build consistency and coherence. This in turn helps stability and further integration of knowledge. By the time of college, in terms of volume, free learners should know far more than ordinary students. Free knowledge has multiple areas of strength, and multiple areas of weakness. However, it is superior in coherence. This is why it is more applicable in problem solving

Local optimization

Local optimization of the learn drive leads to a perfect match between human ability and individual's environment and goals (see: Optimality of the learn drive). Global optimization of schooling suppresses the learn drive, defers to the suppressed learn drive when matching individuals with their jobs, and results in an unhappy society where most individuals crave 9-5 jobs for their comfort where the leadership, learning, and responsibility are delegated to someone else. The opposite happens in democratic schools which rely on self-learning to produce self-determined, self-fulfilled and self-reliant individuals ready to accept any challenge in their chosen area of interest.

In his historic commencement speech, Steve Jobs joked that before he was diagnosed with cancer, he did not know what the pancreas was. Apparently, his blind learn drive left a gap in his extensive knowledge. Even if this was true, I would never trade Steve Jobs and his opus vitae for a few failures of the local optimization of learning. One of the main points of his inspiring speech was to follow one's learn drive. In his words "the only way to do great work is to love what you do". This truth has been repeated by all wise people for millennia.

Is global optimization possible?

Global optimization finds an optimum for all input values. Global optimization of learning is done at the level of the department of education, e.g. by means of tools such as common core and standardized testing. Global optimization is based on the flawed reasoning that we can design a child's mind. Global optimization can also be done by parents who attempt to predict a child's future.

Can we determine a child's future in advance? If parents were to choose future globally and optimally, we would have a surplus of lawyers and doctors. We would also have a major increase in frustrated college dropouts. If governments were to help a bit and redistribute the jobs for kids optimally at early age, we would end up with a variant of 1984. Few kids would love to find out at the age of 6 they are set for a life as a book-keeper or a carpenter. Job selection should obviously be based on love and passion, not a government decree.

Perhaps kids should then be allowed to optimize globally? That would not work either, we would end up with a surplus of rock musicians, professional videogamers, and football players.

Contrast this with optimization via the learn drive that has delivered the best of human achievement for centuries.

Is then a curriculum an attempt to find an intermediary optimum on the way to a global optimum. Curriculum as a guide to what is worth knowing seems like a good idea. When a kid or a teacher runs out of enthusiasm for learning, they might consult the curriculum. If the learn drive is in overdrive though, why slow down? Is there a risk the kid will never learn the dangers of alcohol? This isn't too likely. On the other hand, I am not aware of a curriculum that teaches kids how to employ incremental reading. I might be biased, but I would definitely put that skill ahead of the need to cram Kawalec or Battle of Cedynia (examples taken from my own curriculum). I can appreciate late Julian Kawalec today. However, mandatory reading of his novels imposed by the communist authorities was a source of school torture for me. You probably wonder who Kawalec was. I would love to tell you but Wikipedia has an article on his achievements in Polish only.

If you test student knowledge against the curriculum, it is easy to see they master a tiny subset of that globally optimized plan. They add to this a great deal of their own knowledge about the world obtained via self-learning. This leads to the illusion of good schooling. If curriculum was not obligatory, and teachers had more room to adapt, the volume of knowledge and its coherence would increase. Coherence and speed are two hallmarks of self-learning. Fewer kids might choose to solve quadratic equations, but they would fill up that space many times over with other skills they consider important to them. All those who plan careers in STEM would get to quadratic equations anyway, sooner or later. The rest would fall back on current default, which is to learn the equations and forget them fast. Most people do not know how to tackle quadratic equations. Few know of their purpose. Equations in the curriculum add distress and the cost of knowledge that might have been opportunistically acquired efficiently in a happy state of mind.

If the global long-term optimization is not possible, intermediate steps in the form of a curriculum plan are only less complex. They are still a departure from the optimum determined by the learn drive.

The only way to optimize efficiently is to let the learn drive determine the trajectory with gentle nudges from parents, mentors, peers, strangers, social media, wikipedia, Google, and more. Optimization of education must adhere to the fundamental law of learning (next).

Fundamental law of learning

Most people know that learning can be pleasurable. However, very few people appreciate how important this fact is for the future of education.

Only a constant stream of precious findings in neuroscience helps us see the fundamental importance of pleasure in learning. The reward process begins at the level of perception, and proceeds via associative learning, to creativity, to problem solving, and the ultimate pleasure of achieving goals. At each station there are pleasure signals to reward the progress of brainwork.

I was slow to understand the power of pleasure too. Back in 1991, we wrote conservatively: "There is a sure way to tell if a given student will be successful in his work. If he finds pleasure in long-lasting learning sessions, he is bound to do a terrific job" (see: SuperMemo Decalog). Today, we realize that the pleasure is so inherently associated with all forms of learning in neural networks that it emerges as one of the best yardsticks in measuring learning progress.

This makes it possible to formulate the fundamental law of declarative learning:

When there is no pleasure, there is no good learning.

Naturally, this law needs to be qualified to be precise. Good declarative learning results in pleasure. This fact can be masked by factors such as the fact that a bit of good learning can hide in a mass of bad learning. Pleasure itself is no warranty of learning. Facts that we discover can be distressing. Some declarative learning may occur in conditions of displeasure (e.g. fear conditioning). Classical conditioning often involves pain. Clinical depression will impede one's inclination to take on biking, but will not ruin the procedural learning that occurs while biking.

The fundamental law of declarative learning simply states that the acquisition of quality knowledge that satisfies the learn drive will produce a reward signal. Absence of that signal is an indication of the absence of learning. Dry facts can be committed short-term to declarative memory without having fun, but those facts will not adhere to solid models of reality if there is no reward from learning. Those facts are likely to be eliminated from memory fast by a healthy system of forgetting. Even worse, bad and persistent engrams can cause problems with learning later in life! The emergence of any coherent model in memory will inevitably produce a reward signal.

If you happen to impose the suffering on yourself on your own, you need to rethink your strategies. You may need to slow down, or go back to basics, learn the rules of mental and sleep hygiene, manage your stress, learn the 20 rules of formulating knowledge or perhaps give incremental reading a try. If you persist despite pain, you will not be rewarded with good results. Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule also needs to be qualified. No violin virtuoso has ever been born out of sheer suffering through hours of practice. Like with learning, great music is a child of love.

On the other hand, most of students of this world suffer of no fault of their own. Bad learning is imposed on them from above!

Students of the world unite! You no longer need to suffer the pain of learning. If you suffer, you have your basic student right to protest. If you suffer, something is going wrong! You can stop learning! If anyone demands learning from you, and you do not enjoy it, you can strike back, and demand pleasurable learning! This is not your elitist hedonistic weak heart demand. This is a demand of reason. No pleasure, no learning! Your suffering is a waste of time, a waste of health, and a waste of human global resources! See: Declaration of Educational Emancipation
Learn drive vs. School drive
Learn drive vs. School drive

Figure: This is how school destroys the love of learning. Learn drive is the set of passions and interests that a child would like to pursue. School drive is the set of rewards and penalties set up by the school system. Learn drive leads to simple, mnemonic, coherent, stable and applicable memories due to the fact that the quality of knowledge determines the degree of reward in the learn drive system. School drive leads to complex, short-term memories vulnerable to interference due to the fact that schools serialize knowledge by curriculum (not by the neural mechanism of the learn drive). Competitive inhibition between the Learn drive and the School drive circuits will lead to the weakening of neural connections. Strong School drive will weaken the learn drive, destroy the passion for learning, and lead to learned helplessness. Powerful Learn drive will lead to rebellion that will protect intrinsic passions, but possibly will also lead to problems at school. Storing new knowledge under the influence of Learn drive is highly rewarding and carries no penalty (by definition of the learn drive). This will make the learn drive thrive leading to success in learning (and at school). In contrast, poor quality of knowledge induced by the pressures of the School drive will produce a weaker reward signal, and possibly a strong incoherence penalty. The penalty will feed back to produce reactance against the school drive, which will in turn require further coercive correction from the school system, which will in turn reduce the quality of knowledge further. Those feedback loops may lead to the dominance of one of the forces: the learn drive or the school drive. Thriving learn drive increases rebellion that increases defenses against the school drive. Similarly, increased penalization at school increases learned helplessness that weakens the learn drive and results in submission to the system. Sadly, in most cases, the control system settles in the middle of those two extremes (see: the old soup problem). Most children hate school, lose their love of learning, and still submit to the enslavement. Their best chance for recovery is the freedom of college, or better yet, the freedom of adulthood. See: Competitive feedback loops in binary decision making at neuronal level
Copyright note: you can republish this picture under a Creative Commons license with attribution to SuperMemo World, and a link to the updated version here

Summary: Pleasure of learning

  • human brain naturally tunes in to "interesting information" in the environment
  • learning and discovering new things is rewarding
  • many educators subscribe to the dangerous myth that learning may cause displeasure and still be effective
  • surprisal is highly valued in new knowledge acquisition
  • predictability and surprisal may both add to attractiveness of the information channel
  • attractiveness of the information channel depends on the prior knowledge
  • information delivered to the brain must account for prior knowledge. This factor makes universal delivery, e.g. via lecturing, very difficult
  • attractiveness of the information channel depends on the speed of delivery and the speed of processing
  • the speed and complexity of information delivery in learning must to tailored to individual needs
  • the encoding of a new high value associative memory occurs simultaneously with sending a signal to reward centers in the brain
  • failed tailoring of information channels in schooling leads to lack of reward
  • learning provides a unique type of sustainable pleasure that may have therapeutic value
  • for systemic reasons, schooling usually fails to tune in to child interests
  • unrewarding nature of schooling is the chief cause of near-universal dislike of "learning" at school
  • by destroying the pleasure of learning we contribute to creating an unhappy society
  • the fundamental law of declarative learning states: No pleasure, no learning!

Learn drive vs. learned helplessness

Loss of learn drive with age

The claim that we lose the learn drive with age is dangerous. We accept the fact that students get gradually less passionate about learning. This perpetuates the parasitic myth that learning is hard, school is boring, and that these facts should be accepted like death and taxes. We are supposed to hate school as much as we hate our jobs. We are supposed to grin-and-bear it (see: The grind is the glory)! This myth is stealing youth from the young generation and the love of life from millions of people. The effects of lost learn drive do their damage deep into adulthood.

It is a matter of time when the world can see the folly behind unhappy schooling. We will recover! Roman Empire was not that fortunate. Humanity tends to optimize itself into dead corners. It happened to many extinct human civilizations. Anyone who is tempted to say I exaggerate should look at the mental health of students, e.g. as expressed by the school shooting epidemic, or psychiatric problems experienced by students (see also: ADHD epidemic).

We are too smart to let this dangerous course derail progress. We know too much, and knowledge dissemination is too efficient now. Keep spreading the word, or my optimism will be as good as that of pacifists before the first world war!

The school system is inherently dangerous as it includes a number of mechanisms that extinguish novelty seeking, kill the love of learning, and stifle young passions with consequences that may extend to the end of life.

When studying depression, scientists employ the concept of learned helplessness. They use rats and a forced swim test to explore it. When rats are closed in a tub of water with no route of escape, they tend to swim around for several minutes in search of an exit. After a while they give up. In repeated tests, they tend to swim less and less. They learn the situation is beyond their control and there is no point in trying. The timing of such tests may determine the extent of long-term consequences, e.g. in the function of the amygdala, which may result in depression in adolescence. The rule of the thumb is that the lower the age of abuse, the longer the extent of the consequences. A milder form of such adaptation is what students experience in a classroom. A healthy, 5 year old will violently oppose boredom. Exposed to schooling and monodrone lecturing, the kid disciplined into sitting still in a bench will gradually behave like a rat in a forced swim test. Apathy will set it. The kid will experience behavioral shutdown. Schooling becomes a form of training where tolerance of the absence of novelty is trained into the young brain. This is the opposite what educators should aim at. We should strive at keeping kids impatient and rebellious. Give them the sense of entitlement for knowledge. Boredom should be intolerable. Knowledge can be a form of entertainment, and school should be fun. Entitlement to fun is nothing wrong!

Neural withering

Learned helplessness is at the core of the adverse classroom conditioning (see: 50 bad habits learned at school). However, in addition, schooling creates a perfect storm of other adverse conditions, of which violations of sleep hygiene and exposure to stress are most important. Those in turn entail a chain of wide-ranging consequences such as depression, obesity, addictions, risk-taking, aggression, cruelty, etc. This is a perfect storm for inducing neural withering. Young brains are conditioned in a bath of hormones that stifle neurogenesis and promote unfortunate synaptic pruning. This is a type of conditioning that is aimed against the penalties of helplessness. This conditioning results in extinction of behaviors targeted at exploration. This is a formula for setting an apathetic brain in stone. When kids leave school, their brains are set for life of conformity and unhappiness. In that light, it is surprising that some kids are still able to thrive. I explain elsewhere what makes for a model of a happy student. However, that model will suit only a few. There is also a rebellious student who tends to ignore the system and survive ok.

In the conveyor belt of mass education, most of students get the short end of the stick

Learned helplessness at school

There are many ways brains adapt to the environment.

When you travel to a mountain resort and return to a big city, you are probably instantly struck with the unhealthy smell of a polluted metropolis. If you know a thing or two about the impact of pollution on longevity, this can be a horrifying feeling. Within minutes though, you stop sensing the difference and may happily return to your routine. This phenomenon is called an olfactory fatigue, and the underlying process is based on neural adaptation. Neural adaptation may have many forms. It may be instant and it may re-shape your brain over the period of months and years.

If you take on narcotic drugs, you will quickly develop tolerance that will call for higher doses. Tolerance has many aspects. It is based on metabolic adaptations, receptor downregulations, neurological changes, behavioral adaptations, and more.

Concentration camp survivors employed a whole range of psychological defenses to cope with the horrors of the camp. To a mere mortal, a day in Auschwitz may seem like an unbearable experience that no human mind could survive undamaged. However, camp survivors often returned to normal lives with seemingly limited scars.

There are many aspects of biological desensitization and habituation. They form natural regulatory and defence mechanisms in nearly all aspects of human physiology. In school setting, those defenses can be dangerous and can change a student's brain for life.

The whole host of adaptations at molecular, cellular, and network levels will result in helping a student develop a tolerance for low arousal, low novelty, and low inflow of valuable knowledge. This is how the learn drive gets extinguished. Those "well adapted" students might be classified by a teacher as focused, patient, and well-behaved. These kids are perfect for the classroom setting and they do indeed focus better and learn better at the moment and on demand (see: Dangers of being a Straight A student). However, their dulled craving for novelty and diminished learn drive take a long-term toll. Intellectual curiosity may be diminished and creativity extinguished. Some of those changes may leave a long-term imprint on personality. Reversal and recovery should be possible but may never be complete. Some of the human potential is lost in the process for ever.

Schoolchildren in German painting by Eugène-François de Block, 1866
Schoolchildren in German painting by Eugène-François de Block, 1866

Figure: Schoolchildren in German painting by Eugène-François de Block, 1866 (source: Wikipedia)

Educators keep forgetting that focus and creativity stand in opposition and a great mind needs both in the right proportion. In the chapter on Natural creativity cycle, I show that the best segregator of the two is the circadian cycle, which naturally harnesses rampant creativity and channels it into focused productive problem solving.

Learned helplessness is the mechanism by which students gain classroom focus at the cost of creativity. In the process, they gradually lose their learn drive.

Kids in a container

John Taylor Gatto is a world famous critic of compulsory schooling. He was an award-winning teacher who quit in 1991 in protest against the way "school made him hurt children".

Gatto uses a dramatic example to illustrate the operations of a school system. For fleas to be trained for a flea circus, their spirit needs to be broken first. A simple formula for breaking the will of a flea is to put it in a glass container with a lid. Each time a flea jumps, it hits the transparent ceiling. After a while, fleas stop jumping. Their will is broken via learned helplessness. They cannot stop hitting the barrier, so they stop jumping.

Gatto, who spent 3 decades as a teacher, felt like he was hired to act as a lid on a container from which kids are supposed to learn never to escape.

Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness

Figure: Even if children hate school they accept their fate via learned helplessness. This destroys their natural love of learning, suppresses natural creativity, deprives of independence, and may lead to mental disorders later in life. For contrast compare a rare exception, a horse that is free to play

Learned helplessness at daycare

The same scary process of learning to be helpless may already begin in daycare where kids learn to overcome separation anxiety "disorder". Separation anxiety is a normal instinctive reaction to the absence of the primary caregiver, esp. in the natural breastfeeding window. That window is not your textbook 6 months. It might be as long as 3-5 years. We just never seem to see it in modern world that intervenes even in that most intimate process. As a population, we have no idea that natural weaning may take that many years! We need to look at hunter-gatherer societies to find the truth. When late weaning happens in the western world, it is seen as an aberration. Even a sexual aberration.

Behavioral therapy can overcome separation anxiety to a degree. Kids can naturally overcome separation at their circadian prime. They cope much worse before sleep, at prime feeding time, or during nocturnal awakenings. In daycare, however, a 2 year old copes with separation anxiety primary by learned helplessness. Tons of self-help books have been written on how to gently separate a child from his mother at that stage, and they all prove that is it possible (in a healthy child). Except, this is always harmful. Raymond Moore warns that "the earlier you institutionalize your kid, the earlier it will institutionalize you".

The second layer of learned helplessness comes with discipline. Child freedoms are limited and tolerance to limits on freedom is gradually increasing. Ideally, the kid should have a wide behavioral space opened to its explorations. The borders of that space should be set firmly at areas that entail danger to life or health of the child, well-being of others, property, etc. Children must obey the rules and obeyance must be consistently enforced along the principles of efficient conditioning. However, rules are costly. They use resources in learning, execution, confusion, violations, inconsistencies, stress, etc. It is easier to keep fewer rules. If rules are innumerous, they can be clearer and stronger. Rules should be adapted to cognitive capacities of a child and introduced slowly. Running a kid through a narrow gauntlet of rules is possible, but the narrower the channel the more conformity training is required. Conformity is largely based on learned helplessness. A child may disobey a loving parent, but may easily be pushed into submission when faced with an unwelcoming face of a supervisor or peer pressure. Hence the "magic" of daycare (see: Learning acceleration via stress).

Instead, I advocate large behavioral spaces. A securely attached caregiver is only needed for reassurance while exploration proceeds unimpeded. A caregiver should seem invisible and intervene only in extreme situations (e.g. when child safety is compromised). Whereas a kid under parental supervision may explore the world, investigate, play, and have fun. The same toddler in daycare may be engaged in a battle for survival. Battling other kids. Disobeying orders. Submitting to the authority. Following a rigid schedule that does not match interests or the circadian cycle, wrongly timed learning, wrongly timed running, wrongly timed compulsory napping, and even limits on the freedom of the bladder and the bowel!

Child's optimum nap time depends on the natural waking time. If natural waking is gone, the optimum nap time may be gone too, and naps may compound the mess in the sleep cycle. Some kids do not want to nap. Others might refuse to nap in day care for factors that are hard to comprehend to caregiver with 10-20 others subjects to take care of.

The bigger the cognitive space the lesser the need for adaptations that will limit future explorations. The bigger the space the bigger the rewards from explorations via the novelty seeking guidance system. Most parents love well-disciplined kids who obey orders, follow the rules, and minimize disruption. This is achieved well at daycare and this is often met with delight. However, those procedures limit exploratory nature of the young brain and may also result in worse long-term outcomes. All parents should be aware that less discipline may be good for a thriving brain. The term "spoilt brat" should be retained solely for kids who violate the basic rules of decency. Otherwise, let your kid be spoilt until its brain is strong enough to become a model citizen. This process may take three decades!

Your brain is great!

My writing about learned helplessness may sound a bit dramatic or even depressing. I hope it is taken to heart by parents and teachers. However, if you strive at high creative achievement, and recognize some stories or symptoms in yourself, this is not the time to slow down and look for your own limitations. I write elsewhere about the magic extent of the adaptive powers of the human brain. With hard work you can restore a great deal of your learn drive, creativity, or zest for brainwork. Some of the potential might have been lost. Lost brain connection will never be the same. However, for the brain, where one door closes, another opens. Lost skills get compensated in new areas. Personality changes can make you suitable for new and different occupations. It is conceivable that things we consider "bad for the brain" may actually turn your life for the better in some circumstances. Do not slow down.

See: Irreversible maladaptability (bad side) and Simple formula for a happy life (good side).

Summary: School and learn drive

  • Compulsory schooling suppresses the learn drive
  • Most kids adapt to the compulsion of schooling via learned helplessness
  • Classroom focus is maximized by suppression of creativity via learned helplessness
  • Learned helplessness may lead to problems such as depression, obesity, addictions, risk-taking, aggression, bullying, cruelty, etc.
  • As experience shapes the brain, inaction in the wake of learned helplessness, is bound to stunt cognitive abilities of children
  • Learned helplessness begins with forceful weaning (natural weaning may take 3-4 years)
  • Learned helplessness continues in daycare with a rigid regiment of rules enforced by strangers
  • Large behavioral spaces with fewer rules are beneficial in cognitive development
  • Unrestrained development of personality may take three decades. Accelerating that process limits human cognitive powers

Education counteracts evolution

Inefficiency of education

The education system design counters half a billion years of the evolution of the nervous system

Ever since the Cambrian Period, animals kept improving their ability to explore and learn from the natural environment. Modern education systems largely toss away all that capital. Very few people responsible for modern schooling are aware of the central problem that makes schools ineffective. Most of kids on this planet are let down or even damaged. If you read those words, shake up everyone around. Time to wake up from that lethargy!

If you ask your teacher, headmaster, or even your education minister, chances are pretty high, he or she is unaware of the problem. There is a lot of talk of reform, emphasis on creativity, independence, freedom, or problem solving. However, the key design flaw puts a spanner in the works even if people involved in running education are preponderantly knowledgeable, and sport good intuition about the ailments of the system. Most educators today score well on knowledge. They score great on their love for children. However, they keep treading water. Every year, schools release masses of kids with knowledge and skills that are a fraction of the human natural potential.

Exploration algorithm

All effective learning processes in nature are based on exploration. Exploration has been modelled accurately in artificial intelligence for decades. It permeates nearly all branches of computer science with various mutations of the search algorithm. For a visualization on a non-linear nature of the A* search see this short video.

However, the education systems are largely impervious to that realization. Modern schooling does not take into account the well known models. While robotics may use information entropy as guidance to exploration, I propose the concept of learntropy in reference to human learning. Human brain has evolved mechanisms that make it the best and the most adaptable exploration machine in existence. Learntropy helps define the optimization criteria that provide guidance in the learning system. Learntropy and the learn drive should make it easier to understand effective human learning via exploration.

Exploration is pretty intuitive for everyone, however, its importance remains unnoticed by those who are less computer literate. It is therefore helpful to see exploration as a traversal of a walkthrough tree that takes place while assembling a jigsaw puzzle of knowledge. My jigsaw puzzle metaphor explains why the human brain cannot accept knowledge in an arbitrary sequence, e.g. as dished by the curriculum, teacher in a classroom, or even a good textbook. Exploration can be seen as the tree of available routes for a mini-robot responsible for assembling the jigsaw puzzle. The robot will explore individual branches of the tree and look for pieces of the jigsaw that might fit the current status of the puzzle.

The exploration can then be visualized as a search tree that needs to be traversed to reach a specific point, e.g. an apple on the tree, or the understanding of multiplication. The evolution has designed simple exploratory algorithms, which all look very similar. The explorer tries out individual branches of the tree and backtracks from dead alleys. In addition, the explorer avoids branches that serve penalties and prefers branches that provide reward. In learning, an episode of Mythbusters may be highly rewarding. Similarly, an authoritarian teacher can serve as a harsh penalty independent of the subject matter presented in the classroom. Instead, a few minutes of Facebook under the desk provide a welcome relief with more rewarding branches of the tree to explore.

The whole process can be compared to an exploration of a labyrinth in a situation when we do not have access to the birds eye view. Rewards and penalties provide valuations that guide the search. Exploration is also known to single celled organisms. It's simplest variant requires no brain. A paramecium uses a few parameters in the environment to seek food. So does a jelly fish. This type of exploration does not need to involve learning. The exploration algorithm itself might be fixed for good and still provide for good survival.

Efficient learning is based on exploration. While exploring the labyrinth of life, we look for jigsaw pieces of information that match the puzzle of knowledge. As we keep exploring, we build the jigsaw puzzle. This way a rat may explore an island as depicted here

Evolving imitation

500,000 years ago, on a savannah, early Homo sapiens used exploration to learn about plants, animals, food, dangers, etc. The process was not much different from the one used by a rat on an island. However, humans developed a strong inclination towards imitation. Imitation provides a shortcut in the exploration tree. It makes it possible to jump from one branch to another at little cost. Valid imitation leads to a valid incremental inserts in the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge.

Imitation is the first step towards perpetuation of knowledge and speeding up the collective exploration algorithm, in which human brains pull together across generations to accumulate mankind's wisdom. If any individual in the group finds a solution to a problem, the others may imitate and traverse the maze without wasting time on exploration of dead branches. This trick is employed by an ant colony too for maximizing the yield in food gathering. However, imitation has reached its acme in the human species. Back in the day, I was good at pulling up on the rod. I was the best in class. Today, in street workout, I feel like an old klutz. All teens are now educated on YouTube. All forms of unthinkable acrobatics become a commonplace. Kids love to imitate in the quest for their goals.

Imitation vs. novelty seeking

Imitation is great to speed up learning, however, it also carries a risk of failing to explore the entire search space, or failing to adapt to changes in the environment, or to changes in needs. This is why it is beneficial to occasionally explore unexplored branches even when imitation provides a solution. For a population, it is highly advantageous to have a group of avid explorers who will risk their life to find new lands or planets. Their occasional "Eureka!" may provide a new path for the rest of the group. In the area of imitation, humans have spurted well ahead of the apes. Humans explore less and imitate more. Imitation is the first step to the record of history. However, to survive, we need to retain the quest for novelty.

Language, religions, and war

The real breakthrough came with the development of the language and the development of the print. Now we can perpetuate history of discovery and minimize straying. With the fixed record of historic achievement, we need eager explorers even more. We need a bit of collective forgetting, and a great deal of contrarian exploration. This is where we need ADHD kids. Instead of dumbing them down with Ritalin, we should let them explore (see: Caging a puppy). They risk their lives for the collective benefit.

With the arrival of well-established religions, and the advent of massive armies, we have been tempted to improve upon imitation by "rational" design. Religions provide a code of conduct that makes sure the followers imitate the prescription from the gods. Military leaders build armies and drill rules of behaviors that deprive the individual of the self to the benefit of the massive movement of the cannon fodder. A Prussian army behaves like a perfectly-programmed robot in which one soldiers receives the program, and others imitate.

The advent of mass education

It is only natural that imitation is used massively in education. The teacher makes the show, and the kids repeat. By mastering calculus, they do not need to retrace the footsteps of Newton. This is fantastically effective. New generations can now focus on solving new problems using previously discovered tools. With the success of early schools, with an increase in literacy, with an increase in numeracy, we could see that education can solve many problems facing humanity. We fell in love with imitation and rushed ahead too far. You can stroke a cat to death, and we nearly did!

Coercive immitation

The next seemingly logical step in improving education is to introduce coercion. If imitation is so effective, why not make it compulsory to the benefit of society? The right to education became universal. Overtime, the right became a duty. The reasoning is similar to the rationale behind vaccination. If we educate most of the citizenry, we can run a new kind of society with a myriad of new rules and new solution that advance the civilization. Importantly, good education serves the individual. If this is good for a citizen and for society, making it compulsory cannot be considered a violation of human rights. In the course of evolution, coercion has also proven efficient and popular. In a shoal of fish, ironically called "a school", not a single one can make a wrong move, or the whole school will turn into a massive freeway pileup.

Preschool torture device
Preschool torture device

Figure: Multi-seat toddler desk is a preschool torture device. The brain says "keep exploring". The authoritarian teacher says "Stop moving! Read my lips!". For more see: Would you have a heart to cage a puppy?

Resistance to social pressure

The problem with the transition from voluntary imitation to coercive imitation is that it destroys the exploratory algorithm designed by millions of years of evolution. The evolution delivered the most efficient brain machinery responsible for learning. Sometime during the evolution of birds and mammals, populations developed more advanced forms of social life. Social intelligence is based on learning, which can be accelerated with imitation. However, the purpose of social groups is to co-operate and act in harmony. For social life to evolve efficiently, individuals needed to develop mechanisms that would efficiently interweave coercion in the learning system.

If social coercion worked perfectly, it would be like perfect imitation. It would lead to inhibited exploration that could backfire in the long run. For that, a degree of resistance to coercion need to be injected into the efficient algorithm. Resistance occurs when exploration is curbed by social pressure or coercive learning. Social pressure may add to the penalty system, but is treated differently than other penalties such as pain. Non-social penalties may stop an exploration of a branch. Resistance to social penalties will result in backtracking on the exploration tree. Resistance results in forgoing fruits of exploration. Fruits are forgone in the name of independence. This gave the biological origin to Zapata's: "I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees"

Resistance to extrinsic valuation

In addition to the exploratory value of resistance, the goals of a community and the goals of an individual may often stand in opposition. A well-exploring brain cannot accept the situation in which its learning capacity is hijacked to fulfill the goals of another individual: the bully. The key to social intelligence is an intelligent resistance mechanism that will prevent extrinsic valuations in the goal tree (see: Knowledge valuation network). The teacher is powerless. She cannot motivate kids extrinsically. Persuasion has its limits.

