Element 27:

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

“Limiting your exposure to the four stages of learning hinders the movement of the correct neurotransmitters at the correct times, which, in turn, limits efficient memory formation and inhibits creativity.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

lightthroughdoor[1]Memory is not an event but a process. In researching why experience in the real world is so much more of a powerful promoter of the neurological actions that lead to long-term memory formation than traditional language-based classroom education, an interesting discovery was made. That is, learning and memory do not occur in one fell swoop. Instead, in order to learn, your brain must go through four distinct stages of the learning process, marked by the alternating dominance of different neurotransmitter systems. It is the ebb and flow of these systems that allow information to be firmly encoded into your long-term memory banks. Limiting your exposure to less than the four stages of learning hinders the stimulation of the correct neurotransmitters at the correct times, which, in turn, limits the efficiency of your memory formation. Understanding these stages is a major component of comprehending the Learning Code and gives us powerful clues about how to accelerate the speed of learning.

robotarmlightbulb[1]The concept that efficient learning occurs in stages comes not only from the fields of neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology but also from artificial intelligence. In the 1940s, renowned mathematicians John von Neumann and Stanislas Ulam helped develop the discipline of cellular automation, or artificial life, based on mathematical and computer modeling. Von Neumann and Ulam recognized that, to get a deep understanding of how artificial systems could develop, learn, and self-replicate, they needed to break the processes down into distinct stages. Their pioneering work on artificial intelligence helped confirm that, to fully grasp how organic systems learned and expanded their survival repertoire, a full examination of each stage of the learning process would need to be undertaken.

The Four Stages of Learning

They are:

  1. Information
  2. Action
  3. Feedback
  4. Incubation

eyeabsorbing[1]The information stage occurs when you personally observe something in your environment or when someone else informs you in word or print about some fact or idea. The next stage happens when you physically take action based on information you have acquired for yourself or from others. And the third stage takes place when your sensory systems are bombarded by complex environmental feedback from your actions in the world. These first three stages allow information to be efficiently placed into working memory, where it is stored on a temporary basis. But before information can be firmly implanted into your long-term memory banks, you must pass through the last stage, which is called the incubation stage (see “The Incubation Stage of Learning“). This last period consists of physically relaxed, mentally unfocused downtime, where information moves from working memory into long-term memory. Passing through a complete cycle of the four stages of learning provides your brain with correct levels of different neurotransmitters at the correct times so that efficient learning and memory formation can take place.

The best way to understand these four stages is to imagine a young boy learning not to touch hot stoves. The information stage consists of observing heat coming from the stove in his kitchen or his mother saying to him, “Johnny, do not touch that stove, it is very hot.” Of course, being a little human, Johnny needs to experience the world for himself. He takes the information (stage 1) and takes action (stage 2) by touching the stove. Immediately, Johnny gets a sensual feedback (stage 3) resulting in a burned finger, and after an incubation period of relaxed downtime (stage 4), Johnny integrates this important information into his long-term memory banks. Depending on the intensity of Johnny’s burn, his genetic makeup, temperament, stress levels, and previous experiences with hot things, Johnny could learn every thing he needs to know about hot stoves in one cycle of learning, or he may need to pass through the cycle many times.

Each time Johnny encounters a new situation that deals with hot things, like hot matches or hot coals, he will not necessarily have to go through the four stages to learn to avoid these dangerous things. This is because of the powerful associative nature of the brain (see “Associative Learning – the Power of Simultaneous Neural Firing,” and “The Power of Concepts Over Details“). Once a strong concept network is formed, it can be easily linked with other concept networks. Therefore, once Johnny has firmly encoded and associated information about stoves into his “hot” and “pain” concept networks, any time he encounters a new situation that deals with hot things, he has the capacity to immediately make new relevant associations.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of the four stages of learning

Stages of Learning and Traditional Learning Systems

When we look at the time line of life, we can clearly see that, for 3.5 billion years, organisms have learned how to increase their personal Adaptability/Intelligence Factor by moving through, taking action in and getting sensory feedback from their world. It has only been within the last 10 decades (in 1900 only 1 percent of the population graduated from high school) that our species has gone against the evolutionary flow by dropping the action and feedback stages of learning and providing primarily one source of stimulation to our brains – linguistic information in a classroom setting. Science now allows us to see that our experiment has been flawed because we have inadvertently eliminated the very stages of learning that allow for efficient memory formation.

Ebb and Flow of Neurochemicals Creates Learning and Memory

The chemical states produced during the different stages of learning are turning out to be very complex and are just beginning to be understood. It is estimated that 60 or more neurotransmitters and hormones, including glutamate, GABA, melatonin, cortisol, the amines and acytocholine, are all interacting with one another in complex algorithms of combinations in particular brain regions at particular times in order to create long-term memory formation. Please understand that, to facilitate your understanding, we will paint a very simplistic and broad conceptual picture of the neurochemistry that directs the different stages of learning, by focusing on the last two neurotransmitter groups listed above: the aminergic and cholinergic systems.

