How We Learn | Benedict Carey

Summary of: How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens
By: Benedict Carey


Dive into the fascinating world of learning as we explore Benedict Carey’s ‘How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens’. This book will guide you through the intricacies of how our brain stores and retrieves memories and the role of sleep in enhancing our learning capabilities. Uncover the impact of studying environments, discover helpful learning techniques like the spacing effect, and understand the importance of active testing. Get ready to transform your learning process by incorporating these findings into your daily life.

Understanding Memory and the Brain

Memories are formed through connecting neurons, creating a network of synapses. Synapses grow thicker with each retrieval, leading to faster recall. Different types of memory are stored in different areas of the brain, with new conscious memories formed in the hippocampus and older memories in the neocortex. Memories stored in multiple regions of the brain are recalled more clearly.

Sleep and Memory

Getting enough sleep is crucial for memory consolidation. Research shows that different stages of sleep are important for different tasks. Early evening sleep helps retain facts, while REM sleep in the early morning hours is essential for creative thinking. In a study comparing memory recall after sleep and no sleep, the sleep group performed significantly better. Understanding the relationship between sleep and memory can help us learn faster and more effectively.

Environment and Learning

The environment in which we learn affects how we retain information. Our surroundings influence our ability to remember what we study. Environmental cues, such as smells and sounds, can help our brains retrieve the information we’ve learned when we encounter them again. An experiment showed that participants were able to remember twice as many words when they were tested in the same environment in which they learned. Changing the study environment or routine, such as taking notes by hand or studying in different locations, can help in retaining information. Varying the study environment ensures that information is stored in different parts of the brain, increasing retention.

The Spacing Effect

Are you tired of cramming for exams only to forget the material shortly after? The spacing effect suggests that only by breaking up your study time can you be certain of retaining information over a long period. This approach requires revisiting information at spaced intervals, which strengthens and reinforces your memory. The spacing effect can be likened to getting to know a new neighbor’s name. Initially, hearing the name repeated a few times does not guarantee retention. However, recalling the name after a few days reinforces the original memory, making it stick. Instead of dedicating an extended period to study for an upcoming test, the spacing effect recommends dividing the total study time into a few shorter stints and studying over a few days. This technique will help you to better remember the material without dedicating more time than you otherwise would.

Active Learning for Improved Knowledge Retention

Explaining information to others and testing oneself before learning can improve understanding and memory retention. Reciting information is more effective for memory retention than simply reading information. One way to retain knowledge is by explaining it to another person. This process intensifies the connections between neurons that hold information, making retrieval easier and faster. Testing oneself, even before learning, can improve understanding and recall. When students answered questions related to a future topic before learning it and then compared their answers with the results at the end of the semester, they scored 10% higher on related questions. These findings show the efficacy of active learning in retaining knowledge.

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