Summary of How We Learn by Benedict Carey

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of How We Learn by Benedict Carey

Learning does not end. No matter how old you are or what career you are in, you continue to learn until the very end. When it comes to work, success is often based on how well you can retain the information you learn. Can you imagine the repercussions of a surgeon who forgets hows to operate or a bus driver that forgets his routes? The world would slip into chaos if everyone forgot what they had learned! 

But do know how we learn? How the brain is able to retain information and formulate memories that help us remember what we learn? Whether you are a student or a grandparent who wants to learn something new, knowing how your brain learns is an exciting way to help you get ahead.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • How memories are formed
  • To retain information, sleep is necessary
  • Variation will help you learn better
  • How to retain information longer
  • Interruptions and intuition – how they help us learn

Key lesson one: How memories are formed

Understanding the way in which memories are formed in our brain is crucial to understanding the way we learn. The way we retrieve memories, after all, is basically the way we remember what we learned. 

Firstly, memories are created when different cells send signals within the brain to transfer information. These cells are called neurons and when they are stimulated, they form a network of connected neurons that are known as synapses. Every time we recall a specific memory, synapses get thicker. Therefore, if synapses are thick, it means we are able to retrieve information faster from the network in our brain. 

The next thing you need to know is that all our memories are not stored in one place. Can you imagine a whole bunch of thick synapses trying to fit in one space? It would not be an easy fit. In any case, this does not occur since different types of memory are formed in different regions of the brain. The hippocampus is the area in which conscious, new memories are formed. People who have had injuries to the hippocampus or have had it removed are still able to recall older memories although they would not be able to remember the name of someone they had just met. Older memories are stored in an area of the brain called the neocortex. The neocortex is made up of areas that control the way we move and the way we process what we see. This makes sense especially when we recall an old memory and we can remember the paint colour of a room as we walked into it. If a memory has many different stimuli associated with it, it means that it is stored by many different networks of neurons in different regions of the brain. These memories are the ones you can remember clearly and easily. So, the more connections in more regions mean better retrieval overall.

Key lesson two: To retain information, sleep is necessary

There are always those among us who value their rest and others who feel like sleeping is time wasted. The latter tend to be those who lead extremely busy lives and always have something that needs to be done. However, getting adequate sleep is actually really important if you want your brain to consolidate new memories.

Researchers have not completely unlocked the link between sleep and its effects on the brain but studies have shown that it can help us understand and memorize information better. An example of this was a study conducted whereby two groups of people were asked to memorize different coloured eggs and their associated ranking. The two groups only differed in one group being allowed to sleep prior to the memory test. The group that did not sleep remembered 69 per cent of the eggs and the other group remembered 93 per cent. 

So, sleep does have an important effect on memory. Even more interesting is that the different stages of sleep have different effects depending on the type of tasks you need to perform. The first few hours of sleep is crucial for retaining facts. Thus, if you are studying facts like vocabulary, you should go to bed early. However, it would be more beneficial to stay up and study late if you need to think creatively the next day. Creative thinking is dependent on rapid eye movement or REM which occurs in the early morning. 

Therefore, it’s good to understand how what you are learning will be best stored. Then you can set up your studying and sleep schedules accordingly.

Key lesson three: Variation will help you learn better

When we were younger, we were generally told that we should dedicate a certain time of day to studying. During this time, we should have no other distractions nor do anything else but study. And if you were like most kids, this time was spent with your book open and your mind realising just how many pens were on your desk and what the view was like outside your window. These are not mere distractions, this is your brain picking up on environmental cues that surround you and if you know how to use them, they can be powerful allies in helping us remember what we learn.

This was proven when a study asked participants to study a list of words while music was played in the room. Afterwards, when the same music was played, the participants remembered twice as many words as compared to when no music was played at all. This showed that the environmental cues that were present during learning were able to positively influence the retrieval of information later on. However, in real-life situations, you probably would not be able to recreate some environmental cues whilst taking an exam. Instead, you can introduce variation into your studying routine. This can be in the form of the room you study in, or whether you are inside or outside or by using a computer or your handwritten notes. 

In this way, information will be stored in many different parts of your brain and the likelihood of you remembering it is greater.

Key lesson four: How to retain information longer

Everyone learns differently but if you are one of those people who cram the night before an exam, there’s something important you need to know. Cramming before an exam might have helped you pass the exam but the chances of you remembering all that information beyond that are very slim. 

Studying in intervals, in contrast, will ensure that you can retain that information for a long time. It’s actually called the spacing effect and is a much better strategy if you want to remember things for a longer period of time. The great news is, this doesn’t mean you have to spend more time studying it is just spread out over a longer period. For example, you don’t have to study for eight hours the day before the exam. Instead, you can study two hours a day for four days. 

Another way in which you can retain the information you have learned is by explaining it to someone else. Reciting information is much more beneficial than simply re-reading it. It is a way to actively test your knowledge on the subject and is an effective way to preserve the information in your brain. If, however, you do not have anyone to talk to about what you have learned, you can always test yourself. You can even test yourself before you start studying. This will ensure that you remember the answers later on. It is also why students who go over past exam questions do better in their exams than those who don’t.

Key lesson five: Interruptions and intuition – how they help us learn

If you are a procrastinator, you are also familiar with cramming the night before an exam. Leaving everything right until the last minute is not a good way to retain information. And as much as some people like to get something done in one sitting, there is something very important that they have forgotten to consider. Completing a task over a longer period is actually optimal for learning and you leave room for interruptions.

Interruptions are actually not a bad thing when you are learning. They give you breaks which help you retain information better. It is also beneficial when you look at your work again with fresh eyes after an interruption. This is why you are always advised to take regular breaks when trying to find a solution to a problem. You get a new perspective each time you come back to it which will greatly increase the chances of you solving it.

Besides interruptions, intuition can also help the learning process. How? Well, there is something called perceptual intuition which we develop over time. It is basically our ability to make snap judgements by focusing on the important signals and ignoring the other insignificant things. Developing perceptual intuition takes time but it can have a great advantage. There are perceptual learning modules that can be used to aid this process. They contain images or short videos which students can use to practice their abilities. In implementing these modules, you too, can avoid the unnecessary background noise and focus only on what is important when learning. 

The key takeaway from How We Learn is:

Understanding the way in which our brains store memories is an important factor when trying to understand the learning process. The way we learn is based solely on how we remember and if we know this, we can use it to our advantage when learning. There are many practices we can implement when we learn to ensure maximum retention and once you discover the best practice for you, you will be unstoppable when it comes to learning and retaining information.

How can I implement the lessons learned in How We Learn:

Leave yourself enough time to learn and try not to cram. By spreading your studying out, you not only are using your time more efficiently, but you are also implementing the spacing effect and allowing enough time for interruptions. Both of these will allow you to retain information better and be able to retrieve it easier.

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