Give Sleep a Chance and Other Counterintuitive Learning Tips

Given the opportunity, it's pretty safe to say that we'd all be happy if we were a little smarter. Several years ago Benedict Carey, the behavior and cognitive science reporter for The New York Times, wrote a story, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” that became the paper's most emailed story ever.

The desire to learn better and learn more easily is universal. Whether it is learning how to export a photo, make a meringue, or conjugate the French verb, aller, learning makes our lives run more smoothly. It involves both understanding information and being able to remember that information in its proper sequence when we need to.

In How We Learn Carey reviews what scientists have discovered about learning and memory over the past two decades of cognitive research. Along the way he offers practical tips for how to use this information to improve the ways we pick up and, hopefully, store and recall information, and includes personal anecdotes about the learning curve of his own life.

Yes, the three "R"s — Read, Recite and Review — can still help you learn new material, but it is also true that sleep is a study aid which enables you to consolidate your learning; distractions and changing where and how you study can sharpen your attention; and testing yourself before studying can be an especially powerful learning technique.

Our minds are often restless, as the concentration-challenged among us know. But this restlessness, according to Carey, is actually as sign of our mind's appetite for learning.

From the Conclusion, The Foraging Brain

By all rights, we should have developed pretty keen instincts about how best to approach learning. But we haven’t, and the reasons why aren’t at all apparent. No one that I know of has come forward with a convincing explanation, and the truth is, there may not be one.

Our foraging past had some not-so-obvious consequences for learning...Think for a moment about what it meant, that lifelong camping trip. Hunting and tracking were your reading and writing. Mapping the local environment – its every gully, clearing, and secret garden –was your geometry.

I do have one of my own, however, and it’s this: School was born yesterday. English class, Intro to Trig, study hall, soccer practice, piano lessons, social studies, art history, the Russian Novel, organic chemistry, Zeno’s paradoxes, jazz trumpet, Sophocles and sophomore year, Josephus and gym class, Modern Poetry and Ancient Civilizations: all of it, every last component of what we call education, is a recent invention, in the larger scheme of things. Those "ancient" civilizations we studied in middle school? They’re not so ancient, after all. They date from a few thousand years ago, no more. Humans have been around for at least a million, and for the vast majority of that time, we’ve been preoccupied with food, shelter, and safety. We’ve been avoiding predators, ducking heavy weather when possible, surviving by our wits, foraging. And life for foragers, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker so succinctly puts it, "is a camping trip that never ends."

Our foraging past had some not-so-obvious consequences for learning. Think for a moment about what it meant, that lifelong camping trip. Hunting and tracking were your reading and writing. Mapping the local environment – its every gully, clearing, and secret garden –was your geometry. The science curriculum included botany, knowing which plant had edible berries and which medicinal properties; and animal behavior, knowing the hunting routines of predators, the feeding habits of prey.

Over the years you’d get an education, all right. Some of it would come from elders and peers, but most of it would be accumulated through experience. Listening. Watching. Exploring the world in ever-widening circles. That is how the brain grew up learning, piecemeal and on the fly, at all hours of the day, in every kind of weather. As we foraged for food, the brain adapted to absorb – at maximum efficiency – the most valuable cues and survival lessons along the way.

It became a forager, too – for information, for strategies, for clever ways to foil other species’ defenses and live off the land. That’s the academy where our brains learned to learn, and it defines who we are and how we came to be human.

Excerpted from HOW WE LEARN by Benedict Carey. Copyright © 2014 by Benedict Carey. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.