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Harnessing the Brain's Hidden Powers
Through OptimaLearning:
The Art of Learning through the Arts

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Cezanne - Marseilles Bay
Cezanne: Marseilles Bay
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by Hugh J. Delehanty
When Peter Levy walked into the OptimaLearning® workshop in Los Angeles, his mind was in a state of quiet disarray.

Ever since he entered medical school a year before, he had been suffering from acute, sometimes embarrassing, lapses of memory. His grades were pretty good, but every time he took an exam, his mind automatically self-erased as soon as he handed in his blue book.

Nothing he did helped much either. He tried hypnosis and the memory peg system and even trained his mind to go into an alpha state whenever he studied. But all it did was make him feel more relaxed, while his mind remained as porous as ever.

At first, OptimaLearning looked like more of the same. But as the workshop developed, he discovered it wasn't a breathing technique or mnemonic device, but a completely new way of activating the brain. The instructors never focused on memorization, but his memory improved anyway, almost invisibly.

After a few weeks, he found that he could polish off his reading assignments in half the time it normally took and retain facts and figures that he had only glanced at in long-term memory. At one point, midway through an important exam, he surprised himself by being able to visualize the book he needed in his mind, even though he had only looked at it briefly before.

"I reached up and picked it off the shelf," he recalls, "and, damn it, I could actually see the pages of the book and all the diagrams. I don't tell that to a lot of people because it sounds like I believe in auras or something, but it sure as hell happened. I could actually look at the pages and extract the information. And when the test came back, I got eight of the 10 questions that I was stumped on right."

Levy's experience is not unique. Many people who have studied OptimaLearning have had similar breakthroughs in their ability to learn.

Marilyn Hughes, a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma used it to overcome what she called "terminal writer's block". Michael Dwarkin, a research assistant in British Columbia, broke through his lifelong fear of abstract mathematics. And Art Titus, an engineer in Los Gatos, amassed enough knowledge in a few months to land a job in a field he knew nothing about - semiconductors.

What is OptimaLearning and why is it so effective? According to its creator, Ivan Barzakov, it is a system of "accelerated and harmonious development" that activates several levels of the brain simultaneously and creates a strong interchange between the conscious and unconscious, making it easier for you to retrieve thoughts and memories that normally get buried in the dark recesses of the mind.

This is how the brain was meant to work, he adds, but few of us take advantage of it because of the fragmented, linear way we were taught to memorize in elementary school. Learning by rote may be effective for remembering telephone numbers and spelling-bee words, but it is inefficient in the long-run because it only addresses part of the brain-the cerebral cortex - and ignores the fundamental unity of the human mind.

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"In the West," explains Barzakov, "we are not trained to think globally or holistically. But the learning process does not consist of pieces of information or pieces of analysis. The learning process is a whole. Researchers have proved that memory doesn't exist in one specific part of the brain, nor does it depend - as we thought before - on biofeedback or alpha states or special breathing. Memory depends on comprehension. Memory, analysis and comprehension are all one process."

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Barzakov was born in Bulgaria and worked there for several years as an art critic, film maker and educator before escaping to the West in 1976 and eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before leaving his homeland, however, he served as a model teacher under Dr. Georgi Lozanov, a world-renowned psychiatrist and educator who many consider the father of accelerated learning.

In the early '60s, Lozanov made an important discovery about the link between suggestion and what he called the mind's "hidden reserves". After traveling to India and studying several yogis with extraordinary mental powers, he concluded that the key to super memory wasn't I.Q. or intelligence, but the ability to orchestrate suggestion in such a way that the mind became highly receptive to stimuli on the edges of awareness, as well as the center of focus.

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Lozanov tested several groups of students to find out what the upper limit to this kind of learning was. In one case, he was able to teach a group of 15 volunteers 1000 new French words in a day with average test scores of 98 percent. And when he tested these same students a year later, he found that their long-term memory didn't drop off as sharply as would normally be expected. The average retention rate for students who hadn't used French since the day of the lesson was over 50 percent.

The reason suggestology works so well, Lozanov decided, is that it feeds the brain the way it naturally process information - on both a conscious and unconscious level simultaneously. In the French lesson above, for instance, the words themselves stimulate the conscious part of the psyche, while the rhythm, intonation and music engage the unconscious. The ultimate effect is to activate the whole brain, not just the left and right hemispheres, but also the subcortical structures, such as the limbic system (which regulates emotions) and the reticular formation (basic survival needs). (By "unconscious ", it should be pointed out, Lozanov means any mental activity below the level of full awareness, not Freud's definition of the term.)

