Pomeranian dog wearing glasses and studying on an ipad

Back to School: Tips for Effective Studying

Amber Frazier Blog

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Welcome to the final part of NTI’s Back to School Series. This week’s blog touches on some tips and tools for effective studying. These tips include how to leverage your body’s biochemistry to enhance focus and attention and improve retention of information.

We’ll touch on several techniques that may help improve learning. Ranging from enhancing mood, alertness, and focus, to aligning your study habits with the natural rhythms of alertness and rest.

We’ll also touch on several ideas you can test out in your own studious endeavors, including movement, music, scents, schedules, and rest protocols.

But first, let’s explore the basic neurochemicals that influence your brain’s ability to sustain attention and achieve mental focus.

Neurochemistry of Focus and Attention

In order to illustrate how common tips, tools, and techniques may enhance learning, it may be helpful to explore the main neurotransmitters (compounds that affect the activity of neurons) that facilitate the brain’s ability to process sensory information, hone in and tune out certain stimuli, and drive motivational behavior to sustain attention on the task at hand. After all, it’s easier to learn when awake, alert, and in a positive mood.

The following molecules are associated with these states.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that acts primarily to excite neurons to enhance neural pathways related to arousal, memory, learning, spatial orientation, and neuroplasticity. Research shows increased concentrations of acetylcholine during cognitive tasks.

Epinephrine/norepinephrine

Also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline, these neurotransmitters are responsible for the feeling of alertness.

Dopamine

Not just a molecule that makes you feel good. Current science interprets dopamine’s role as a neurotransmitter that is essential to motivation and reward behavior. In a nutshell, dopamine is a chemical messenger produced in the brain that influences neural pathways either in pursuit of a stimulus, or withdrawal. The balance between the two gives the brain flexibility and efficiency when processing a multitude of signals in a complicated and constantly changing environment.

Glutamate and GABA

Speaking of pursuit or withdrawal, glutamate and GABA excite and inhibit neurons in the brain, respectively. The delicate push/pull of these neurotransmitters help the brain to focus more intently on certain stimuli, while ignoring distractions. Think of their coordinated actions as similar to the tuning mechanism on a radio, but for your brain.

Through the coordinated efforts of these neurotransmitters, the brain is able to direct attention to a specific task by guiding neuronal activity towards pertinent sensory information, while decreasing signals from irrelevant stimuli.

To some extent, you can control the sensory information in your environment. Examples of this are visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli. Doing this creates favorable conditions for improving alertness and focus.

Ways to Improve Alertness

The following examples are a small sample of the many ways to enhance the wakeful state your brain requires to engage in a learning activity. The efficacy of these techniques is subjective depending on personal preference, the type of activity you’re doing (e.g. creative, memory-based, or detail-oriented), the time of day, and the state of your nervous system.

Movement

It is well-known that exercise produces a myriad of benefits for the body, including cognitive function and overall wellbeing. Exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, including the brain, and its effects produce a state of alertness, reduce anxiety, and improve memory and cognitive function.

In this study, human participants engaged in a short bout of mild exercise (only 10 min!) and then researchers measured their brain activity using an MRI scan while they completed a memory-based task. Results showed increases in arousal levels post-exercise, as well as higher levels of activation in the hippocampal regions of the brain as well as improved functional connectivity between brain regions.

As far as exercise goes, a little may go a long way toward improving mood, alertness, and memory.

Music

The use of music while studying is perhaps the most subjectively beneficial, or detrimental, stimulus of them all.

On the positive side, music may have beneficial effects on arousal and mood, which is good for learning. For example, if you are feeling dull and lethargic, listening to music might be the answer to pump you up. In this sense, music is increasing your level of dopamine in order to bring about motivational behavior.

The negative implication of music and learning is the so-called “seductive detail effect”. In this hypothesis, music is a seductive detail that the brain can’t ignore. When the brain pays attention to the background music, working memory capacity is limited. That is, you can’t remember as many details from your study session because the brain is using some of its bandwidth to process the music.

To jam or not to jam while studying is a question that depends on how easily distractible you’re feeling in the moment, what your level of arousal is, and the limits of your working memory.

Of course, there is also a wide range of subjective experiences to consider depending on the genre, volume, tempo, and lyrics of the music itself.

Alternatively, other sounds, such as white noise, nature sounds, or the use of binaural beats, may be helpful to promote a beneficial mood state and learning environment for some people.

