The Art and Neuroscience of New Learning

David Krueger MD

Why does someone begin a new endeavor with such excitement, then seem to lose momentum after a few weeks into it? Or purchase a long-awaited item, to have the excitement turn into complacency? The dynamics of new learning involve both mind and brain.
Mind Matters
New learning falls into four phases.
  1. Initial confusion and excitement combine to launch new learning. Awareness of the unfamiliar and uncertain registers as curiosity, or even anxiety, mixed in with excitement, which propels momentum.
  2. Increasing confidence follows, both with the experience of effectiveness and with positive feedback.
  3. Mastery results from effectiveness with movement to its own self-sustaining “flow” and validation.
  4. Entropy occurs when the invigoration of a learning curve’s newness levels off and declines. This leveling off may register as disillusionment.
Brain Business
Dopamine is the brain chemical that induces excitement by anticipating pleasure or reward. The rush from dopamine release motivates, even to take risks. The newness is exciting, adding to the dopamine release. But neuroscientists have shown that anticipating a reward is even more exciting than actually receiving it. Why? Because receiving a reward actually shuts down the anticipatory release of dopamine, diminishing the energy and pleasure. The central nervous system shifts to the maintenance mode (necessary from an economic and evolutionary perspective), primarily mediated by norepinephrine.
This shift explains the paradox that the expectation of an event or a purchase is more exciting than the actual experience.
  • An investor will feel more positive when expecting a stock to rise, yet feel less excited than anticipated when it actually does.
  • The purchase of a big-ticket item—such as a new car—isn’t as exciting as expected.
  • The “hedonic treadmill” described by Danial Kahneman, Princeton Nobel Prize winner, occurs when the brain adapts to a new state of wealth and possessions, and increasing pleasure is sought.
  • Clients hit plateaus in coaching or mentoring after 1-2 months.
From Paradox to Progression
Both the mind and brain contribute to new learning and its paradoxes. Our minds seek closure and infer causality, accurate or not. Additionally, we then defend our position or decision, rather than examining it, making it static. Our brains attempt to end any dissonance, even prematurely shutting down inquiry.
So what can you do to maintain some aspects of this excitement—or at least ladder it—to generate ongoing creative stimulation?
  • Knowledge is inert until it is activated, so put it into behavior.
  • Foster attitudes that promote curiosity and openness.
  • Recognize and assess emotional couplings that can derail logical choices (such as money equals freedom, evil, or greed).
  • Monitor choices and question ideas.
  • Probe your reasoning.
  • Ask: “What works?” “What doesn’t work?”
  • Facilitate new behaviors and guide the development of new mental maps.
  • Program new identity: incorporate your new experiences into your evolving self-concept. You are no longer defined by your habits or your old story.
Continue to look at things in novel ways. Everyone thought Goliath was too big to hit; David thought he was too big to miss.

Please join me for “An Evening With The Author” Tuesday, November 10 at 7:00 PM Eastern to discuss The Secret Language of Money.