Next, we will focus on the functions and neurotransmitters (the amines) of the action and feedback stages of learning, and in the next element we will focus on the functions and neurotransmitters (the cholinergic system) of “The Incubation stage of Learning.”

Neurochemistry of the Action and Feedback Stages

During the action and feedback stages of learning, the neurotransmitters of the aminergic system – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – dominate. As we saw in the elements on meaning (Elements 14-22), the aminergic system is responsible for helping us maintain our attention, refine our focus, and mark information with emotional value so that it can be prioritized for inclusion into working memory. Any time we take physical action in and get rich complex sensory feedback from our environment, the activity of the aminergic system can increase by as much as 500 percent, substantially supporting working memory formation. Automatically activating the aminergic system during the action and feedback stages of learning naturally allows more of the information you encounter in these stages of learning to be marked as meaningful. Data that you encounter only in the information stage is provided no such benefit.

Though they consist of only a tiny number of your total neurons, less than a million, the neurons of the aminergic system, located primarily in and around the brain stem, have a profound impact on the direction, coordination, and intensity of the neural firing between your other 100 billion neurons. This is because they act as neuromodulators, modifying the way other neurons act. Like the volume on your stereo, the aminergic system superimposes “gain” control – either amplifying or muting the activity of other neurons. This modulation function of the amine system inserts order into the billions of bits of data we are bombarded with each second. James Austin, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Colorado and author of Zen and the Brain, nicely sums up the role of the neurotransmitters of the aminergic system, saying they “further emphasize the brain’s response functions – inserting suitable pauses, occasional italics and sometimes multiple exclamation points.”

The Spice Rack of the Brain

goldimagry[1]The amine system provides the neurochemicals that mark information with emotional intensity (see “No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network). Emotional intensity is important to learning because it not only maintains our focus and attention but is also what working memory uses to prioritize which of the billionbits of sensory data should be selected for possible later inclusion into long-term memory. The intense feelings of joy, fear, love, greed, and anger would cease to exist without the influence of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are like the spice rack of the brain, sprinkling specific bits of incoming information with just the right emotional zest so that we remember them. Depressed people have low levels of aminergic neurotransmitters, which not only puts them into black moods but also compromises their attention, focus, and working memory functions.

The neurotransmitters of the aminergic system are also called monoamines. We have all heard of people taking MAO inhibitors to reverse the darkness of depression. MAO stands for monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that helps the brain remove serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine from a synapse. The goal of a depressed person taking a MAO inhibitor such as Prozac is to limit the uptake of his monoamines so more will freely float in his brain. Increased levels of monoamines, not only help a depressed person feel part of the world and alive again but also restores his attention, focus, and compromised working memory function. Individuals who are in a coma are an extreme example of a compromised aminergic system – unable to move, have emotions, or make memories because the aminergic neurons in their brain stems have been damaged by disease or trauma.

It is the aminergic system that also provides purpose and coordination to our motor neurons, so that we may effectively move away from pain and towards pleasure. The amines are the neurotransmitters of the voluntary and sympathetic nervous system. If amine neurons become damaged, we lose the ability to effectively move. The jerky, uncoordinated actions and rigidity you see in individuals with Parkinson’s disease are a result of damaged monoamine neurons. If the amine neurons are compromised, we lose the physical ability to take efficient surviving and thriving actions in our world.

The new sciences are making it clear that learning institutions and individuals that desire to create the neurological change that is the foundation of profound memory formation and behavioral change must activate the neurotransmitters of the action and feedback stages of learning. These sciences are also revealing that learning systems that fail to activate the amine system produce environments where boredom rules, memory flat lines, and depression can flourish.

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


How to stimulate your dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine systems, thus elevating your mood and increasing your ability to learn and remember.

How the action and feedback stages of learning automatically activate the somatic (body and organs) markers from which your emotions and working memory are constructed.


How norepinephrine allows your brain to stop paying attention to valueless input and only pay attention to meaningful input.

How to increase your attention and focus, by increasing your levels of this neurotransmitter.

How learning difficulties associated with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have been linked to the brain’s inability to filter out unwanted stimuli caused by low levels of norepinephrine.

That ADHD is not really a problem of too little focus but too much!

How people with the primary biological intelligences of kinesthetic and social are the ones most often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Why the prescribing of amphetamine drugs, such as Ritalin, to ADD and ADHD children may calm the young brain but damage its adult potential.

How the use of amphetamine drugs in schools has become more a method of behavioral modification than a method of healing.

Why so many children “heal themselves” of ADD and ADHD simply by growing older.


How dopamine acts like a spot light in a dark room, highlighting specific information with emotion and marking it as meaningful.

How, using the spice rack analogy, dopamine takes information that other neurotransmitters have already marked with black pepper and sprinkles on cayenne pepper so that it really gets your working memory’s attention.