Essential Oils

The sense of smell can elicit a nervous system response toward alertness or calm because of the direct connections between the olfactory bulb and brain regions.  These regions are the hippocampus (memory) and the amygdala (emotion).

Many people enjoy using essential oils to achieve certain states of nervous system arousal. Generally, scents fall into one of four categories: energizing, stress relief, sleep aids, and mood elevators.

The following aromatic herbs are typically used to achieve alert/wakeful states:

  • Peppermint
  • Lemon
  • Rosemary
  • Pine
  • Lemongrass
  • Sweet Orange
  • Cinnamon

Closeup of rosemary plant growing to be harvested for essential oils

Rosemary, in particular, is a scent that is linked to alertness, memory, and cognitive function. Though it is difficult to quantify the effects of essential oils, measurements of activity of the autonomic nervous system confirm the stimulatory effects and heightened subjective mood experience of test subjects who inhaled rosemary oil.

Though alertness is beneficial for learning and productivity, one cannot remain in a state of heightened arousal all of the time. In fact, activity levels naturally ebb and flow throughout the day in cycles known as ultradian rhythms.

Ultradian Rhythms

Hopefully you are aware of the large shifts in arousal known as being awake and sleeping that occur roughly on a 2:1 ratio within a 24 hour period. However, within the 16 or so hours we are awake, those of us beholden to the circadian clock experience shorter oscillations of alertness and rest, known as ultradian rhythms.

Much like the phases of sleep, phases of attention and focus occur in roughly 90-minute intervals throughout the day. Though they may be shorter or longer and don’t conform to a definitive schedule as well as circadian rhythms.

After about an hour and a half of focused attention, the brain and body lose focus and we become easily distracted and agitated. We need a period of rest to recharge while neurotransmitters, their receptors, and neurons move through this cycle, sometimes referred to as a basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC).

Though BRACs don’t occur on set schedules, you may organize your learning bouts with these 90-minute cycles in mind to maximize productivity of your study sessions depending on when you feel optimally alert and awake. Factors such as sleep deprivation, use of stimulants, such as caffeine, and your individual chronotype, i.e. whether you’re a morning or an evening person, will affect the timing and ability to slip into a period of attention and focus.

As active focus wanes, it’s important not to ignore the necessary period of rest in order to maximize the benefits of your efforts.

Non-Sleep Deep Rest

Sleep, of course, is paramount for maintaining overall health, well-being, cognitive function, and memory. Though research is unveiling similar benefits of practices involving short rest sessions during waking hours, also known as non-sleep deep rest (NSDR).

The following are examples of ways to practice NSDR:

  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Yoga Nidra
  • iRest

A man sitting on grass facing the skyline and meditating to improve focus

The basic underlying principle of each of these techniques is interoception, or the perception of sensations from within the body. By turning your attention within your own body, you become more in tune with physiological and emotional processes. This may reduce stress and improve focus in the long term.

In addition, by reducing external sensory input in a quiet practice like NSDR, it is easier to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” state.

Practicing NSDR may help retain information recently learned, especially fine details, and improve your ability to access restful states when you want them, like when you’re going to sleep.

Practice Rest

I know, I know – it’s really difficult to schedule periods of rest throughout our busy lives. Though I really enjoy a daytime rest session, unplugging for 20 minutes is the last thing I want to do if I have a busy day, which is probably when it’s most necessary.

I’d wager that most people fall into this category— leaning into the go, go, go mentality while struggling to slow your roll.

Here’s a 23-minute NSDR script to try to get in the habit of practicing waking rest, perhaps after an especially invigorating 90-minute study session.

Hopefully the behavioral tools outlined in this blog provide useful information to take your studying to the next level.

About the author

Karyn Lane is working towards her holistic nutrition certification in NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. She finds her chemistry degree a useful tool in her study of holistic nutrition and loves to treat herself as a laboratory for new recipes and cooking techniques. You can follow her on Instagram @feel.alive.nourishment.

About Nutrition Therapy Institute’s Holistic Nutrition Certification

Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) is a leader in holistic nutrition education. Since 1999, NTI has provided students with the highest quality in nutrition training by offering comprehensive holistic nutrition courses online and in-person to help students achieve thriving careers as holistic nutrition therapists in the field of holistic nutrition counseling and wellness. Interested in starting our holistic nutrition courses and earning your holistic nutrition certification? Attend an informational webinar to learn more by signing up HERE.  

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