Other forms of education are doomed to failure, according to Lozanov, because they ignore the unity of the conscious and unconscious mind. Either they focus exclusively on the left hemisphere or the cerebral cortex, treating students as "emotionless cybernetic machines". Or they acknowledge the "whole brain" concept, but address different parts of the mind in stages - emotional, visual, analytical. But the brain doesn't work in stages; it takes things in as a whole, processing them consciously at the same time.

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The most effective way to engage the emotions and merge conscious and unconscious stimuli, Lozanov discovered, is to blend the arts directly into the curriculum. For, as he put it, "the arts are the greatest form of suggestion in existence."

In the early '70s, Lozanov began testing his theory in a group of experimental elementary schools in Bulgaria, using music, theater and stories as an integral part of the instructional process. In 1978, a UNESCO task force visited the schools and reported that all of the students in every grade had completed two years of the standard curricula in four months. In the program first graders learn to read and write within a few weeks and third graders study intermediate-level algebra. And all of this is done in an atmosphere devoid of anxiety, where homework is given only as a reward.

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"The whole instructional process is a continuous flow of messages that are both cognitive and artistic," explains Barzakov, who taught English in School #122 in Bulgaria. "The story flows into a song and the song flows into a game and the game flows into another story. And because everything is logical and interconnected, the overall effect is cumulative. Art is everywhere and learning is everywhere."

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In the last decade, Lozanov's method has spread to millions of students in countries all over the world. Yet, despite its apparent success, "classic" suggestology has a gaping hole: no sense of self.

Lozanov's experiments have been restricted primarily to language learning and primary education, and all the course work requires strict teacher supervision. But what about people who can't afford to go to class or have a burning desire to study paleontology in the comfort of their own homes? And what about other applications? In sports? In business? In parenting?

That's where OptimaLearning comes in.

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Barzakov's solution to the self-study problem was simple. Rather than start from scratch, he decided to preserve Lozanov's system intact and use it as a solid base for a freer, more versatile system of his own. The word system is important here. Many educators had taken some of Lozanov's techniques and incorporated them into their own learning programs; but Barzakov was the first to develop a new program built around Lozanov's work as a system.

"What makes the system so powerful," says Barzakov, "is not one technique or two techniques, but through the cumulative, synergistic effect of all the techniques, you awaken the hidden power of the brain and point it in the direction you want it to go."

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How exactly does the system work?


After [several] preliminary exercises and a firm grounding in OptimaLearning theory, the next step is to learn the self-study model itself, which has three integrated stages - the setting, the analysis and the final review.

In stage one, you learn how to attain a "relaxed and perfect state of concentration" by orchestrating the suggestive stimuli in your inner and outer environments. This includes becoming attuned to negative stimuli in your study place - whether it's the lighting, the color of the wallpaper or the noise of your next-door neighbors - and replacing them with imagery that has a positive suggestive impact. Some people use works of classical art for this and other objects that have some deep personal meaning. The point is to create an intimate, ritualistic atmosphere that is uniquely your own, because that's how the brain encodes the information - ritualistically.

Once the external setting feels right, you can begin to work on your inner one with two visualizations that relax your mind and heighten your sense of excitement and curiosity. "As soon as you know how to establish this high state of concentration," asserts Barzakov, "you can be anywhere and evoke it right away. I can concentrate with annoying noises around me. I completely eliminate them."

In stage two, you learn how to interact with the material as if it were a game or an interesting puzzle. Since learning and teaching are both sides of the same process, you are told to approach the material from the point of view of a teacher preparing an imaginary demonstration.

"It's a fully creative process every step of the way," says OptimaLearning instructor John Metric. "The point is that you're not trying to fill yourself like an empty bucket: you're a full bucket from the very start. It works because you give yourself the suggestion that you know the material already."

The trick is to find a hook that captures your imagination in a dramatic way and then restructure the rest of the material from a new, highly personal viewpoint. If you are studying a book on physiology, for instance, you might look for something that relates to one of your medical problems or explains some mystery you've puzzled over for years, then fan out from there searching for connections. If the book doesn't have an index, you might create one for it; if it is poorly written, you might rewrite it.

The final stage of the self-study process is a technique known as "concert reading" After you have reconceptualized the material, you quickly review it and then select key passages from the text to read as you simultaneously listen to particular pieces of baroque and preclassical music. A typical concert might include Bach's Harpsichord Concerto #5 in F Minor, Marcello's Oboe Concerto in F Minor, Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Telemann's Trumpet Concerto in D Major. Barzakov's research shows that the work of the late baroque composers, such as Marcello, Manfredini, Locatelli and Vivaldi, is the most effective for this kind of exercise.

