How To Deal With Frustration When Learning Hard Things (Better Brain Fitness podcast)


Welcome to Better Brain Fitness, hosted by doctors Josh Turknet and Tommy Wood. In this podcast, we will explore the frontiers of how to keep our brain fit and healthy so that we can perform at our best and do the things we love for as long as possible. Let’s go. Ok, welcome again to the Better Brain Fitness podcast. I’m joined again by my cohost, the infamous Dr tommy Wood look tommy infamous wow, that sounds pretty ominous if you’ve seen 3 Amigos, it means more than famous if you say so.

00:44 :
All right so I’ll be fielding today’s question, which comes from Elizabeth, who left hers by audio message. And she asks, hi, doctor, TI have a question about how to handle frustration. So i’m trying to go slowly trying to use my metronome i’m trying to learn an instrument but there are many ways that this could be used. But anytime you’re early on trying to learn something, there is going to be frustration you’re not going fast enough you know you need to slow down and you tense up, which makes you less of a good player. And you may potentially, like throw the banjo at somebody or the club, like for golf.

01:29 :
Have you reel yourself back in and not derail your process and your progress. Thank you for very much taking my question. And my name is Elizabeth Tyler, despite the American accent i’m calling from the UK, just West of London. Thank you. So this question of dealing with frustration, I think is actually more important than it might seem at first. As we’ve discussed here, there’s strong evidence, we think, to indicate that declining cognitive stimulation across our lifespan is a driving factor in the development of cognitive decline and dementia.

02:07 :
And the typical sort of cognitive the, or the typical profile of cognitive stimulation typically reduces drift quite dramatically over the course of a of a human lifespan these days thanks to multiple factors. And one of those are psychological. So a range of kind of mindsets and attitudes that make us less likely to learn new things, especially the various sorts of things that likely provide the greatest stimulus to the brain so complex multidimensional learning and one of those psychological factors is a fixed mindset.

02:42 :
The idea that you can’t teach old dogs new trick. And even if you kind of embrace the growth mindset on some level, find that folks often do it kind of selectively. It may apply to certain domains but not others. But the truth is we can learn new complex skills at any age. I did a recent Brain Joe connection issue talking about the research on, you know, whether there’s a golden window for things like sports and music at A at a young age and the research there, you know, indicating, no, that does not appear to be the case.

03:15 :
But that mindset, that idea keeps many adults from ever attempting to learn, you know, complex knowledge and skills as they get older. And then another major source is frustration when they try to do that. So people might attempt to do such things but then quickly give up when they get frustrated by the results. And that’s a big issue it causes a lot of people to not pursue these things. So that’s why I think it’s important that’s one of those factors that that’s you know, results in this reduced cognitive stimulation over the over our lifespan.

03:43 :
So I’m going to talk about a few strategies for how to deal with it. Those who have who follow Brain Joe will find some of these things familiar because I talked about this stuff quite a bit so the first strategy in no particular order is to think like a scientist. So imagine that you are evaluating yourself kind of in the third person and that you’re a coach or a teacher and your job is just to collect feedback and help your student grow.

04:06 :
So you know, in this case you are the student and you’re also acting as your coach who’s thinking as a scientist. And from that, from your mind, you know, knowing what to work on next is essential to the learning process and the only way we figure out what that is by making mistakes and knowing where you know where our weaknesses are. So from that standpoint, if you’re thinking like a scientist, you’re just, you know, all feedback, all feedback is good rather that’s positive or negative.

04:36 :
And you realize that mistakes are extraordinarily valuable and that’s where they know that’s what helps you to identify your opportunities for growth. So viewing mistakes as essential, you know, and viewing them as feedback like a scientist is one strategy. Another is to kind of reframe how what you understand as the purpose of practice. So we all have this, you know, wonderful gift of a plastic brain that continue to adapt throughout our lives allowing us to continue to add these new complex capabilities.

05:10 :
But those things take time, right? Really developing them requires sort of short and long term structural changes in the brain, almost all of which are going to happen during sleep and aren’t happening while you’re practicing. In fact, the neurophysiological changes that happen to support any improvements that you that you have while you’re practicing are actually temporary they’re not the things that are actually going to result in lasting, sustained progress.

05:39 :
So the really the purpose of the brain is to, I mean purpose of practice is to signal the brain that you wanted to change and then to steer that change in the direction you desire by providing it high quality inputs. So you’re focused less on the direct results of a single practice session, more on the process of just providing high quality input. Third thing is to think about practice in terms of the brain benefits. So in the realm of physical activity and exercise, we’ve all learned to equate struggle as a necessary part and in fact, the more we struggle, the more exhausted we are after workout, the better we feel about it, right we know there’s typically a direct relationship between the amount of struggle and the benefits we’re going to receive from that exercise.

