Overlearning: What Is It And Why Do It?

By Jamie McSloy / May 17, 2017
brain stuff category image


I decided to add a new category to the site. It’s called “brain stuff.”

Every so often, I post about learning techniques and the like. A lot of my reading and “research” (although that’s a bit formal) revolves around learning and other cognitive performance stuff.

It’s all useful and I find it interesting, but it doesn’t fit with any of the categories on the site – it’s not specifically about online business, it’s not specifically about writing etc. So there we go.

The first thing on the agenda is a good one that I don’t see many people writing about.

It’s called the theory of “Overlearning” and while the name says it all, this article will explore the concept.

What Is Overlearning?

Overlearning does what it says on the tin.

Think back to when you were in school. Depending on where you sat on the intelligence bell curve, chances are you had periods where you learned some fact or piece of knowledge, and then the teacher made you do it over and over again. It wasn’t challenging and you thought, “This is a waste of my time.”

(Time Out: If you’re enjoying this article, then you should probably sign up to my mailing list, where I give out ideas and business tricks that I don’t share publicly. Click here, fill out your details and get yourself on the list! You won’t leave this page.

Now Back To The Regular Programming Schedule…)

For me, the big offender that I remember is multiplication tables. As far as I remember, countingin twos through twelves came to me really easy. If I didn’t get it first time, then it was probably the second time through I got it.

I then proceeded to do the same multiplication problems over and over again for the next three years… and god was it boring.

This is an example of overlearning. You can no doubt think of your own. You feel like you intuitively know something, and yet you do it over and over again until you could do it in your sleep.

This is an amazing way to ensure stuff goes in and stays there. When was the last time you sat down and wrote your five times table out? Probably when you were ten or something.

I bet you could do it right now though. (I hope you could.)

As adults, we rarely engage in this behaviour, but we should. Why?

How Does Overlearning Work?

In other words, it’s like muscle memory. If you learn how to do a physical exercise, say a push up, you can’t exactly say you’ve “mastered the movement” after your first go. Sure, you’ve done a push up and you’ve got the right form down and everything…

… but there are guys who can drop down, press up and do the whole thing over and over again for hundreds of repetitions without spending anywhere near as much energy as you do.

You can do a push up, but it’s wobbly and not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing movement in the world.

Most people understand this; once you’ve learned how to do the movement, you then practice it repeatedly until it becomes second nature.

That’s how overlearning works, but it’s mental as opposed to physical. You learn the fact, method or knowledge, and then you repeatedly access it from different directions until those cognitive pathways are firing on all cylinders.

Now, that might sound exciting… but it’s not. It’s boring. Once you’ve learned something, your first thought is, “OK, I know that… now onto the next thing.” Overlearning is like all those multiplication tables you did as a kid. Once it’s stopped being challenge, it starts being boring.

So why fight this?

Why Should I Do It?

In short, it’s more effective. You’ll learn quicker, more efficiently and to a deeper degree.

If you basically learn something and then continue to relearn it over and over, you’ll find recall easier and more importantly the application of the knowledge easier.

Overlearning mimics (and this is total pseudoscience I’m making up on the spot) natural conditions that your brain was designed for. Your brain is an adaptation machine – it’ll learn what it needs to know and dump everything that’s unnecessary.

When you learn something by cramming for an exam and then you pass the exam and forget it, that’s because your brain has filed the knowledge under “This is no longer needed” and biologically emptied the recycle bin.

When you repeatedly return to the knowledge even after you’ve used it, your brain says, “Hey… we should store this somewhere.” Specifically your short term memory and then your long term memory as you access it over longer periods of time.

What Can I Use It For?

Initial studies were done on subjects trying to learn geographical locations. Like any other trivia, you can use overlearning for this. You’ll need to review the information regularly because it’s never all that necessary to know that Dakar is the capital of Senegal or whatever.

Where it really comes into usefulness is with complex systems learning where you need to use the information repeatedly.

Specific examples might include programming, where you take the simplest “If then” type constructs of the language and drill them in so that you can recognise them.

Or you could use it for language learning; get a grammar book and do all the exercises over and over again.

You could also use it for writing; this is really the goal of hand copying ads or breaking apart fictional genres (like we’ve done elsewhere on the site.)

Final Thoughts

If you want to improve your physical performance, then you can swim in information, articles and studies for the rest of your life. There are billions of sites dedicated to physical health that are factual, helpful and accessible.

Mental performance, in comparison, is still in the dark ages.

While researching this article (well, I’m researching for another project, but this article is a byproduct) I tried to find some decent information on learning enhancement.

What I found was a bunch of guys trying to sell piracetam and some pretty obscure forum threads.

(Aside from the general life-hacker rubbish. “Get Dual-N-Back and drink your coffee with butter in and you’ll basically be smarter than Einstein!”)

Mental performance hasn’t found its way into accessibility quite yet.

Let’s start overlearning about it and make it more accessible for everyone.

  • […] didn’t know about overlearning. I didn’t know about interleaving or any of the stuff I’ve written about on the Brain Stuff […]

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