Variations of resistance in a population

For exploratory reasons, and for independence reasons, the resistance is highest for young risk-taking individuals. If a parent tried to force a child to follow a specific exploratory path, she will meet with a degree of resistance. Very often, the child will attempt to do the opposite. This is the evolution's way of saying: "you guys explored that path, I will gladly risk my life to try something new". The same resistance algorithm is the key to the failure of schooling. Coercive learning does not work.

As much as it is the case with imitation, it is beneficial to have a group of individuals in a population that will always rebel and look for their own ways. These are the leaders of revolutions. They will often be expelled from a population. They will often die young. They may be ostracized like president Trump. However, they provide a vital ingredient in the survival of populations and societies.

Via personality traits, genes have an important impact on exploration, imitation, and resistance. If you hug a puppy, one will cuddle, another will wriggle out to run away. The two puppies may even come from the same litter.

Similarly, children differ by their resistance to coercion and to their sensitivity to peer pressure. Some will always look up to their parents for approval. Each new move they make, they look up. Others will keep exploring without heeding the presence of others. Those unruly kids will react with violent resistance to all forms of imposition. If you tell them, "go right", they will always turn left. This is how they can help the population discover new pathways.

Wieman drafts the future of exploratory learning

Compulsory schooling tramples upon the natural exploratory algorithm based on the learn drive. Future education will take a full advantage of exploration. Carl Wieman is one of those who could see the problem and who devoted his Nobel Prize winnings to provide a light in the tunnel. His science simulations provide a natural exploratory environment for children and scientists alike.

Wieman noticed that imitation via linear presentation often breaks on a single bad label, or a single gap in knowledge. If the branch reward keeps dropping, the urge to explore decreases. Wieman simulations require few concept labels and minimum prior knowledge. Each simulation is an independent capsule of reality. Wieman simulations are like little virtual worlds of science to explore. This is the best way of exploring scientific models in existence (in addition to the life in real).

Incremental reading is based on exploration

In the domain of written records, the same exploration can be undertaken with incremental reading.

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
In incremental reading, a student collects materials for a body of knowledge that serves like a virtual island of knowledge to explore. The exploration then proceeds unhindered with the guidance of the learn drive. It provides best forms of imitation, and unlimited creative branching. Wieman simulations provide scientific models to explore. Incremental reading makes it easy to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge from pieces made ready for consumption via imitation. Via set of priorities and the appropriate timing, well-managed incremental reading can maximize the reward in learning. Boring branches can always be deprioritized. They are simply unproductive at the moment. Unproductive branches can wait their turn in exploration

The bigger the knowledge tree the wider the range of reward options. Curiosity should be cultivated. Comparing pleasurable learning to a dopamine drip is a highly harmful metaphor. If social media provide the best reward, it only comes from the crippling effects of the environment on the other competing branches of knowledge. If school makes one hate mathematics, it may make one love Instagram that much more.

Two key errors of education systems

Imitation and resistance are vital parts of the exploratory algorithm hard-coded in the human brain. The first error of education is to provide a linear curriculum, which is the supposed straight pathway to wisdom (as opposed to a set of recommendations). Curriculum provides imitation with curbs on exploration. However, this is a misguided imitation as it does not take into account the status of the jigsaw puzzle that is being built. It is too easy to make a bridge to nowhere. All kids are to imitate at the same time, at the same pace, and all mutations in the trajectory, instead of improving upon exploration, will gradually lead to the collapse of imitation. Your typical school will not let you leave the first grade by taking a kid chemistry exam. You need to do your alphabet and numbers first. The second error of education is to make curriculum compulsory. Compulsory education triggers resistance that interferes with imitation and seed chaos into the process. The imitation trajectory is no longer predictable. Pre-designed imitation makes it fall apart. Triggered resistance makes imitation fall apart faster. At first, kids stop exploring, and then they stop imitating. In the end, they may hate school and learning in equal measure. War of the networks leads tolearned helplessness, apathy and depression. By trying too hard, we are building an unhappy society.

A dog submit to lost freedom via learned helplessness
A dog submit to lost freedom via learned helplessness

Figure: Even if children hate school they accept their fate via learned helplessness. This destroys their natural love of learning, suppresses natural creativity, deprives of independence, and may lead to mental disorders later in life. For contrast compare a rare exception, a horse that is free to play


The education systems employ the tools that are basically functional. However, in the never ending quest for better performance, we arrived to the point of absurdity. What used to work in the past has now turned into a monster that keeps the kids unhappy and poorly educated. Many educators seem to follow linear reasoning: if a glass of water rejuvenates, drinking a tub might perhaps make someone immortal. This is a maximization based on wrong criteria. Instead, we need to optimize education. Free learning is the simplest approach to optimizing education. It costs nothing and comes naturally. All healthy kids are born with a powerful exploratory algorithm hard-coded in their brain. If schools damage the control systems involved in that algorithm, they harm societies, and lead to a multitude of aberration that torment modern populations.

Compulsory schooling triggers mechanisms that block exploratory learning that underlies efficient acquisition of knowledge and skills

The Grand Education Reform

The solutions to the woes of education have been known for decades now. Solutions are cheap and simple. However, the set of entrenched myths of education still keeps the reformers at bay.

Here is my proposition: Grand Education Reform.

See also: Compulsory schooling must end.

Toxic memory

A decline in the learn drive as a result of bad learning may come from a lesser buildup of memories, and faster forgetting. However, formation of parasitic and toxic memories may also be responsible for a gradual increase in the dislike of school and learning.

Hate of school

The hate of learning, hate of school, or the hate of a specific subject, such as math, are all based on the same mechanism: toxic memory.

As it is possible to condition a Pavlov's dog to fear the sound of a bell, it is possible to condition a human being to panic at the sight of a math formula

What are toxic memories?

For the purpose of this book, I propose new terms to describe unwelcome memories formed in the learning process:

  • futile memory is a memory of abstract concepts that has a poor grounding in student's current knowledge (for an example, see Unpleasant learning at school)
  • persistent memory is a memory with high stability that is hard to displace via interference (e.g. established early in childhood)
  • parasitic memory is a persistent memory that is false and does not want to go away, i.e. it cannot be easily forgotten
  • toxic memory is a persistent or parasitic memory that becomes associated with anxiety or fear

Futile memories are poorly formed and too irrelevant to be easily remembered. Toxic memories are most dangerous as they may result in fear of learning, fear of schools, and, possibly, some learning disorders.

The problem of toxic memory in education shows on a massive scale when students, under heavy pressure of deadlines, grades, and exams, use cramming without understanding. This can lead to many splinters of meaningless abstract memories that get associated with the state of anxiety. As a result, evoking those memories may lead to anxiety. For example, math anxiety is a term often used for the phenomenon that comes with toxic memories related to mathematics.

We need to differentiate the origins of toxic memories from the origin of fear in fear conditioning. Toxic memories can form with all the best intent from parents, teachers, and even the student himself. If a stern physics teacher evokes fear, we may have fear conditioning in action. If a physics diagram evokes anxiety, we may have a case of toxic memory. A fantastic teacher can also contribute to the emergence of toxic memories. In behavioral terms, toxic memories can form even in the absence of an aversive stimulus. The mere act of ineffectual learning may be the sole source of displeasure. The source of penalty that becomes associated with the learning material.

The introduction of the term toxic memory is important as this type of memory may lead to a lifelong inability to learn seemingly simple things like multiplication table, sequence of the months, map navigation, etc. It is possible that subsets of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or stuttering, may in part be explained by toxic memory. It is also possible that strong toxic memories or a large number of toxic memories play a role in developing depression.

Toxic memory is essential for understanding that early and accelerated education may be dangerous!

The ever faster processing of school curricula, with mounting interference and disintegrating knowledge coherence are a perfect ground for breeding toxic memories!

Toxic memory: mechanism

For a toxic memory to develop, only one factor needs to enter the picture in learning: displeasure. If a child, or even an adult, is expected to make an association between concepts A and B, the presence of the penalty signal may result in an association between A and the penalty.

Displeasure in learning carries a risk of developing toxic memories that may have a dramatic long-term impact on the Learn drive (i.e. interest in learning)

Toxic memories, like all memories, are subject to generalization. This is how a toxic memory associated with particular knowledge, e.g. a math formula, may spread into the context, e.g. depiction of a school building, or the photograph of a specific teacher. Reciprocally, a stern teacher will facilitate formation of toxic memories in learning.

Toxic memories can be prevented easily by full compliance with the Fundamental law of learning.

School: an unhappy institution

The concept of toxic memory makes it easy to explain the inherent inefficiency of schooling.

Imagine you travelled to Japan and mastered a few phrases of Japanese. This gave you immense joy. You could impress your Japanese friends with your progress, your accent and your courtesy. On arrival home, on the wave of enthusiasm you decided to master Japanese. The best tool for that is, naturally, spaced repetition.

After a few months of SuperMemo, you build up a huge vocabulary of Japanese, but also build up a number of leeches that never want to stick to your memory. Those words you always confuse with others words. Soon you discover that the mere appearance of that yellow template you used for your Japanese items gives you an unpleasant feeling: "Oh. Those unmemorizable Japanese words are coming". To your amazement, the dislike also hit those lovely phrases that you mastered in Japan and that made you so proud. They are still easy, but as soon as you see them in that yellow setting, they give you shivers. Why? This is a toxic memory. In this case, it is toxicity associated with the context, not with a memory itself. The same word evoked again in some pleasant setting would make you proud as a year ago.

The same happens at school. Kids quickly get conditioned to see school as a place of coercion and oppression. A vast majority begins to dislike the experience. This overrides their natural learn drive. Things they would love to study at home become as burdensome and unpleasant as the rest of the schooling experience. Enter a young, enthusiastic, and smiling teacher with flashy experiments and videos. She is quickly disheartened by the difficulty to awaken the crowd. Her enthusiasm meets with indifference. This can break the most passionate heart. Best teachers in best schools are often helpless. It takes just one Mr Johnson to ruin the whole experience for everyone. This is that hated physics teacher who seems to enjoy his power and his oppressive tools. He conditions kids to hate school, and, as a consequence, he also conditions all those good teachers who bend over backwards to change the status quo. The enthusiasm of young teachers slowly turns into discouragement and loss of joy.

The school system is an inherently unhappy structure. It has an uncanny ability to turn learning, one of the greatest joys of life, into a form of mental torture.

Early learning programs

It is an adult-centric point of view: the whole learning process is based on reading, reading is based on decoding texts, texts are made of letters. As the alphabet is the underlying basis of whole learning, it is easy for an adult to believe that kids should learn the alphabet early, and take on reading early. Early reading programs make it explicit: early reading makes your kids smarter. In reality, the opposite may happen. Early reading program can condition a dislike of reading and make your kids dumber.

The child-centric point of view is that alphabet is a set of abstract symbols that have no semantic connection with reality. The alphabet cannot be easily placed on a tree of knowledge via a natural learn drive mechanism. The only way to memorize the alphabet fast is through drilling, possibly supported by mnemonic techniques that are never easy to use with children. Children love to learn and they enjoy learning the alphabet. However, for the learn drive to the be the sole healthy mechanism behind such a learning process, kids need to be given space and time. It may take 3-6 years for establishing all necessary semantic connections that bring the alphabet in a live healthy form to a child's memory. However, all connections established via the learn drive are likely to be durable and nearly never become toxic.

Little wonder kids get to know the letter "O" first. "O" is used often and its shape is easy to recognize. However, kids drilled on the alphabet and numbers can quickly produce a toxic confusion between O and 0 (zero). The harder the drill, the stronger the connection, the more toxic the memory and the greater the negative consequences. Instead, getting to know numbers and the alphabet should proceed naturally.

Only natural learning reliant on the learn drive makes it possible to form a coherent mnemonic representations that last for life

Digits 6 and 9 can easily get confused. To a child's brain with unprimed sensory processing, they look the same. Drilling, esp. with spaced repetition can have disastrous consequences. Discrimination may become conflation. Toxic memories can last through childhood if the review is frequent enough. This prevents establishing healthy connections. Instead, the kid should be free to roam the world and look for a meaningful connection for those numbers. An animated cartoon movie '"9"' could do the job, or perhaps Percy, the engine #6. Once a mnemonic association is made, it can get established well deep in the neocortex in the right context, and serve a lifetime of number juggling for a novelist or a mathematician alike.

Kids drilled in alphabet, especially if this happens too early, and if they are drilled reluctantly, can easily develop toxic memories. Toxic memories can lead to problems we would classify as dyslexia, even if there is no underlying neurophysiological cause.

The same is true of math. Kids drilled on digits, numbers and counting, may develop a dislike of arithmetic or long-lasting problems with number memory. They fail to develop natural mnemonic props that help them juggle numbers easily. This is how we get adults who still fail multiplication table and consider math their least favorite subject at school.

For some adults, multiplication table integrates with their math brain and is employed dozens of times in a single day. For others, toxic memories formed by early drilling keep it out of reach for lifetime. Some adults never confuse left and right, others will try to recall on which hand they keep a watch or where the heart is located in their chest. These minor inefficiencies are nearly always a result of heavy drilling in childhood. Two factors are to be blamed in most cases: (1) stress or (2) coercion.


Mathematics is the queen of science. It is also a queen of toxic memory. The reason is not that mathematic is more difficult than chemistry or literature. The key reason is that mathematic uses its own language of formulas. Formulas form a perfect abstraction if they do not get associated with the meaning of individual variables or terms. If you fail to remember the answer to What is the capital of Thailand?, you are soothed by the fact that the question is posed in English and you might have heard of Thailand. If you fail to remember log(x*y)=?, you might have just experienced gibberish and your only reaction is an increase in stress levels. Math anxiety is nothing else but a sufficiently large set of toxic memories associated with mathematics. Those memories may generalize onto many contexts in which you meet mathematics. It may even happen that you will be traumatized for life. You may hate all books in yellow cover just because of that most hated book in math that had a yellow cover too.

See also: Benezet experiment on the impact of early math instruction

Alzheimer's disease

You must have heard that learning prevents Alzheimer's. Scientists noticed that years of schooling add to reducing your chances for that disease. However, few reports seem to consider the difference between good learning and bad learning that involves forming toxic memories. The root cause of Alzheimer's is network overload and associated excitotoxicity. This is compounded by genetic predispositions, diet, lifestyle, etc. However, without network abuse, the neurodegenerative process might not show up. The same problem might be occurring in Down syndrome kids. Their brain processing power is simply diminished. This is why toxic memories might also be bad for brain health. For more see: How schools can contribute to Alzheimer's disease and Bad learning contributes to Alzheimer's.


I have built up a large collection of stories about the origin and character of toxic memories. I will mention a few examples here.

Fear of fractions

I spoke to a young lady who uses a calculator at work for a few hours per day. Despite this, her math skills are negligible. She is interested in sociology. Even in sociology, considered a branch of humanities, math plays a big role. She never reads books soaked with formulas, but even statements like "one third" of a population or "one tenth" of a population are scary. Somehow 33% and 10% sound much friendlier because she meets percentages on a daily basis at work. How can an intelligent lady with college education struggle with such seemingly simple concepts? I could track it back to her childhood. She claims she was not under a tremendous pressure to learn math. Just the opposite. Her teachers did not seem to care. However, I quickly disproved that claim by finding out that at older ages, the pressure started mounting up. She would not want to disappoint her parents and meeting math class minima started getting harder and harder. Today, fractions "make her stiff". When I explain that the problem of 1/10 and 1/3 can be easily solved by just memorizing 8 pairs: 1/2=50%, 1/3=33%, ... 1/10=10%, she smiled as if I summarized the Book of Revelations. How is that possible that for nearly a decade since college, in a job that involves math, with intelligent reading, with interest in the news on TV, etc. she did not come up with a simple idea of memorizing 8 numbers? The explanation might only be in toxic memories. Her brain developed a pathological reaction to the sight of fractions: panic! In a panicky state, she cannot see the big picture, she cannot slow down, she cannot think straight. This is not math anxiety. This is math phobia grown to the size of math panic.

Fear of reading

A child can have dramatically different reactions to the same letter or to a sequence of characters depending on the context. Coercive programs for early reading are notorious for sparking toxic memories. A sequence of letters mastered in the context of happy play may bring aversion and hate of learning if presented in the context associated with learning coercion. A hypothesis says that this is how dyslexia may develop in a subset of cases. Democratic schools boast of knowing no dyslexia. In a democratic school, kids can learn to read at their preferred age, sometimes even in teen years. Raymond Moore insists that reading remedial programs are populated primarily by kids recruited from early reading programs, and other programs where coercion might be in use. It is enough for an early reading program to generate minor gaps in knowledge, e.g. knowledge of phonics, those gaps may later snowball into reading difficulties that will be interpreted as a penalty. This penalty signal is enough to develop a toxic memory: dislike or fear of reading.

Multiplication table

Many adults fail to master the multiplication table. It is amazing to see people who deal with numbers on a daily basis, and still struggle with simple multiplication. An omnipresent calculator masks the phenomenon. I personally know a few cases of high-IQ individuals who struggle with multiplication table. They seem to agree that heavy drilling in early childhood is the chief culprit. Once toxic memories get etched in young networks, they are very hard to dislodge. For anyone fluent in multiplication, struggling with 7*8 seems hardly possible. If smart people who struggle with 7*8 did not keep hiding their problem, we might finally stop attributing this to lesser cognitive capacity. A toxic memory can easily make anyone look less clever than they really are. It is not about intelligence or memory, it is all about "brain panic". The question 7*8=? brings the following response in the affected mind: OMG! Multiplication table again! I will sure fail ... was it 49, 56 or 63 ... I knew it, ... is anyone looking? ... no, no chance .. no idea ... I hate my life ....

See also: Myth: Multiplication table weakens computing skills

Sequence of months

I have documented a case of a girl who struggled with memorizing the sequence of months in childhood. The case might go unnoticed in a mass of similar cases, if the same girl did not show that learning the same sequence of months in German a decade later appeared surprisingly easy. Even more, the newly established sequence of month in German served as an early prop for memory issues with the same sequence in Polish. Amazingly, this highly intelligent lady, now in her late twenties, still uses the German sequence of months each time she confuses Polish names. To add spice to this unusual case, her German is now in serious retreat. She does not use the language too often. However, the sequence of months is absolutely unforgettable. She now uses it as a mnemonic skeleton to cover up the set of toxic memories developed in childhood.

The scenario here is pretty typical for similar cases of troubled development. In a highly literate and highly intelligent family, the pressure to learn fast and learn early is magnified. At the same time, talented kids often show prolonged period of exuberant brain development. This means hitting all milestones with delay as compared with the average. All delays are seen not as a chance for the brain to develop but as a case of retardation. To make things worse, the girl has an older brother who excelled at school and is now a prominent lawyer who I know from Polish TV. Not only was a smart girl behind the average, she was instantly being compared to her brother who got 3 years of a head start. Needless to say, the girl developed a pretty universal hatred of academic subjects, and a deep dislike of school, which lasted into her teens. When she was 10 years old, and she still struggled with counting months, the whole world seems to have noticed. Little wonder, there were whispers in the family that the girl is not as sharp a pencil as her brother. In the end, she effortlessly graduated from college, and is now extremely successful in her professional life. She is a great mom too. Her kid knows no pressure to perform at school.

This case hints powerfully at a wrong interpretation of the case of bilingual boy with monolingual dyslexia described in Cognition (1999). While experts would like to see that case of dyslexia as a proof of superiority of languages based on phonemic orthography, I would urge researchers to pay a closer look to toxic memories that result from early academic instruction. There are no obvious differences between names of months in Polish and in German. There was only one striking difference: while Polish months were learned under pressure, German months were learned for pleasure as a hobby at much later age. Cognitive readiness and joy of learning made for a world of difference.

Paradoxically, early instruction is rampant in highly intelligent and highly literate families. In addition, all delays are noticed earlier, and intervention is more likely. This usually makes things worse.

Delaying math instruction

When people I love are in a fight, the subject deserves double attention. Peter Gray is the most inspiring contemporary light in the area of unschooling. Larry Sanger is a fantastic homeschooling dad. Incidentally, Larry also invented Wikipedia for which I will be forever grateful. When Larry got upset with Gray, it was all about understanding the power of toxic memory. See: Peter Gray under attack from Larry Sanger.

Fear with no purpose

Toxic memories can paralyze the mind. They can turn an otherwise smart human being into a replica of an enslaved robot. The not-so-funny joke below delivered one of the most convincing personal moments in my investigations:

The old math joke goes like this: The ship carries 20 sheep and 16 goats. How old is the captain? When I found out that a large proportion of kids answer this question with 36, I was in disbelief. I struggled with empathy for a brain that would be so badly derailed. When I jokingly tested this question on a first grader, the conversation was not too surprising. The answer was 50. The justification was: "My mom is 25. I think that captain should be a bit smarter. I think 50 would be just fine". I was amused with kid's self confidence, but noticed that his mom started being uncomfortable. As if she feared she would be next. This required further testing. I ruthlessly asked the math question. I was in shock when mom delivered that infamous verdict: 36. I instantly knew this could only be explained by toxic memories. The lady had been paralyzed by the fear of math and, with a knee jerk reaction, assumed the answer must be in numbers in the question. Like a well-schooled robot, she provided the answer. This is what poorly delivered math training does to young minds: useless fear! Fear with no purpose at the cost freedom and long hours of drilling in a school bench. Interestingly, the lady is a shopping clerk and she seems to be pretty fluent with numbers. It is that toxic memory of a typical question delivered by a math teacher that jumbled her mind and destroyed the pleasure of the day. Contrast that with an undamaged kid who hypothesized fearlessly. I can only hope his free thinking does not get damaged at school

This is how I see the events occurring in a panicked math brain. It all begins with a recognition of a typical math task. This instantly triggers a toxic memory that associates math with the state of anxiety. The fear of math paralyzes all intellectual capacities that might lead to a rational solution. In neural terms, well-polished networks trigger fast, high performance, high stability circuits that instantly take over the job of finding the solution. Those circuits are characterized by low coherence and do not integrate well with the world knowledge. They are targeted at providing a robotic solution by employing fast thinking. The algorithm for finding the solution might have, over years, through interference, lost all its vestiges of responding to the actual logical input involved in the task. Instead, the brain strips the problem to bare bones and follows the algorithm:

  • if two numbers appear in a math task, employ 4 basic operators: +, -, *, :, and choose the result that is most plausible
  • if there is little time left (for solving the test), pick addition, which is easiest. In a multiple-choice test, it still provides 25% chance of success
  • if numbers are too big to employ the operator, give up and jump to the next test to solve. In real life, play a diversion game, and cover up your tracks. Be sure you do not get caught with hot ignorance in your hands. Don't let anyone see you with your math pants down

That last part of "covering up" may compound toxic memories that lead to math anxiety.

Contrast this with a toddler who plays Lego bricks, and will keep re-shuffling that wall of bricks until it gets even and provides room for moving to the next level. The little snot will internalize number sense and coherently and consistently integrate it with his world knowledge using his learn drive and his knowledge valuation network.

Outwardly, our abstract adult brain can see the same math problem to solve. Our empathy is too weak to escape the abstraction. On the other hand, for an immature brain, the same powerful learning mechanisms can be employed for two entirely different jobs: (1) solving a real life math problem, or (2) surviving in a classroom.

Misemployment of the learn drive, the genius neural mechanisms developed in the course of evolution, is the key tragedy of modern mass education

Meaningless history

Do you know history? Did you know that

... at the request of cesario Pizzorato, Charlatid the Great conquered all of Egypt from the Charlemagne Delgado beginning in 637 BC?

If you love history, you will love the story of futile memories related to Charlatid. See also another example in: Unpleasant learning at school

Trouble with counting

20 rules of knowledge formulation warn that memorizing sets can lead to toxic memory. That warning is applicable to adults, let alone children. Lists are easier, but also hard. At the same time, early schooling programs are peppered with lists to memorize. One of the first elements of early instruction is counting. While counting fingers is strongly mnemonic, going beyond the number 10 enters the realm of abstraction. Forcing kids to go into abstract territory is always dangerous. It is far better to patiently await the point of readiness. This sad story illustrates why: Videogames are better than teachers.

Toxic memories in SuperMemo

Futile memories are poorly formed and hard to remember even with SuperMemo. Persistent and parasitic memories may be perpetuated by SuperMemo. Toxic memories are most dangerous. They will result in learning displeasure, dislike of SuperMemo, and might be the number one reason for a high dropout rate in spaced repetition.

SuperMemo leeches

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Users of SuperMemo may recognize futile, persistent, or parasitic memories as leeches. Nearly all beginners go through a stage when they discover that not all things are memorizable, and that some things can be memorized wrongly. Parasitic memories made this text pretty popular: 20 rules.

I have a unique insight into the problem of toxic memory. I have seen hundreds of user materials for learning with SuperMemo. Those materials usually contain a small proportion of questions that we call leeches. Those are the questions that are particularly hard to answer, mostly due to interference, or lack of meaningful connection with reality. I can see the birth of toxic memories in small incremental steps in the learning process. A little leech of a question can pester student's mind for months or even years. Without a resolute action undertaken, the student can see a question grow into a problem. At some point, the mere sight of the question will result in a jolt of a response: Oh no! I will never remember that. Skip!

Toxic memory is one of the two prime reasons that SuperMemo carries a huge dropout rate. The other reason is the psychological impact of the Outstanding parameter, i.e. the impression of never being able to get of from the heavy load of the outstanding material review. Both factors are remedied pretty well with incremental reading. However, this does not help SuperMemo much because incremental reading carries a steep learning curve. This explains why the most effective method of learning has not conquered the world yet. Of the tiny fraction of those who ever get convinced to try, the vast majority is heavily inhibited by the psychological impact of overload and toxic memory.

Unwelcome memories are a norm in SuperMemo. It is never possible to fully predict the actual configuration in which a memory dovetails with student's knowledge. Unwelcome side effects are always possible. Outside SuperMemo, those memory impurities are quickly eliminated by forgetting. In SuperMemo, they require vigilance. With an experienced eye, they can be easily spotted once formed and remedied with reformulation tricks. For a less experienced user, a leech elimination system simply counts the number of memory lapses and alerts the user when a given memory has a parasitic nature. Many users take a different route though. Instead of combating parasitic memories with re-formulation, they employ dangerous tools of SuperMemo such as low forgetting index, lax leech criteria, cramming, forced review, and more. When leeches keep piling up and the elimination is not prompt and radical, toxic memories can form and discourage further use of SuperMemo. We lost thousands of users to this process.

The difference between a forgotten memory and a toxic memory in SuperMemo is that the first thing you remember about a toxic question is that you do not remember the answer

Inefficiency of SuperMemo

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Ready-made collection were pretty popular in the 1990s. The problem with collections that are too difficult, or too easy, or not fully relevant, is that they emulate schooling. Like there is a mismatch of interest and readiness between a lecture and a student, it is easy to hit a mismatch between a SuperMemo collection and a student. Cramming material rarely brings good fruit. In case of SuperMemo, it may be doubly dangerous. The student who keeps cramming bad collections with dozen of hard items (leeches) will waste a lot of time on struggling with his own emotions and memory. Without fun, toxic memories can form, and the love of learning can be undermined. In addition, there is an opportunity cost, the same student, instead of trying to hammer pesky leeches, might be spending the same time on an enjoyable learning. Instead of cramming English vocabulary, he might have fun with some English movie. Naturally, we believe there are still collections worth memorizing. For example, Advanced English vocabulary is a must-have material for every speaker of English who dreams of native fluency. This is the common core of English that is hard to escape from. Enhancing this collection with snippets from a dictionary, own examples, pictures, or articles from Wikipedia should make it more fun. In other words, "common core" collections still make sense but they are best consumed interwoven into a colorful process of incremental learning. In other words, the student should not be sentenced to lonely cramming of vocabulary. It should come in as part of a richer context of wide-ranging incremental learning

Toxic SuperMemo

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
SuperMemo is most dangerous when employed with little kids who have not developed long-term memory. In their case, the program becomes a perfect mental torture device. It quickly sends out easy items to long intervals and keeps bombarding the young brain with toughest questions. If there is no coercion involved, early SuperMemo is probably only a waste of time. However, all forms of knowledge-independent bribes and rewards can condition the kid to perceive spaced repetition as highly unpleasant. This can result in producing a SuperMemo dropout before the first voluntary repetition is made. For more see: SuperMemo does not work for kids

Toxic memories in language learning

On occasion, an unwelcome memory connection may be established. For example, English words indigent and indigenous can easily be confused due to their similarity. If B is similar to C, at some point, A->C confusion may set in. There is a very simple tool for breaking up all unwelcome memories: forgetting. Unwelcome memory A->C is unlikely to be useful in natural contexts and will remain unused for a while until it dissolves naturally. However, if repeated drilling is enforced, e.g. at school or with spaced repetition, the unwelcome memory may become a parasitic memory (i.e. unwelcome memory that would not go away). This phenomenon is one of the main reasons many users get discouraged in their use of spaced repetition. When used inappropriately, optimum review may optimally set in parasitic memories that can be very hard to eradicate. Programs like SuperMemo can quickly establish long-term memories than can last month, or years or even a lifetime. If a parasitic memory is established, it can do more damage than just causing confusion via its falsehood.

