Relaxed Minds Learn Better
Updated: Jan 2
…and How You Can Do It Too
Have you ever noticed, sometimes the harder we try to learn anything, the more difficult it is to achieve it? If we feel tired, stressed, anxious or “our mind is just not here”, no matter how hard we try we won’t be able to learn properly or even remember later on what we studied. Sometimes, as Mark Black said, the most productive thing you can do is relax.
I remember my early 20s as a bachelor in Modern Languages; I was living with my parents at my home town Cali, and my only concerns were to have good grades and make sure to practise every sport I could. Friends, food, weather and money (or the lack of it)… everything was perfect! I can see now that I was never really stressed, maybe a few days before important exams, but nothing too concerning. I was happy learning Spanish, English, French, basic Portuguese and made my nickname for my writing career (for another story).
Fast-forward 15 years later, I decided to come back to uni to study Translation, but this time my life was very different. I had left my family and country to live in the UK after enduring a not-so-friendly divorce, and I was feeling the pressure of having to start my life from zero. Guess how my learning experience was? I graduated yes, but the overall experience was not as empowering and enjoyable as it could have been. Why? I had no idea how to manage the stress that significant life changes bring, how to release anxiety or how to get my mind ready to meditate.
Headaches, tension in the neck and shoulders, dizziness, fatigue and poor sleep were my daily cocktail. I still couldn’t believe that the issue could be only stress. Then I realised stress could also affect our mental state as it elevates levels of cortisol; a hormone that affects the function of the brain. No wonder I started worrying too much or having difficulty to control my thoughts, which of course led to poor concentration, making learning a burden instead of a life experience.
We Must Understand Relaxation So We Can Tackle Stress
One definition of relaxation I like says that it is a “state of being free from tension and anxiety”. This definition sounds both liberating and unreachable for some of us.
I have heard many times that, as adults, we can often forget to relax truly. We are too busy, or our mind is too wired, worried, angry to even dream with relaxation or that state of freedom. However, I don’t think we have just forgotten how to do it. I believe we have never properly learnt how to relax, how to understand our body’s signs letting us know we need to move, realign, stretch or strengthen – constantly! Before I started my journey to find solutions to alleviate stress and anxiety in my life, I was never told at school or uni I needed to actively rest my body and mind (no, sleep doesn’t count) by practising Restorative Yoga or just breathing properly before planning to study. Never.
And of course, we already know some of the Benefits of Relaxation:
Slows the heart rate
Reduces the activity of stress hormones
Sharpens concentration and clarity
Promotes positive thinking
Improves memory and recall
Reduces stress and tension
Develops imagination and creativity
Helps us to sleep better
Slows our breathing rate by helping us find a natural breath that is slower, smoother and silent
The question is How to introduce relaxation in our day-to-day life, how to support our body and mind so it can function the best possible way, every day. Relaxation cannot be a luxury we give to ourselves once in a while. We can complement our activities with habits as simple as breathing slowly through the nose. I would add to Mark’s quote, sometimes the most productive thing you can do is absolutely “nothing”. Never underestimate the power of pausing in silence to observe nature. A pause to stop our race and observe our breath, one at the time.
Scientists Say Relaxed Minds Remember Better
According to Reuters, a new research from the United States shows that “Stronger and more lasting memories are likely to be formed when a person is relaxed and the memory-related neurons in the brain fire in sync with certain brain waves. Synchronisation in the brain is influenced by “theta waves” which are associated with relaxation, daydreaming and drowsiness, but also with learning and memory formation,” the scientists explained in the study in the journal Nature.
While scientists already knew that relaxed minds are better at receiving new information, this study pinpoints a mechanism by which relaxation neurons work together to improve memory. “…When memory-related neurons are well coordinated to theta waves during the learning process, memories are stronger,” said Adam Mamelak, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
These are fantastic news! If we can optimise the state of the brain, by ensuring it is relaxed with yoga, meditation, or breathwork and then synchronise the delivery of the things it needed to learn, the outcome might be better!
The Importance Of Finding A Balance
Implementing Moving & Still Meditation, Yoga, or Breathwork can change the way we positively perceive things. Several experiments have shown this kind of practices can transform our mind helping us to focus better and manage our emotions. Dr Graham Phillips has demonstrated Meditation can even alter the structure of the brain!
I heard people saying “meditation is not for me because I can’t be sitting cross-legged on the floor, thinking of nothing”. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Meditation can be a walk in nature; observing the water running, the birds singing, trees dancing in the wind. For my mum, meditation is working in the garden. It can also be playing the music you love. Anything we do with our full awareness, being present here & now, will give us the same effect as traditional meditation. Anything we can do to give our minds a break from repetitive thoughts will give us the same benefits as sitting on the floor, repeating mantras. We only need to bring kindness, love and self-acceptance to the practice and trust that the rest will come with time.
What To Do Next Time When You Need To Study – Practical exercises
1. Breathing As Slow, Smooth and Silent as You Can
You can do this on a chair or wherever you want before, during or after studying. Close your eyes.
This is an exercise to find a natural, supporting breath that allows you to come back to your body, instead of staying in your thoughts. I say “natural” and “supporting” instead of using any other terminology because each one of us is different and the way we breathe is different as well. Start feeling your breath by placing one hand on your chest and the other on the belly. Feel the chest expanding when you inhale and then relaxing when you exhale. Repeat this 3-5 times. Expansion on the inhalation — relaxation on the exhalation. Keep breathing in and out and start gently pushing the air down, so you will feel it more in your belly than in your chest. Find your rhythm but try to breathe as slow, smooth and calm as you can. If you want to keep your mind engaged with the breathing, you can mentally count to 2 when you inhale and to 4 when you exhale. Then slowly start increasing the count (to 4:8 for example) if you feel it is natural and you don’t have to hold tension on the neck, shoulders or chest. So, inhale 1, 2: exhale 1, 2, 3, 4…go a far as you feel comfortable, but very slowly. Try to make the inhalation softer and softer each time. Like you can barely feel your hands moving any more. Slowly, open your eyes and notice how the breathing pattern has changed and how that feels in your body. Start moving slowly, keeping the calmness in your breath.
2. Walking in Nature As Slow and Silent as You Can
Look for a park, garden, reservoir…anything closer to nature (trees, plants, mountains, river, whatever is fine). Nature is said to be the cure for many diseases for many reasons. One of them is that being in the green open space can help us relax and de-stress. So arrive there, in silence and let’s try something… Standing or sitting down, start paying attention to the furthest point you can see (let’s say a mountain). Recognise its colours and follow its shape, draw the silhouette of the mountain with your eyes only. Find another object and do the same, this time moving your head together with your eyes (activate your neck). After a few minutes, start looking for things closer and closer to you and again, draw shapes with your eyes and the head. Change levels (something high, something low), and allow chest and shoulders to join in the movement. Play with big shapes, small shapes, feeling the neck and spine activating. Notice little details and big clouds in the sky. You can remain where you are, or you can start walking, moving your head less and less. Keep your eyes in this “discovery mode”. Walk slowly, feeling the invitation, connecting to nature. Notice how your breath has calmed. Notice how your eyes, forehead, jaw have softened. Notice your path: see it, feel it. Notice the fluidity of your steps on the path. You are here. You are part of the landscape. Keep walking, keep observing, keep breathing!