Your voice should flow with the music as if it were an instrument in the orchestra. The classical architectonic of baroque music has a soothing, yet invigorating effect on the mind, making it highly receptive to positive suggestion.

"The music can be a powerful learning tool," says Metric. "It locks the material into your long-term memory - not just the special passages you've selected, but the whole thing, because your mind automatically makes the connection."

Barzakov cautions against taking short cuts and only doing concert readings. "The music isn't the secret. It's the integration of the voice, the music and all the previous stages. It's the synergy - the setting, the internal relaxation, the analysis and reconceptualization, and then the musical investment. After a while you won't even need the music anymore. You become independent from the techniques and the whole system. You internalize it."

Once you have finished the workshop, it takes about eight to 10 days of daily practice to set the framework of acceleration firmly in your mind and another 23-25 days to stabilize the process. During this time, however, you should work on material that is vitally important to you. And after a couple of weeks, you can expand the system into other areas, such as exam-taking, sports, business performance and parenting.

If you practice regularly, you will probably begin to notice unexpected changes in perceptiveness or quality of life, not directly related to learning or performance. Many OptimaLearning graduates report dramatic improvements in their health, diet, creativity, ability to communicate and independence from all forms of manipulation.

"The beauty of the system," asserts Metric, "is that it not only teaches you how to increase your efficiency, but also how to keep increasing it as you go along in all areas of your life. It's not self-limiting."

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Marilyn Hughes, for instance, has been using OptimaLearning in her classes for nearly four years and reports that her students of English as a Second Language consistently progress 80-90 percent faster than students in conventional programs. Likewise, Susan Armfield, a college professor in Austin, Texas, has had remarkable success teaching intermediate algebra to students with math phobia. In her first class teaching OptimaLearning, 13 of the 23 students got As - more than double the number the semester before.

Abdul Hassam, a professor in Vancouver, had a similar breakthrough.

"I have been able to transform a group of 'mathematics-haters' into 'mathematics-worshippers'," he writes, "by simply approaching the subject globally and using 'concert-reading' whenever appropriate. The process of invisible learning has worked wonders, particularly when some of my students thought they had not learned anything. Later on, they were simply amazed that they were able to remember an incredible amount of material effortlessly, without notes or previous reference."

While American educators and psychologists have been slow to respond to Barzakov's work and there have been no large quantitative studies in this country to verify his results as there have been in many other countries, there is clearly strong anecdotal evidence to back his claims.

Almost every OptimaLearning graduate I interviewed talked at length about experiencing a quantum leap of creativity. One woman who hadn't written more than a paragraph in years suddenly started creating magazine articles in her head and jotting them down feverishly during lunch breaks. A man who had been an occasional painter found himself coming home from work and painting abstract canvases until the wee hours of the morning.

Why does this happen?


According to Barzakov, it's because of the integration of the arts into his students' daily lives. In OptimaLearning art isn't separated and put in a movie theater or art museum. It becomes an important part of everything you do.

This process, he adds, sets a creative spiral in motion: the more you learn about art and the more artistic you become, the better you perform in your life; and the better you perform, the more satisfied and creative you become.

"This is where the real renaissance is," says Barzakov. "We believe there is a hidden Einstein and Rembrandt and Hemingway in everyone. My goal is not to re-create Hemingway. I consider it a limitation to work with an image and become another image. I think it is more essential that we bring something from everything and bring your own self to an optimal level."

"OptimaLearning isn't just a learning theory," Barzakov says, "it's a system for optimizing life."

Excerpts from San Francisco Focus Magazine, 1987.

These excerpts appear in The Essence and Impact of OptimaLearning, 1995, published by Barzakov and Associates, Barzak Educational Institute, Novato, CA.

References

Barzakov, I. (1981). Principles of OptimaLearning for learning, work and life experience. Workshop Materials. San Francisco: Barzak Educational Institute.

Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy. New York: Gordon & Breach.

Nelson, W. (1979). Experimentation with the Lozanov method in teaching word retention to children with learning disabilities. Journal of Suggestive-Accelerative Learning and Teaching, 4 (4), 239-243.

Prichard, A. and Taylor, J. (1980). Accelerating Learning: The Use of Suggestion in the Classroom. Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications.

Schuster, D., Benitez-Bordon, R. and Gritton, C. (1976). Suggestive-Accelerative Learning and Teaching: A Manual of Classroom Procedures Based on the Lozanov Method. Des Moines, IA: Society for Suggestive-Accelerative Learning and Teaching, 11-17.

Stevick, E. (1980). Teaching Languages, A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

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