In the extreme case, parasitic memory can become a toxic memory. When a parasitic memory A->C is drilled regularly, it is likely to cause stress to the user via all forms of penalties. There will be one more memory connection established between the stimulus A and the penalty, which may be as trivial as a mild trigger of anxiety. Questions related to A will become punitive in nature. The student will gradually get conditioned to dislike learning. This can be a dislike of a particular portion of the learning material, or the whole domain (e.g. chemistry). In the most extreme case, toxic memories can lead to a dislike of learning in general. This happens all the time around the planet as a result of schooling. Toxic memories are one of the prime reasons schooling does not work and why kids hate school.

Toxic memories in Advanced English

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Advanced English is a flagship SuperMemo collection for memorizing English vocabulary. Over the years we have identified many toxic memory culprits that come from memory interference and pose a toxic memory risks. Here are some frequently confused word pairs where word similarity causes direct memory interference, which is the first step towards toxicity:
  • indigent - indigenous
  • fictitious - factitious
  • daft - deft
  • asperity - aspersion
  • to decoct - to concoct
  • to decry - to descry
  • complacence - complaisance
  • trapezoid - trapezium
  • perspicuous - perspicacious
  • an assent - an ascent
Advanced English deals with those potentially toxic memories by placing both words in the question which becomes a discrimination task targeted at eliminating interference. All those words are also memorized independently along the 20 rules of knowledge formulation

Toxic memories in incremental reading

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Incremental reading is one of great tools for combating parasitic and toxic memories, however, it can add one extra layer of toxicity in the process. Some users, with insufficient training and with a poor incremental reading toolset, will find it hard to tackle certain texts. They may quickly establish a toxic habit in which each time they see a specific article, they utter "Oh no. Not again" or "Not today". If they take no action and just reschedule the article, they develop a toxic memory association. The connection goes from article recognition (e.g. by title, picture, etc.) to mental penalty that makes the user dislike the article, and soon dislike the concept of incremental reading itself. Toxic memories related to an article have no contribution to learning and a monumental contribution to the user's perception of his own progress or skills or lack thereof

Why schools fail?

Summary of failure

Schools fail because they disrespect and suppress basic learning, creativity, and problem solving skills. For institutions responsible for fostering learning, schools are egregiously ignorant of essential principles of how the brain works

The degree of disrespect for child's health and well-being qualifies most schools as institutions of legal child abuse (as long as they remain mandatory).

Path from knowledge to discovery

To understand the failure of schooling in a nutshell, it is helpful to track a golden nugget of knowledge from its source to its impact on a big discovery. This is the ABC of science that few seem to understand: not teachers, not principals, not education departments. There is an army of people who help pushing the grinding machine of youth. Those few voices who understand the process remain silenced or even ridiculed.

Here is a short path of a great nugget of knowledge that can change the world:

  • healthy brain: the nugget must meet a healthy brain equipped with sufficient prior knowledge. The current design of the education systems damages both health of the brains and the quality of knowledge. Even basic health rules are not obeyed. Kids can be trained to respect authority to the exclusion of their physiological needs. Insufficient attention is paid to their thirst, hunger, toilet needs, overheating, fatigue, sleepiness, etc.
  • learn drive: natural curiosity is a guidance system that optimizes the efficient acquisition of knowledge. Schools enforce a curriculum, while only the guidance of learn drive makes it possible to effectively match knowledge on input with prior knowledge stored in the brain (see: Mountain climb metaphor of schooling)
  • pleasure of learning: once a great brain with great knowledge guided by the learn drive meets the nugget of knowledge, a reward signal is registered. The education system suppresses the quest to seek nuggets by coercing unmatching knowledge into the learning process. The education system is an unhappy system. The meeting with the nugget is a romance at first sight. Schooling often becomes a path through mental torture, while free learning is one of the most rewarding human activities. Kids are conditioned to lose their love of learning and lose their creative powers. This is explained in Pleasure of learning
  • spaced review: for the nugget to survive in the brain, it needs to be reactivated in specific patterns in time. It must be reviewed before it is forgotten. Those patterns resemble statistical interactions with the natural environment (see: On the superiority of a rat over a schooled human). The design of memory implies that the lack of reactivation in a certain time will result in forgetting. Excess reactivation, e.g. in cramming, will weaken memories through spacing effect. The education system pushes too much and too fast to give reactivation a chance. Spaced repetition is a domain of self-directed student, very often only after they have left school or in a narrow area of interest. It is very rare to see students employ spaced repetition concurrently to their program of study with success. It is still relatively rare to see spaced repetition employed universally for all areas of general knowledge. This comes from the insufficient appreciation of knowledge, which is conditioned via years of schooling
  • incremental learning: the nugget gains in associative power if it is set in the right context for rich coherent knowledge built using a targetting system that requires self-directed approach. The brain has a natural targetting system, the learn drive, that is constantly being overridden at school. The targetting system is driven by passions and suppressed by coercion. See: Schools suppress the learn drive. High-quality knowledge is built via emergence. See: Crystallization of knowledge
  • creativity cycle: the nugget gains in power if it increases in coherence by generalization, selective forgetting, creative association, etc. Those processes require peace, creative wandering, thinking, sleep, and plenty of time. All those components of mind growth are suppressed in the chaos of the education system. Even sleep, the most essential component in question, is held in disrespect. In addition to those inherent design problems of the Prussian system, there are dozens of other factors that interfere with learning, e.g. bullying, drugs, authoritarian teachers, etc. For a richer list see: Problem of schooling
  • problem solving: finally, the nugget of knowledge can be employed in the process of problem solving. The education system focuses on consumption, provides little room for creativity, and little room for genuine problem solving where novel problems are tackled with little external guidance, and without robotic regurgitation of well-known algorithms. Finding dichotomies and making serial micro-decisions are part of a brain's repertoire of habits that underlie efficient problem solving. The education system suppresses the natural quest for autonomous decision making

Schools abandon exploration

Efficient adaptation to the environment relies on an exploration algorithm developed in the course of evolution. The algorithm reached its acme in the human brain. It took half a billion years to develop. Modern education systems ignore that capital. Education systems stand in the opposition to the marvelous gains of evolution.

Efficient learning is based on the same exploration algorithm. To trace the golden nugget of knowledge, we started from the point of the encounter. However, the encounter itself is largely hindered by schooling. Efficient exploration occurs in natural environment, in simulations, in incremental reading, or in other forms of free learning. Modern schools provide limited freedom and this undermines the exploration algorithm.

Schools hinder discovery

Most of mankind's problems are solved only after leaving the confines of schooling. Sometimes, when a great idea hits, a genius mind will drop out from school, and accomplish great things. I wish Bill Gates never forgot what made him great.

Instead of following the above path to a breakthrough, we torture kids with early alarms, relentless drilling, coercive learning, homework, limits on freedom, and a never-ending nagging of great expectations.

Proverb: power of education

The old proverb says, "if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him to fish, you feed him for lifetime". This proverb should be extended with the claim that a man with a passion for fishing has the capacity to feed the planet.

True education instills passion for learning. Rich knowledge is a byproduct of passion

Further reading

Optimum push zone


Optimum push zone is a range of minimum outside pressure that makes the child develop better than without external influences. For example, competition with other children may encourage harder work. Naturally, external pressure may also result in regression. Progress may also occur at levels of pressure that are greater than necessary to achieve the same level of improvement. The push zone is defined on long-term outcomes, which are very different from short-term outcomes.

Optimal push zone in education
Optimal push zone in education

Figure: Optimum push zone (in blue) is the range of external pressure that is likely to improve learning outcomes. If the pressure increases beyond the push zone, the learning outcomes decrease. At some point, instead of more learning, pressure will result in less learning (regress zone in black). Schooling results in increased tolerance for coercion via learned helplessness (in green). It also decreases the learning outcomes and increases the required level of coercion. Note the similarity of the coercion function to the hormesis function

Push zone at school

The optimum push zone is usually far narrower than it is popularly assumed. The whole system of coercive education exerts pressures that go wildly beyond the optimum in most cases. This comes from the illusion of progress created by short-term outcomes. Excessive pressure slows down long-term development of children or results in regression in comparison to what would be achieved without schooling. Pressure is the key factor that explains why kids hate school.

Focus on short-term outcomes in schooling results in pressures extending well beyond the optimum push zone

Zone of proximal development

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) was defined by Vygotski as the optimum guidance zone in which a student can master harder material or skills with a degree of guidance from a tutor. Zone of proximal development is often discussed in education. It may fit classroom situations, however, it does not extend into self-directed learning.

My main problem with the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is that for a healthy brain given enough time, ZPD should be zero. ZPD makes sense in a classroom, in limited time. However, in self-directed learning, where time can be stretched due to self-pacing, ZPD is less relevant. With access to the web, we have nearly all important human resources available at fingertips. Only time and the capacity of the human brain form the limits.

Vygotsky was interested in what a tutor can do. I am interested in what a child can do on her own. In this book, instead of Zone of proximal development (ZPD), I use the term: the optimum push zone, or simply the push zone.

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is defined on the space of positive forces (helping guidance), while the push zone is defined on the space of predominantly negative forces (coercion and distraction). Zone of proximal development (ZPD) shows what learning steps can be undertaken in teaching, while the push zone reflects expected learning outcomes under a degree of pressure (with or without tutoring).

ZPD focuses on immediate outcomes, while the push zone focuses on long-term outcomes. In ZPD, we investigate the impact of help and guidance, while in the push zone, we look at external pressure affecting self-directed trajectory. This pressure does not need to involve help in learning. However, it should affect the expected trajectory outcome as predicted by "the pusher". For example, putting a time limit on gaming or TV time would be a form of external pressure that may match the optimum push zone. Naturally, external pressure works best if it happens in a framework of mutual consent.

Push zone and coercion

Throughout this book, I depict the dangers of coercion in learning. The existence of the push zone is not an indication that coercion is valuable. When a parent pressures a kid to take on learning by means of persuasion, it is also a push that is not coercive. As long as the kid can back off or ignore the pressure, it will not count as coercion.

Moreover, the pressure is not supposed to push the kid into learning and to sustain learning. The most useful and frequently employed form of pressure might move a kid from one high learntropy area to another high learntropy area. Transition to higher learntropy through a trough of displeasure is obviously beneficial. For example, a kid might move from a shooting videogame to an educational videogame. A less obvious approach might be a move to lower learntropy with predicted better long-term outcomes, e.g. move from a videogame to reading a book. There are risks involved. We may always have an impression that a book is better than a videogame, but the true assessment comes not from the content of the book or game, but from kid's own interaction with the learning material. Learntropy determines the actual flow of knowledge and there are many invisible factors and forces that can easily be misjudged externally.

The push should transfer a kid from one area of high learntropy to another area of high learntropy. It should not push the kid into unpleasant learning!

Comfort zone

When there is little pressure or distraction, a student may operate in a comfort zone, in which she predominantly develops on her own using self-paced and self-directed learning. Depending on the child, the subject domain, and the environment, the comfort zone may bring fantastic outcomes (e.g. when pursuing an ambitious passion or hobby) or a developmental regression (e.g. in various form of dependence, e.g videogames, social media, peers, etc.). For many kids, development in the comfort zone is ruined by environmental distractions (e.g. difficult situation at home). Most of kids attending school quickly regress to a point where operations in the comfort zone lead to little or no progress. In that sense, external pressures can shift the push zone in the direction where more pressure is needed to obtain positive outcomes. In extreme cases, the child may regress via learned helplessness into a total loss of the learn drive. This is the main underlying cause for which kids hate school.

Regress zone

Regress zone is where the pressure brought in by the tutor will have an overall negative impact on development. Regress zone is particularly extensive in small children. Early academic instruction may backfire in the long term even if it is not highly coercive. This is why early school age is harmful.

Regress zone may bring some short-term positive outcomes, e.g. passing a test, but it will produce a negative number on the overall development benchmark whichever way it is defined by or for the student. Depending on the degree of pressure exerted on the student within the regress zone, it may produce a mild slowdown, e.g. an increase in a dislike for learning, or dramatic results such as stress, neuronal death, psychiatric disorders, suicide, and the like.

The importance of differentiating the push zone from the ZPD comes from the fact that the optima set by ZPD may bring long-term regress. In other words, a child can progress in a short term, e.g. by mastering a skill, and regress in a long term by conditioning a dislike for learning, e.g. in the domain of the learned skill. For example, we can send a kid to a music school, employ ZPD, observe a fantastic progression of skills, and still end up with a disappointing outcome in which the kid loses her passion for music.

Many tools used in schooling tend to operate in the regress zone despite providing an illusion of progress by employing short-term benchmarks. Those tools include: homework, cramming, testing, grades, threats, bribes, coercion, compulsory reading set, etc.

One of the greatest dangers of teaching is the illusion in which positive short-term effects obscure negative long-term outcomes

The optimum push

If we take the axis of influence from negative to positive infinity as defined for any type of external pressure, the optimum push zone will lie between the comfort zone, with some overlap, and the regress zone. The part of the curve with positive outcomes will be divided into two portions: the optimum push zone, and the zone of progress where the same outcomes are achieved at higher pressure.

Metaphorically speaking, on the axis of proximal development, we see a progression of a child from bored to confused. On the axis of external pressure, we will see a U-shaped curve of development outcomes with the best results registered at the pressure matching the optimum push zone.

Long-term learning outcomes define the boundaries:

  • retrogress zone: distractive pressure reduces learning (e.g. pressure to help parents, to get a job, to participate in crime, to take part in war, etc.)
  • comfort zone: usually minor to huge progress, depending on the personality, environment, and knowledge. Regress is hardly possible in healthy kids in healthy environments with few distractions. We have been programmed by evolution to grow continually. This is at least well pronounced at younger ages before a possible degree of saturation sets in
  • push zone: produces positive outcomes compared with the comfort zone. There is a dramatic increase in value at little pressure (high return on low investment of teaching, tutoring, mentoring, etc.). The optimum usually falls at very low levels of pressure (might be much higher for some kids). There is a quick decline in development speed in the zone where adding pressure diminishes outcomes. The optimum push zone is richest in the sense of accomplishment, and provides for a cumulative increase in enthusiasm, passion, interest, and knowledge. This is the zone that marks the best brain growth
  • regress zone: too much pressure results in regress. The pressure may have a form of the stress of schooling, cram schools, excess homework, parental blackmail, anger, etc. The end result is stress, bad sleep, bad health, frustration, hating school, hating learning, hating a subject, hating the world, or hating oneself

Zone changes

The delineations and sizes of the zones change in time. In each child, the optimum push zone will differ for different tasks and different contexts. Over time, the zone may change for the same child, the same task and, the same context. In particular, the context of home, free democratic school, or a typical school will redefine the zone.

Learning expands knowledge, which improves outcomes in the comfort zone. It may also affect the extent and outcomes in the push zone.

The comfort zone may regress in size in adverse circumstances. The regress zone may contract the push zone. For example, a child operating in conditions of school stress may develop an aversion to learning that will produce more dramatic reactions to all forms of external pressure. In a similar fashion, the comfort zone may shrink. On school-free days, the kid may compensate limits on freedom by losing itself in videogames. Via learned helplessness, the regress zone may also expand the optimum push zone by changing pain boundaries, however, it may also stunt the outcomes. This is why schooling still brings positive effects for an average child. Where regressive pressure might do damage at first, it gradually induces learning apathy, and kids forced to go through the motions of schooling will still register some knowledge and pass basic test benchmarks. Those benchmarks are always set way below a child's true potential (for example, see: Schools are useless in teaching English)

Failed school optimization

Participants of the school systems are poorly aware of the existence of the optimum push zone, and the push response curve. The optimization of schooling based on coercion in learning systematically fails to take into account he fact that the curve keeps changing shape in response to coercion. This fact is often unknown even to people who are aware of the benefits of unschooling.

In conditions of freedom, the increase in fresh well-branched knowledge amplifies the learn drive. In return, the brain can find a greater variety of learning options and the overall learntropy of the environment increases. As a result, all new learning suggestions, which may form coercive micro-pushes, will need to compete with a larger array of valued alternatives. As a result, the extent of the optimum push zone will systematically shrink. Quite early in the development, the optimum size of the push zone may be so tiny that the only safe estimate is zero, and the only safe strategy is no coercion at all (see: Optimization of behavioral spaces in development).

Analogously, coercion above the optimum push will have a negative effect on the learn drive, and will have net negative impact on learning in the regress zone. This phenomenon leads to a blind-alley optimization in school systems. The greater the pressure today, the greater the pressure required tomorrow. This shows up in the evolution of the pressure toolset with the age of students, as well as the multi-decade evolution of the school system itself. The coercive pressure in on-line learning during the time of pandemic reached it all time global peak leading to a new record level of dissatisfaction with the school system among the youth.

Some educators who would want to see more freedom in the school system suggest an incremental approach. Allegedly, by granting just a bit of freedom, we can observe the effect and retract in case things do not progress well. Unfortunately, reducing the pressure without providing for extended time needed for the recovery of the learn drive may easily backfire. Students given more freedom, use the freedom to escape the areas of greatest pain, which is usually cause by trouble with areas of "high priority" in school learning. Hence the myth: teenagers are lazy.

School metrics cannot be used to quantify the value of freedom

When unschoolers try to convince well-schooled people about the value of unschooling, they are thwarted by the detox period, i.e. the time in which a well-schooled mind needs to recover its natural learn drive to show the power of freedom. This instant effect of pressure is treasured at school. At the same time slow and hard-to-measure power of free learning is unintuitive. This is why Well-schooled people do not understand free learning. In addition, the detox period may never be fully effective. 100 bad habits learned at school affect an individual for life. Some bad habits are very difficult to change

Correcting development trajectory

The optimum nudge in the push zone will not only depend on the marginal effect on development. It can also be helpful in overcoming an acceleration threshold, where a small penalty can lead to a wider space of potential acceleration. For example, a kid may be reluctant to switch from a typical computer game to an educational computer game. The latter may require a switch, or a switch and some introductory learning. By guiding the child over the little area of discomfort, further acceleration becomes easy.

It is always safer to operate in the push zone close to the comfort zone. The difference in pressure between the push zone and the regress zone may be hard to measure. For example, the kid may agree to do extra homework today, but he will be less likely to do more work over a longer period (e.g. months). In the end, minor over-correction will reduce the long-term outcome.

All forms of pressure get registered as long-term memories. Repeated pressure works along the principles of spaced repetition. Small errors will get magnified if they get repeated. This is how the hate of learning develops. This is how toxic memories get entrenched. This is why all forms of over-correction must be compensated with long "resting periods" to let forgetting do its clean up job. This is why all erroneous forays into the regress zone bear the extra cost of recovery in the comfort zone. Kids who switch from a standard school to a democratic school often need long periods of "detox" to become self-reliant and creative again.

Changes to push zone with age

As kids grow older, their personality changes and the inner world gets more complex in proportion to the impact of life adversities. This makes all forms of external optimization harder. The push zone may shrink for kids who grow to love self-determination. The perceived optimum push zone will also shrink due to the complexity of interactions. In other words, the older the kid, the less pushing is needed or welcome. This marks a gradual transition from a child to a free-minded adult. However, intense schooling may have the opposite effect. Teens who have lived a life determined by instructions from others, lose their own initiative. They need to be pushed. This is how schooling can shift the entire optimum push zone in the direction of high pressure. The need to push may keep growing from year to year. Through unceasing coercion, we shift children from curiosity powered by the learn drive, to learned helplessness and apathy. The most extreme outcomes of that transition are depression, addictions, and even suicide.

The unceasing pressure of schooling may result in a constant need to increase pressure to achieve the same outcomes

Complexities of influence

Here are some departures from the simple push zone formula:

  • it can be multi-dimensional for the development domain. For example, a push for math may be less effective than push for geography
  • it can be multi-dimensional for the push vector. For example, mom can be a better pusher than dad
  • function shape may change in all dimensions and over time. In most extreme cases, there may be no optimum push zone as all pushes will produce a negative outcome. For example, a kid may be driven into desperation in which she dreams of the world without parents, teachers, or peers
  • optimum development may be achieved with an optimum pull similar to the mechanics of ZPD. For example, instead of exerting pressure, a parent may offer help in doing homework. This usually is not a good idea as it may undermine kid's self-reliance, however, the actual long-term effect depends on the child's state of mind

The simple model of the push zone can be greatly interfered with by parents, school, environment, health, and personality traits. Under pressure of schooling, kids can easily unravel into more complex behaviors where a whole constellation of emotions makes reactions difficult to predict. Even one day's sleep deficit can make a world of difference. Sometimes, when the outcome is unsure, the kid would probably be best left to her own devices for a while.

Predictability of a push

In many circumstances, it is impossible to predict the exact effects of a push.

There are still two chief lessons from the model:

  • the push zone can be microscopic. It requires extreme caution. The smarter the kid, the more assertive the kid, the smaller the zone
  • employment of the concept requires a good understanding of a particular child. This job can be hard even for an attentive parent. It verges onto impossible in a class of twenty, esp. with a large rotation of teachers who never have much time to get to know individual kids

Push zone: examples

This book discusses a number of learning situations that apply to different push zones. Some examples:

  • Sudbury Valley School is a good demonstration that for a subset of kids, operating in the comfort zone with no pushing may produce fantastic results. The outcomes may or may not be optimum, however, there is no school like a school with happy kids.
  • kids in cram schools may show excellent results in the standardized testing, but may operate in the regress zone with negative impact on their long-term development. They may be great in math today, and still make for a poor programmer two decades later
  • the case of Arian shows how a change of school can instantly throw a kid from the comfort zone to the regress zone with dramatic consequences
  • the case of Simon shows that school and coercive parenting can result in a lifetime declaration to never engage in learning (ever!)
  • my own change of schools took the impact of school from the retrogress zone to the optimum push zone within days
  • I experienced a distraction retrogress in my fights for dominance in primary school
  • my interest in programming and in SuperMemo helped me drag myself from a regress zone of boring college to the optimum push zone where self-directed development was accelerated by a dose of external pressure. Instead of losing brain cells and sleep over the study of electronic circuits, I was able to focus on programming, research, and SuperMemo, while being constantly nudged to acceleration by the need to pass exam benchmarks (see: My school tried to block the best thing in my life)
  • what happens today to kids in war-torn Syria is the prime example of the extreme retrogress in conditions of toxic stress. The impact of war on learning can extend over generations

Minimum pressure, maximum outcome

The sizes of the push zones may differ wildly. The healthier the kid, the smarter the kid, the smaller the push zone. Teachers are required to be even-handed, and cannot set different rules for different kids. If they push too hard, they may do more harm than good. If they push too little, some needy kids may stop developing. If they find the optimum for the class, slower kids and the creative types will suffer.

The key to my reasoning throughout this book is that the cost of pushing can be microscopic (e.g. relative to the size of government investment in education). Kids are equipped with a natural learn drive. They are wired to learn and explore. They are innately curious. Their personality and environment are essential though. Some will need more pushing and those forces may need to increase over time. Others will show the exact opposite. They will welcome some assistance at younger ages and then they will display their "rage to master" that will power further development. It is the kids that enter the rage to master zone that will change the future of this planet! One of the prime goals of education systems is to NOT stand in their way.

My own story

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I tried hard and cannot recall a single case where a significant push beyond my comfort zone brought any long-term benefits to my life. In How I invented perfect schooling?, I write about enjoying passing exams. There is always a degree of discomfort in such a system. It is never truly perfect. However, I voluntarily joined the system, I self-imposed the learning, and I had a significant say in the curriculum. In that period, the biggest coercive push I received was in the area of control theory.

I consider control theory highly important, however, at the time (1986), it was programming that was to change my life. Delays in programming would mean delays in SuperMemo which would mean delays in learning across the board. I also objected to the choice of material and the methods of lecturing.

My teacher disagreed, and I was forced to take on the subject. Despite the importance of the subject, it is pretty easy to see that if all my teachers took this stance, there would be no SuperMemo. I hardly had time to write it despite all granted freedoms. I did not fully realize the monumental importance of programming then. However, deep in my knowledge valuation network, some hints and intuition pushed me in the right direction. The direction that has changed my life. This text would not have been written if all teachers had been pushing equally hard as my control theory teacher. He was right, control theory is essential for my work and understanding of the brain. However, I was right-er! My investment in programming paid back better. It paid better by an order of magnitude. Additionally, my teacher admitted that computers were better suited to solve my complex control theory problems than his symbolic methods.

Control theory is central to my work. It is central to this book. Was my course at the university helpful? I still recall a few concepts I learned during the lectures. However, I would get to that field anyway. My interest in the brain and in optimization would make it inevitable. At the same time, there is still a bit of bad taste when I revisit certain subjects. It is a bit like coming back to an abusive home. There is always some unpleasant trepidation about an experience that should otherwise be positive.

Sadly, the teaching methods, the classes, the lectures, the textbooks were not that good. I passed the exam. In my rebellion, I even resorted to cheating (possibly the only case in my whole life). During the exam, I was writing off solutions from Krzysztof Biedalak's sheet. The same Biedalak who is now CEO of SuperMemo World. He was always a bit more conscientious. That's why he is a CEO. I was always more rebellious. This is why I write these words.

Conclusion: I was never significantly pushed beyond my comfort zone with memorable long-term benefits!

Natural creativity cycle

Natural creativity cycle is a repetitive sequence of changes in knowledge stored in memory. Those changes are induced by learning, creative thinking, and memory optimization in sleep. Those changes form a cycle rooted in the circadian rhytm.

Creativity formula

Understanding the creativity cycle is essential for good learning, high creativity, high intelligence, and a happy mind.

The natural creativity cycle is an interplay of neural processes that occur in waking and in sleep. This natural cycle does not come with much advice that will boost your specific creativity. You only need to know that all creative people must protect the cycle from interference with drugs, distractions, or designer schedules that disrupt individual stages. The most delicate and the most often disrupted component of the cycle is sleep. Typical cycle violations would include morning alarm clock, evening alcohol, medication, or suppressing creativity with multitasking, stress, and disruptions.

To live up to your intellectual and creative potential, you should respect and protect the natural creativity cycle.

The following picture illustrates the course of the natural creativity cycle. For details see the Neural aspects of the creativity cycle.

Natural creativity cycle
Natural creativity cycle

Figure: In the natural creativity cycle there is a regular interplay between the creative processes and the consolidation of knowledge. For high creativity and good learning, those processes must proceed unimpeded. Sleep must come naturally and should never be interrupted. Waking day should also have large blocks protected from interruption, multitasking, and stress. Starting with the creative morning explosion, seeds of activation (in red) get gradually converted into a big idea that emerges on the next morning. In the meantime, learning, reasoning, and creative activations reshuffle neuronal connections. New connections emerge, get strengthened, weakened, eliminated, or are consolidated for long term storage. All steps are essential for the emergence of the ultimate big idea. For details see: Neural aspects of the natural creativity cycle

The creativity cycle



The cycle begins with natural waking after a full night of uninterrupted and unmedicated sleep. It is essential that sleep occur in the optimum circadian framework. In simplest terms, it means going to sleep when sleepy, waking up naturally, going to sleep daily in a similar time frame, and waking up at sunrise or after sunrise under the influence of natural sunlight.

Morning creativity

In the natural cycle, for biological reasons, the best brain performance occurs in the morning. This is the time when new ideas start germinating and when best creative learning takes place. Creative learning differs from your typical learning in that the creative process may interfere with the learning process. This may slow down learning while increasing its quality and outcomes. In creative learning, you learn the subject matter and supplement that learning with your own creative enhancement. In other words, while reading a book, in creative learning, you learn the content of the book and what you invent about the book!

Focus and creativity cycles

During the day, there will be two prime oscillations between the competing brain states of focus and creativity:

  • circadian oscillation resulting from natural sleep-wake cycle with creativity maximized upon waking, gradual shift towards focused thinking, and ultimate waning of both functions in readiness for the next sleep cycle
  • procedural oscillation in which learning and thinking interleave (e.g. focused reading of a sentence in a book, and then thinking about it)

The diagram shows a simplified focus and creativity stages for symmetry with nighttime sleep. In reality, they will be interleaved and wane at different speeds depending on the type of brainwork employed.

Creative and consolidation components of waking and sleep stand in procedural symmetry, but are controlled differently. While there is a dedicated NREM-REM sleep flip-flop control based on specific brain centers, the switch from creative mode to focused thinking is network-based and procedural. When there is a high-value association detected in a chaos of creative activation, it may trigger placing an attentive spotlight on the association, which in turn will result in suppression of all activity associated with the creative mode.