06:24 :
So that’s why I think that understanding the value of things like music for brain health and fitness can be so valuable because it, you know, flips the frame and portrays learning music in a completely different light. And in this case, you know, the more inept you are, the more you stand to benefit from it, right. So in that in that way of thinking, your struggle equates to improvements in brain health and fitness. Hey there. So if you like this podcast then I think you will enjoy the Brain Joe Connection newsletter.

06:58 :
The Brain Joe Connection is a free newsletter sent out twice a month and is all about the science of how to keep our brain fit and healthy along with products, books, tools and resources for improving brain health and function that we use and recommend to subscribe. You can go to Brain Joe dot Academy forward slash connection or click the link in the podcast description. All right, now back to the show. The next strategy is to ditch your expectations altogether. So you know why do we get frustrated in the 1st place? The only reason we get frustrated is when our expectations don’t match our reality, When we expect we should be able to do something but we can’t.

07:49 :
And if we didn’t have any expectations about what we should be able to do, we’d never get frustrated in the 1st place. Now, it’s easier said than done, but it’s important to recognize that is the root of all frustration. And you know, the process of learning complex things is, not surprisingly, incredibly complex. And it depends on a vast number of factors, many of which are hidden to us, the interactions of which we don’t understand. So Needless to say, nobody can predict what we should be able to do nobody can predict the future in this realm, and expectations are ultimately just a prediction about the future. So ditching your expectations about you, what you should be able to do, you know, is the single best way to eliminate frustration, since it is ultimately the root cause.

08:36 :
It’s also the most challenging because for many it requires overriding some long established thought patterns. It’s also an area where you know young children have an advantage because they set out, you know when they’re when they’re learning complex things, they have no expectations probably a great thing for learning things as complex as language and walking and so forth. Next strategy, use it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. So the essence of mindfulness practice is learning to observe your own thoughts without judgment. And as I just mentioned, our thoughts are the source of our frustration, and our feeling of frustration is reaction to those thoughts.

09:17 :
So as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, it’s not the events in a man’s life that determines his happiness, but the view he takes of them. And mindfulness is really about sort of breaking that connection between thoughts and our emotional reaction to them. So even if you’re still having the thoughts like I should be able to do this better. Severing the link between those thoughts and your emotional reaction can then minimize your experience of frustration and sort of the negative valence associated with it. So and then it’s also doubling as mindful mindfulness practice right Every time you are working on that as you’re playing music you’re building that ability to dissociate thoughts from emotion which can as we know with the research on the benefits of mindfulness can pay dividends and all other and other facets of your life.

10:09 :
So again you can reframe it as an opportunity to develop what is an incredibly valuable skill. Another strategy is to when you’re engaging in self talk to yourself like you’re talking to someone you care about a lot. This is kind of like the thinking like a scientist where we’re again trying to take a third person perspective. So again, it’s our self talk or the thoughts that we have in our mind that lead to frustration. And research shows that another critical difference between people who are very successful learners is the kind of selftalk they have that thought things that are running through their mind as they’re practicing. So they tend to have a very positive selftalk you know, you’ve got this, just do your best, that’s all you can control.

10:56 :
While people who have very negative selftalk are the ones who are most likely to give up early. So people who are super hard of themselves, and why do I always mess up on that or I’ll never be able to do that or I suck, you know? And the truth is, we’re often much harder on ourselves than we are on other people, especially other people we care a lot about. So when you’re evaluating your efforts, imagine that you’re evaluating someone else in your life that you care a lot about what would you say to them? And that’s typically going to be a lot different.

11:25 :
And this is actually been researched too in various ways, including using VR where you can talk to an avatar of yourself. And indeed when people do that, they use very different language and much more productive language when doing so you can kind of get off your own mind and imagine you’re being a lot gentler with yourself as another way. And then the last thing I have is to try simplifying what you’re doing. So it kind of everything that’s up to this point has been about changing your mindset and your attitudes to help deal with the emotion and the frustration.

12:00 :
This one is about addressing the specifics of how you’re practicing or how you’re training. And if you’re truly stuck, and if you’re not making progress, then it means there’s an issue with how you’re working on that, whatever skill that you’re learning. So learning something new requires our conscious attention, and you can only consciously attend to one thing at a time. So if you’re trying to learn more than one new thing at a time, your performance is going to suffer and it’s biologically impossible to do so because you can’t attend to one thing and you’re And so many people will take that as a sign that it’s a talent issue when in fact it’s a biological issue of how our how our attention works.

