The Thanksgiving Principle: How “overstuffing” your brain destroys learning

Have you ever overeaten at Thanksgiving? For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is like eating 4 meals in a row—leaving us strained and unable to consume more. (This is frequently worse when you’re a child, and haven’t learned to recognize your “full” point yet.)

While most of us are familiar with the effects of “overstuffing” our tummies, many of us don’t realize you can also “overstuff” your brain.

When you’re learning a new skill, you need to challenge your mind enough for it to grow the new connections it needs…but if you challenge it too much your brain becomes “overstuffed” with too much new information, making you exhausted, irritable, or even ill.

This “overstuffed” effect happens because you’ve pushed yourself beyond your Saturation Point.

What is a “Saturation Point”?
In chemistry, “Saturation Point” indicates a point of limit, where no more can be absorbed.

For example, if you add sugar by the spoonful to boiling water, it will dissolve.  However, after adding quite a few spoonfuls of sugar, no more sugar can dissolve.  If you keep adding sugar, it will simply end up at the bottom of the pot.  The point when no more sugar will dissolve is called the “saturation point.”

The same idea applies to learning. We all have a Saturation Point—a point of limit, where no more information or skill can be absorbed under the given conditions.

If you push yourself beyond this limit, you reach a zone of diminishing returns.
You’ll have to work much harder, but you’ll learn much less. In fact, your learning becomes quite sloppy and unfocused, which means you’ll be overwriting all the good practice you did earlier with sloppy, unfocused practice.

It’s like pedaling your bicycle twice as hard to get up a steep hill—but watching yourself slowly sliding backward toward the bottom of the hill, no matter how hard you work.

So how do you tell when you’ve reached your Saturation Point?
There are many different symptoms to look for: You could become tired, like you need to rest or go to sleep (even if you haven’t done anything physically strenuous). Or you might start feeling bored or distracted. If your mind starts wandering a lot, your brain probably needs a break.

You may also become frustrated instead of focused—you might even start getting angry. Frustration is often a sign that you should back off for awhile, and re-visit the problem later. Another symptom might be loss of skill. If whatever you’re trying to learn (piano, French, soccer, math) is starting to feel harder and harder each moment, then it’s time to give it a rest for awhile.

Does that mean I should stop?
Possibly, but not necessarily. Sometimes all you need to do is change tasks. For example, if you were practicing your serve in tennis, and realized you’d hit your saturation point, you could change to practicing your backhand instead. You’d still be practicing tennis, but you wouldn’t be over-practicing one particular skill.

So once you realize you’ve reached your saturation point learning one skill, the first thing to try is to simply move along to the next skill you’d like to develop.

If you’re still experiencing symptoms, it’s time for a break.
If the symptoms of saturation don’t subside once you’ve switched to a different task, then it’s probably time to take a break for awhile. Your brain needs time to digest what it’s already been given.

Do something completely different, that doesn’t require much brain power—go for a walk, have a snack, or read a fun book.

If you’ve been doing some really intense learning, you might even need a nap. You brain does an incredible amount of processing while it’s sleeping. (This is why infants sleep all the time—their brains are processing a LOT of information.)

Once your brain has had time to digest things, you can come back to what you were doing. You’ll find your brain now has much more space for new information.

But I don’t have time for a break!
If you’re cramming for a test or trying to learn a new work skill under a tight deadline, it’s tempting to skip breaks. Every second that you’re not hard at work feels like wasted time.

However, if you’re trying to learn a LOT in a very short amount of time, it becomes even more crucial to give your brain some “time off” to process the information.

Otherwise, it becomes the mental equivalent of trying to eat that huge Thanksgiving dinner—if you don’t give your stomach enough time to digest each course before you consume the next one, you can end up with some painful results.

The same thing happens with information in your brain. Give it time to digest, or pay the price. One your brain is saturated, working harder won’t do much good.

But I thought the harder you work, the better you get?
Hard work is definitely useful, but it has a limit.

Let’s look at strength training as an example. You work hard at the gym, lifting slightly more weight than is comfortable for you. This challenges your muscles to grow.

But if you do too much, you can leave yourself injured or too sore to work out again for days (or weeks). This is counterproductive, because consistency gives better results than one gigantic binge-workout.

Learning a new skill (whether physical or purely mental) works the same way. It’s important to consistently challenge yourself just beyond your comfort zone. Binge-learning is just as counterproductive as binge-exercising.

So next time you’re learning something new, watch for your Saturation Point.
Your brain has a limit to how much new information it can hold. Pushing yourself past this Saturation Point will be ineffective, or even counterproductive.

You can tell you’ve reached your limit if you become tired, distracted, irritable or if you notice a decrease in skill. Try switching to a different task, or take a break and do something restful to let your brain digest.

Remember that giving your brain a break will actually improve your learning efficiency. Once this efficiency is lost, any additional “hard work” you put in becomes the mental equivalent of binge-exercising, and is very counterproductive.

So avoid overloading your brain—just like you would avoid overtraining at the gym. And reserve the “overstuffing” for your Thanksgiving dinner!

Do you have other strategies for dealing with your Saturation Point? What works best for you? Leave a comment below!

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