For example, an early morning brain, after a cup of coffee, might be buzzing with ideas in many areas of interest. However, once an important idea is hit, focused analysis will demand suppressing all other ideas to provide for "clear thinking" mode. The best lossless way for tackling the competition between ideas in creative mode is note taking. Depending on the brain and the context, ideas may be too precious to get lost by suppression with focused thinking. They should better be written down before working on them individually. Naturally, in a creative individual, the stream of ideas may be too rich to fully process, and a good balance between invention and implementation is necessary. The best way of achieving that balance is to supplement the brain with incremental processing tools, like SuperMemo. See: Tools.

Siesta bonus

Anyone who can afford a siesta should avail of the opportunity. Naptime sleep differs from nighttime sleep, however, it performs vital homeostatic function that restores both learning capacity and creative capacity back to baseline. In essence, biphasic lifestyle with a siesta component helps the brain execute two wake creativity sub-cycles in a single day. This is the first siesta bonus that can literally double the creative output of an individual.

Due to the different nature of naptime sleep and its regulatory mechanisms, there are many unknowns in reference to the impact of napping on creativity. We are not sure if evening creativity is qualitatively different from morning creativity. All differences we see may equally well be explained by the change of context (e.g. morning creativity might occur in the office, while evening creativity takes place over a desk at home, there is a change in the impact of light, social life, exercise, disruption and more). As the creative process is highly unpredictable, the possibility of employing two different brain modes might be highly beneficial. This can theoretically provide the second siesta bonus: a different creative mode.


A creative individual does not need to understand what happens in sleep. Those processes are automatic and not fully understood. It is enough to stick to the healthy sleep regimen and the brain will take care of itself in sleep. However, the structure of sleep and the interplay of NREM-REM stages helps one understand the dangers of sleeping in wrong hours, using alarm clock, drinking alcohol before sleep, taking sleeping pills (incl. seemingly harmless melatonin), etc.

NREM sleep

Sleep begins with a gradual descent into deep sleep. The actual play of neural circuits in that stage is still be be elucidated. There are many competing models, however, a consensus seems to emerge that NREM sleep is the stage when memories are consolidated for long-term storage in cortical areas. This frees working memory structures, such as the hippocampus, for more learning while awake. Without this sleep stage, declarative learning is impeded. This means that in severe sleep deprivation, the things we learned and figured out during the day may become volatile and lost in part or entirely.

REM sleep

REM sleep is a type of sleep that starts dominating later in the night. This might be the most under-appreciated component of the natural creativity cycle. This is the type of sleep when the brain teaches itself of what it knows with the purpose of optimizing, simplifying, and generalizing knowledge. In simple terms, after REM sleep, the things we know, we start knowing better, and as a result, we start noticing new relationships in knowledge. This reshuffling of knowledge makes it possible to invent in sleep without lifting a finger. The whole process is automatic. All we need to do is sleep. We do not even need to go to sleep with the intention of inventing. It will happen whether we wish or not.

Nighttime inventions

We commit two mortal sins that destroy brain's ability to come up with new ideas in sleep:

  1. we damage sleep structure with medication and
  2. we cut the REM-rich end of sleep with alarm clocks.

Before sleep, we often take medications, incl. sleep medications. Many people drink alcohol or even smoke weed to get themselves to sleep faster (or nicer). All those factors interfere with sleep structure, and REM sleep deprivation might be the most damaging effect. Without NREM sleep we feel awful. This is why few people resort to the extreme form of time-saving: all nighters. However, without REM sleep we are just dumber. This is hard to notice. The pain is less tangible. REM sleep seems dispensable to many. This is why a huge chunk of the population gets up in the morning with the assistance of the alarm clock. I explain elsewhere that in most cases we can move the sleep phase to earlier hours, and get rid of the alarm clock for good. However, I might as well be crying in the wilderness. Even those who read my texts keep saying that they just can't afford sleeping long (e.g. using "sleep makes me feel bad" myth as an excuse). Those who save time on sleep often trade their moods and smarts for minor savings in time which they later fritter away through messing around due to tiredness and lesser mental capacity.

Natural creativity cycle can easily lose most of its potency by our interference with sleep. Late sleep, stress, alcohol, and alarm clocks are chief culprits here. If you are stuck in a creative groove, if you cannot solve a difficult problem, read this text again, and obey the rules of the natural creativity cycle. A few simple steps maintained for a few weeks can easily double or quadruple your creative potential! The returns on investment are truly exponential!

See: How to solve any problem?

Neural aspects of the creativity cycle

This picture presents the progression of the creativity cycle in neural terms. In the diagram, dots represent memories or concepts. Connections between the dots represent associations (between memories or concepts). Memories and connections are first formed or activated in red in the process of learning or spontaneous creativity. In successive octants of the diagram, memories and connections can get weakened or consolidated. Darker and thicker connections are most stable and most durable. The picture shows how, in a single cycle of day and night, a new big idea emerges. New connections may form via deterministic inference (thinking), or via random activations typical of creativity or REM sleep.

The same idea may be represented by a different set of neurons in a different part of the brain. The memory transfer may occur during a single cycle. This is why association of ideas in the diagram should not be understood as specific neural connections in the brain.

Natural creativity cycle
Natural creativity cycle

Waking Day

Octant 1: Morning creative explosion: The day in a natural cycle begins with a creative explosion. The semantic tree of knowledge gets expanded in a highly unpredictable manner. The most important part of that process is random activation of concept neurons associated with ideas. On a good day, the brain should be buzzing with ideas related to one's work, or ideas irrelevant. A cup of coffee can enhance this process. Good mood is also essential as it allows of unconstrained creativity. Modern scourges of bad sleep, stress, and haste are prime enemies of morning creativity. In the picture, the underlying existing knowledge tree is not shown. Only new foci of activity are shown in red. New associations are shown as links between activation centers (edges to the knowledge graph).

Octant 2: Focused thinking: Focused work is more conducive to deductive reasoning in which the knowledge tree gets expanded in a systematic manner. For example, a creative idea, that pops up randomly, may get associated with active leaves of the existing knowledge tree. Those associations will fill the gaps needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle leading to a solution to a problem. Focus and creativity are competitive, but they are not separated into big time-span octants as shown on the picture. Those are only used to illustrate the symmetry with the learn-and-burn cycle of the nighttime NREM-REM pattern. To get a better sense of the interaction of focus and creativity, check the right margin where creativity shows in yellow and keeps waning with waking, while focused time is shown in blue. The actual interplay is even finer and some of the processes occur in parallel. The darker the shade of blue, the more tired the brain, and the less likely it is to make progress in problem solving. Sleep comes to rescue to renew the cycle.

Octants 3-4 will mirror Octants 1-2 in individuals who take a recommended mid-day nap. Naps bring the homeostatic learning capacity back to the baseline. In other words, well executed naps eliminate the network fatigue effect. Biphasic sleepers benefit of maximum creativity, alertness and learning performance in two octants in a single cycle: Octant 1 and Octant 3. In monophasic sleepers, the evening creative mode is undermined by network fatigue, and most of the improved alertness and learning capacity comes from the impact of circadian variables on the brain. Even if you do not sleep at siesta time, the brain experiences an evening revival after the mid-day slump. The picture assumes that siesta has restored the full creative mode and the main difference between Octant 1 and Octant 3 is that, in the evening, the period of prolific creativity will build upon newly formed structures of knowledge inherited from the first half of the waking day.


Octant 5: NREM sleep: Memories get consolidated in the neocortex. The picture does not reflect the fact that the same connections between concepts may move from the switchboard (hippocampus) to permanent storage (neocortex). Octants 4 and 5 may look the same, but the networks of connections may change their location in the brain. The whole fabric of knowledge becomes stable, consolidated, and gets a ticket on its way to longevity. Memories settled in the cortex will get more and more stable with each review.

Octant 6: REM sleep: Unlike focus-creativity interplay which is network-procedural in character, NREM/REM pattern operates like a flip-flop oscillator. The left margin on the picture shows a typical NREM/REM pattern for a night. For the sake of illustration and symmetry, the picture includes only four separate episodes. Octant 6 is a nighttime equivalent of daytime creativity. Random pattern activation will produce new associations and REM sleep will work like an optimizing trainer for neural networks. When woken up during REM, we often report dreaming. This may be the expression of brain's nighttime work on playing hypothetical scenarios for the sake of memory optimization and discovery. The picture shows transitory areas of red activation, which can later become consolidated into new ideas in successive episodes of NREM sleep, or enhanced in successive episodes of REM sleep.

Octant 7 NREM: Further consolidation of gains from the day and early REM sleep episodes.

Octant 8 REM: Last part of the night might be most prolific in terms of creativity. This is the time when most of obligatory consolidation and memory transfer has already occurred. This is the time the brain is allowed to play with existing memories and look for patterns and generalizations that crystallize ideas and provide new insights in problems to be solved in waking.

Next morning

Finally, back in Octant 1, we wake up with a big idea.

Those who do not follow the natural creativity cycle are less likely to come up with big ideas and be efficient problem solvers

For the sake of creativity, if only possible, we should go to sleep when sleepy, abandon the alarm clock, give up drugs and medication, avoid evening alcohol, and get as much sleep as the brain demands (incl. the recommended mid-day nap).

The presented picture had three contributors, and their zodiac constellations have been used to assemble the representation of the ultimate big morning idea. You can now follow individual octants to get a general sense how that big idea came to be: starting with a creative chaos of the early morning, focused reasoning, further layers of creative enhancement, nighttime consolidation and comparison with existing memories, nighttime optimization, and nighttime creative expansion via random pattern generation.

Depression and positive thinking

Nighttime creativity is an anti-depressant. This is not only a matter of neurohormones. You can go to sleep with a gnawing problem only to wake up with a solution. If the problem is unsolvable, you might creatively come up with an optimistic interpretation, or, at the very least, with a stoic interpretation. This can happen only if you obey the creativity cycle and ensure perfect circadian alignment of nighttime sleep. Departures from optimum sleep timing can trigger depression.

Few people realize how important sleep is for moods. People who frequently experience a depressed mood insist that sleep deprivation often makes them feel better. A great deal of research confirms that. It is possible that some of that mitigating influence comes from the neural chaos that prevents the runaway effect that underlies depression. However, the link between sleep deficit and mood may lead to wrong strategies. Cutting down on sleep indiscriminately may have the opposite effect: worsening of the mood. Short sleep indeed correlates with improved moods. However, this is mostly due to that fact that the shortest natural sleep is achieved in conditions where it is timed perfectly in reference to brain needs determined by the circadian cycle. Shortening sleep by delaying bedtime will have a different effect than shortening it with an alarm clock. Both will work differently in different chronotypes and in different forms of circadian misalignment. Sleep deprivation caused by circadian disruption can have a negative neurohormonal impact on the brain and trigger a depressed mood instead. Unless fully understood in the circadian dimension, and perfected as a form of chronotherapy, wake therapy may go the way of electroconvulsive shock therapy in the annals of medical history.

When there is no additional interference from stressors, mood changes are best explained by circadian misalignment of sleep in reference to the body clock (see: Circadian disturbances in depression). For that reason, well-executed and well-protected free running sleep might be the simplest and safest sleep therapy in depression.

In addition to its impact on re-balancing brain hormones, sleep has a very important impact on positive thinking through its creative effect. The same reality is interpreted differently by optimists and pessimists. The same reality is interpreted differently by the brain in different neurohormonal states and at different stages of the circadian cycle. People with a positive disposition, or brains in the right state, may have a healthy tendency to see the glass half full. This is part of natural defenses against the brutal truths of reality that can propel an optimist through life with a happy face. A vital component of that optimistic interpretation of the world is the creative brain that can actively search for ideas that can make the reality seem more congruent and more friendly. It is the nighttime creativity that helps build up positive interpretation.

REM sleep is the prime time for dreaming. People woken up in REM sleep report dreaming. People who wake up naturally often have no recall of dreaming. Dreams are incongruent and testify to their creative nature. They are often pretty unpleasant. All nightmares serve to arm us with knowledge tools such as solutions to dangerous situations, and positive interpretations of reality. In depressed patients, circadian misalignment my expose "dreaming brain" to wakefulness, which can trigger a positive feedback cascade of dark thoughts. This is why an alarm clock may provide for a difference between a nightmare and a positive solution to a problem.

This nighttime creative search for positive interpretation is why we say we like to sleep over the worries and take a new look in the morning. This is how we employ brain hormones and creativity to see the world in better colors. Those who neglect sleep, deprive themselves of the chief weapon that might help them improve their mood.

Creative cycle control

The control of the natural creativity cycle is determined by (1) learn drive, (2) sleep drive, (3) dream drive, (4) local neural network control, and (5) systemic neurohormonal control.

The learn drive propels learning, thinking and creativity. The balance between focus and creativity is determined by the operations of the involved networks and brain centers, and modulated by the neurohormonal state of the brain, as well as the network fatigue.

Sleep drive initiates sleep. It is determined by the following two prime variables:

  1. the circadian status that determines sleep propensity and
  2. the homeostatic status that depends on the network fatigue.

Sleep drive makes sure that we fall asleep late in the evening. In a well-managed creativity cycle, sleep drive will also ensure sleep during the siesta period. The system of brain structures governing the sleep drive is pretty complex as depicted in the Sleep control system diagram.

The dream drive is based on NREM-REM flip-flop which regulates transitions between two stages of sleep in which the direction of flow of information in the brain reverses to serve consolidation and/or optimization of memories.

All the control components of the natural creativity cycle, if undisturbed, provide a sure way to discovery.

Human brain works like a perfect inventing machine. It gathers information, converts it into coherent knowledge, creatively expands knowledge (both in waking and in sleep), and comes up with solutions to problems, action trajectories, and more.

All those goals are achieved using a mass of tissue that takes just 1-2% of the weight of the human body. Human brain is a true miracle of biological evolution. All its asks is a bit of energy to run it and respect for its control mechanisms.

Impact of schooling

Schooling totally destroys the natural creativity cycle in a vast majority of students. There are very few exceptions of kids who are natural early risers, love school, love their teachers, are gifted, love winning, are lucky to attend good schools with good programs and a great degree of freedom, whose parents are tolerant and helpful, and who can manage their evening schedule to their own liking. In my circles, this is extremely rare, perhaps as rare as 1:100. The average is bleak. Kids have no mental power left for their own learning. Their favorite low-brain-energy pastimes range from computer games through music to messing around with friends. Many kids are saved from utter decline by spending long hours in the football field, skatepark, street workout, or on a basketball court. Evenings are devoted to surfing the web, Facebook, YouTube, gaming, and other undemanding forms of cognitive effort.

The biggest offender in the destruction of the creativity cycle is the alarm clock in the morning. It does not help that the alarm may come from a gentle push from a loving mom. Nighttime REM-driven creativity is injured. Morning creativity is gone. Daytime learning and creative thinking are lethargic. Without help from napping, evening cycle is tired and uninspired. For those few who take post-school naps, some good evening learning is possible, but the creative component is limited as most of that evening learning comes from compulsory homework.

For a typical school kid, learn drive is supplanted with teaching-and-homework, creativity is largely absent, and sleep is injured

Employing the creativity cycle

If you ever experience a writer's block or wait in vain for inspiration or your artistic muse to come, note that natural creativity cycle, health permitting, makes it possible to experience high creativity on a daily basis. All you need is to understand individual steps and timing. If you look for high creativity in the evening after a hard day's work, you are less likely to find it. Don't mistake high passion and high focus for creativity. Passionate focus is easier to come by even in a tired brain. Kids can do their homework ok in the evening, however, they will never expand creatively on what they get fed in with from textbooks. Their brain will not build new layers of knowledge and understanding. Those extra layers and connections are vital for knowledge to last and expand. Creativity determines the ultimate representation of knowledge at the cortical level. That representation determines how abstract and how applicable knowledge is. In short, without solid creative generalizations, we know things, but we are not that much smarter as a result. In passive learning, the brain is like Google, full of information and short on wisdom. All it takes to make a difference is to employ the post-sleep high creativity stages in learning. In simplest terms, learning on a fresh brain is the only highly efficient form of learning.

Many good students and most great people instinctively follow prescriptions of this text. Years of problem solving make them arrive to similar solutions intuitively. In each creative thinker's mind, those creativity cycle stages will have different names and different associations. Their modelling will differ, but they will all lead to similar actions. Most people intuitively understand the importance of sleep, or absence of distraction in creative thinking. Understanding the biological basis of the creativity cycle, as described herein, should help us be more respectful towards natural powers of the brain.

Respect for the natural creativity cycle makes it easy to reproduce high learning and high creativity on a daily basis.

Old school: creativity cycles

Understanding the natural creativity cycle is essential for productive brainwork and creativity. The web is populated with hundreds of articles about the "creativity cycle". Those articles explain what steps need to be taken to maximize creativity. The problem with a typical "creativity cycle" is that it has been artificially concocted by creativity "experts" who provide a rigid formula for decomposing the process into well-delineated stages such as preparation, analysis, creativity, development, implementation, etc.

Each of thus delineated stages require creativity per se. What "experts" call a "creative cycle" should rather be called a "project cycle" with no specific prescription for creativity.

The problem with this traditional approach is that it is motivational and intentional. To improve creative outcomes, we naturally look for simple steps that would encapsulate the best tools and the best strategies. However, creativity is hardly controllable. It is an intrinsic and highly autonomous process that arises in neural networks in the wake of exploration and problem solving. Instead of looking for specific steps towards an achievement, we should rather foster a healthy brain environment for enhanced creativity. The rest is up to the brain itself, hard work, and a random process that calls for a bit of luck.

The traditional approach to the "creative cycle" will not be too helpful in creative efforts because of two problems:

  • each project stage requires creativity on its own
  • creativity is highly unpredictable and cannot be micromanaged. Its randomness underlies its power. In a creative process, unexpected associations are the source of new value

My formula for enhanced creativity can be summarized as:

  1. respect the natural creativity cycle rooted in brain science, and
  2. keep working on the problem to solve

You can use "project cycle" stages, if you find them helpful, or you can just improvise as you feel fit.

See also: How to solve any problem?



One good artificial prop in the natural creativity cycle is the proverbial pen and paper, i.e. any means for extending human memory by making notes. I favor notes made in SuperMemo. They are best made in a collection dedicated to a specific problem that is to be solved. Later on, those notes can enter the process of incremental reading and propel the natural interplay of focus and creativity in learning.

Incremental reading

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Incremental learning has been created to naturally support the creativity cycle in stages powered by the learn drive. High load of learning and creative learning provide for rich processing material for the stages powered by the dream drive.

Oscillations and transient transitions between focused/analytical and creative/exploratory work are naturally supported by tools that make the learning process incremental, intermittent, interruptible, and dendritic. This means that the student is in full control of the learning pace. This allows of free semantic digressions into multiple branches of knowledge.

In the early morning, in high creativity mode, note taking may take precedence over focused processing. The gradual transition to more analytical mode proceeds naturally and is under full control exerted by the user. In simple terms, this makes it possible to collect morning ideas as notes and then process them serially with maximum attention one by one. They can also be processed in an interleaved incremental mode (e.g. in parallel with spaced repetition material).

Neural creativity is a mutation of incremental learning, where some of the creative process is run in software in direct communication with the human memory storage. In the same way as the brain runs the creative process in a semantic network of neural connections, SuperMemo, in neural creativity, explores semantic links between concepts and branches of the knowledge tree to serve new knowledge and new inspirations via a process called spreading activation.

Incremental learning is a good computer metaphor for how the creative processes in the brain dovetails with focused thinking, and learning.

Incremental learning supports learn drive, dream drive, spontaneous creativity, and self-directed expansion of knowledge.

Nobody has ever measured the impact of incremental learning on neurogenesis, but I boldly hypothesize that if there are any control mechanisms that we might influence, they would be definitely associated with the neural activity and restorative processes. This would mean that rich learning and creative thought combined with healthy regimen of sleep would provide the basis of the desirable effect on the brain.

The present article was written using incremental writing. Incremental writing is a technique, in which learning, creative thinking, and writing become integrated into a continuous incremental learning process. In incremental writing, one can employ a form of "project cycle": (1) information gathering, (2) writing and expansion, (3) clean up and elimination, and (4) publishing. All those stages require creativity and should not be confused with the creativity cycle.


SleepChart in SuperMemo makes it easy to optimize the timing of brainwork:

Figure: Optimizing the timing of brainwork with respect to the circadian cycle. This graph was generated with the help of SleepChart on the basis of 3-year-long daily measurements of a free-running sleep rhythm. The horizontal axis expresses the number of hours from awakening (note that the free-running sleep cycle period may be longer than 24 hours). Light blue dots are actual sleep episode measurements with timing on the horizontal, and the length on the left vertical axis. Homeostatic sleepiness can roughly be expressed as the ability to initiate sleep. Percent of the initiated sleep episodes is painted as a thick blue line (right-side calibrations of the vertical axis). Adenosine-related homeostatic sleep propensity increases in proportion to mental effort and can be partially cleared by caffeine, stress, etc. Circadian sleepiness can roughly be expressed as the ability to maintain sleep. Average length of the initiated sleep episodes is painted as a thick red line (left-side calibrations of the vertical axis). Mid-day slump in alertness is also circadian, but is biologically different and results in short sleep that does not register as a red peak. Sleep maintenance circadian component correlates (1) negatively with core body temperature, ACTH, cortisol, catecholamines, and (2) positively with: melatonin and REM sleep propensity. Optimum timing of brainwork requires both (1) low homeostatic sleepiness, and (2) low circadian sleepiness. There are two high quality alertness blocks during the day: the first after the awakening, and the second after the siesta. Both blocks are marked as yellow bands below the graph. For best learning, and for best creativity, use these two yellow blocks of time. Caffeine can only be used to enhance alertness early in the optimum brainwork window (brown). Later use will affect sleep (caffeine half-life is about six hours). Optimum timing of exercise is not marked as it may vary depending on the optimum timing of zeitgebers (e.g. early morning for DSPS people and evening for ASPS people). For more details see: Biphasic nature of human sleep

Summary: Natural creativity cycle

  • adherence to the natural creativity cycle is vital for achieving high creativity on a regular basis
  • efficient problem solving is not possible without adherence to the natural creativity cycle
  • for high creativity, sleep needs to occur in the optimum circadian framework
  • creativity cycle known from creativity literature should rather be called a project cycle with all stages requiring high creativity in the first place
  • in a healthy circadian cycle, most creative brain occurs in the morning, or after a siesta
  • creativity competes with focus and attention. Those different brain modes are natural and are controlled procedurally by the goals of the mental process
  • morning coffee boosts creativity
  • clarity of thinking declines in proportion to mental effort during the waking day
  • good sleep is a natural effortless inventor
  • sleep can be easily injured with evening medication, alcohol, drugs, stress, and more
  • memories are shuffled around in the brain during sleep. This is part of natural autonomous creativity
  • REM sleep is a natural optimizer that helps generating night-time creative breakthroughs
  • alarm clocks, cannabis, and alcohol are prime enemies of REM sleep and night-time creativity
  • great people, self-employed people, and retirees alike, naturally gravitate towards structuring their day around the natural creativity cycle
  • sleep can be used as a weapon against depression. Wake therapy can be useful only in conditions of circadian misalignment
  • optimistic brain creatively re-interprets the reality in sleep
  • respect for natural creativity cycle protects the inherent property of the brain: drive towards learning and invention
  • schooling destroys natural creativity cycle for most kids
  • free schedules, e.g. in homeschooling, democratic schooling, unschooling, vacation, etc. favor respect for the natural creativity cycle
  • for most kids, creative processes are largely blocked by teaching, homework, structured activities, and home chores
  • creativity blocked by schooling results in permanent changes in the brain that undermine future creativity
  • self-learning and free play are great allies of creativity in childhood and adolescence
  • incremental learning is an excellent way to control the balance between attention and creativity
  • incremental learning supports learn drive, dream drive, spontaneous creativity, and self-directed expansion of knowledge
  • SleepChart makes it possible to determine the optimum timing of brainwork
  • this article was written using incremental writing

Brain evolution

Employing evolution

Some smart people believe that evolution will help improve the brain to tolerate some of the challenges of the modern world. They are right. The evolution is an on-going process. However, the same smart people may tend to believe that pushing the brain to its limits has some evolutionary value. This thinking is extremely dangerous as it may justify the displeasure of learning in contradiction to the fundamental law of learning.

The claim is that we need to adapt to harder schooling because there are things that our grandmothers could never do. However, school stress is more likely to come from calculus that have been done since the time of Newton, i.e. long before granny was born. At the same time, our grandmothers never used iPhone, which kids love and schools often ban or place in cell hotels.

The idea of pushing the limits leads parents and educators to believe that exposing kids to hardships of life early will result in building resilience. Developmental acceleration that comes from hardship provide further feedback to the illusion that it benefits the brain. This is how the whole system of harmful ideas come to play: cram schools, alarm clocks, jam-packed educational and extracurricular schedules, accelerated curriculum, boot camps and brain boot camps, and more.

This is all based on poor understanding of evolution.

For starters, evolution is a snail-slow process that takes generations to produce changes that are hard to notice. Why rely on evolution, when we can get results on a few orders of magnitude better by taking the opposite strategy: relieving the pressures. Take an average school-age kid, let it get some sleep, let it relax, activate the learn drive, let him follow the natural creativity cycle, and in a few months you may get 500% gain in brain power. Don't Google to verify the number. 500% is just my wild shot. I look at unhappy gaunt kids around and I know that what they crave for is their best medicine: freedom, incl. freedom to learn.

Genius of neural computation

There is a dangerous point of ignorance behind the idea that pushing the limits is good for the evolution of the brain. At the root of the error in judgement is the unawareness of evolutionary marvels such as the learn drive, memory optimization in sleep, spaced repetition, and more. These are genius inventions of neural computing that cannot be improved using the concept of pushing the limits of brainwork.

Amazingly, many scientists in service of the army, education system, or the industry already work on weapons of mass brain destruction. Millions of dollars keep getting invested in harmful ideas such as eliminating sleep, eliminating forgetting, eliminating creative distraction, manipulating sleep stages, etc.

This would actually result in evolution in reverse! If we eliminate sleep, we kill intelligence. If we eliminate sleepiness, we kill memory optimization. If we eliminate the sense of boredom, we accept indiscriminate learning. If we eliminate forgetting, we kill abstract thinking, and so on.

Moreover, all the push for bad sleep and bad learning would result in an epidemic of Alzheimer's disease. The garbage leftovers of excessive brainwork usually hit beyond the breeding age. This keeps senile dementia well protected from the reach of the evolution. Instead of having smarter students, we would have adults who would forget their own name by the time they were of my age.

Breeding perfect students

It is a dream of every teacher to have an obedient, focused, and refreshed student who comes to school in time. Unfortunately, that dream is often realized with harmful means. Alarm clock ensures good timing. Modafinil improves alertness. Ritalin improves focus. Legal amphetamine, Adderall, improves both. Learned helplessness leads to obedience. Instead of raising creative individuals, with this approach, we are raising intellectual zombies.

Coercive education is supposed to make sure kids tolerate boredom in order to withstand the hardships of learning. Teen suicide would be a form of natural selection of those who did not adapt to "modern lifestyle". Supposedly, the next generation is to get more resilient. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. If we tolerate boredom, frustration, and suppress the distractive learn drive, we eliminate the natural inflow of coherent knowledge, and replace it with indiscriminate inflow of knowledge that does not fit the semantic network status quo. This would naturally accelerate forgetting, which might perhaps be slowed down with drugs. One day this will inevitably spark a saying: "he is a great student, he knows a lot, but he is as dumb as a hard disk".

Sleepiness and the sense of boredom are fantastic weapons against brain mismanagement. If we eliminate these, we expose the brain to the damage of bad sleep and bad learning.

Due to the marvelous diversification of student interests, joy of learning is a frequent source of distraction in a classroom. While the teacher might be ready to explain the structure of the atom, the kid is more likely to think about that new cool videogame. To eliminate that distraction we need to eliminate the learn drive (the attractive force) and creativity (the distractive force). Ritalin does a great job here. It makes sure that passions do not interfere with schooling.

Enjoying videogames, TV shows, or the need to spend 7 hours per day on sleep are just side effects of genius inventions of neural evolution. Those great evolutionary spoils cannot be overturned. They are also hard to improve upon in computational sense. They are an acme of millions of years of evolution. Pushing the brain to the limits is like trying to improve bird flight by loading birds with weights that make flight impossible.

I wrote elsewhere that resistance to chronic stress is not trainable. By pushing the limits early, we may induce brain adaptations that are shortcuts in development, but bring negative long-term outcomes. Daycare acceleration is the best example of pushing the limits that might spark evolution in the reverse, i.e. dumbing up future generations. Those kids who adapt best to the regimen early, e.g. for hormonal reasons, will be well equipped to freeze brain development at early stages. If we push the maladapted kids to suicide or non-reproduction, we get the exact opposite to the effect intended. In the extreme, we might even start pushing newborns to new heights of learning. Those stressed puppies might never get beyond the level of a well trained dog.

Those who dream of turning brains into computers should be aware that soon the opposite will happen. Computers will mimic brains, and in the end, they will outsmart the smartest of us. Those future computers, as envisaged by Jeff Hawkins and others, will borrow richly from the wisdom of evolution instead of trying to override it.


