Maximize Your Learning and Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

June 4, 2019 by Maja Tomšič Pavlič

I have just read an article about learning, explaining that learning is happening only outside comfort zone. My first reaction was strong disagreement with this statement. Without deep reflection I would say that feelings of insecurity, instability and stress switch off your brain and disable learning. Saying in other words I believe feelings of comfort, security and stability are the basics for successful learning. How is it possible that my belief is so contradictory to the latest scientific research? Let's take a look.

Three zones

When talking about learning and comfort, we should understand three zones. Seth Sandler (2019) is explaining their functioning.

  • The comfort zone

The comfort zone is where many of us operate as all the skills and abilities we've acquired lie there. It is about all situations when you figure out the best way to behave in a given environment (the fastest route from your home to work or figuring out how to make the best pancakes).

  • The panic zone

If you become so anxious you can no longer think, you have probably run into the panic zone. Activities in this zone are so tough that we do not even know how to approach them (dangerous situations, high stress). Like the comfort zone we cannot make progress in the panic zone.

  • The learning zone = outside comfort zone

Between panic and comfort zone is the learning zone. The skills and abilities that are just out of the reach lie there. They are neither so far away that we panic nor close enough where they are too easy.


How learning works outside comfort zone?

Stillman (2018) summarizes in her article the main results of the new Yale research. It has found out that uncertainty signals the brain to kickstart learning. That means unstable situations might be uncomfortable, but are also essential to make the most of your brain. Unless there is a little stress in what you are doing, your brain shuts down learning. In this respect you need to avoid the easy and comfortable in favor of the unpredictable and hard if you want to maximize your learning.

The research was done by neuroscientists, teaching monkeys to hit various targets and then measuring their brain activities.  Clear pattern emerged. If the monkeys could predict how often a target would pay off, brain regions associated with learning basically shut down. When the monkeys couldn't guess what would happen, their learning centers lit up.

Yale neuroscientist Daeyeol Lee explained:  "Perhaps the most important insight from our study is that the function of the brain as well as the nature of learning is not 'fixed' but adapts according to the stability of the environment... When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more information."

However, we should be careful not to mistake panic zone as the learning zone, believing »no pain no gain«. If this were true, the happiest and most successful people would be in lots of pain. Sandler (2019) is clear when explaining that the panic zone and learning zone may involve forms of “pain” and challenges, but the panic zone is a place where we are lost and in the learning zone we are focused and open to new ideas.

So, you are probably already thinking how to put this insight into practice. The three zones are constantly changing and forcing oneself to stay in the learning zone is a difficult task. But you could try to bring some variety, uncertainty and newness into your life.  I agree with Stillman (2018) that following activities can put you in unstable and unknown situations:

  • Traveling
  • Changing your routine
  • Starting a new project
  • Searching new, even weird ideas
  • Talking to people you disagree with

So, being fair to myself I now fully agree with the latest results of research.  When I deeply reflected and revised when my learning progress was the fastest, I realized it happened when I did not feel comfortable. What about you?



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