How dopamine allows you to get pleasure from performing meaningful behaviors.

How dopamine virtually forces you to repeat meaningful behaviors.

How, when stimulated by drugs and alcohol, dopamine can be stimulated in such a way that these substances become more meaningful than food or sex.

Why it can be said that too little activity of dopamine leads to Parkinson’s dementia and too much leads to the wild thoughts of schizophrenia.


That serotonin stimulates 15 different kinds of receptors in your brain, each receptor having a different function.

That, by affecting your serotonin production, you can influence everything from positive self image to sexual urges.

How serotonin is “the band leader who choreographs the output of your brain.”

That a single serotonin neuron can influence as many as 500,000 other neurons.

How, because the hallucinogenic drugs LSD and psilocybin are such excellent serotonin receptor blockers, they create wild delusions.

Why, when you are under stress, serotonin levels dip, thus making it so you “can’t think straight.”

That one reason that the drug Ecstasy (MDMA) is so devastating is because it is very effective at destroying fine serotonin connections in the brain.

How alcohol affects our serotonin activity first positively, then negatively.

How low levels of serotonin increase our impulsive acts.

Why the prison population is thought to have critically low levels of serotonin.

That Alzheimer’s patients’ poor memories are partially caused by reduced numbers of serotonin receptors.

How, because they increase your serotonin levels, food and drink can become addictive, elevating your moods in the short term and becoming your primary source of focus and attention.

How physical movement can alter your “black moods” by elevating your serotonin levels.

How serotonin can propel couch potatoes into action.


That the more immediate the sensory feedback, the more effective your learning and long-term memory formation.

That personal responsibility and profound learning are often hard to implement in large corporations because employees never directly experience the consequences of many of their most important decisions

How immediate sensory feedback helps create the somatic (body and organ) changes that are the basis of emotions, meaning-making, and memory formation.

That the reason people become so rapidly addicted to drugs such as cocaine, and methamphetamines is because taking a “hit” produces immediate pleasurable sensory feedback, which, in turn, can cement negative learning and behavior.

How it has been found that the heart rates and other somatic markers of chronic wife beaters, rapists, and sociopaths actually drop in response to the violent sensory feedback caused by their actions.

How the uninterrupted state of learning called “flow,” characterized by timelessness and self-pleasure, is dependent upon continuous sensory feedback.

That we forget so much of what we study in school because the classroom fails to produce either immediate or intense sensory feedback.


That new research revels that new neuron growth and dendrital branching (the foundations of learning) are created most effectively through physical activity in sensory rich environments.

How physical action in sensory rich environments is the fastest way to create personal meaning, thus accelerating the learning process (see, “Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning“).

How evolution has preprogrammed us to value what we personally experience over what someone else has experienced and conveyed to us in lecture or print.

How the action and feedback stages of learning activate “hot nets,” which are synaptual hooks upon which new information can easily attach itself (see “The Power of Concepts Over Details“).

That, once specific “hot nets” have been stimulated by real world experience, new information presented linguistically that resonates with these networks can be easily attached.

Why learning systems should employ a combination of real world experience and linguistic presentation related to that experience – ideally at a ratio of 70 percent experience-action-feedback and 30 percent linguistic.

About BOREDOM, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND MENTAL DISORDERS picture of wild anguished face)

How the action and feedback stages of learning can naturally repel boredom.

Why many researchers believe the lack of activity in sensory-rich environments caused by sitting still for 6 hours a day in a classroom and 6.5 hours a day with media has become a major cause of the profound rate at which children are now being prescribed antidepressants (100 percent increase in 4 years) and ADHD drugs (369 percent increase in 3 years)!

Why a study published in 2004 by the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle found that, for each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers, the likelihood that they would develop concentration problems and other symptoms of ADD by age 7 increased by 10 percent.

Why research at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who spend even a few hours on the Internet each week suffer higher levels of loneliness and depression than those who use the Internet less frequently.

Why studies reveal that even limited television viewing increases depression.

Why Cornell University environmental psychologists report that “life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions.”

Why, in Environment and Behavior, researchers write, “Activities in natural, green settings were far more likely to leave ADD children better able to focus, concentrate. Activities that left ADD children in worse shape were far more likely to occur indoors or outdoors in spaces devoid of greenery.”

Why Richard Louv, author or Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, writes, “ADHD may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature. By this line of thinking … the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment. … To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.”

How one way to look at the action and feedback stages of learning is as natural forms of Ritalin and Prozac.

That research now allows us to see that our linguistic-only learning experiment has been flawed because we have inadvertently eliminated the action and feedback stages of learning.

That a corporate, government, or scholastic learning institution that fails to activate the action and feedback stages of learning will be an institution which will continually fail to live up to its potential.

To help you understand more about the four stages of learning, click on other Elements:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

The Incubation Stage of Learning

Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase

The Grinches Who Stole Experience From our Learning Institutions

Stress – the Death of Learning