By definition, eugenics is a good thing. Its a quest to improve the genetic make up of humanity. It may involve eliminating some lethal genetic disorders. Eugenics was given a bad name by Hitler, the Nazis, and others. That Nazi variant could be called a "hate optimization". Instead of improving the gene pool, it was to be made supposedly better but keeping it monoracial. Races are a treasure. They enrich the human gene pool, incl. the pool of genes responsible for multiple intelligences.

We are all guilty of good eugenics. When we choose a mate or spouse we usually go for healthy, nice, and smart. We also go for beautiful, which is an approximate surrogate for measuring good health. In that act of choice, we commit eugenics. The main problem with artificial eugenics is that, in wrong hands, instead of producing future smarter generations we might end up with a tabloid genome whose quality would not differ from the quality of discussions on most Internet fora.

Today, our reproductive choices are subject to the Idiocracy problem. Smart people are less likely to reproduce early. This way they commit dysgenics instead. The problem of late reproduction or non-reproduction is particularly rampant among productivity freaks (like myself). Flynn effect seems to suggest that we are on the right path, however, if we want to prevent dysgenics, we should rather solve the problem of the evolutionary disadvantage of smart brains. Cranking up school pressure might have the opposite effect again.

For the evolution to work, we need to employ the right selection criteria. The pressures of modern life provide wrong criteria. Imagine a Nazi-like scenario in which, to foster smart and precocious brains, we prevent reproduction of kids who speak late. For starters, Einstein would be in front of the queue for the chopping block. If we reward early speech, we promote speedy freeze on brain function and short reproductive cycles. We might end up with fruit fly babies ready to crawl from mama's womb to generate parrot-like speech. It is the exact opposite of what humanity is. We want prolonged and rich brain growth. It takes decades to bring that organ to true heights of genius.

Selecting for early speech would be an example of dysgenics. We might opt for selecting for bigger brains instead. This would not interfere with neural computing and might provide more brain tissue to run the computation. However, size would not necessarily guarantee better brains. Size isn't necessarily the bottleneck of human brain computational power. Availability of time for learning, thinking and creativity seems far more limiting. Instead of smarter generations, we might be like chihuahuas, requiring C-section to guarantee healthy delivery. Instead of smarter humans, we would wave goodbye to natural birth in the lap of nature.

The right approach to brain eugenics might be to select for excellent opus vitae. We might, for example, go for a Genius Sperm Bank, and pay women to conceive and deliver babies using sperm from the bank. Even then, however, we cannot discount the nurture factor. Instead of a genius generation, we might breed more cases of Ted Kaczynski. It seems classical mating and old-fashioned families still come on top in breeding best brains. Instead of "pushing the limits", we should respect the rules of a healthy lifestyle and a healthy brainwork.

Pushing the brain to its limits does not benefit the evolution of the brain. It may exert an evolutionary pressure opposite to the one intended

Summary: Brain evolution

  • learn drive and the natural creativity cycle are marvels of the evolution that are hard to improve upon
  • sleepiness and boredom are defense weapons that protect the brain
  • evolution of the brain is too slow to benefit mankind much nowadays
  • respecting the needs of the brain can bring dramatic returns in intellectual productivity
  • early intervention and acceleration in child care may result in stress and worse long-term outcomes
  • pushing the brain to the limits does not benefit the evolution of the brain

Baby management

Rich learning

Pediatricians often call babies perfect learning machines, however, memory in early childhood is actually awful (see: How baby brain does not work).

In terms of motor skills, a 3 year-old is almost a complete human being. In terms of speech, it is just the beginning. Abstract learning and abstract executive function will start much later.

It is true that the brain proceeds with explosive development in the first years of life. Development does not necessarily need to equate with learning. Sometimes it is just unsophisticated growth and structure remoulding. However, it is good to always remember development is guided by early experience. That early experience shapes the character, procedural capacity, pattern recognition, skills, and other aspects of brain "personality". Thinking of a child brain as a learning machine is good when it comes to ensuring the exposure to experience. Sometimes we call it stimulation. Stimulation is good as long as we do not forget that overstimulation is also possible. For example, night time is time for sleep, not for stimulation. A brain tired with one type of stimulation will do better with a change in stimulation or just a break from exciting stimuli. There is an optimum exposure to stimulation and there is a very simple strategy for making sure the kid gets just as much stimulation as it needs: let the kid decide herself! All the parent needs to do is to provide necessary freedoms and follow natural cravings.

All the child needs for healthy development is access to rich environments and freedom to navigate those environments

Micromanaging baby development

With all the talk of early stimulation or early education, we seem to have already designed baby life to suit adult needs. Instead of ensuring optimum environment for development, we package babies for easy handling. It all begins in pregnancy. The delivery itself is often initiated with a volley of drugs. If the mom's body refuses to obey orders, it is pumped with more drugs. Some of those attempt to make the procedure comfortable, e.g. painkillers. Others are supposed to make it expedient, e.g. oxytocin. More and more moms and doctors take an easy way out: a C-section. There are many consequences of this chemical, hormonal, and mechanical intervention. Some of these may still be unknown or not fully understood. Some consequences may last a lifetime!

Herein begins a life destined for micromanagement and convenient design. Visit a baby shop and it is all jam packed with tools of convenience. Baby shops come handy with endless must-have checklists: feeding bottles, breast pumps, car seats, potty training accessories, electronic nannies, cots, warmers, sterilizers, fancy baby food, bibs, cribs, endless skin care products, humidifiers, etc. These all product treat a baby like the most fragile household item, while a baby actually mostly needs its mom's warmth, touch, and breast. Amazing, those are often denied in the first place with babies shunted to baby wards or placed in separate cots for the night. American Academy of Pediatrics, for safety reasons, recommends against co-sleeping, which has been anointed by millions of years of mammal evolution. Instead of providing a close attachment, and free movement, we resort to a medieval practise of swaddling that severs the link between the brain and the limb.

Soon we package babies in cages on wheels, affectionately called perambulators. Those contraptions have been invented in the 18th century and we slowly start forgetting how original baby transport should look like. We can only take our inspiration from primitive tribes and other primates that simply carry babies around in their arms. It seems baby carriers are the most natural safe modern replacement. I am not sure if they would get orthopedic approval for their straight-jacket nature, however, I am sure they are the best option for the developing brain at very least. A baby in a carrier can see the world around it. It has untold benefits for its ability to recognize 3D patterns, esp. in combination with head mobility. Instead, in a pram, all a baby can see is a rolling flat skyline with occasional attractions in the shape of a tree branches and street lamps. A new trend of babywearing might be the right way to satisfy the perfect learning machine in terms of baby transport. The only time I am happy about prams is when see those brave grannies linger out for 6 hours in a frosty weather with a sleeping baby. In there, I see sound sleep and those brain cells proliferating right in front of our eyes.

Caging toddlers

At toddlerhood, the list of restrictions and baby-proofing keeps increasing. All imaginable devices are supposed to keep toddlers safe, while supervised exposure to dangerous contexts is the best long-term protection. In the end, while parents are busy with their own lives, kids are safe, but learn nothing about safety. There are endless protections from bacteria, viruses, parasites, animals, allergens, plants, and dirt. This cripples the developing immune system and causes life-long health problems that also undermine cognitive development. While daycare is said to be a good proving ground for the immune system, it usually ends up undermining child's long term development (see: Daycare infections). Similar myths related to learning acceleration may have adverse effects on brain growth.

The old-and-tried approach to food allergies is to "eliminate". Instead of a safe natural exposure, an increasing proportion of kids is fed on designer diets that have limited natural nutritional value and an increasingly dangerous foreign chemical content.

The list of restrictions in exercise and exposure is endless. We deprive kids of the benefits of barefoot training by an array of heavy boots. We limit finger and palm movements by the shackles of fingerless mittens. We lock kids in high-chairs to make feeding easy. We prevent efficient thermogenesis with layers of clothing, hats, quadruple blankets, and bath thermometers. Instead, we engage in on-demand training that fits our convenience.

Humans are the only animals with a bladder that require potty "training". It is not that babies are dumber than primitive animals. The training serves the adult world.

Baby sleep management is supposed to help babies sleep when we want them to sleep, not when their brains demand sleep. This form of training is futile, esp. that it begins even before the circadian cycle develops. Sleep management results in arrays of cots in daycare filled with babies forced to sleep at a time when they would rather play or even run.

Early weaning helps moms get back to work. All those procedures involve a stress for the baby, and a stress for the mom. It is all unnecessary. It results in daycare misery. There is even an idea of the nighttime feeding schedule with cruel awakenings for a healthy baby. Fortunately, I have known no parent who would go that far.

Then there is a perfect conformist metaphor: baby dummy. A tool with a dozen of counterindications for health and child psychology. To me, a pacifier says: "Shut up! You got your milk already? No titty for you". I sympathize a bit. Breastfeeding in public is still seen as perversion by many. Peer pressure makes it hard to be a good mom.

Figure: Baby dummy as a shut up metaphor.

Parental crime #1

Some kids get sent to daycare in the first months of their life. This often necessitates the enforcement of the obligatory wake up time. This sets a kid on a long-lasting brain-limiting habit of waking up against the demands of the body clock. Some kids never recover from that waking ritual, which may extend for decades. Their circadian control system gets permanently damaged leading to lifelong sleep disorders that affect the well-being of the population. For more see: Science of sleep

Preschool drills

For preschool, there is a perfect torture device: multi-seat toddler desk where kids are mounted and immobilized inside a single semi-circular desk, with high backseats that ensure face orientation towards the "teacher". This is an perfect anti-ADHD device. Fidgeting, head movement, and own interests are considered a bad thing.

Multi-seat toddler desk as perfect preschool torture device
Multi-seat toddler desk as perfect preschool torture device

Figure: Multi-seat toddler desk is a preschool torture device. The brain says "keep exploring". The authoritarian teacher says "Stop moving! Read my lips!". For more see: Would you have a heart to cage a puppy?

Exposure is good

In the end, it is good to look at babies as perfect learning machines. Their development is guided by the exposure to environmental stimuli and we need to be constantly aware not to cut off those natural inputs.

Now back to that perfect learning. Science of memory will tell you it is far from perfect, and we need to take a major correction for that in educational strategies.

See: Precocity paradox: early instruction may hurt the long-term growth.

Summary: Baby management

  • modern baby "management" results in harmful restrictions in the exposure to healthy natural stimuli
  • moderate exposure to pathogens and allergens is vital for the health of the immune system
  • myths of early learning sparked a pathological trend to begin direct instruction as early as possible
  • early academic teaching may slow down brain development and begin a lifelong hate of learning
  • keeping kids safe with proofing makes it hard to teach them safety
  • overstimulation can best be prevented by letting kids decide their exposure to stimuli
  • medical intervention during pregnancy and birth may often have negative impact on the baby
  • circadian system and sleep patterns develop slowly over the first year of life
  • co-sleeping is a natural way of sleeping and breastfeeding
  • waking kids in the morning can have consequences that may last a lifetime
  • kids should sleep when they are sleepy, not when we think they should sleep
  • all limits on the freedom of movement, slow down motor and intellectual development
  • exposure to changes in temperature ensures good thermogenesis that forms one of the most powerful body defenses (e.g. against infections)
  • for brain development, baby wearing is superior to using strollers
  • baby dummy is a poor substitute of the breast

How baby brain does not work

Accelerating development

We shape the future of this planet by shaping baby brains.

These days, we begin the educational effort even before the pregnancy. Active moms exercise while pregnant, and play Mozart to babies in the womb. Active dads begin an exercise and training regimen from the cradle. We make babies speak sentences at 6 months. Master phones and tablets before they can speak. Make them read at 2 years old. Play piano at 3. Speak languages at 5. Enroll at the university at 8, and hope for an early PhD in their teens as well. The only problem with that eager approach is that it may all be wrong.

Perfect forgetting machines

You will often hear from your pediatrician that a child's brain is a perfect learning machine, or that in the first 3 years of life we learn more than in the entire adulthood. Those well-intentioned statements are misleading and may lead to wrong strategies (see: Three myths of early brain development and early learning).

Considering our adult standards, we should rather see babies as perfect forgetting machines. Long term-memory capacity develops very slowly. To be precise, there is nothing inherently immature about baby memory except that the brain changes so fast. Baby forgetting occurs because baby brains are most accurately described as incredible growing machines. These are complex organs that embark on a long trajectory that leads to becoming incredible learning machines years later. Early in the process, in terms of declarative memories, toddlers are far better at forgetting. We hear the myth of child learning marvel perpetuated by every single loving mother with no exceptions: "My kid just keeps surprising me. She learns those things I never thought she knows or understands. Every day something new. This little brain is just so stunning, so marvellous. She is a smartie cutie".

Then there are adults who add to the mythology saying "I am too old to learn languages. When I look how fast those kids learn, I just lose all my steam. It will never happen for me".

The truth is that if you put a kid and an adult in a learning competition, it is the adult brain that wins most of the time. It is better at processing information, at short-term memory, at mnemonics, and, most of all, it is unbeatable in long-term memory. I investigate those processes for a living, so I have a lot of data to look at.

Why do kids keep winning the learning battle in the long run? They just overwhelm the adults with the passion and time they invest in learning. When learning her native language, the kid soaks in new information from dawn to dusk. It invests 10-14 hours of its waking day in this learning quest. The lazy adult, in the meantime, has a reluctant 20 min. peek at his foreign language textbook, listens to a short boring audiotape, and perhaps puts 4-5 new hard words into SuperMemo. Adult advantages do not count much because the kid's investment in learning is 10-50 times greater!

Some researchers claim that kids learn more in the first 3-5 years of life than they ever will. This depends on how we measure learning. In terms of neural revolutions within, this is true. In terms of declarative knowledge, this is wildly untrue. The speed of acquiring vocabulary may indeed be staggering between ages 3 and 6. It is powered by all-day-long learning. The slow deceleration at later ages does not come from the loss of learning capacity. It comes from the saturation of needs typical of the asymptotic learning curve. In the meantime, learning capacity keeps increasing. With the employment of tools like incremental learning that capacity may keep increasing even at my age (i.e. above fifty).

Infantile amnesia

Childhood amnesia is the absence of memories from early childhood. We generally do not remember things that happened to us before the age of 3 or so. If you claim recall from the age of 2, you are almost certainly wrong. It would take a different article to explain how we know that. Some traumatic or emotional memories may be recalled by coming back to mind very often, some memories might be re-told by parents, or remembered by watching things on home video, etc. This is why chances are you will disagree using yourself as an example. Scientists are not entirely sure why we suffer from infantile amnesia. Some believe wrongly that children "misplace" information in their memory, and can no longer retrieve it.

I can tell you exactly what happens to those memories. They are gone! Usually, they are gone in less than a month. This proves that kids are perfect forgetting machines. It is not that they "misplace" information. The information evaporates almost as fast as it comes in. I know that for sure because I have lots of data to prove it. The kid can learn and forget the same thing dozens or hundreds of times. It is literally one ear in, and out another.

I have managed to collect some SuperMemo data from children and the results are staggering. See: Childhood amnesia

Brain rewiring

How can then kids master a language? Or learn to walk? Or ride a bike? How can they bring up durable skills in a brain that keeps forgetting at a staggering speed?

First, we need to separate procedural learning, like learning to walk, and declarative learning, like remembering names. It is the declarative learning that stays weak for years. However, once the long-term memory sets in, there is no other animal that can compete with the human brain.

The main difference between the young brain and the adult brain is that the kid brain keeps growing and evolving. It keeps changing its structure. It keeps chiselling new pathways. In addition to procedural learning, the main goal of those dynamic processes is the optimization of controllability and pattern recognition. This is quite different from declarative learning at adulthood. A child's brain builds new synaptic connections and those keep acquiring new memories. This process proceeds at a stunning rate. The faster the little brain grows the bigger the revolution down at the lowest synaptic and molecular level. In this storm of change, individual memories stand little chance of surviving. Forgetting is not only a molecular decay process like in the adult brain. Learning interference from new incoming information is far larger due to the volume of learning the young brain is exposed to. Forgetting is also a structural process. New connections are made and lost. High rate of recycling makes forming stable memories almost impossible. Instead of just forming granular memories, the kid is forging pathways and highways in the white matter of the brain. The kids may forget fast what an orange is, however, it may effectively chisel out networks and pathways needed to recognize the color of orange. It will re-learn or at least re-consolidate the word "orange" over and over again. Perhaps 10-50 times in the first 4-6 years of its life (e.g. depending on how often she eats oranges). The same happens with speech. Networks needed to recognize sounds or produce sounds will settle down early. They are badly needed in speech. Here indeed the kid will quickly prove superior to an adult. If the kid fails to learn to produce and recognize certain sounds early, he or she will be affected for life. If she does not get exposure to Korean early in childhood, she may never sound like a Korean. Here comes the adult frustration: why can my kid learn Korean "fast" while I just can't get it? This frustration is justified.

Young brains grow fast. They learn by changing their structure. By forging new pathways. This is why we may harbor the illusion that some memories stay with the kid for ever. For the sake of argument, I will claim these are not "memories", these are skills, characteristics, procedures, etc. All the early investment in learning should shape the character, not specific memories. In neural network terms, the change affects structures and controllability, not individual synapses. Simple declarative memories do not last in a fast growing brain. They need to be re-memorized over and over again. This is why early academic instruction is a waste of time or harmful.

Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia
Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia

Figure: An immature brain is a great generalizer. Due to its high plasticity, it can impress the adult world with "fast learning". Children are labelled as the "amazing learning machines". The large number of neurons in a baby cortex is also a supposed indicator of great learning potential and high intelligence. In reality, the rapid speed of network remolding due to the conceptualization process results in high volatility of memories. That volatility in reference to episodic memories is called childhood amnesia. Children have awful long-term memory, and early academic instruction is harmful. It may lead to toxic memory and impaired conceptualization. A child's brain is on its way towards the high efficiency of small-world networks that characterize the adult brain topologies. In the picture, a simple association needed to form an atomic memory (A-B) may traverse a larger number of nodes in the network. It is also at a higher risk of interference from neighboring links (in orange). Fore details see: Precocity paradox

Precocity and stress

The bombshell conclusion coming from the above picture is that precocity may not necessarily be a welcome quality. Look at a little kitten, it will walk and play ages ahead of your baby, but it will be your baby who will join NASA one day.

In short, we want to give the little brain maximum space and time for growth. All forms of natural training are welcome. All forms of "acceleration" must be taken with caution.

One of the prime chiselling factors affecting how the brain shapes up is stress. From the evolutionary point of view, this makes a lot of sense. All forms of traumatic experience in childhood should have an extra ability to leave a mark on the brain. If you toss out a toddler in cold dark woods to fend for itself, he or she will need to speed up that growth process to survive. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has a well documented effect on neurogenesis. Stress will result in structural changes in the brain. Baby rats deprived of maternal care show a remarkable increase in their ability to remember. Their long-term memories "improve" dramatically.

This might be why kindergartens are so good at accelerating development (e.g. speech). This is also why there might be an illusion of accelerating self-dependence. However, it might also be true that daycare actually limits long-term development options, esp. in brain development. There must be the optimum timing for the exposure to all individual stressors, and probably the best timing should always come after the main brain growth spurt window.

The major lesson and warning for all parents is that we do not want to use stress as an accelerator in learning. We do not want to whip our kids to faster development. Unfortunately, this is happening all the time as I write these words. This is a universal mistake made by nearly all parents. Parents get "rewarded" by seeing their kids shape up early, so they try more of the same bad medicine. Some parents will yell at their kids for being slow. Others will marvel at an "incredible acceleration" caused by daycare, which should rather be labelled "the effect of maternal separation". It is maternal separation that "improves" baby rat memories. Fast development may mean shorter growth span. This is trading minor short-term gains for major long-term harm!

Precocious genius

We are marvelling at Mozart composing his first pieces at the age of 2. Why can't our kids do that? Perhaps some early classes in piano or violin can help? Wait! Wikipedia says Mozart started composing at 3? That's one year more. Perhaps that tablet app will make a difference? Perhaps we can double that piano time and she can still do it? Then we hear on ABC News that Mozart rather started composing at 4? The actual age at which Mozart produced his first simple compositions might actually be 5. That's still mighty impressive. His incredible start might have come from a combination of precocity and the impact of his father. A perfect storm of smarts and ideal upbringing. For all hopeful parents, the message should be clear: great parenting makes a world of difference. However, no parent should impose a timeline on achievement. If it does not come at 5, it might come at 7, and it might come better. Acceleration cannot come with the use of a whip. Slow growing brains may grow further.

As for playing Mozart music to a baby in the womb, it might rather scare the baby or just wake her up. Fetuses may have a good hearing, but their memory isn't too good. Research show they are able to form some memories, but consider that they will start recognizing their name only at 5-7 months old. Mozart will do little to their development. Considering the brain growth stages, this will definitely have no effect on anyone's chances of bringing up a Mozart's successor. Nothing will work better for the latter than instilling a passion for music early. And when I say "early", I do not mean a newborn or perhaps even a toddler. Whatever you do before the brain is ready will likely be wasted time. And if the passion for music does not come, some other passion will.

Precocity paradox

Kids with astronomical IQs tend to grow up to be successful but otherwise pretty normal, or dare I say, average adults. There is only a weak correlation between IQs above 120 (i.e. smart) and the degree of success in life. On the other hand, people with genius accomplishments often appear to be pretty ordinary while at school. It is the principle of slow but unrestrained growth that may explain the child prodigy paradox. Why so many prodigies burn out before reaching their adult peak? There have been a lot of hypotheses on the phenomenon:

  • unmet expectations
  • burnout
  • lost passions
  • excess parental ambition and frustration
  • the sense of losing ground to those who catch up at later years (see: Dangers of being a Straight A student)
  • disappointment with how the society works
  • inadequacy of childhood IQ measurements
  • our fascination with memory as opposed to true talent
  • in music, lack of correlation between instrumental proficiency and music genius, etc.

Very often the explanation may be simpler and not that optimistic. The explanation is rooted in understanding how the young brain develops:

Those who accelerate early may stagnate early
Kids who bloom late may bloom better
Kids who bloom late may bloom better

Figure: Precocity paradox explains why early acceleration may also result in an early stagnation. Slow and rich brain growth will prolong a set of unwelcome side effects of neurogenesis such as childhood amnesia. This may lead to an illusion that early academic training improves long-term developmental prospects. In reality, early acceleration may be a result of the crystallizing effect of stress on the brain structures. Kids who bloom late may bloom better. The best way to assist a healthy brain development is freedom and access to rich environments

Nigeria rules the world!

I am a great fan of African football. I always celebrate when "my" players bring home another world cup. Africa rules the world! If you are not too deep into football, you probably ask "World Cup? When? It is Germany and Brazil who seem to always win the Cup!". The fact is that Nigeria won the world cup 5 times. More than any other nation in history. Ghana won it 3 times. It all happened at the youth level. This is a happy story of precocity. If you look at those young African teams, they are not only more physical and stronger. They jump higher, run faster, and fear no bone-breaking challenge. They are also smarter. You can see that in their every move, decision, and their teamwork. They are happy. They play happy. Why didn't we have an African world champion at the senior level? It is because of the fact that precocity does not always translate to adult genius. West Africans reap a lot of benefit from accelerated motor development and early puberty. They are the best sprinters. Usain Bolt is of the same lineage. It is at the senior level, when the Prussian discipline takes over and we grind to the peak of human achievement. Perhaps this is why Germany is the current title holders (2016). I have no doubt Africa's time is to come soon. Africans need to take better care of the precocious young before sending them out for exploitation in Europe? Africa needs to inject some Prussian planning and smart management. Precocity cannot be exploited. It must be managed in kid gloves.

Africa's early success is a good metaphor for brain development in education. Accelerated development does not always translate to peak performance at adulthood. Just the opposite, many a great physicist or mathematician started out with seemingly troubled childhood. Speaking late, suspected autism, monothematic interests, strange behavior, social issues, ostracism, troublemaking, bullying, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, Asperger, etc. This is often the price of a brain that keeps growing and fails to congeal its structure early. If your child is healthy but behind some targets, this might actually be a good thing.

Summary: baby brain problems

  • children have a very bad long-term memory
  • bad long-term memory in children results from fast growth, and re-structuring of the brain
  • the myth of children as perfect learning machines comes from their ability to store information in short-term memory
  • children store a lot of information in short-term memory because they spend all their days learning new things
  • children can use words and phrases in the long term because they keep relearning things they use often
  • slow development based on unrestricted brain growth may produce better outcomes in the long-term
  • early acceleration in development does not need to translate to success in adulthood
  • all forms of "accelerated learning" should be taken with caution
  • kids should never be made to learn if they show no interest or refuse (see: Learn drive, Pleasure of learning, and Push zone)
  • stress accelerates learning (which is bad for long-term development)
  • maternal separation improves memories via stress hormones. This may limit brain's growth potential
  • development acceleration induced by daycare may turn out to be harmful
  • infantile amnesia means that children hardly ever remember things from before the age of three
  • child prodigies often experience burnout at adolescence or early adulthood. This may be an expression of the early peak in development
  • playing Mozart to a womb is more likely to scare the baby than to produce a music genius
  • math and physics geniuses often come from troubled childhood

Childhood amnesia


Childhood amnesia is the period of the first 2-4 years of life when a child is unable to form memories that might last a lifetime. Interestingly, there is no actual amnesia in a healthy child. Childhood amnesia is a misnomer. I will explain why.

Childhood amnesia is often defined as the inability of adults to recall events from childhood. This definition is misleading, because the phenomenon has nothing to do with adulthood beyond the fact that we keep forgetting memories all the time.

Childhood amnesia may be described as "condition that occurs over time". This is also misleading, because amnesia is a state that actually diminishes over time.

Most importantly, childhood amnesia has a monumental impact on learning and development strategies. A large amount of early learning and acceleration programs do more harm than good. A great deal of child development mythology has its roots in childhood amnesia. Understanding and measuring memory in childhood is essential for protecting childhood from misguided intervention that affects millions of kids around the world as we speak.

Understanding childhood amnesia is essential for protecting kids from the harm of early acceleration programs

Measuring amnesia

Methodology problems

Childhood amnesia is known to almost everyone. Except for a few cases of false memory, we do not seem able to recall much or anything from before the age of 3-4. Researchers have for long been interested in the phenomenon hoping it could shed some light on how memory works and how it might benefit learning later in life. The old and tried method of collecting data on childhood amnesia is an interview.

The difficulty in establishing earliest memories by means of interview is compounded by the fact that the interview must be conducted early. Delaying the interview may shift the estimate of the first memory date to later years. The problem is that kids aged 4-5 cannot reliably answer the question "What is the earliest thing you remember?". Even the concept of "earliest" might be unclear. Dates are easily confused. Episodes get confused. Interview that does not involve adult witnesses is of little value. The only sensible approach to similar testimony is to assign each report a probability value. Only a large number of reports from early childhood with probabilities assigned to each event may provide a rough approximation of the likely date of the earliest memory.

I asked a 4 year old about memories from her baby times and toddler times. She said "I vomited egg when I was 1.5 years old". 1.5 seems way too early to form memories, but the girl was precocious and a little memory genius. However, the testimony of "1.5 years" is highly unreliable when taken from a kid. It might be a form of confused memory, implanted memory, misunderstanding, etc. Kids at 18 months have no concept of 1.5 years, hence the date itself must be an artifact. In this case, probability would have to be near zero and the main value of such a confession would be to warrant further investigation.

When the father of the girl confirmed that she indeed ate egg at 1.5 and vomited, the probability of that early memory could increase, but still be very low. It could be a case of implanted memory. For example, girl's grandmother might recall at feeding time: "when you were 1.5 years old, you vomited an egg". This would plant that "early" memory at later time.

When family insisted it was not the case, and added a fact that the girl refused to eat egg ever since, the probability would increase further. In this case, the aversion memory appears to be well documented and surviving since early childhood. However, in investigating childhood amnesia we are more interested in abstract declarative memories or episodic memories. Could the girl indeed form a memory of the episode and keep it for 3 long years despite a rapid growth of her brain? Memory reimplantation might simply occur on any day when a child refused to eat egg and someone mentioned the episode of vomiting. Considering the very early age of that memory and possible alternative scenarios, the veracity of the report would still have to be ranked relatively low.

It seems that for an individual child, only a close caregiver could note a sufficient number of episodes provided with sufficiently reliable documentation and sufficiently high probabilities to provide a good hint on the childhood amnesia window for a particular child. The error rate could still be very high.

These days, kids have many caregivers, spend a great deal of time in daycare, and reliable research would probably require a single parent living with a child in highly controlled conditions. Even then, it would be a result relevant to that child only.

Forming first memories

To find out when lifelong memories begin seems like an interesting question. It might shed some light on how the young brain works. However, if we look at details of the process in which earliest memories are formed, the precise timing becomes far less interesting. It is simply a matter of chance. As such, finding the exact number for an individual is interesting but largely inconsequential. Finding the number for a large number of kids would be far more valuable but very hard to achieve.

