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Mastering Your Cognitive Domain – Part 1

David Shrier,  Professor of Practice, AI & Innovation talks about the impact of AI on cognitive flexibility and how to master it, in this first part of a 3-article series

The world is getting more uncertain, and coupled with that we are faced with new technologies with an ever-increasing pace to stay current – which requires rewiring our own brains. Artificial intelligence, in particular, represents a transformational development that will change everything about how we work, and who we work with. AI’s widespread impact will only accelerate within the next five to ten years – even more than what we’ve seen to date – and we need to be prepared. Developing cognitive flexibility, the ability to absorb and act on new information more readily, is a critical skill to succeed in the AI future. The workforce of the future – one that is able to engage with and get the most out of AI – is cognitively flexible.

As we develop our classes with top universities, such as MIT and Oxford, my team at Esme Learning and I have found that students commonly need assistance enhancing cognitive flexibility and rewiring how they acquire information.

In thinking about improving cognitive flexibility, there is some good news.  Decades of advancement in cognitive and neuroscience research have shown that you can develop and augment your cognitive abilities through discipline and practice.
 It doesn’t all have to be work – for example, numerous studies have shown that mental puzzle games, like Sudoku, can keep your brain more active and pliable as you age. There are five principles that can help you get started in mastering cognitive flexibility: practice, reflection, sustained change, peer learning, and creative exploration. In this article we look at the first two, with the next three to follow in my next article for AI Tech-Park.

#1 The Importance of Practice

You may enjoy reading, or may find it relaxing to sit back and watch a video of an expert explaining something to you.  However, nothing embeds new ideas in your brain better than turning them into a practice that you, yourself, engage in. It turns out that we can lose as much as 75% of the information we acquire from passive methods like reading or watching within one day or so, something called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. So as satisfying as that slickly-produced 90 minute video might be to watch, the likelihood that you would be able to remember and use that information a week from now after watching it is very low. Trying things out, even if you don’t get it right the first few times, is essential to cementing knowledge in a way that it can be useful for you.  If you’re reading a book on a subject, try writing down a few key ideas every few pages or every chapter. See if you can relate the subjects to something you are working on or would like to work on. Elaborate. Putting ideas into practice will help you remember and apply them more fluently into the future.

#2 The Benefits of Reflection

Over the past 40 years or so, the rise of standardized testing led to an interrelated bias towards ‘binge and purge’ learning, where a student will cram information into their heads to take a test, and then promptly forget it later. Another insidious trend emerged in adult learning: as executive education programs became more prevalent, all of the stakeholders involved (working professionals, companies, and universities) found it more convenient to run ‘block training’ where you cram 8 or 16 or 32 hours into a few straight days. It’s easier for travel schedules, it reduces time away from the office, and it’s more convenient for the professors to deliver the instruction. It’s also not a great way to learn. Your brain needs time to process information, digest it, contextualize it in relation to other concepts that you think about, and frame it in terms of a mental model. All of these activities benefit from allowing subconscious processing time, as well as conscious review and elaboration of the new ideas you are taking in. This process is known as reflection.  

Even if you are stuck in a ‘block training’, try to carve out a little extra time for yourself at the beginning of each day, perhaps 30-60 minutes. Write (longhand, if you can) in a journal about what you covered in the prior day’s material.  Reflection like this will help place the knowledge into your long-term memory, and you will attach greater relevance to it when seeking to use the information in the future.

Part 2 to follow. 

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