12:41 :
But the magic of all this is that with continued effort, that particular skill that you are consciously attending to will become automated, thanks to the aforementioned neuroplasticity, the mechanisms that support it, such that it can be executed without conscious attention, and then you move on to the next thing. And so this whole project of learning a new complex skill, regardless of what domain it is about working on learning new skills individually, to the point that they become automated and then no longer require conscious attention, since that’s our bottleneck.

13:14 :
So I’m not having to consciously attend to every word I’m saying right now. They just come out automatically because these concepts in the motor routines that are driving them are all automated and automated through practice many years ago. So a common mistake is working on too many things at the same time, too many things that haven’t reached that level of automation, automation. So the ideal scenario when you’re practicing is to practice one thing and for that one thing to be kind of right at the border of your current capabilities.

13:42 :
So in this particular instance, it’s helpful to step back and ask, am I working on one new thing or multiple things? And then two, is this new thing I’m working on kind of right at the edge of my capabilities or is it too far away? And I’ll plug the Brain Joe Academy, the courses there are designed to guide you on this path to kind of hope so that you are working on, you know, one thing at a time, whether that thing is in the technical realm, perceptual realm or conceptual realm. Because following that sequence, it’s such a critical component of learning. And most of the time when people you know don’t aren’t making progress, it’s a it’s an issue with their practice methods rather than anything about how talented or gifted they are.

14:28 :
Okay so that’s what I’ve got we’re for addressing frustration hopefully, you know at least one use any of those and I think they’ll help be helpful but like as I said, important topic because again we want people to try to tackle complex, you know, learning new complex skills because we think it’s so important and this is definitely something that gets in the way. Tommy, anything to add or any questions about frustration. Yeah, add one thing to add, actually, and maybe two, this sort of ties to some of the things you said earlier so the first is probably another way to change your mindset around a frustration, which is that as you get frustrated, you’re going to activate your sympathetic nervous system, You get slightly stressed.

15:19 :
This is going to release a whole bunch of neurotransmitters and things that actually help you focus and improve your attention. And so frustration is almost necessary for an optimal learning environment, you know, as you’re right at the edge of your current skill set so actually it’s it can be beneficial. So the fresh at least early on. So that’s so like that frustration, you know maybe it’s a period of 1020 minutes where it will actually help you focus in you know on the thing that you’re trying to learn then becomes a point where it’s counterproductive of course so you know if you just continuously frustrated for hours on end that’s not going to be supporting the sort of neurochemical milieu for required for learning and you’re going to lose that focus and attention and then the other things you mentioned are important.

16:12 :
And I think that does also relate to the analogy to exercise. Because one of the things that I think has become problematic around the way the average person thinks about exercise is that it should be as hard as possible for as long as possible, right, to get maximal benefit like if I’m going to go for a run, I’m going to go for an hour and I’m just going to run as hard as I can for an hour. Similarly, you know, if people trying to lift weights, they’re like, we’ll just more is better and I’ll spend more time doing it and in reality, what those scenarios create is something that we call like junk volume or you’re in this like Gray zone where you just like do this whole bunch of hard work and it feels hard but the adaptations, there’s a big gap between how hard it feels and the adaptations that it that it generates.

17:01 :
So in reality you would think about it more like interval training, right? Push really hard right to the edge of your capabilities for some relatively short defined period of time, whatever it is 2020 or 30 minutes or you know, maybe it’s longer than that but with some breaks in between that’s kind of what you’re thinking about rather just like hours and hours of struggle which can be problematic. But yeah the main point that I wanted to make was that actually some frustration is good because it may help you just create some of that environment that that’s beneficial for learning in the 1st place, right it also means that you are at least identifying where you need to grow right and this kind of focus that’s required for that you know can generate a little bit of frustration and that can be a good thing to alert you to where you need to work on and I totally on the on the sort of less is more front.

17:54 :
I do often try to present you know practice of this nature in the same way you’d think about interval training when the goal is to driving adaptation right short high focused it’s going to be far better than longer drawn out sessions for a number of reasons. I’ll say one last bit too is that it’s also kind of an opportunity to stay in the present. And by that I mean you know we have a tendency to sort of value everything we do in terms of its future benefits, right.

18:35 :
And you know ultimately we’re playing music to enjoy it or whatever we’re learning and so making sure that you’re spending time just enjoying the fruits of your labor is super important. One of my favorite books I read recently was Time Management for Mortals and it talks about this a lot, but basically how so much of how we spend our time and how we think about productivity and time management is in its future value.

19:02 :
And I think this is, I think that’s an issue especially, you know, as we get older, we think of in terms of that a lot more than we did when we were younger. And I think you know, it’s also an opportunity to remind ourselves that all we really have is this present moment so, you know, we should be enjoying ourselves. Yeah, absolutely. Okay well, thank you Elizabeth for that question if you have any others related to hers or anything else on the topic of brain health and fitness, feel free to send it our way at