Element 14:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“Simply put, there is no memory without meaning.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

chalice[1]In this Element we will focus on one of the main tenets of the Learning Code: There is no learning without meaning. Here we will see through the eyes of science what we have intuitively known: We remember what is meaningful to us and forget almost everything else. Personal meaning is the criterion by which virtually all information is selected into our long-term memory banks. From the viewpoint of biology, genetics, and neuroscience, meaning and learning are joined at the hip. Personal meaning is the holy grail of learning and memory because it is the primary key to unlocking the Learning Code. (see “We Learn Through Selection Not Instruction“).

Read on to learn more about why meaning is the holy grail of learning and why the Meaning Network must be stimulated

Looking at learning through the lens of science brings with it a fortunate dividend. We are able to answer the question that has been asked for centuries: Where does meaning comes from? In the other Elements that refer to meaning, the reader will also discover that the brain has a “Meaning Network,” a group of neurological structures that must be stimulated before new information can be selected into our long-term memory. If these structures are not stimulated by incoming information, we remember very little. And in the Elements Addicted to Meaning, The Motivational Problem, and Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation, we find that authoritarian learning systems, which rely primarily on reward and punishment to impose learning, create a neurological climate that not only inhibits learning but may breed out our ability to create personal meaning in our lives. What we hope to convey in these Elements is a deep understanding from the scientific perspective of how wasteful it is to deliver information without first touching what is personally meaningful to the learner.

Man’s Search for Meaning

questionmarks[1]From the minute we exit the womb until the day we take our last breath, our very existence is driven by making meaning out of the matter and energy our world presents to us. Each human on earth is continually striving each second of every day to stimulate the large preexisting networks that hold what is personally meaningful to us, which, in turn, prompts the production of neurochemicals that allow us to have focus, fulfillment, and pleasure in life. When we are not able to pursue what is personally meaningful, a neurological climate is produced that makes our lives boring, unfulfilled, and joyless.

The individual given credit for focusing the eye of research on the value of personal meaning is one of the 20th century’s most influential psychiatrists, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian who was a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II. In the 1950s, Frankl’s profound book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was first published in America. In this small book, which is considered by many to be one of the most powerful books ever written, Frankl used his personal experiences and research to show that, not only are our behaviors driven by the search for meaning in life, but that the very survival of the individual is dependent on personal meaning being maintained. Frankl discovered that those prisoners who were unable to find meaning in these desperate camps were the ones who did not survive, while those who did find meaning in their dismal surroundings lived to tell their stories. In contrast to the behaviorist psychological view, which was becoming dominant at the time, Frankl maintained humans’ main drive in life “is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain, but rather to see meaning in … life.”

Frankl’s work allowed experts in many diverse fields to begin to recognize that the primary motivational force in human existence was not whether one got a carrot or stick from an authority figure but instead was driven by what one found intrinsically meaningful. Philosopher Susan Langer found a basic and pervasive human need is “to invent meanings and invest meaning into one’s world” and “to search for and find significance everywhere, to transform experience constantly to uncover new meanings in everything.” The well-known physicist David Bohm looked at the topic through the eyes of quantum physics and concluded meaning is the essence of life and the primary factor by which all energy and matter are organized.

rainbow[1]Margaret Wheatley, who uses research into complexity and chaos theories to develop and analyze effective management techniques, writes in Leadership and the New Sciences, “Meaning … serves as a point of reference. As long as we keep purpose in focus in both our organizational and private lives, we are able to wander through the realms of chaos, make decisions about what actions will be consistent with our purpose, and emerge with a discernible pattern or shape to our lives.” Two brain-based researchers who have looked long and hard at the value of meaning in education, Renate and Geoffrey Caine, write, “If we want students to use their minds more fully, we have to teach for meaningfulness.” The experts echo a central tenet of Piaget’s work, that is, human beings are continually engaged in making meaning from stimuli presented to them in their environments. In the end, without meaning, our brain has no focal point around which to organize its structure or functions.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How, if the brain selected all the billions of bits of audio, visual, tactile, taste, and smell information presented to it each second, your head would be as big as a blimp.

How, in order for your head not to be as big as a blimp, the brain must have a filter by which it selects only the most valuable bits of information. That filter is personal meaning.

How the brain tissues that represents what is personally meaningful to you are continually searching our world asking, “What’s in it for me?”(WIIFM).

The answer to the questions “Where does personal meaning come from?”

Why, in the process of creating efficient long-term memory, mnemonic tricks, such as peg systems, acronyms, and mental imaging, cannot hold a candle to the brilliant power of personal meaning.

Why all biological systems, from antibodies to the brain, must learn by selecting new information based on meaningful knowledge that already exists within the system.

Why your Meaning Network acts like a magnet, becoming larger and more effective as it snags more and more bits of information that harmonize with what already exists in its structures.

How meaningful information activates the neurochemical cascade that leads to effective long-term memory formation (see “What Is Learning“).

Why learning new meaningful information is the neurochemical pathway to joy and fulfillment in your life.

Why learning meaningful information can immediately place us in the “flow state” of optimized learning and accomplishment.

Why the search for personal meaning is source of intrinsic motivation.

How activating your networks that code for meaning causes your brain to physically grow new connections.

Why school and work become boring, unfulfilling, and stressful if they do not activate your Meaning Network.

How using personal meaning to create “hot” networks in your brain can accelerate the efficiency of learning up to 400 percent.

How metaphors make networks hot and create personal meaning where no personal meaning previously existed.

How to use the disarmingly simple “wrapping” technique to take advantage of these hot networks, thus speeding up memory formation, improving reading proficiency, and even overcoming learning problems such as dyslexia.

How one study of memory found that the intensity of meaning that the passage had for a student was an astounding 3,000 percent more important than how readable it was.

Why schools waste much of the 13,000 hours spent in classrooms because they miss the “meaning mark.”

How, by ignoring the personal world of the learner, corporate and scholastic educators actually inhibit the effective functioning of the brain.

How individuals who were coerced into following paths that lacked meaning for them suffered disastrous consequences.

How to stimulate the structures of your Meaning Network, so that your life becomes more successful, joyful, and fulfilling.

To help you understand more about why meaning is the holy grail of learning, click on other Elements:

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education