Distractions can aid learning. Napping does, too. Quitting before a project is done: not all bad, as an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed. Taking a test on a subject before you know anything about it improves subsequent learning.
The brain is not like a muscle, at least not in any straightforward sense. It is something else altogether. Sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location, environment. It registers far more than we’re conscious of and often adds previously unnoticed details when revisiting a memory or learned fact. It works hard at night, during sleep, searching for hidden links and deeper significance in the day’s events.
The brain does not store facts, ideas, and experiences like a computer does, as a file that is clicked open, always displaying the identical image. It embeds them in networks of perceptions, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time.
If learning is building up skills and knowledge, then forgetting is like losing some of what was gained. It seems like the enemy of learning. It’s not. The truth is nearly the opposite.
If recollecting is just that—a re-collection of perceptions, facts, and ideas scattered in intertwining neural networks in the dark storm of the brain—then forgetting acts to block the background noise, the static, so that the right signals stand out. The sharpness of one depends on the strength of the other.
Memories comes in so many shapes and sizes. There are hour-long and the life-long; there are dates and numbers, recipes and recitals; not to mention stories, emotional perceptions, the look on a child’s face when he’s dropped at the bus stop on the first day of school, the knowing smile shared between two friends who think no one is looking: the tapestry of hijinks and heartbreaks that make up a life.
The brain holds on to only what’s relevant, useful, or interesting—or may be so in the future. It does means that everything we have deliberately committed to memory—the multiplication table, a childhood phone number, the combination to our first locker—is all there, and for good. This seems beyond belief at first, given the sheer volume of information we absorb and how mundane much of it is.
That is, no memory is ever “lost” in the sense that it’s faded away, that it’s gone. Rather, it is not currently accessible. Its retrieval strength is low, or near zero. Retrieval strength, on the other hand, is a measure of how easily a nugget of information comes to mind. It, too, increases with studying, and with use. Without reinforcement, however, retrieval strength drops off quickly, and its capacity is relatively small (compared to storage). At any given time, we can pull up only a limited number of items in connection with any given cue or reminder.
Our assumptions about learning are suspect, if not wrong. Having something going on in the study environment, like music, is better than nothing (so much for sanctity of the quiet study room). Another point is that the experience of studying has more dimensions than we notice, some of which can have an impact on retention.
Cramming works fine in a pinch. It just doesn’t last. Spacing does.
Fluency: the belief that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they’ll remain that way tomorrow or the next day. The fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we’ve nailed some topic or assignment, we assume that further study won’t help. We forget that we forget.
The harder your brain has to work to dig out a memory, the greater increase in learning (retrieval and storage strength). Fluency, then, is the flipside of that equation. The easier it is to call a fact to mind, the smaller increase in learning.
When the brain is retrieving studied text, names, formulas, skills, or anything else, it’s doing something different, and harder, than when it sees information again, or restudies. That extra effort deepens the resulting storage and retrieval strength.
Pretend you are an expert and give a summary, a commentary—pretend and perform. That is the soul of self-examination: pretending you’re an expert, just to see what you’ve got.
Many teachers have said that you don’t really know a topic until you have to teach it, until you have to make it clear to someone else.
An insight problem, by definition, is one that requires a person to shift his or her perspective and view the problem in a novel way. The problems are like riddles, and there are long-running debates over whether our ability to crack them is related to IQ or creative and analytical skills. A knack for puzzles doesn’t necessarily make someone a good math, chemistry, or English student. The debate aside, I look at it this way: It sure doesn’t hurt. We need creative ways of thinking to crack any real problem, whether it’s in writing, math, or management. If the valut door doesn’t open after we’ve tried all our usual combinations, then we’ve got to come up with some others—or look for another way in.
Aristotle added the language of logic, a system for moving from one proposition to another—the jay is a bird, and birds have feathers; thus, the jay must have feathers—to discover the essential definitions of things and how they relate. He supplied the vocabulary for what we now call deduction (top-down reasoning, from first principles) and induction (bottom-up, making generalizations based on careful observations), the very foundation of scientific inquiry. In the seventeenth century, Descartes argued that creative problem solving required a retreat inward, to an intellectual realm beyond the senses, where truths could surface like mermaids from the deep.
“Happy ideas come unexpectedly, without effort, like an inspiration,” he wrote. “So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… they came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.” ~Julien Varendonck
The stages of control:
Preparation: the hours or days—or longer—that a person spends wrestling with whatever logical or creative knot he or she faces. Preparation includes not only understanding the specific problem that needs solving and the clues or instructions at hand; it means working to a point where you’ve exhausted all your ideas.
Incubation: incubation begins when you put aside a problem. Incubation is not seen as a passive step, as a matter of the brain resting and returning “fresh”. It was conceived as a less intense, subconscious continuation of the work. The brain is playing with concepts and ideas, pushing some to the side, fitting others together, as if absentmindedly working on a jigsaw puzzle.
The fear that digital products are undermining our ability to think is misplaced. To the extent that such diversions steal our attention from learning that requires continuous focus—like a lecture, for instance, or a music lesson—of course they get in our way. The same is true if we spend half our study time on Facebook, or watching TV. The exact opposite is true, however, when we (or our kids) are stuck on a problem requiring insight and are motivated to solve it. In this case, distraction is not a hindrance: It’s a valuable weapon.
Creative leaps often come during downtime that follows a period of immersion in a story or topic, and they often come piecemeal, not in any particular order, and in varying size and importance.
Chance feeds the tuned mind.
If more fully formed ideas (as opposed to perceptions) seem to arrive “out of the blue,” it only means that that mixing happened outside of direct conscious awareness. What does this mean for a learning strategy? It suggests that we should start work on large projects as soon possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting.
A belief in repetition is in the cultural water supply, in every how-to-succeed manual and handbook, every sports and business autobiography. There’s a reason that coaches, music instructors, and math teachers often run their students through drills, followed by more drills: Perform one hundred A-minor scales (or free throws, or wedge shots) in an afternoon and you will see progress.
The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp on each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.
If you’re prepping for a math or chemistry test, an exam that’s going to strain your ability to detect patterns, better to stay up late and, if possible, hit the snooze button in the morning. Let the cock crow until he’s hoarse.
Naps of an hour to an hour and a half often contain slow-wave deep sleep and REM.
Unconscious downtime clarifies memory and sharpens skills—that it’s a necessary step to lock in both. In a fundamental sense, that is, sleep is learning.
Distraction, diversion, catnaps, interruptions—these aren’t mere footnotes, mundane details in an otherwise purposeful life. That’s your ten-year-old interrupting, or your dog, or your mom. That restless urge to jump up is hunger or thirst, the diversion a TV show that’s integral to your social group. You took that catnap because you were tired, and that break because you were stuck. These are the stiches that hold together our daily existence; they represent life itself, not random deviations from it. Our study and practice time needs to orient itself around them—not the other way around. That’s not an easy idea to accept, given all that we’ve been told.
“Fluency”: The assumption that because something is well known now it will remain that way. Fluency illusions form automatically and subconsciously. Beware study “aids” that can reinforce the illusion: highlighting or rewriting notes, working from a teacher’s outline, restudying after you’ve just studied. These are mostly passive exercises, and they enrich learning not at all. Making your memory work a little harder—by self-quizzing, for example, or spacing out study time—sharpens the imprint of what you know, and exposes fluency’s effects.