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Learning and What Interferes with It

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

The process of learning is controlled by natural law and is as biologic as digestion. A clear mind is not a happenstance. Each person must play his own part to produce a clear mind, capable of keener perception and greater memory retention. Certainly, the first feature of good learning is the ability to focus the attention. In order to focus the attention, one must be disciplined to set aside all other things from the mind and concentrate on the subject at hand. To assist one in directing the attention, begin with being orderly about one's desk and personal things. If all things in sight are in order, attention to the subject at hand is more easily accomplished. Furthermore, if one is orderly about one's daily habits, scheduling the same things at the same time each day, the mind is kept in better order, and can prepare itself to receive new material. Have a set time in the daily routine for study, meals, sleep, and all other things.

In order for the mind to be keen, the health must be good. Anything that prevents perfect circulation is, of course, capable of interfering with the circulation to the brain cells, thereby causing poor discernment and imperfect fixation of concepts in the mind. The health should be carefully guarded by meticulous attention to such matters as proper sleep, regular elimination, daily exercise, and simple food.

Exercise is one of the most important single matters leading to a good learning experience. The conscientious student who is attentive and motivated will be a better student if he gets plenty of exercise. Exercise tends to banish from the blood the toxic substances that build up through the ordinary metabolic activities, substances that reduce the ability to think - acids, aldehydes, amines, and alcohols. Through exercise, we burn some of these substances as fuel, and others are eliminated through the breath, bowels, sweat, and urine. Further, exercise causes the brain to lose the burden of electrical activity which can develop through an excess of mental exercise. Brain work causes a heavy discharge of electrical energy. After several hours of study or class-work, the brain becomes overburdened and congested, the temperature of the brain tissue actually increases, and oxygen delivery to the cells decreases; causing a temporary starvation of brain cells for essential nutrients and oxygen. Exercise balances the electrical impulses in the various portions of the central nervous system and increases one's ability to perceive and impress new material on the brain cells.

The diet is also important in the learning process. Too much food can cause fermentation in the intestinal tract with the production of the toxic materials already mentioned that interfere with thought processes in the same manner as do drugs or alcohol. These chemicals cause a true intoxication of the mind. Food that is too rich, or mixed foods containing too many items combined into one dish, may cause intestinal fermentation. The combination of sugar, milk, and eggs is notorious for causing fermentation. Ice cream, because it is cold and because it is a combination of easily fermentable items, is very likely to cause fermentation. Foods that are too cold slow digestion and promote fermentation. Oil interferes with digestion by slowing down the stomach emptying time, making digestion less efficient and allowing undigested particles to pass over from the small bowel into the colon. There, the gas forming germs ferment the undigested food particles, and cause the accumulation of products of fermentation.

Various chemicals have an effect on the electrochemical balance in the forebrain, causing an improper functioning of the mind, and making it unable to receive new material. Caffeine is such a drug. It is found in coffee, tea, and colas. At first, caffeine induces an increase in the activity of the brain, making the perception much better; but because caffeine has a dual pharmacologic effect, a depression always follows the stimulation, and the depression is associated with reduction in learning. Since the depression lasts longer than the stimulatory effect, caffeine has an overall effect of making learning less keen. Most of the alkaloids, a group of chemicals that come from plants, alter forebrain chemistry. Some of these are caffeine, nicotine, morphine, procaine, strychnine, belladonna alkaloids, and quinine. The only member of this group that comes from animal products is that of purines, found mainly in meat. It is for this reason that a heavy meal of rich foods can cause dulling of the mind.

All drugs have a deleterious effect on the central nervous system, and interfere with learning. Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, such as antihistamines, tranquilizers, and drugs taken to stay awake to lose weight, fall into this category.

A clear conscience is also essential to proper learning. The mind is much inhibited by a guilty conscience. One should not get rid of a guilty conscience by deciding that what one has done improperly is not wrong, but by facing the wrong, shouldering one's guilt and fallibility, and making restitution in whatever method is deemed proper.

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