Here is a sequence of events that should lead to the formation of the earliest memory lasting a lifetime (for more details see Childhood amnesia: Mechanism):

  • a traumatic, stressful, or highly exciting event would form a set of episodic memories
  • those memories should survive for a while by involvement of sufficiently many connections that would resist forgetting and be restored by pattern completion
  • complete forgetting would be prevented by a form of review, which may be a conversation, or more likely, a return to a memory by thinking about it or recalling it in similar contexts
  • due to the involvement of a larger number of synapses, the memory would mutate, re-mold, transform, and get restored over and over again to take new shapes. All we need is the core meaning of the underlying event to survive

The above scenario shows that the formation of earliest memories will depend on random chance events such as a specific trauma or an exhilarating experience. It will then be contingent on further review which may depend on environmental cues that may or may not be helpful in retaining memories. Finally, earliest memories, once determined, may actually be forgotten in mere months or even years. In that sense, the estimate made at the age of 4 may look better (younger) than the same estimate made at the age of 7.

The most important underlying process, which is the speed of forgetting, will be of consequence, but the timing of the earliest memory might change by several months or even years by sheer chance.

Neurogenesis hypothesis

The old thinking about childhood amnesia is that it was either a storage problem or a retrieval problem. It is neither. Memories are stored ok, and can be retrieved ok until they can not.

Observing a child

To investigate infantile amnesia, the ideal setting would be a single parent with a single child living in some isolated mountain hut under close supervision of cameras. To make the research meaningful, we might need dozens of similar setups to investigate individual variability.

A single parent in isolation is ideal. Adding a second parent to the picture may make the documentation harder. It is impossible for one parent to perfectly communicate to the other parent about all interactions with a child. However, it might help if both parents were neuroscientists.

Sheena Josselyn and Paul Frankland are an unusual pair of neuroscientists. There are interested in how memories form and the role of neurogenesis in that process. They are also married and have a daughter Charlotte (see picture).

Jesselyn and Frankland do not live in an isolated hut, but they live in the second best place for research: science labs. Charlotte has spent her first five months at work with her parents.

Neurogenesis hypothesis

Charlotte Frankland made history when she was mentioned in an important paper which hypothesizes on the role of neurogenesis in infantile amnesia.

That paper explains why brain growth and memories are incompatible, and why long-lasting childhood amnesia might actually be an indicator of long-lasting brain development, i.e. a good thing.

The neurogenesis hypothesis:

Rapid growth of the brain in early development involves neurogenesis and other processes that interfere with survival of early memories.

The young hippocampus is in constant flow. Memories stored in the cortex may lose their access wiring as a result of that fast growth. They can no longer be accessed, which means accelerated biochemical forgetting at the synaptic level after the actual forgetting at the neural level.

Nobel winning icon of memory research, Dr Eric Kandel agrees: "The hippocampus matures slowly and probably doesn’t reach any reasonable maturity until we’re 3 or 4. While 2- and 3-year-olds can remember things for a short time, the hippocampus is required for long-term storage of those memories".

Future research

Paul Frankland hopes to verify some of his hypotheses using research on kids suffering from brain cancer. In chemotherapy, drugs that slow down neurogenesis without actually damaging nerve cells may turn out to improve memory in childhood. If this research confirms Frankland's prediction, it will provide a harrowing proof that good memory isn't always a good thing in early childhood.

Kids have no long-term memory

Let's re-examine childhood amnesia as a retrieval failure in the context of the neurogenesis hypothesis. It is possible that due to neurogenesis, some cortical connections might become inaccessible. However, calling it retrieval failure would be a misnomer as it would suggest memories might somehow be retrieved given favorable circumstances. Those abandoned memories are like seeds of wheat on a desert: bereft and useless. They are a likely target of synaptic elimination in sleep. Little kids virtually have no declarative long-term memory for semantic knowledge. Declarative recall in 6 months comes from review (e.g. names "milk" and "bottle" survive well with daily review). Episodic recall in 6 months comes also mostly from review, e.g. due to a traumatic nature of a memory, or in a specific repeated context (e.g. passing the same landmark on the way to daycare). Those kids that do have a genuine memory of a span of months might be precocious, but memory precocity may also imply shorter period for brain growth. If precocity is achieved by any form of acceleration or stress, this may spell the possibility of never growing up to one's true potential. See: Precocity paradox

Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia
Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia

Figure: An immature brain is a great generalizer. Due to its high plasticity, it can impress the adult world with "fast learning". Children are labelled as the "amazing learning machines". The large number of neurons in a baby cortex is also a supposed indicator of great learning potential and high intelligence. In reality, the rapid speed of network remolding due to the conceptualization process results in high volatility of memories. That volatility in reference to episodic memories is called childhood amnesia. Children have awful long-term memory, and early academic instruction is harmful. It may lead to toxic memory and impaired conceptualization. A child's brain is on its way towards the high efficiency of small-world networks that characterize the adult brain topologies. In the picture, a simple association needed to form an atomic memory (A-B) may traverse a larger number of nodes in the network. It is also at a higher risk of interference from neighboring links (in orange). Fore details see: Precocity paradox

Plasticity-vs-stability trade off

Plasticity and forgetfulness come hand in hand. Memory stability is essential to prevent forgetting. It is also an essential property of neural networks. As much as biological networks use stability for the purpose of high reasoning, artificial neural networks may use the same trick to allow of sequential learning without the side effect of catastrophic forgetting. Plasticity is vital for learning. Stability is vital for intelligence.

During development, brain growth and plasticity are at a premium. This is why kids can afford to live many years with increased rates of forgetting. Before they become experts, kids got a great deal of learning to do. A huge part of that learning is structural. Structural learning implies interference and, paradoxically, increased forgetting as well. I argue throughout this book that the longer we let the brain grow, the better the ultimate outcome.

The rate of neurogenesis might not provide a complete picture in that developmental trade-off. There is also an issue of dendritic spine turnover. This turnover may underlie structural plasticity. In youth, dendritic spine turnover is high and results in a net loss of dendritic spines. In the neocortex, dendritic spines may contribute to memory stability. As a result, a child is a great structural learning machine, while still being a poor declarative learner (e.g. from the point of view of the demands posed by schooling).

The illusory absence of declarative memory may extend up to the age of 6 or 7, and should be interpreted as an indicator of brain development, i.e. a welcome phenomenon. If your kid can't recall the alphabet, it is not a reason for scolding. The following forgetting curve graph collected with SuperMemo illustrates the plasticity-stability trade off at a preschool age (more details here):

A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection
A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection

Figure: A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection. The absence of forgetting indicates the absence of intentional declarative learning. The decay constant is nearly zero which makes optimum interval meaningless. 1706 repetition cases have been recorded. This flat forgetting curve would go unnoticed in older versions of SuperMemo due to the adult-centric assumption that on Day=0, retrievability is 100%. Overtime, this forgetting curve will lean down to produce a graph typical of adult learning. This process may take a few years and should not be artificially accelerated, e.g. by means of coercion. This curve is a hypothetical expression of the semantic brain

Before puberty, brain development is more about structural crystallization than about declarative learning. This is why play and exploration should receive priority over schooling

Measuring infantile amnesia with SuperMemo

SuperMemo is an excellent tool for studying memory. However, it cannot be used for studying childhood amnesia because amnesia refers to episodic memories that are not a typical subject of intentional review in SuperMemo. Moreover, SuperMemo would instantly evoke an observer effect in which duration of memory is artificially impacted by the measurement (review).

Here are the reasons while SuperMemo does not fit the bill:

  • SuperMemo is not considered useful in retaining episodic memories, it is used for declarative memories that are useful but not too easy to remember
  • by definition, review in SuperMemo contradicts the notion of earliest memories that should survive in child's mind as lasting memories without artificial support
  • we have little SuperMemo data from children. Very few parents opt to use SuperMemo at young ages, and we actually discourage the practise as possibly harmful

On the other hand, the most interesting component of childhood amnesia is memory turnover and resulting forgetting. Forgetting in childhood is so fast that we can easily interpret it as a result of interference associated with the fast growth of the brain. In that sense, SuperMemo would be an excellent measure of the quality of young memory, except we would need to depart from the currently accepted notion of childhood amnesia.

Declarative semantic memories subject to spaced repetition are an excellent material to show the progression of long-term memory capacity with age. For example, longest inter-repetition interval achieved can be tracked over time. In SuperMemo, "best interval" is the longest interval that terminates with a pass grade.

In the following graph, we can see that until the age of 2, the child could hardly form memories reaching 2 months.

Figure: Changes to the maximum detected memory stability with age. The stability expressed as the maximum achieved value of the optimum interval in spaced repetition. Until the age of 2, it is hard to form declarative memories that would last beyond two months. The data may be underappreciated for two reasons. (1) In spaced repetition, it takes a while for the intervals to grow to reach their maximum possible value (reflecting stability). Even more importantly, (2) semantic learning in children cannot be effectively simulated with direct instruction. In other words, the younger the brain, the less the metacognitive readiness for spaced repetition. Important memories obtained in real life situation might reach higher stabilities. The data was collected with SuperMemo

Naturally, in SuperMemo, best interval is also a function of the period in which the program had been in use (it takes years to produce intervals on the order of decades). For this reason, best interval graph is interesting, but it is not revealing.

A better measure of amnesia is to compare best interval ratios between two users: a child and an adult. In the graph, the starting point of 30% (for child's capacity) is an overestimate due the fact that the adult is initially limited not by his memory, but by the length of intervals achievable early in SuperMemo.

Measuring childhood amnesia with SuperMemo
Measuring childhood amnesia with SuperMemo

Figure: We can measure the relative extent of childhood amnesia, by comparing the increase in the span of long-term memories in a child and in an adult. In the presented graph, an average student is compared with a single child in a period between the ages of 1.0 and 3.5 years. The horizontal axis refers to the child's age in years. The vertical axis shows the child-to-adult ratio of the maximum memory stability achieved in the learning process. While an adult shows a rapid progression in developing long-term memories, a child may struggle to form memories lasting beyond a month (assuming no review). In the presented example, it takes some 3-4 years before a child's performance approaches the adult levels. However, even then, the comparison may be distorted by the natural limit to the increase in memory stability (data was collected with SuperMemo that imposes function constraints for the sake of efficient use in learning). Similarly, the starting point of 30% in child/adult ratio is an overestimate due the fact that the adult is initially limited not by his memory, but by the length of intervals achievable early in spaced repetition. Moreover, adults also differ by a wide margin in their ability to formulate well-structured questions in the learning process. A comparison with an excellent adult student might keep children at a disadvantage even in their teen years

In addition, a 1 year old toddler may learn "obvious" things like "a car", which soon become "fixed" memory, which can be retained with or without SuperMemo.

The fact that a 3.5 year old can compete with an adult is already much better a reflection of memory properties. It needs to be emphasized strongly that adults also differ by a wide margin due to the differences in their ability to formulate well-structured questions in the learning process. A comparison with an excellent student might keep kids at a disadvantage for much longer. Even up to their teens years.

Measurement example

Every parent can attempt to contribute to the measurements of childhood amnesia. If you happen to follow the prescription below, please do not forget to mail your results to me.

Here is a simple algorithm:

  • elect the minimum memory survival distance that qualifies for a data point. For example, 6-month period seems like a good yardstick. Events recalled with a 3-month delay might easily be classified as "candidates" due to the fact that amnesia does not end with the first remembered event, but with the first memorable event that can survive forgetting via incidental episodic review (e.g. through contextual reminiscence)
  • document each data point as a triple: event date, recall date, and probability (e.g. 0.35 would mean there is a 65% chance that the recall could be hinted to or caused by factors other than actual surviving memory); naturally, each data point should get a detailed description of the episode because the data may need to be verified in the future
  • keep sorting data point by the earliest recall date
  • for each data point, starting with the earliest, compute the distance from earliest memory and the expected distance using the formula:
  • D - distance (i.e. recall date minus the earliest recorded remembered episode date)
  • P - probability (i.e. chances that the recall of the episode is not an artifact)
  • ED - expected distance (i.e. the best prediction of the distance to the earliest recalled episode in days)
  • CL - confidence level (i.e. cumulative chances that the recall is not an artifact)

In above formulas D(1)=0, ED(1)=0, and CL(1)=P(1). The end of amnesia is marked by the age computed from the date of the first recorded episode plus the expected distance (at a given confidence level).

An exemplary picture (actual data) based on 9 data points, and cut-off point of 8 months makes it possible to state with confidence of 90% that childhood amnesia lasted for the first 2.65 years of a child's life. The experiment could safely end at the age of 5 as confidence level on the end of amnesia was approaching 1.00, and the expected date of amnesia end was 2.84 (i.e. age of the first episode recorded plus the expected distance). Interestingly, at the end of childhood amnesia determined using a similar approach, outwardly, the child may still seem unable to remember beyond a week. This might explain why a high emotional content is essential for the memorable event to break through an average survival of episodic memories.

Obviously, measuring amnesia is a hazy science. Minimum memory survival is arbitrary. Confidence levels are wild approximations. Memories registered as "earliest" today may be forgotten in a year or in 10 years. New data points may show up at any time, even at teen age. New technologies make it easy to document events accurately even though verification of recall is always inexact science.

Dating amnesia at the age of 5 is interesting, revisiting the same data at the age of 10 can bring an entirely different result. Earliest memories can get lost. Testing recall of an older child should shift the actual boundary to a later age, but might also be more prone to false memories (e.g. implanted by a parent, recalled via pictures or videos, or resulting from conglomeration of memories).

Retrospective recall curve

Rubin and Schulkind in 1997 showed two phases of amnesia in the first decade of life using autobiographical memories. Those phases should easily be explained as a gradual process in which the capacity of long-term memory increase and interference related to brain growth is diminished (see: graph).

I was able to produce a similar graph using my own autobiographical memories. In an unrelated project, which I call "retrospective diary", I tried to collect all remembered memories from my childhood and adolescence. I started writing down those memories at the age of 13, and continue the process until this day. Most of events from the 1960s and the 1970s, I documented via recall that occurred in the early 1980s. I largely run out of new episodes to document by the 1990s. New data points are burdened with very low reliability. These might be planted memories or sheer fantasies and delusions. The greatest value of that effort comes from my meticulous effort to document all things I could recall. It was not a timed one-off effort. It was a continual lifelong effort in which I might interrupt my activities at any point in time only to jot down a recall of memories from primary school. The graph becomes meaningless after 1981 when my "retrospective diary" became serious and extended to all episodic memories from the times of college. Hence the explosion in the number of documented events. They were documented immediately after occurring. This is unfair to early memories, however, the last point in the graph can serve as a reflection of the snapshot of memories from a given point in time when we remember lots of recent events anyway.

Figure: In my effort to collect all memories from the childhood, I can clearly see an exponential increase in information that can be recalled from successive years. The curve is a resultant of two main forces: childhood amnesia and forgetting

Interestingly, on multiple occasions, I documented forgetting of episodes recalled earlier. A primary school memory recalled at 20, might be forgotten at 30, or even at 50. Exhaustive recall documentation will then bring different results at different ages. If I was to begin this project at later ages, the result would differ. The number of documented episodes would drop significantly and the shape of the curve would be different. In other words, the recall curve in adulthood keep being reshaped by forgetting.

Earliest memories carry strong persistence, which probably comes from the badge of being the earliest memory. In addition, some early memories may be reinforced by neural map development that determines the brain architecture.

Childhood amnesia: Mechanism

There is no actual amnesia in healthy childhood. Childhood amnesia is a misnomer.

The child begins forming memories as a fetus. Some of those are structural memories based on physical connections between brain cells, some affect entire pathways, and some will last for life. The child will never "forget" how to control its gastric functions or its heart rate using the central nervous system.

A good visual pattern recognition that makes it possible to recognize a bottle of milk, or mom's face is also based on memory. This type of memory will rather not fade. Recognition of sounds of one's native language is another unfading or low-fading example. Those networks form in a critical period, and neglect or denial will have a lasting effect.

The child also starts forming declarative memories early. Naming that bottle of milk would definitely be a specific declarative memory based on specific connections that should be retained in a longer term.

Those early declarative memories will rely on molecular changes in existing synapses. Some of those memories may also survive for life, however, we have no good way of knowing it. The problem is that there is a tremendous turnover of declarative memories in a developing brain. As a result, we have noticed that baby memories have a very short duration. That observable lifespan will increase gradually in proportion to a slowing turmoil of rewiring in the young brain.

There is little chance for using SuperMemo for those early declarative memories. They are volatile and keep reshuffling. Good score in SuperMemo might equally well be a result of reviewing the term in real life a day before. The algorithm makes little sense when memories get destroyed by fast growth.

A two year old toddler might find it difficult to remember things beyond a month. This span will be hugely dependent on temperament, health, upbringing, environment, etc. It can be annoyingly short in some toddlers, it can be "genius-level" in others. Paradoxically, long memories in a young child may be a sign of brain growth slowing down. The longer the period of growth and rewiring, the bigger and better the effect of child's "bad memory".

There is no actual amnesia. The term refers to a window of time in which a recall of childhood memories is unlikely. For most kids that window spans from 2 to 4 years. There is nothing amnestic about that window. The window is only a matter of competition between six primary processes: (1) forming memories, (2) forgetting memories, (3) memory interference, (4) brain re-wiring, (5) exposure to memorable events, and (6) post exposure review.

To form the first memory that can survive the lifetime, the following scenario must occur (memory process classes in bold):

  • the child encounters an event that is particularly memorable or traumatic, e.g. trip to Disneyland (exposure to memorable events and forming memories)
  • that memory must survive the turmoil of brain growth. The younger the child, the faster the growth, the less likely the survival of the memory (brain re-wiring)
  • the event must be memorable enough to come back to child's mind in some circumstances, e.g. mention of Donald Duck on TV (post exposure review)
  • the frequency of re-exposure to that prompted recall must be high enough to meet the criteria set by the 3-component model of long-term memory derived from spaced repetition experiments. In short, review must be frequent enough to prevent forgetting via decay (forgetting memories)
  • brain growth will interfere with the core assumption of the 3-component model of memory: the neural substrate of memory is constant. The model is based entirely on forgetting via the decay of memory traces. The interference from brain growth will wane over time (brain re-wiring)
  • high volume learning interferes with old memories. In a child, the volume is high due to a high novelty exposure and a high forgetting rate in a growing brain (memory interference). Newly formed neural patterns are subject to interference. Interference is massive. The disruptive brain growth component of interference will wane, the novelty component will wane too, however, knowledge interference is a factor that affects children and students for life. There is an effective remedy to interference. This remedy depends on knowledge formulation, and can be reduced with automated learning techniques such as incremental reading. Last but not least, lifelong self-directed learning is the best form of training in avoiding interference. Lifelong learning is the best formula for lifelong memories.

The above scenario explains why with each passing day, the chances of forming the first lifelong memory increases. The string of memorable events is unceasing and might increase with brain maturity (baby pram is not a good place for memorable encounters). Brain growth is slowing, which favors memory survival. Novelty level and the resulting interference is decreasing. At some point, a memorable event will stick and this moment in time closes the window termed childhood amnesia.

The memory that we will label as "earliest memory" is not a memory that naturally lasts for 6-8 decades, but the one that is memorable enough to be reviewed often enough.

Sadly, the earliest recalled event isn't usually the trip to Disneyland. Traumatic or unpleasant events are more likely to survive. This is why so many adults bring up daycare events as their first memory. The unpleasant memory may also come from unexpected direction. See how birthday candles contributed to the novel hypothetical neural mechanism explaining childhood amnesia.

All parents of boys who are late to speak, or late to ride a bike are told that "boys are slower than girls". This is true. This primarily boils down to testosterone and its impact on the brain. Slow development in boys is actually good news. Their brain growth window might be more turbulent. In addition to the proverbial glass ceiling facing all girls, there is still some advantage to slow-growing male brains. It will be males who will largely populate math and physics departments (see: Precocity paradox). They will rein in chess or even in Nobel Prize awards. Naturally, Judith Polgar or Marie Curie prove that all ceilings can be shattered with self-discipline and persistence.

Childhood amnesia mythology

There is a rich childhood amnesia mythology. Even the scientific community is permeated by erroneous interpretation of the phenomenon. I won't give Freud ideas a mention beyond his contribution to coining the term: infantile amnesia. First solid research on the increased rate of forgetting in childhood came from before I was born. However, this still does not prevent new interpretations spawning on a regular basis. Childhood amnesia is nothing more than faster forgetting in childhood. As such it should not even be called amnesia. It is not a disorder. Memories get formed. We just lose them faster.

The whole array of falsehoods begins with reports of recall from the cradle or even from the womb. False memories can form easily even in adulthood. False or distorted memories from childhood are so prevalent that everyone could probably come with one with some effort. Those memories may come with or without the evidence of being false.

There is a hypothesis which says that childhood amnesia ends with the development of verbal memory, which helps the survival of episodic memories. In reality, there is a link between the two, but it is only causal. Both episodic and verbal memories face the same developmental obstacles in a fast growing brain. It so happens that soon after speech develops, first lifetime episodic memories might form. It may also happen that speech develops slowly enough to lose that race. However, the early memories are unlikely to have a form of a story presented in words. They are more likely to be non-verbal. The assistance of language in retaining early episodic memories is probably limited. Early memories can be adorned with verbal interpretations later in life. Rats experience the same bad memory as little pups and their amnesia goes away fast with brain development without the need to rely on speech.

In the area of amnesia research, we can see a problem of small samples, unreliable reports or even incorrect interpretation of the data. Graphs that I include in this text are also an illustration of the small sample problem. They are interesting but not definite.

Popular culture uses misleading terminology like "to suffer from childhood amnesia" as if it was a disease or abnormality. It also associates childhood amnesia with adulthood in admissions like "I must have childhood amnesia. I remember little of my childhood". Wikipedia begins with defining amnesia as "inability of adults". Amnesia has nothing to do with adulthood. "Inability of adults" is technically true but misleading. It is as if saying "a car crash is a situation that results in a need to go to a mechanic". The essence of a crash is the collision, not the need to repair cars. Even Psychology Today contains suggestive texts like "children are not as amnesic about their early lives as adults are", which again is technically true. However, adults are not amnesic beyond just being forgetful. They simply do not happen to magically recall things they forgot in childhood. On the other hand, it is the kids that are more "amnesic". It is the kids who show a faster rate of forgetting.

Research in rats has suggested that early memories might somehow be retrieved. However, the correct interpretation is less optimistic: seemingly forgotten memories can be retrieved until they cannot be retrieved at all (in any way). It is hard to understand why anyone would believe that walking and speech are good indicators of things we remember from childhood. Walking and speech are constantly practiced and reviewed. Procedural memories involved in walking should not even be a consideration in childhood amnesia. As for semantic memories involved in speech, they get recycled dozens or hundreds of times while growing up.

In the context of schooling, an interesting small-sample research was carried out by Bauer and Larkina in which accelerated forgetting was observed at around the age of 7. This immediately sparked misleading headlines like "At what age do we start forgetting childhood memories?", or "Childhood amnesia occurs at the age of 7". I did not see anyone notice that beyond growing permanent teeth there is only one major developmental discontinuity occurring at around the age of 7: This is the beginning of school for many kids around the world. Increased learning leads to increased forgetting via interference. Increased stress contributes further to obliterating early episodic memories that might have also been stress induced. Poor quality coercive schooling undermines knowledge coherence, which further accelerates forgetting.

Early schooling is likely to cause an accelerated loss of childhood memories

My first memories

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My earliest memory is about begging my mom not to take me to daycare. This is a typical type of unpleasant memory that is likely to get etched for life. My wild estimate is that I might have been three at that time. The hour was early and the street was dark. The year was probably 1965. I was able to find this place, more or less, five decades later on Google Maps. To this day this place seems gloomy to me (see below). My mom was dragging me by hand to daycare via Jackowskiego street and I totally did not enjoy the prospect. She would do that before going to work. The doomsday feeling of the time was partly caused by early waking and darkness. Partly it was about the dry atmosphere of daycare packed with unhappy sleepy kids crowded in small places. Daycare definitely did not feel like a good thing to me. In those days, in communist and not-so-rich Poland, those facilities looked more like a chicken farm:

I am not sure why I could not stay at home with my beloved granny. I only know that granny would live at times in a village with her other daughter. Mom was a sole bread winner for her 3 kids.

My second earliest memory is about daycare itself. In compulsory nap periods, I was not sleepy. Perhaps it was a wrong time, or I was a type of kid that grew out of napping at an early age. The kids were marched to beds after lunch and the supervisor would make sure they all had eyes closed. As I was not sleepy, I pretended to close my eyes and watched the room around. The supervisor barked: "Wozniak! I can see your eyes are not closed!". This seems like a monumental waste of time, wasted opportunity for learning and exploration and the first taste of the need to comply with authorities. This is the anti-thesis of healthy unconstrained development.

I have lots of other memories from that period, but I suspect they might have been planted in my head later by reviewing family pictures. Those less pleasant memories, e.g. of bullying, seem to have survived best. This is exactly what theory says: early stress accelerates development of memory. This leads to many short-sighted strategies employed in child development. Early progression of long-term memory may often mean shortened time for development (see: Precocity paradox)

Conclusions for parents

Childhood amnesia has wide implications for parenting strategies. These are top conclusions I suggest be taken home from this text:

  • all forms of early instruction must be approached with caution. Declarative memories do not survive long in the period corresponding with childhood amnesia. Memorizing capitals of the world at the age of 2 is likely to be wasted time. Until the age of 3-5, for most kids, best learning is learning via play. See: Semantic aspects of childhood amnesia
  • stress accelerates learning but this is not the type of acceleration that is welcome in development
  • stress slows down neurogenesis and favores memory survival. Parents should never celebrate acceleration of development coming from daycare. This is the type of "acceleration" that actually undercuts child's long-term development potential
  • stress accelerates synaptic pruning. Parents should never celebrate acceleration coming from daycare or early tutoring. If it comes from stressful settings, it will fix the child's brain at the earlier developmental stage. It will prejudice child's position in life, her reactions, and her preferences
  • stress of learning can lead to toxic memories (at any age)
  • boys are slow to learn and develop. Boys are unruly and hard to discipline. Boys need extra patience and should not be brought down to heel. Freedom is essential for development. Paradoxically, bad behavior today may translate to high creativity decades later (see: Precocity paradox)
  • all "techniques" aimed at improving memory, learning, and concentration in early childhood are largely aimed at stifling natural behaviors that may favor long-term development and learning. Memorization and discipline can wait (see: Asemantic learning). Parents should focus on quality sleep, nutrition, exercise, love, and plenty of playtime

All the above points can be met by ceding some authority and entrusting kid with more decision-making. Child's brain has a great deal of "magic" powers in determining what's best for its development.

Summary: Childhood amnesia

  • children rarely recall memories from before the age of 2-3
  • retrospective recall shows exponential decline back in time and approaches zero around the age of 3
  • children form episodic and declarative memories from birth. The term "childhood amnesia" refers to rapid memory turnover in childhood
  • neurogenesis, i.e. birth of new neurons in the brain, is one of the reasons for childhood amnesia
  • before puberty, net loss of dendritic spines in the cortex indicates a rapid structural adaptation of memory
  • lifetime survival of early memories depends on (1) memory formation, (2) forgetting, (3) interference, (4) re-wiring, (5) exposure to memorable events, and (6) post exposure review
  • earliest memories are often unpleasant (e.g. related to daycare). Stress tends to improve learning, and undermine brain growth
  • with declarative memory span from 1 to 6 months, toddlers and young children have virtually no long-term declarative memory
  • interviewing children for memories marking the end of childhood amnesia is hardly ever possible. Only a close caregiver can provide highly unreliable record that can be used in research
  • children memory may start approaching adult performance slowly between ages 5-15. Exact numbers are hard to obtain. SuperMemo can be used in such comparisons
  • poor declarative memories in children imply that formal instruction should best be delayed until the age of 7-9
  • children learn best via self-directed play and exploration

Daycare misery

Benefits of daycare

For many parents daycare is unavoidable. Daycare facilities keep improving. They use better science and better practices. They keep learning. Therefore, I do not want anyone to feel bad about my text. Things get better. But I agree with pre-Trump version of Mike Pence: Kids in daycare get a short end of the stick. Even the best and most professional daycare won't effectively replace a good mother. It is very hard to find good information about the true effect of daycare because there is a whole industry who powers daycare and a whole army of moms who want to be free from child care.

Excellent daycare employees swear by their methodology and benefits. They claim that kids still benefit. This often comes from contacts with parents whose knowledge and skills may not be up to the par of what can be provided by professionals. However, if you read this text and ponder your options, you are qualified enough: keep your child with you!

Social pressure

There is a social pressure to send kids to daycare. Many a mom observes proudly the acceleration in development. A kid, that was mute or totally dependent, starts naming things, communicating, or putting on one's T-shirt. This is great for mom's sense of guilt: "Mummy goes to work to earn money for the baby. You go girl and learn!". The same mom feels even better if it tells stay-at-home mom "send your kids to kindergarten, this will do miracles to their social skill development, don't keep them just cooped up at home!".

Problem of daycare

Daycare is an artificially constructed environment that violates many conditions needed for unconstrained development. The main violations occur in the areas of stress and sleep. Those violations affect the brain and all parents should be aware that "kindergarten acceleration" is a dangerous myth. Kids do accelerate into a groove of long-term stagnation. Good news today may be bad news in a decade. Daycare has been linked with an increase in aggressive behaviors and other behavioral problems. This short text explains why.

