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Laughter makes us smarter (and other brain bytes)

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

With a basic understanding of how the brain works, and a few simple brain-based strategies, we can all increase our learning power. Learning how to learn – or relearning – is the first step.

We once believed that intelligence and creativity were fixed. It was generally accepted that we were born with a certain capacity to learn, and we did the best we could with what we had. Now, we know differently. Since the 1990s, also known as “the decade of the brain,” we’ve discovered that we can actually increase our capacity to learn.

Technological advances and a wealth of research now prove that creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving are hardwired into each of us. We all have the same anatomy between our ears. So what separates the best from the rest?

Perhaps some of us have mastered the art of learning. When was the last time you actually thought about how you learn? With a basic understanding of how the brain works, and a few simple brain-based strategies, we can all increase our learning power. Learning how to learn – or relearning – is the first step.

"The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice." - Brian Herbert

Here are a few nuggets that will help you begin to master the art of learning and increase the horsepower between your ears.

Laugh and smile. 

Laughter reduces stress by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain, and is clinically proven to have a powerful and positive effect on physical, emotional and social health and wellbeing. Laughter also works as an effective distraction from things that cause stress and anger – emotions that impede our ability to learn. In fact, studies show that the simple act of smiling has been found to increase attention and one's ability to see problems holistically.

In addition, humor and creativity are inextricably connected. Laughing and smiling create the conditions necessary for the brain to engage in divergent thinking which is essential for creativity and complex problem-solving. Humor links otherwise unconnected areas of the brain which is the primary goal of whole-brain thinking. And if that isn’t enough, research also suggests that people who smile more may live longer!

Nurture your natural curiosity. 

Curiosity is a state of mind and a way of living. The superminds of mankind - Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Newton - have all been described as having insatiable curiosity. Leonardo’s notebooks comprise over 7,000 pages of confounding questions illustrating his relentless quest to discover the “knowledge of all things.”

Modern day minds have jumped on the curiosity bandwagon as the key to creativity, innovation, and success.  Walt Disney attributed curiosity to the success of the Disney empire. Warren Berger's "A More Beautiful Question" directly connects curiosity, or one's "inquiry quotient," with innovation.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman maintains that our  "curiosity quotient" fuels innovative thought.

"I'm neither clever nor specially gifted.  I'm only very curious."  -Albert Einstein

One way to exercise your natural curiosity is to shift away from trying to find the “right answer” and learn how to explore different questions. Asking more “what if” and “why” questions not only nurture creativity and innovation, but also increase problem-solving ability. If we want to see different solutions, we have to look at the problems differently. Shift your perspective by reframing questions. For example, instead of asking, "What is the meaning of life?" turn it around into "How can I make my life more meaningful?"  That feels different, doesn’t it?

Embrace mistakes.

A Google search on "fear of failure" will produce over 150 million hits.  It's number 15 on the top 100 phobias list listed as atychiphobia.  It's also one of the greatest barriers to learning and overall success. We’re taught at a very young age that the brightest kids get the right answers.

Wrong answers are internalized as evidence that we aren’t as smart. Each mistake is one step closer to failure. As adults, intellectually we know that mistakes are essential to the learning process, but no one wants to make them let alone embrace them or bring attention to them.

William Westney addresses the value of failing in his book, The Perfect Wrong Note. He maintains that “juicy mistakes” are those that empower intellectual breakthroughs. They are constructive and enlightening, and when we are able to see them as such, “learning is deep, pure, and lasting.”

The greatest gift you can give yourself is the ability to see mistakes as opportunities for growth. Instead of inducing stress-related chemicals that impede learning, you’ll be able find rewards in those mistakes and your brain will release the happy chemicals that promote learning.

Rather than seeing each mistake as steps to failure, you’ll be able to process them intellectually as productive learning and be more open to seeing a solution. Perhaps Thomas Edison was on to something when he said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Find the joy in learning.

In a letter to his then 11 year-old son, Albert Einstein spoke to the value of joy in learning. “That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” As it turns out, Dr. Einstein was right again.

The definition of joy is "The emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something good or satisfying." When we find enjoyment in learning, we’re more likely to embrace the challenges and far more open to risk-taking.

In addition, we’re much more likely to exercise higher-level executive thinking, make deeper cognitive connections, and experience intellectual breakthroughs when we embrace new learning with joy and enthusiasm. Alfie Kohn refers to this as “exuberant discovery,” and now science backs up his theory with research. Brain maps of electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and neuroimaging of neurotransmitters show us what happens when we experience different emotions during learning.

We can actually see bursts of brain activity in one area of the brain followed by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and other parts of the limbic system. When you find joy in learning, your brain releases a nice shot of dopamine that gives the memory center a nice massage and releases acetylcholinem that increases both focus and attention span.

Use your whole brain. 

While we once believed that people were either "right brained" or "left brained," we now know that dominance is dependent upon the task, not the person.  If we are reading a book, the left hemisphere is highly engaged.  If we are painting a watercolor picture, the right hemisphere is highly engaged.  

As recently as 2013, scientists discovered that one of the main differences in Albert Einstein's brain was a freakishly large corpus callosum - the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemisphere. This means that Dr. Einstein was able to "see" those complex scientific and mathematic concepts and utilize his whole brain to understand them. 

Engage the whole brain by incorporating the right brain into left brain tasks.  Cue up some music, doodle, draw, and move your body the next time you work on a spreadsheet, whitepaper, or powerpoint deck.  Give brain a change of scenery. Take your notebook outside. Organize your thoughts with sticky notes.  Just changing things up can make you see things differently.  

Understanding how we learn is the key to unlocking your brain power. So, use your whole brain, laugh a little more, and enjoy the journey. Learn how to ask questions differently. Be on the lookout for those “juicy mistakes.” Check it out.. you’re smarter already!

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