How Does the Brain Learn Best? Smart Studying Strategies

Posted on by Brandon Klein

In his new book, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens,” author Benedict Carey informs us that “most of our instincts about learning are misplaced, incomplete, or flat wrong” and “rooted more in superstition than in science.”

That’s a disconcerting message, and hard to believe at first. But it’s also unexpectedly liberating, because Carey further explains that many things we think of as detractors from learning — like forgetting, distractions, interruptions or sleeping rather than hitting the books — aren’t necessarily bad after all. They can actually work in your favor, according to a body of research that offers surprising insights and simple, doable strategies for learning more effectively.

Society has ingrained in us “a monkish conception of what learning is, of you sitting with your books in your cell,” Carey told MindShift. It’s a ritual of self-discipline, isolation and blocks of repetitive practice, whether in math, vocabulary, piano or tennis. But that traditional ideal has psychological downsides. Often, “you feel like you haven’t done it right or you haven’t done enough of it,” he said. “It causes a lot of anxiety because of what we think we should be doing.” For many students, learning has become a high-stress burden.
“Being self-aware about what’s effective learning and how it happens, I think, gives you a real edge in making those choices.”

“How We Learn” presents a new view that takes some of the pressure off. As a veteran science reporter for the New York Times and previously the Los Angeles Times, Carey has covered cognitive science, psychology and psychiatry for 20 years. (Disclosure: I’ve known Carey since we both worked at Time Inc. Health in the ’90s.) Combing through decades of cognitive science investigations of memory and learning, he has pulled together its best lessons into a practical and engaging guide.