Problem 1: Sleep hygiene

Most kids need to be woken up for daycare. This is a major violation of brain hygiene. For kids who wake up naturally, there is no issue. Chronotherapy can help, but few parents know how to use it. The cheapest and obvious solution is a gentle waking prod from a parent. Being gentle is better than being abrupt, but it still has an awful impact on health and brain growth. The violation of waking kids up is most critical in the first 3 years of development. Sending kids sleepy to daycare begins a vicious spiral of negative health consequences. For an unlucky kid, those tend to pile up from month to month stunting growth and undermining long term outcomes.

Problem 2: Child stress

In most cases, daycare involves child stress. Chronic stress is a prime factor in stunting brain growth. For a tiny kid, the first day in daycare is almost inevitably stressful. If the kid goes to daycare all smiles, this is usually not an issue either. The largest stress component is maternal separation. Research shows that it has a powerful impact on little brains. There is a host of procedures that can make sure that kids accept maternal separation as a norm. In the end, most kids do. However, the chief mechanism used in that procedure is learned helplessness. In short, when kids are left with no choice, they stop combating the status quo. It happens to all humans in conditions of limited freedom.

Vicious circle: positive feedback loop

Sending kids out to daycare sleepy and stressed begins the vicious circle of health consequences: slower development, lower immunity, infections, antibiotics, missed days, more stress, more sleep deprivation, etc. That vicious circle may have societal dimensions.

Physiological acceleration

Weaning is a natural process than may take 2-5 years. Many moms choose not to breastfeed. They do it at child's peril. Others wean early. Daycare may be used as an excuse for early weaning. This is one more reason to delay or avoid daycare. A child may seem to accept weaning. In many cases this will happen via learned helplessness.

If the kid is still breastfed, it will use mom's breast as a form of anti-stress therapy. This is a natural biological need. If the kids needs breastfeeding, it should be granted. This is not an entitlement or pandering. This is a basic baby human right. While the kid is breastfed, the daycare should be out of the question. Even if the kid wakes up naturally, and loves daycare, it may still experience the stress of separation at feeding or nap time.

Weaning in hunter-gatherer societies may happen at the age of 4, often at next pregnancy. In those cultures, co-sleeping is a natural habit. Our culture forces early weaning and recommends just a meager 6 months of breastfeeding as the "necessary minimum". Co-sleeping is considered "dangerous" and is actively eradicated by governmental agencies. Moms claim that weaning is a result of "mutual consent", while this should always be a unilateral decision. Moms who tried "natural weaning" report that breastfeeding easily lasts beyond 3 years, and is reduced only minimally in the absence of breast milk. This is the type of bonding that should never be interfered with!

In addition to maternal separation, social issues and bullying, kids may experience kindergarten stress simply due to their otherness.

Imagine a 3 year old that refuses to remove its diaper. In some kindergartens it is a good reason to get the supervisor circle the kids around, make them point fingers, and collectively ridicule the "offender". Some kids don't care. Others will feel awful. For some kids, self-esteem is a key factor in happiness. Ridicule is a big factor when it comes to hating kindergarten.

A kid may have a habit of sucking a thumb before a nap. He may be self-aware enough to make it hard to nap at all. No thumb, no nap. In the presence of the primary caregiver, all those little habits do not matter. They are part of the routine. Home feels home. In a new setting, they can be a source of stress.

Parents can always take preventive action. Potty training would transfer kindergarten stress back to lesser home stress and make it possible to spread it over time. Thumb sucking can also be de-conditioned.

The problem is that all those training procedures detract from natural development. All kids will stop breastfeeding at some point. They learn to use the toilet. They stop sucking thumbs. It all comes naturally. They do it of their own accord. Those skills do not need to be accelerated.

Potty training is stressful to both kids and parents. It is a stress that coincides and interferes with a vital physiological processes: urination and defecation. This type of conditioning is asking for trouble. For some kids, it will all go smoothly and fast. For others, it can leave a long-term mark. There is a very simple solution: wait until the kid is ready. If it takes 3 years, so be it. If you worry that diapers are environmental polluters, you can always use reusable diapers or even more eco-friendly solutions.

Most of all, why waste time on potty training? The same time might be spent on reading a book, or whatever pursuit the kid enjoys.

So many potty-training books, so many stressed kids and parents, so many time outs dished out, and so much time invested in a thing that will always come naturally and free.

For all kids, all form of "physiological acceleration" should be avoided or approached with utmost caution.

Daycare: The verdict

Nearly all parents who send kids to daycare will look for excuses. Kindergarten acceleration is an illusion. The supposed benefits of infections are largely a myth. The benefits of socialization can be accomplished differently and better. If reasonable home care can be provided, daycare should be avoided.

No daycare can ever compete with good parenting!

Feminist perspective

During one of my child development conversations, a young mom politely but unhesitantly called me a "male chauvinist pig": "with all your views on breastfeeding and co-sleeping, there is no room for a woman? If you care so much about the planet, imagine that I may work on saving the world at a tiny cost of inconveniencing my child? I cannot afford going to work brain dead, just because of some negligible benefit to a child's health from co-sleeping".

I totally agree that there is a trade-off. My sturdy attitude only comes from two factors:

  1. my work in the field of memory tells me those health effects of co-sleeping or breastfeeding are huge, not just negligible, and
  2. I see kids as carrying a compound interest.

This is why I might be a bit unhappy with "mommy blog propaganda" extolling the relief from breastfeeding or child care or shunting the baby to a separate room so as to revive the sex life.

What a parent can accomplish today, the kid may accomplish better, by an order of magnitude, in a generation. The starting value of the capital is far beyond negligible. The balance after three decades can turn out astronomic.

Summary: Daycare misery

  • daycare is an inferior substitute of good parenting
  • in western societies, there is a social pressure to send kids to daycare
  • to a large extent, social pressure originates in self-exculpatory mindset of young career-oriented parents
  • peer pressure in favor of daycare is based on a series of myths about the biology of child development
  • daycare acceleration is often a short-term phenomenon with poorer long-term outcomes
  • daycare acceleration works only for kids from families characterized by low resources (incl. time), neglect, pathology, and/or poor education
  • daycare boost to immunity is a myth
  • daycare socialization is often negative
  • daycare results in an increase in aggression and other behavioral problems
  • for many kids, daycare begins too early and necessitates forceful waking
  • for most kids, daycare violates natural creativity cycle
  • for most kids, esp. young kids, or early in the process, daycare involves significant stress
  • for small kids, maternal separation is bad for the brain
  • kids suffering from chronic daycare stress are likely to experience inferior long-term brain development
  • weaning should be natural and may take up to 4 years. In particular, it should not be accelerated for the sake of daycare
  • learned helplessness of daycare increases the likelihood of depression in adulthood
  • daycare often produces a positive feedback loop: slower development, lower immunity, infections, antibiotics, missed days, more stress, more sleep deprivation, etc.
  • potty-training is a waste of time, and can involve unnecessary stress
  • all forms of physiological and developmental acceleration make sense only if they are child-driven, i.e. natural

Stress resilience

Good stress and bad stress

While scientists speak of the damaging effects of stress on the brain, the concept of stress-free upbringing receives a great deal of scorn in social media. The confusion comes from the failure to differentiate between various forms of stress.

Kids who suffer from separation anxiety when dropped in daycare at the very young age provide an example of highly harmful stress. On the other hand, injuries suffered in the football field may be taken as a badge of honor, and an example of good stress that builds resilience. Bad stress will result in loss of brain cells, while good stress may, in theory, have the opposite effect.

Attachment parenting is often derided as "stress-free upbringing", while it should rather be seen as a good parenting that indeed helps prevent stress wherever it is harmful for health or brain development.

Global loss of IQ

Flynn effect says that there is a global increase in IQ from generation to generation. However, there is also a dark force in action that counteracts that positive trend. There is a global loss of brain cells and a global loss of creative power in developed societies. This loss is caused by bad sleep, stress, and depression. We have unleashed forces that keep destroying brains in modern society, and those forces seem to only increase in power from decade to decade. We can counteract those forces by using the tools of neuroscience. We need to start from shielding babies, toddlers, kids, and adolescents from brain-altering influences that shape their future life and leave them defenseless in face of adversity. The younger the child, the more important it is to take the right approach. Mishandling young brain leaves permanent imprints on personality and brain health that may be hard to correct in adulthood.

The very first step is the need to clear up the fog surrounding the myth that exposing kids to stress early will make them more stress resistant later in life. There is only a tiny grain of truth in that claim, which otherwise is seriously harmful.

Resistance to chronic stress

From the proponents of rigors of daycare and schooling, I hear it over and over again: "How will the kid cope as an adult?" "Will he tell the boss "I like to sleep long and work 2 hours only?".

Peter Gray put it mildly by saying "some people believe" in the supposed myth: "the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness as preparation for real life". Gray's soft claim probably comes from the fact that he comes from the culture where homeschooling is exploding. In Europe, the myth of "trainability of chronic stress resistance" in children is omnipresent.

The reasoning carries a vicious prescription: expose kids to stress to get them ready for adulthood! Alfie Kohn mocks it: Punch the kid today because someone might punch her in the future.

The myth of trainable resilience is not only the domain of the backward, ignorant, and uneducated. It originates from some research on rats in the 1950s. It permeates well-educated and open-minded families. Amazingly, I hear that even from high-IQ teachers. It all comes from a painful ignorance or misunderstanding of neuroscience. The pernicious myth of beneficial exposure to stress needs to be combated vigorously. It hurts kids around the world, all the time. The thinking goes like this: if muscle stress makes it stronger, if bone stress make it harder, if brain effort makes it smarter, then early waking makes the kid resistant to early waking stress, or maternal separation makes the kid resistant to adversities of life, etc.

The problem is that not all tissues and systems are trainable, and not all degrees of stress bring improvement. It is hard to break natural barriers in height or vision with training. You cannot exercise your teeth to crush diamond or adapt your brain to banging the head against the wall. Excess stress will tear muscles and break the bones. If resistance to chronic stress was trainable, we would have Romanian orphans taking leadership in NASA, or winning in Formula One.

The younger the brain, the greater the possible negative impact of chronic stress

Adaptation to stress

When a fighter is to face an opponent in the ring, his body activates a stress response. Fighting is stressful. Stress response helps to fight better. Having spent many hours in the ring, fighters understand risks and dangers better. They know how to avoid punches. Stress level in good fighters is reduced. This is knowledge-based adaptation to stress. With experience, fighters understand the game of fighting better. In boxing, top-level competitors may drive this knowledge-based adaptation to the point of actually enjoying the prospect of a risky encounter.

There are many ways we can adapt to stress using good practise, habits or procedures. For example, I advocate an approach in which the last 2-4 hours of the waking day are protected from stress. This is the time when the phone should be off and the employee should be protected from the employer (if his particular profession permits such an arrangement). This is the time when reading e-mail should be prohibited. This is the time when job-related investigations should be closed. Surfing on the net should be limited to unexciting or pleasurable areas of interest. Even then it may negatively affect the circadian cycle due to the exposure to blue light.

The stress that should be avoided in the evening, when experienced at mid-day, may have a beneficial impact on the mind and intellectual performance. We would call it eustress. When timed differently, e.g. before sleep, the stress response may be exaggerated, harmful, or interfere with good sleep. When good habits help avoid or cope with stress, I call it procedural adaptation to stress.

Locke and Rousseau have long understood that exposing a kid to a stress of "season, climates, elements" is a good thing. This is not adaptation to stress, it is physiological adaptation to environmental stressors. Winter swimming might be stressful, and exposure will result in knowledge-based and procedural adaptations. However, there is also a vital physiological component where physiological adaptation to cold exposure takes away the edge from the stressor.

Last but not least there is attenuation and learned helplessness. We can adapt to stress by making the brain stop responding to the stressor. Metaphorically speaking, we can damage and silence portions of the brain. Let's call it: adaptation via injury. This is what happens in animals deprived of freedom. This also happens in kids whose freedom is taken away by coercive schooling. At some point, coerced learning is no longer stressful. Children become numb and disinterested.

We are all aware of those coping mechanisms. This is why many parents easily fall victim to the belief that exposure to stress is a good preparation for adult life. We can easily get misled by inaccurate hints on authoritarian parenting. Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, accomplished the impossible with a seemingly authoritarian father. However, few people notice that this training had actually been guided by talents within. A seemingly strict father can actually capitalize on natural inner drives of kids who propel themselves to excellence with a degree of rigid guidance well-enclosed or approaching the optimum push zone. In a similar manner, Laszlo Polgar made his daughters spend inordinate hours over chess. He drove them to the top of the world in chess rankings. It is underestimated that kids must actually learn to love chess in the first place. Such a love and passion are the key to success.

Many a parent may be tempted to emulate Williams or Polgar accomplishments in total oblivion of the primary rule: kids should never be exposed to chronic stress. Their brains are too young. Their minds are too immature. They cannot effectively employ knowledge-based or procedural adaptation to stress. Instead, they will adapt via learned helplessness and their brain growth will be stunted.

There are benefits to eustress, and various forms of "stress" are part of a healthy training and development. However, there are no trainable defences against chronic stress, i.e. the one you get with perpetual sleep deprivation, bullying, maternal separation, child abuse, etc. Those are stresses that change the metabolism, and change the wiring of the brain. They correlate well with an increase in mental disease, behavioral disorders, addictions, etc. Chronic stress is the type of stress you go to sleep with. Characterically, this is the stress that does not go away on waking. Its chronic nature is best expressed by the fact that there is no "rise and shine". Chronically stressed kid wakes up with a worry. Chronic stress can persist and gnaw at you for days or weeks. Attenuation can be used to reduce the impact of inevitable stress. Professional training helps stress management in stressful jobs. However, the purpose of those is the prevention of chronic stress, procedural adaptation, or knowledge-based adaptation. Professional training does not provide biological resistance to the effects of chronic stress.

See also: Using stress valves to prevent chronic stress

Preparation for adulthood

Stress resilience training

Older psychologists and educators have often been biased by years of analysis of institutionalized children. As a result, they may perpetuate the myth born in the 1950s: "sour faces in kids are ok because duty and discipline are educational"! They believe that a well-organized kindergarten group is better than a rowdy sports field crowd of mixed-aged peers. That thinking is directed at preparing the kids to live in the modern adult world.

The opposite is true. Freedom is a better way to shape a better future character. We teach kids to tolerate the reality, while they should rather let their reason figure out what is tolerable and what is welcome in proportion to brain development. Why tolerate toilet, sleep, meal, or sport timing restrictions in violation of the circadian cycle? Why tolerate departures from the natural creativity cycle? It is smarter to be intolerant and learn to adapt in proportion to brain power and one's own intolerance! Let's adapt the world to humans, not the other way around. Children can be a great factor of change in that respect.

Youth should be devoted to brain development. There is no stronger weapon than a well-developed brain. Learning and "preparation" come easy to a brisk brain. They can proceed in proportion to maturity. They can capitalize on the learn drive with minimal assistance from optimum push.

Discipline training

Preparation for adulthood is not only about stress resilience. Many educators claim that kids who suffer no discipline won't be able to adapt to a job that requires a submission. This is false. All animals follow an instinctive drive for freedom. This drive has evolutionary benefits. Captured deer will struggle to the point of injury. Restrained puppy will yelp for freedom of space. Human mind that grows free from shackles will retain the quest for open spaces and freedom till the very end of life. For a healthy brain, there is very little difficulty in achieving self-restraint and self-discipline through reason. Limits on freedom in childhood may generate stress that may limit brain development that, later in life, paradoxically, will make it harder to impose self-discipline. On the other side of the equation, freedom fosters creativity, which is an equally priced possession. You do not need to be an employer to know that it is far easier for a creative individual to self-impose restraint than for a well-disciplined soldier to become creative on demand. Preparation for adulthood needs to take into account the immaturity of the brain. Taking on a hard 9-5 job may be easy for a high-IQ thirty-year-old. The same job may be highly stressful for a teen, bad for health for a 10-year-old, or a plain brain destroyer for a 5-year-old. We should celebrate the fact that we no longer need to send 8 year olds to handle a factory assembly line to earn a living.

Homeschooler's sleep

Homeschoolers often boast that what they like most about learning at home is that they can get good sleep. The right to get good sleep should be a basic human right for children. Some professions involve inevitable sleep deprivation or interference with chronobiology. However, adaptations to "messy sleep" lifestyle are predominantly procedural, not biological. Going to sleep early, and sticking to regular sleep hours are both procedural adaptations. The only significant biological adaptation is the possibility of determining the sleep phase via chronotherapy. In the course of 2-3 weeks, an owl can be made into an early bird with the tools of chronobiology. This is again procedural adaptation that capitalizes on a single property of the sleep control system: sleep phase. This is not a biological adaptation that helps reduce the effects of sleep deprivation once it occurs.

Torturing kids with an alarm clock to train school discipline is as bad as feeding them with alcohol. Both affect brain structures and permanently change lives. The only difference is that alarm clocks are still socially acceptable.

For contrast, imagine giving a child a 50ml glass of vodka in the morning. In terms of ravages to the brain and personality, this might be an alcohol equivalent of waking the kid up 2 hours before his or her optimum waking time (which might be the case for half the kids). Biologically speaking, the body can mount a degree of resistance to alcohol by streamlining the enzymatic engine needed to metabolise ethanol. In an extreme case, there might be no damage from alcohol. There are virtually no defenses against neural effects of sleep deprivation. Once you incur deprivation, you certainly incur damage.

We should never train kids to resist stress of sleep deprivation by exposure. Trainability and adaptability are minimal. Damage is real, serious and long-lasting. Sleep deprivation in kids is one of the prime forces counteracting the global increase in intelligence.

See also: How to reduce the impact of stress on sleep

Optimum stress exposure

Stress can be acute, i.e. sudden. It can also be chronic, i.e. long lasting. It is the chronic stress than does most of the damage.

The formula for optimum stress exposure in development is pretty simple. Kids should never be exposed to chronic stress. Eustress is welcome, esp. as a motivator. Acute stress can be employed only when there are demonstrable effects of known benefits. The underlying idea is that chronic stress is a brain destroyer. Via hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, chronic stress leads to restrictions on neurogenesis, brain growth and development. Even though stress can improve learning, the benefits are short-term, and long-term outcomes are negative.

The approach of stress shielding should be extended beyond puberty or perhaps even further. Not only is the brain still developing fast, at puberty, hormonal hurricanes blow through the young body. Stress in childhood and in adolescence is associated with changes in the brain structure and the development of mental disorders later in life.

Only fully formed brain is equipped with tools for declarative and procedural training that may help one cope with stress. By procedural training, I mean rational choice of procedures that help cope with stress as opposed to natural neurohormonal responses to chronic stress that are always detrimental. An example of stress-combating procedure is the skill to compress stressful stimuli into selected windows in the natural creativity cycle, e.g. to precede or coincide with exercise, while protecting sensitive windows in the cycle, e.g. creativity windows, or the time before sleep when all stressors should be avoided, if possible, for the sake of uninterrupted well-timed healthy sleep. An adult can easily organize his day and employ such a circadian procedure to minimize the negative effects of stress. A child may find it difficult. Moreover, all exposure to stress affects brain development. In case of chronic stress, that effect is invariably negative.

Major stressors may be unavoidable. Death of a parent is one of the worst stressors a child can face. This may be a matter of chance. However, most parents in modern world expose kids to chronic stress that can be avoided. Daycare is a prime example. Early weaning is another. Separating a child from her mom for the night, or waking kids early are also frequently exercised.

In addition to negative impact of stress hormones on the brain, there is a problem of epigenetic control of brain growth in response to environmental stressors. In short, the brain uses genetic machinery to get ready for the evil and dangerous world as reflected by child's environment or her perception thereof. A child raised in an unquestionably loving atmosphere is likely to develop all the neural weaponry needed to deal with stress on declarative and procedural platforms. On the other hand, child exposed to a major trauma or chronic stress will develop a brain with a different neurohormonal profile that is more likely to enhance neurotic aspects of his personality, increase chances of depression, reduce cortisol receptors in the hypothalamus and the hippocampus, remove CRH and ACTH release breaks, provide for the cortisol-oriented dominance of the HPA axis (hyperactive stress system), stunt neurogenesis, affect synaptic pruning, lower hippocampal volume, result in weaker hippocampal control, and so on.

The formula for genius is parental love. Exposure to trauma and chronic stress are harmful to brain growth.

The inevitable exposure to significant stress should be phased in gradually in adulthood when the brain is fully formed.

Paradoxically, mixing up stress with love and shelter may be dangerous as well. The kid exposed to the stress of bullying may deepen the injury by ruminating his predicament in the confines of a loving home. This is why parents should also learn about the art of stress inoculation, which has nothing to do with chronic stress.

Stress resilience

If optimum stress exposure implies avoiding chronic stress in childhood, how come some behavioral research in animals indicate that stress may improve resilience? For example, intermittent maternal separation may lead to more independent and emotionally sturdy animals? See: Stress inoculation may improve resilience later in life

The emphasis must then again be on the "chronic" aspect of chronic stress. Some forms of stress are good. They help learning. Locke and Rousseau spoke of hardening. Psychology literature uses terms such as inoculating or toughening. In many circumstances stress is good for learning, development, and mental health. It can indeed lead to improved stress resilience.

Maternal separation has negative connotations, but we do not aim at making kids dependent on their mom until teen years. Separation is actually a goal of upbringing. In other words, it needs to proceed. It only needs to proceed incrementally and with respect to biological rhythms. The younger the kid, the greater the effect of separation. It should be avoided at times of sleep, or at nursing (before weaning). It should be avoided at times of crisis, incl. daily circadian drop in stress resilience, e.g. before sleep. Other than that, separation and exposure to acute stress can do wonders to healthy development, incl. emotional development. The best formula for incremental separation: let the kid decide!

Is it then a good idea to throw a kid out of a boat in the middle of a lake to teach him how to swim?

I keep emphasizing the role of love in family and the need to protect kids from chronic stress. Should this not then be an outrageous and cruel idea?

It actually depends on circumstances. In principle, this is not how effective swimming lessons should be delivered. However, there are many variables that will determine the outcome:

  • Child's interpretation: the best primary indicator is the child's reaction to the event. Is it horror, or perhaps elation? This component is strongly related to personality, disposition, and context
  • Child's age: right after birth, kids are pretty well adapted to diving and even surviving on the surface of water on their back. Throwing an untrained adult out of a boat is far less likely to bring anything good. Trying to teach a 50-year-old to swim is close to mission impossible. There are critical period windows in brain growth where stressful stimuli produce different programming effects on brain development, esp. in early childhood
  • Circadian frame: a child woken up prematurely in the early morning and thrown into cold water may experience true horror. The same kid at its circadian prime may cope pretty well, and in extreme cases, enjoy the experience
  • Sense of safety: it is important who does the throwing. It is a securely attached caregiver (e.g. a loving parent)? Or is it an oppressor (e.g. hated step parent)?

You may wonder why I picked this scary example with a boat. For ethical reasons, scientists would find it hard to execute similar experiments with monkeys, let alone children. We may never get a good scientific verdict on the procedure. However, it so happens that I know two brothers who have been trained using the said method (aged 19 and 13 in 2016). Both brothers are a picture of physical and mental health. Both do ok at school. Both are good swimmers. However, the older brother carries scars of his early training. When I asked him to swim across the pool under water, he hesitated. He admitted that longer periods without breathing under water bring back the horrifying memories from childhood. The younger brother does not have such issues. He actually does not even remember the shock training. Perhaps the variables listed in my analysis above played differently for him. The entire story is based on older brother's recollections. I was not able to take another angle from their radical father. Later in life, he turned to alcohol, abandoned his family, and moved to Germany. I would not be surprised if alcohol played a role in his choice of swimming lesson methodology.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Why am I not outraged at this parental attitude? The reason is that my first swimming lessons were in a very similar category. My brother, 16 years senior, was a great early coach and teacher. He would toss me off a 3-5 meter guard tower to deep water in a lake. I was 6 years old and I could not swim. However, the distance I needed to make was just 2-4 meters to the pier. The best part of the experience was the crowd of spectators who cheered a tiny guy taking a plunge from a height. I was a little showoff and for show I was ready to risk my life. If we review the list of factors affecting the outcome of the experience, I seem to have met all conditions for making it fun, positive and effective. I loved the crowd and cheers. I was not too old to be anxious. It was a middle of a hot day, and I trusted my brother as no one else in the world. It was great. After this radical start, I gradually improved my swimming skills to cross many scary lakes and rivers before my teens. Interestingly, later in life, I became more risk averse and lost some of my resilience, mostly through neglect. Last but not least, I was powerfully impacted by the movie "The Jaws". By the time I was 17 years old, swimming across a lake or out into sea would always bring back some scenes from the movie.

Peter Gray advocates trustful parenting. In the present world, it seems awfully hard, but without a degree of risk and hardening, we won't raise a generation of conquerors, astronauts, CEOs or perhaps even Einsteins.

John Taylor Gatto is even more radical. He claims that Richard Branson's mother inspired him with the best formula for raising genius. When Branson was four, his mom, with his nod, dropped him off miles from home to find his way back on his own. Branson needed 8 hours. He succeeded and later claimed it was one of the best lessons he got in life. Nothing seemed like an impossible challenge any more.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
When I was 12, in summer 1974, my mom agreed I took a bike trip on old Polish communist roads to a city 150 km away (and later back). Today, I recall with horror huge fully-loaded trucks wheezing by. However, this kind of trip indeed leaves some strong imprint on a young mind. I took my best friend Piotr Ruta with me. On arrival to our destination, we slept in a haystack. On the way back, in the night, without lights, we were forced to sleep in a field of wheat in rain because we took a truck on the side of the road for a police car. We got soaked and chilled to the bone. The best part of the trip was the appreciation for the warmth of home and even for a decent meal. However, this trip did not do much to our genius. I was expelled from school a few months later for bad behavior. Ruta did not even bother to go to high school. He got a job in a nearby bakery where he stayed until a day when a tram car accident resulted in amputation of his foot in his early 20s. Perhaps, to benefit better, we should have taken the trip at the age of four?

When tiny babies are thrown into an icehole in Ukraine, the reaction of a western mom is nearly universal: horror. As babies are pretty poor at "planning ahead", anticipatory chronic stress is not a factor. Therefore, the ultimate litmus test is the baby's response. If temporary shock is promptly replaced with a wide smile or euphoria, this type of acute stress exposure is likely to do a lot of good, in terms of overall health, brain health, and resilience.

In summary, we should surround kids with love, shelter them from chronic stress, and keep the mind open when it comes to acute stress and beneficial stress inoculation. On the other hand, childhood without exposure to risk and acute stress is less likely to lead to resilience later in life.

Self-dosed stress improves stress resilience

Summary: Stress resilience

  • youth should be devoted to brain development
  • in development, we need to differentiate between chronic long-lasting stress and acute short-lasting stress
  • not all forms of stress are bad. In brain development, we need to focus on avoiding chronic stress
  • chronic stress is a brain destroyer
  • maternal separation can lead to chronic stress
  • early weaning, toilet training, and other forms of physiological acceleration may result in chronic stress
  • some forms of acute stress may help build stress resilience
  • eustress is good stress that can act as an energizer and motivator (see: Eustress in exploration)
  • attachment parenting does not imply stress-free upbringing
  • chronic stress and depression are costly factors counteracting global increase in IQ
  • adaptations to stress may be knowledge-based, or procedural
  • stress of schooling is counteracted by learned helplessness. It can be views as "adaptation by injury"
  • we should never train kids to adapt to chronic stress. Resistance via adaptation to chronic stress in kids is negligible
  • chronic stress resistance training is harmful. Instead of preparing for adulthood, exposure to chronic stress may seriously affect brain development
  • one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling or unschooling is free sleep
  • for young brains, sleep deprivation may be worse than alcohol
  • adherence to the natural creativity cycle is helpful in reducing chronic stress
  • warm household is precious in reducing chronic stress
  • trustful parenting helps built stress resilience
  • John Taylor Gatto believes that stress inoculation is one of the best gifts a parent can give to a child
  • age, personality, circadian phase, and context can turn a stressful event into a hardening event or a case for exultation

Childhood passions

Childhood passions

Parents often dream of choosing a career for a child. They often understand that a vibrant passion is the best formula for a good career. However, seeding passions is not easy. The most productive passions are those that arise naturally. Like in childhood amnesia, passions are subject to similar processes of forgetting, and interference. A new passion can obscure an old passion. All passions should be cherished as they drive development. If the passion does not meet adult criteria of a "worthwhile pursuit", all efforts at redirection must stay within the push zone. In the end, the kid should decide. All passions are of value: videogames, hip hop, or even boxing. They should never be mocked, disrupted, or neglected. Great passions require a great investment of time and energy. In youth, those are primarily stolen by schooling. However, even limited time for passions is of little value if there is a deficit in the learn drive that may be suppressed by schooling (e.g. due to stress, bad sleep, etc.).

One of the greatest sins of schooling is that it destroys passions by undermining the learn drive

School notebooks

I love to review children's notebooks. They give me an insight into kid interests, passions, motivations, and learning. Some notebooks are messy and hard to read, some are spotless, some seem a mindless rendition of teacher's orders, while others seem to tell a better story: kids are passionate students of the natural world. The practice of making notes is in decline. Why bother with notes if all knowledge is available at fingertips on the web? This week I saw 9-year-olds talk about a fantasy movie. Someone confused a minotaur with a centaur. A girl pulled out a phone and issued a Google voice query in Polish "What is a minotaur?". She got an answer from Wikipedia in milliseconds and could boast of her knowledge to others. In seconds, all kids knew that a minotaur was a mythical figure with a body of a man and the head of a bull.

