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It's Easier To Remember When It's More Difficult To Do

Everything is about trying and the travails of effort.

Key points

  • Our adaptations to stress are a kind of learning.
  • Effort is associated with learning.
  • Positive reinforcement facilitates effortful learning,
  • Contrary to Yoda, there is a "try" and it's key to doing.

Stress as a stimulus for change

All our physiological systems exist in a kind of balance. This is part of a foundational principle of "homeostasis" and speaks to our biological ability to adapt to things. Especially new stressors like learning a new skill. That skill could be something seemingly as simple as strength training or as complex as playing the guitar. You stress yourself and you adapt to minimize the effects of the stress.

In the example of strength training your musculoskeletal system gets stronger so the weight causes less stress. But a key part here is that the stress has to be outside the range of what you are used to doing in your daily life. If you pick up a weight that you are already strong enough to lift hundreds of times, it won't make you any stronger than you already are. But if the weight is something you can only do 5-8 times it for sure will make you stronger. And that takes a certain amount of effort.

Learning about effort

But is the effort itself critical to learning? To answer this, Huw Jarvis and colleagues at Monash University and St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia conducted a clever experiment "Effort reinforces learning" published in the Journal of Neuroscience. They suggest there is a relationship between neural activity during "reward-based learning" and exerting effort. They had 140 participants produce hand-grip forces during a reinforcement learning task while they manipulated the force needed for success. They determined that "greater effort increased learning rates following positive outcomes and decreased them following negative outcomes."

This research suggests that "the very act of investing effort influences learning" with more efficient learning after positive reinforcement. It was also shown that the largest effects were seen in those who were initially reluctant to invest effort.

Everything is learning

Producing physical forces seems kind of straightforward as a way to appreciate effort, but what about the effort required to learn other things? Results like those described here really underline the critical importance of motivation in learning which is likely broadly applicable. In other words everything is about effort, including about the decision to produce effort itself. For some this may also increase the enjoyment of the experience.

As such, I feel we have to contradict Yoda's famous assertion to Luke Skywalker in 1980's "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back". Although Yoda says "do or do not...there is no try" while Luke struggles to control the force, in truth the empirical data show that trying and trying to "try" actually lead to success at the doing.

(c) E. Paul Zehr


Jarvis H, Stevenson I, Huynh AQ, Babbage E, Coxon J, Chong TT. Effort reinforces learning. J Neurosci. 2022 Sep 6;42(40):7648–58. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2223-21.2022. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36096671; PMCID: PMC9546447.

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