In the next blog of this series, the Get My Grades Team is going to take a look at what we mean by the ‘Computer Brain’ and how it affects us.

The Computer

Very often we find that some things always tend to happen together. When this happens we tend to associate them and they get stored in our brain’s ‘Computer’. Brain cells (neurons) or groups of them can represent ideas about the outside world. Different neurons representing different ideas can be connected to each other. Thinking of one idea then makes it more likely you will think of those connected with it as they can stimulate each other.

What we term as ‘the Computer’ can also be used to store behaviours and habits as well. Neurons, or groups of neurons, can represent behaviours and be connected to each other or to other ideas.

In a very similar way sometimes we tend to repeat a certain series of actions and this can be stored too. Neurons associated with a certain action can build a connection to other neurons representing the previous or next stages as well as those that represent either a stimulus from the environment (the sight of a tiger, the smell of freshly cooked steak etc). So, for example, seeing your toothbrush in the morning might prompt you to start the process of cleaning your teeth, which is a series of behaviours: pick up the toothbrush, add toothpaste, brush teeth, floss etc.

For our purposes, habits are learned ways of thinking or acting that have been stored in the ‘Computer’ so they can be rapidly repeated in future without needing too much thought. We can think of it as being a bit like a software programme – it takes a relatively long time to write all the coding, but it is quick and easy to run it in future many times. However, habits aren’t always good!

Features and habits

Some features of the ‘Computer’ and habits are:

Habits can be mental or physical processes or a combination of the two.

It could be the process required to cook your favourite meal or play a piece of music or it could be the method for carrying out long multiplication. We can have habits that include both physical and mental processes.

Habits take time to develop.

To develop a habit takes time doing the same thing, in the same way, many times over. Often we need to do it anyway and that’s how we learn. If it isn’t something we would need to do every day then we need to practise a lot.

Habits have a trigger event or activity.

Habits kick in either when something happens (eg, if a ball is thrown at an elite cricket player, their habit is to catch it) or when you start to carry it out (eg, when you start to play a piece of music).

You don’t necessarily need to try to develop a habit.

Sometimes habits can be developed by accident or even against your will. This can occur by a process known as ‘classical conditioning’, made famous by Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to expect food (and start salivating) whenever a bell was rung.

You can only develop habits a little bit at a time.

A good pianist can play a piece of music rapidly without seeming to put in much thought, but the ‘habit’ he or she has developed is very complex involving a large number of steps. To learn a complex habit we need to do a little bit at a time – to learn how to play the piece the pianist had to concentrate on each small section of a few notes independently, then add the next few.

You can carry out a habit without needing to think about it.

Many people get up in the morning and go about their usual routine without even thinking about it. Often people do things out of habit with no conscious decision to carry out the process – if you start the habit and you aren’t paying attention, your ‘Computer’ will automatically finish it for you whether it is what you wanted to do or not!

Habits – good or bad – are difficult to change.

Once habits are stored they can be very difficult to change or remove. To do so requires a conscious effort not to complete the habit when the trigger activity/ event (ie, whatever normally causes it) takes place. For example, if you always get up, brush your teeth and have a shower every day, it will be difficult to get into the routine of deactivating a burglar alarm before you brush your teeth.

Real-world applications

There are many ways to encourage the development of useful habits, which we have employed when writing the content for Get My Grades. We want to ensure that you build as many of the connections between important and related ideas as possible and continually reinforce particularly important points. This helps to make it easier to learn from and by using our large bank of practice questions with clear feedback, students can rehearse important skills that they can apply to their exam as well as their future lives.

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