Some teachers specifically instruct kids to keep no notes and focus on the class. This seems to improve attention. The great advantage of the decline in note-taking is that heavy back-breaking school bags are slowly retiring to history. The great disadvantage is the decline in handwriting skills. I use handwriting only when I have no access to a computer. The loss of my own handwriting skills is so bad that if I do not read my notes fast, I cannot decode them. My hand-written notes are generally not readable. These days kids use a pen less and less often. Perhaps electronic pens will remedy that decline in handwriting?

Notes in pictures

Look at the picture! It is a page from a 6 grader's biology notebook. Doesn't it show how beautiful, fun, and inspirational schooling can be? What if I told you that this notebook had 66 similar meticulously handcrafted images? Wouldn't you expect that paintwork to have a significant impact on child's mind and on learning? Even better, what if I told you the kid can still vividly recall those pictures and associated stories 40 years later?

A page from a 6 grader's biology notebook

Figure: A page from a passionate 6-grader's school notebook in biology

The conclusions for this case seem clear:

  • school is fun
  • school is motivational
  • school is effective
  • school makes a big impact

The only problem with these conclusions is that they are false. The picture smuggles a big lie. I know the lie for a fact, because the picture is mine. It tells a story of a passion that was nearly lost. The school is not a hero in this story. It is a villain!

Single event can spark a passion

At the age of 5, Albert Einstein had a chance to play with a compass. This started his lifelong passion for understanding the physical universe. Nearly all great inventors and discoverers can trace their passions to early childhood events. The same is true of hobbyists, collectors, artist, sports fans, and people with all imaginable passions in life. Passions developed later in life rarely have the same power. It is kids with seemingly infinite amounts of time on their hands who can turn passions into thousands of hours of learning.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My brother was a forest inspector. When I was still in kindergarten, he showed me the wonders of the natural world. This affected the course of my entire life. In March 1973, my teacher of Polish came to school with a baby turtle. It was a red-eared slider turtle. It was super-cute. She put the turtle on a bench. Surrounded by kids, the cute animal, scared to death, flapped its baby legs and rushed towards the bench edge. This 3 minute demo was one of the most influential moments of schooling I recall. The same day, I visited a pet shop at Rybaki street in the city of Poznan. Baby turtles were priced at less than a dollar. Unfortunately, I lost half of my cash for a tram fare. I was a habitual fare dodger, and never spent precious coins on tram rides, but on this unlucky day I spotted a guard checking tickets. I had to backtrack home and beg my mom for more money. When chatting with the shop owner, he became suspicious: "Do you only plan to set up an aquarium now?". "No. I have it all ready" - I lied. Back at home, we had a major quarrel with my mom. We did not know anything about turtles. She wanted the baby to swim in a jar. I told her it must be placed in a terrarium with sand and only a small pool of water. Looking back, I am amazed this little reptile survived its first days with ignorant human oppressors. Luckily, I quickly learned more about turtles from books, experience, and from talking to a pet shop owner, one Mr Skubel. Baby slider soon developed a good appetite for meat, lettuce and tubifex, and survived for 24 years with my family. It died "peacefully in sleep" on Mar 21, 1997.

This baby turtle started a passion for breeding fish, plants, turtles, hamsters, and more. My home became a menagerie. Instead of shopping, I would go to a nearby lake. I would experiment with various algae, snails, and crustaceans. My aquariums were always full of exuberant life and algal growth.

In parallel, in my biology class, all things related to zoology seemed super-interesting. For each class, I would prepare 2-3 nice pictures of animals, their anatomy, physiology or life cycle. Like in the presented picture, I would add a page or two of nice descriptions. It was not homework. The teacher did not ask for my work. It was all coming from within. Even worse, I recall bending over backwards to impress the teacher. All I could get back was a yawn. That would not matter though. The passion served some inner need. It did not serve anyone in the world. It satisfied my learn drive, which is its own reward.

I saw my baby turtle at school. I could have seen it anywhere. It would not matter. School was not fun. School was not motivational. School did not play a role. It was the beauty of the natural world that had an effect on a young curious mind. If anything, school kept my passions suppressed by stealing a big portion of my day on things I did not care about (e.g. my school fights)

Remembering for half-a-century

How can knowledge be retained for 43 years?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I had a lot of contact with zoology in youth. I took part in Biology Olympics in high school. I also took a zoology course at the university with a comprehensive exam (9 years after buying the turtle). That would serve as solid review for my zoology knowledge. One might presume that the seeds had been sown in the 6th grade (1973), reinforced in high school (1976-1980), and consolidated at the university (1982). This might then look like a textbook case of lifetime knowledge! However, I severed all my links with zoology by 1984. All my animal collection, incl. my growing turtle, was taken over by younger members of my family. No more animals, no more exams.

How could I have remembered things for 32 more years without review? From 1984 till now (2016)!

One big clue comes from the fact that my 6-grade notes sound to me as if written in a foreign language! Anatomy charts are familiar. Life cycles are familiar. However, words that describe pictures are alien! Long after my last zoology exam, when I decided to keep all my notes in the computer, I also decided to switch to using English (rather than original native Polish). English is global (see: One language for the world). English is the language of science. English is easier to search through on a computer. English knowledge resources are richer and more reliable. etc. The list of advantages of English is endless. I decided to make a switch in 1987. The fact that I hardly recall the terminology used in my own primary school notebook is a clear proof that my knowledge of zoology, seeded early, had to be refreshed outside schooling. I can actually trace each single animal I know, and each single word related to zoology in my own computer. I can tell you when I learned a given fact, or word, or picture, how many times I reviewed those facts, and how my memory gradually got stronger (or weaker). The credit goes to SuperMemo
SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
I keep all my knowledge in SuperMemo. I do not need to remember the name "horse". We all remember horses. We see horses daily on TV, on the net, or even in real life. However, to remember names of horse colors or horse breeds, I need SuperMemo. Those do not show up often enough to stay in memory. After 1990, my knowledge of zoology survived largely due to SuperMemo. If I devoted a fraction of time wasted on commuting to school on SuperMemo, my knowledge would increase by an order of magnitude. Mobile technology would only help fractionally because incremental learning does not fare well on the go. There is an exponential increase in the return on investment with all marginal improvements to the adherence to the natural creativity cycle. Only "mindless" repetitions would work on a bus. If I did not have to go to school, I could use most of my day on passionate learning. My knowledge might still be one-sided and monothematic for a longer while. However, I have proven that I would open that history book sooner or later. The extra time saved by not going to school might accelerate the process of broadening of my horizons. I am sure that instead of being helpful, school slowed my progress.

Schooling can easily kill passions

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
If I saw a kid like myself at 10-12 years old, I might easily think it is a great material for a future scientist. Like little Darwin, I collected all things related to the living world: from a collection of feathers to dried up and smelly dead animals or body parts. Our big old apartment smelled of my extensive menagerie and death. I used to walk slowly through Poznan zoo, cage by cage, observing, making notes, for hours, for months! This documentary obsession followed closely in time the most shameful chapters of my youth. First, I was a hooligan and a harmless criminal. Not much later, I was an observer of the natural world. To this day, I find this transition difficult to comprehend. One might think that such a speedy transformation in a good direction should give birth to a passion that might send me on a healthy trajectory towards some research position at some university. It was not to be.

In this modern world, young minds are bombarded from all directions with new ideas, and temptations. It is hard to be well-focused on a single problem or passion. The days of 17-19 century science are gone. For comfort, at least we die a bit later and have more time to crystallize and explore.

Events that changed me from a bad student to a good student also dealt a big blow to my zoological passions. I was thrown away from my old school for bad behavior. This coincided with my mom's moving to a small apartment in a nicer district closer to a better school (Winogrady in Poznan, primary school 30). I had to cut down on the size of my animal collection and give away most of my 30+ strong hamster family. There was not enough room in the new apartment. My mom also disposed of a great deal of my "Darwinian specimen collection". It was too big and it smelled too bad. We would choke! At the same time, new school rewarded me with good grades. Instead of following passions, I got involved in a "grade race". Luckily, meeting the chemistry teacher Mrs Kaczmarek helped me continue my interest in science and also gain a great deal of confidence in my own abilities.

When I entered high school, the passion for zoology was still surviving. It was now enhanced by my new strength in chemistry. Our home library had a nice book: Peter Karlson's Biochemistry. This was a savior of my interests, esp. in the light of ever growing dislike of school, early waking, tests, homework, and pressure. During summer vacations, I studied biochemistry. This learning time helped me later get to the university despite having few other strengths or qualifications.

In 1977, aged 15, I almost killed my passion for science. I joined a boxing club, but that "career" was cut short by 1980 due to shortsightedness. At the same time, my sister gave me a tape recorder. I recorded a few songs from the radio, and discovered that I love music. When I saw Stevie Wonder perform funky Superstition, I dreamt of being equally proficient with the piano keyboard. For eight long years, music became my biggest obsession. Partly, I blame school. After school, sleep deprived, I did not have any power or interest in learning. I did not know it at the time, but I was probably showing early signs of DSPS. This made waking early a torture. Even classes at 10 am seemed too early. In the evening, all I could do was to listen to music. During summer vacations, as if by magic, I would get good sleep and get back to learning. During school year, it was mostly music. Additionally, I devoted 2-3 afternoons per week to boxing. The magic of music seemed irresistible. However, I was somehow able to find harmony in summer: learning, exercise, and much less music. If I did not have summer vacations, my interest in biochemistry would have died. If I did not have school, I would probably find time for all passions. My life would be harmonious and productive.

If I am to verdict on how my early science passions survived the high school, I would definitely credit my character. My natural rebelliousness made me refuse early waking, refuse homework, and refuse compulsory reading: the most significant thief of time at high school. This in turn minimized the damage to my learn drive, which powered my summer learning. In addition, with each passing year, my maturity kept increasing. Slowly, I gave higher priority to rational pursuits (science) over pleasurable pursuits (music). By 1984, when I finally had some success in the field of music, one by one, I quit all three bands I was involved in. Each separation was excruciatingly painful, and accompanied by a lengthy rationale letter to my fellow musician friends. Those steps were necessary for me to continue with science and research. Youthful passions survived despite schooling, immaturity, and multiple temptations of the modern world. It was a touch and go. On a sad note, I totally lost my painting skills through neglect.

I see lots of 8-10 year olds with fantastic passions. It does not really matter if these are planets, dolphins, painting, or football cards. Those passions should be cherished. My own story makes me fear that a vast majority of that potential will go to waste. I have lots of sad observational and anecdotal evidence. Lots of my young friends with humongous potential get sucked into the ruthless machinery of modern nine-to-five living. They are not happy. Each young man's potential wasted is a loss for mankind.

From decade to decade we crank up the pressure of schooling. We push kids harder and harder to achieve more and more. In the process, schools are highly efficient killers of childhood passions and the learn drive. This is highly detrimental to further progress of mankind

Summary: Childhood passions

  • minor events in childhood can turn into lifelong passions
  • child passions have a dramatic positive impact on the power of the learn drive
  • child passions should be cherished and protected
  • true passions do not need to be stoked up; they serve an inner need
  • childhood passions can easily get lost due to preoccupation with schooling
  • schools can easily produce an illusion of learning and an illusion of long-term memory
  • schools take away time from passions that shape the mind and direct lives
  • schools suppress the learn drive

Why kids hate school?

Children do not like school

Children do not like school and they know exactly why. Adults find it hard to empathize and insist that "school is good" therefore "school needs to be endured". In their difference of opinion, children are right, and adults are wrong. School is not good (I explain that in Problem of schooling). This text is intended for parents to outline the reasons for which kids cannot possibly like school.

Children often hate school and they have well justified reasons

Experts confirm: kids don't like school

It was back in 1964 when rebellious educator John Holt, in his book "How Children Fail", noticed that the school system negatively affects intelligence, and makes children lose the love of learning. Since then, relatively little has changed. Homeschooling is now more popular in the US. Parental rights in reference to schooling have improved in many legislations. However, there are also major setbacks. Most of them are a side effect of the accelerated drive for "better" education across the world. The industrial manufacture of educated masses has grown in scale.

Psychologist Daniel Willingham wrote a book "Why Don't Students Like School". In the book, he criticized teaching methods, which do not account for cognitive needs and abilities of children. Another notable psychologist Peter Gray was quite upset with the fact that the book did not get to the core of the problem. According to Dr Gray, kids hate school for it limits child freedoms. Gray does not hesitate to say "school is prison".

My own investigation

Obviously, both Willingham and Gray are right. However, I decided to do a bit of research of my own. I decided to list all the most prominent school pains. Interviewing kids seemed like the best way to go. Before writing this book, in summer 2016, I talked to some two hundred kids of all ages (and a thousand more in the following years). This painted for me a pretty solid picture. Kids dislike or hate school almost universally. The older they are, the stronger the feeling.

My impression does not agree entirely with what researchers report. Depending on the methodology and the country, the findings claim that "only" 20-80% kids dislike school.

In the process of collecting opinions, I also spoke to adults. Amazingly, an entirely different picture emerges there (see: Never trust parents nor teachers). Most parents claim "my kid loves kindergarten" or "my kids love school". Wherefrom this dissonance? This is complex and goes beyond the scope of this book. The dissonance comes from a combination of poor communication, sense of guilt, distorted memories of schooling, as well as maturity, where only after years we appreciate the value of the time spent at school heavily whitewashed with the brightness of youth. Most of all, child's brain has no good system to send messages to the future self: "I am different. I work differently. Can't you understand?". This is why adults will never understand kid brains via empathy alone. They can only rationalize and attempt to empathize via the findings of neuroscience.

As for distorted memories, this is my field of expertise. Therefore I made an honest evaluation of my own feelings about my own experience at schools. The verdict is simple: school memories are a constellation of love and hate and all shades in between. Anyone who says "I loved school" or "I hated school" must be making a gross generalization that is largely justified by the distortive and generalizing power of the human brain. This is why live interviews with kids about their feeling "at the moment" are so precious. Interview honesty is vital. This is why I picked kids mostly from a circle of friends. Those who I approached as a stranger were hesitant or literally afraid to admit they dislike school! As if it was a thing we should not say loud. Kids are pressured and conditioned to say loudly that "school is good". Disliking school is supposed to be a reason to be ashamed or condemned. Only when kids find me as their ally, they admit the truth: "school is prison".

For a visceral first person insight see: 1984 is today (for teens).

Top 11: What kids hate most about school

I put primary kid gripes into the following categories prioritized from the worst to the least significant. Every kid has his or her own list. My bullets should be considered an "average". This is what kids hate most about school:

  1. Getting up in the morning (see: School start time)
  2. Boredom
  3. Stress (grades, exams, overload)
  4. Excess hours (tiredness, whole day lost, etc.)
  5. Homework
  6. Bullies
  7. Self-esteem issues
  8. People they don't like (forced social groups, mean teachers, jocks, popular girls, teacher's pets, etc.)
  9. Rules and regulations (no phones, no bathroom, dress code, mute button, raise a hand ban, cannot open the window, etc.)
  10. Lack of freedom to choose (e.g. courses, subjects, sport teams, etc.)
  11. Pointless learning (teachers may try to explain, but children still do not sense the reason for which they need to learn some things)

In the duel of the psychologists, Gray vs. Willingham, the list confirms they are both right. However, Gray's view is universal. While Willingham limits his considerations to the cognitive core, assuming tacitly school is unavoidable, Gray strikes the nail on the head. Kids hate schools for the sense of imprisonment. Little wonder then that Gray is upset with Willingham's book which speak of hating schools without touching the issue of freedom.

Cognition science could remedy the hate of schooling to a degree and with serious difficulties.

Early waking can be tackled with chronotherapy. Homework, boredom, and stress can be solved by using the right cognitive approach (esp. self-directed learning). Long hours and regulations are a matter of good administration. As for bad people in the system, this is a pretty universal phenomenon. All social groups suffer from frictions. However, there are inherent design flaws in the current educational system model (see: 50 bad habits learned at school). Only free homeschooling, democratic schooling, or unschooling make it possible to fully resolve all issues above, incl. the problem of socialization.

See also: I wish I had dropped out

School makes me wanna die

Figure: An article at Free Thought Project revealed a Google autocomplete propositions for "school makes me". I know that kids hate school, but the list in the search box was still striking. The school makes kids feel, I quote literally: "depressed", "suicidal", "anxious", "stupid", "sick", "tired", "sad", and "stressed". The negative vibe of that list defies belief, so I repeated the search myself and found only minor differences: "wanna die", "wanna cry", "wanna cut", and "wanna give up". There wasn't a single positive proposition like "school makes me learn with pleasure", "school makes me smart/educated", or "school helps me meet nice people", or so. In case you think that people google only for solutions to problems, you will notice that the same experiment for "jogging" or "exercise" will likely produce suggestions such as "jogging makes me happy" or "exercise raises my endorphins"

Why kids like school?

For balance, let's consider why kids like school. Nearly all teens hate school, but some would say they like school conditionally. For example "I hate school, but I love to meet my friends there". Or, "I hate school, but I love physical education". Or "I love English, but I hate German".

Back in 2016, I included in this text two cases of kids who truly liked school. In 2019, I had to drop both cases. Those kids no longer like school. For details see: Some kids like school

Did I like school?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My own feelings about school

My feelings about school evolved from enthusiasm (first grade), to lack of interest, to dislike (high school), to high appreciation (last year of college), to harsh criticism (today).

I suffer from a sort of "documentation OCD". From early childhood, I obsessively documented all experiences of my young life. In high school, I started writing diaries with precise notes, dates, facts and figures. I also embarked onto a comprehensive project: "retrospective diary" where I tried to document all my memories dating back to the first impressions of daycare. This exercise helped me understand how unreliable human memory is when it comes to picturing one's own childhood. All in all, my top of the head answer about my childhood feelings about schools would be "I hated school". However, this would be just a convenient recall in the context of this article. In a different context, I might say "I liked schools" or "I loved learning". When I dig into details, I can bring back hundreds of moments ranging from fear to elation or euphoria. For this project, I pulled out lots of dusty details from my past using my precise record of notes. However, when it comes to figuring out why kids hate school, I decided to rely on face-to-face interviews most of all.

I keep few live emotions associated with schooling. Somehow, all the period of schooling seems largely neutral. However, the dislike of schooling comes back to life when I recall how I cheated my mom by touching a light bulb with a thermometer to convince her I got a fever. I recall that I loved being sick! I could stay at home in bed, read books, paint pictures, drink cocoa, etc. That was nirvana. I was not bothered by rhinitis. I loved rhinitis. I had a few cheating methods with the thermometer. I probably started from rubbing, but this took time and was painful. I advanced to touching the light bulb, but that was blown one day when I failed to shake off the mercury column and my fever went off the scale. I also recalled some severe bouts of sleepiness in class in high school. It was not long before I declared in all seriousness: "I will not wake up early for school because a sleepy person is not a good member of society". That might have been an onset of teen DSPS that set me on the life-long boycott of alarm clocks and getting up early. I would rather miss the class and suffer the consequences

Instant solution

Compulsory schooling must end. See: Declaration of Educational Emancipation

Summary: Why kids hate school

  • loss of freedom and excess work are a frequent reason for school hate
  • lack of motivation and low learn drive make school an unpleasant experience for most kids
  • early school start is one of the main reasons teens dislike school
  • homeschooling, unschooling and democratic schooling resolve nearly all causes of school hate
  • most often mentioned reasons for liking school are: friends, physical education, good grades, and very rarely, actual progress in learning
  • catching a cold was a joyous moment in my young life: I did not have to go to school!

Mountain climb metaphor

Education is a mountain to climb

The mountain climb metaphor is helpful to understand why the concept of schooling is so pervasive despite being highly harmful. The metaphor explains that we cannot improve upon optimization without using optimization tools. The metaphor extends to many areas of life. It extends to many ailments that torment humankind today.

A popular saying says "hindsight is 20/20". However, there is a monumental snag in the process when we reach goals via optimization, and then attempt to lead others to reproduce the feat. Using hindsight, we are tempted to improve upon the trajectory without doing the actual computation that would verify the new trajectory's viability.

Imagine you climb a mountain. In the process, you look for best paths, possible dangers, time-wasting obstacles, shortcuts, feeding points, cliffs, shelters, rock falls, and so on. Once you find your optimum path, and you get to the top, you may feel euphoric elation. It is only natural that you want to help others reproduce your feat. Let others experience your joy. When you look back from the mountain top, you suddenly realize that your path was tortuous, winding, and complex. From the mountain top, you can see a simpler path that is more of a straight line. You scream to people at the foot of the mountain to let them know your "improved" straight line pathway. Inadvertently, you may lead them into an abyss, deep stream, bear cave, or stray in a densely wooded area with loss of visibility. At the mountain top, it is easy to imagine one knows better. It is easy to forget the pains and troubles of the climb

In schooling, adults have a distorted version of their own learning path. From the mountaintop it all seems so easy: first the alphabet and counting, then reading and simple calculations, and then a simple straight path to wisdom (see also: Crystallization metaphor). This approach nearly never works as intended. In case of schooling, it causes unnecessary torment, and time-wasting all around the world.

A child's brain is different than an adult's brain. For neurobiological reasons, the adult has no way of remembering the difference. The adult cannot empathize with a child's learning process, and must step away to let it run naturally. The shortcuts proposed by adults are counterproductive. The first thing we should learn at school or in life are the wonders of the world. In terms of the curriculum, chemistry should precede the alphabet, physics should precede counting sequences, biology should precede reading. We turn it all upside down, and then poison the chalice by making it all compulsory. In a mix with authoritarian parenting, this is a path to the loss of love of learning, hate of school, hate of people, bullying, depression, drugs, mental disorders, and more. Kids without freedom make as much progress as inmates in a tough prison: instead of re-socializing, they get worse.

Two key optimization errors of schooling

Many educators have shallow intuitions about why the school system does not work. However, without a good insight into mathematical optimization, it is hard to precisely nail the problem. Moreover, we need a good understanding of how conceptual computation shapes the concept network of the brain. Only then it becomes apparent that passive schooling undermines human intelligence and future progress of mankind.

In terms of optimization and conceptual computation, the two key errors of schooling can be expressed in terms of the mountain climb metaphor:

  • you cannot optimize a trajectory without efficient optimization criteria. In the optimization of learning, the learn drive system determines the effective trajectory. You cannot climb the mountain on a straight line. You need to look under your feet
  • in conceptual computation, a pre-determined trajectory prevents abstract compression of models. With the exposure to the evolving reality, the brain forms new generalizations. New abstractions form new shortcuts to understanding the reality. Children should not follow adults to the top of the mountain because there are always new higher mountains to climb. Failure to reach new mountaintops forms an existential threat to humanity
By sketching the climbing pathways, we slow down or prevent the new generation from scaling new heights

Hindsight is not 20/20

In terms of schooling, "hindsight is blurry while appearing to be 20/20". It comes from a typical illusion that affects the post-factum perception of neural optimization, or optimization in general. It comes from the curse of knowledge. All things that used to be difficult in the past, now may seem simple.

Starting the school from reading and counting is an artifact of adult-centric view of education

Early instruction is the degradation of the beauty of the world to the basic abstract ingredients that are unpalatable to young minds. The ABCs should be a natural consequence of exploratory learning. The kids can quickly discover the empowering value of reading. The elation of first reading is most delicious when it comes from self-discovery. It is nearly impossible to enter the world of computer games without a good number sense. Math is sweetest when it is used as a tool on the way to a great goal. Only math connoisseurs can love math for the math sake. Usually, it takes decades to become a connoisseur.

The never-ending drive to begin academic instruction at ever earlier ages is simply cruel.

Early academic instruction without the consent of the child is inhumane and a violation of a child's rights

Mountain climb example

Cultivating childhood passions

The Mountain climb metaphor of schooling explains how the optimization of education can lead to a blind path of inefficient learning.

The picture below illustrates an exemplary emergence of the illusion of the benefits of schooling. All high achievement in the area of human creativity begin with a passion. The most productive passions begin early in life. The education system has an adverse affect on childhood passions (see: Childhood passions). In addition to destroying the love of learning, the impact of schooling on early passions might be one of the worst side effects of the Prussian education system.

The example flowchart of passionate and prolific learning begins at the time of watching a Spielberg's movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" in the early childhood. As of that point, passions and interests spread dendritically and culminate with a PhD in astrophysics. As of that point, graduates are usually free to explore, and their further success depends on knowledge, talent, opportunities, etc. I posit that the survival of childhood passions may be the most important ingredient in further high achievement.

Evolving passions: from an ET movie to a PhD in astrophysics
Evolving passions: from an ET movie to a PhD in astrophysics

Figure: Childhood passions may meander from an ET movie, via YouTube and planets, to various branches of science. They may culminate in a PhD in astrophysics and a career in science. It is important to note that the goal at the top of the mountain may be impossible to determine today. It may not even have its name. The future will tell. On the way to the top, the child may pick up the alphabet, reading skills, algebra, and other necessary basics. The road to knowledge is based on exploratory learning. The joy starts in childhood and, ideally, continues well into the retirement age

Spielberg's movie may initiate interest in the biological aspects of the extraterrestrial life. This in turn may spark interest in life on Mars. Mars may then extend to an interest in other planets. In modern era, a child can quickly cultivate a passion for planets with YouTube. Through the YouTube recommendation system, it is easy to branch out into many directions, including the interest in general biology and the ABC of physics.

Mixing reality with fiction is a norm at this stage. This confusion is predominantly harmless. Interest in the signs of zodiac might be an example. All contradictions are resolved in the process of neural generalization. This occurs spontaneously. This is part of knowledge crystallization.

Importantly, all those interests in astronomy and physics can and should occur at preliterate stage and can also contribute to the interest in symbols. This way, instead of the usual curricular approach of early school that begins with the alphabet and counting, the child may being with the interest in star types such as G2V or M3V. This can lead to better knowledge of the letters of the alphabet, and later reading. In democratic schools with no curriculum reading can emerge at 3 or at 10 depending on the child and his interests. It is always a resultant of a competition and synergy between multiple interests. Knowledge of physics and biology can be based on a good understanding of scientific models. Those can, for example, be cultivated with the assistance of PhET simulations.

Childhood passions can germinate and branch out in many directions. All they need is a conducive exploratory environment. Passions feed on time, love, and access to knowledge. The latter is pretty easy in the era of the Internet

In children with rich interests, passions can quickly cover many areas of the typical high school curriculum. The coverage may be highly superficial in terms of the specific material. However, only the actual long-term knowledge matters in the comparison. With that in mind, knowledge of homeschoolers and unschoolers is usually vastly superior in terms of stability and coherence. This is the kind of knowledge that boasts a high degree of applicability. This is the knowledge that makes the difference in life. Our exemplary student with the ultimate PhD in astrophysics will retain her childhood passions and pursue a career, e.g. in science, with zeal and joy.

Replicating passions at school

The problem may begin when curriculum designers try to trace backwards the development of an expert in astrophysics. It is instantly tempting to skip the ET movie, exoplanets, and ban signs of zodiac as superstitious. YouTube may not be included as it is full of potential distractions. Monothematic focus is the key to the method and a straight path to boredom. First months at school are spent on drilling the letters of the alphabet: 3 days per letter. It is easy to deprive the curriculum from all vestiges of extraneous material that could spark new passions. High volume of learning, high interference, high degree of coercive learning, can quickly lead to the loss of the learn drive via learned helplessness. Some kids may still enjoy long days devoted to learning the alphabet (e.g. through the talents of the early teacher). Few will retain their love for mathematics by the age of 10. Most will hate their schooling experience by the time they are 15. There will always be some time reserved for movies, but the experience can easily be ruined by a tired brain: "You can watch that movie once your homework is done!". Some of the high school graduates may still opt for a career in astrophysics. However, without a true passion, this kind of joyless pursuit in bound to result in fewer breakthrough achievements.

Straight line education from the alphabet to a PhD in astrophysics
Straight line education from the alphabet to a PhD in astrophysics

Figure: When coercive learning based on a curriculum attempts to replicate a success of a child who follows its passions to a PhD in astrophysics, exploratory learning is diminished. It is replaced with linear learning devoid of passion. Knowledge loses on coherence. Comprehension is poor. Poor stability undermines the longevity of knowledge. Career in science is hardly possible. When such career is undertaken, it may be joyless and low on creative fruits

Parody of the future

If the evolution of the school system proceeds at the present rate in the present direction, we will soon teach newborns to read books about the art of walking. This will ensure they master the theory of walking before the practice of walking. Overtime, we might even defer actual walking to later ages, or even adulthood. This is what we seem to be doing with independence and creative thinking. We defer all the challenges to the time beyond college. And then we send kids out to the world to sink at the deep end of the pool.

Schooling defers the need for independent and creative thinking till adulthood


See: Glossary


See: References

Further reading

Some chapters have not been integrated with the printable version. See: Full list of chapters


See: Summary