The Memory Secret

Guy sleeping
You snooze, you win! The brain works hard during sleep, searching for hidden links and deeper significance in the day’s events. (Shutterstock)

I was a grind.

That was the word for it back in the day: the kid who sweated the details, who made flashcards. A striver, a grade-hog, a worker bee — that kid — and I can see him clearly now, almost 40 years later, bent over a textbook, squinting in the glow of a cheap desk lamp.

I can see him early in the morning, too, up and studying at 5 o’clock: sophomore year, high school, his stomach on low boil because he can’t quite master — what? The quadratic formula? The terms of the Louisiana Purchase? The Lend-Lease policy, the mean value theorem, Eliot’s use of irony as a metaphor for … some damn thing?

Never mind.

It’s long gone, the entire curriculum. All that remains is the dread. Time’s running out, there’s too much to learn, and some of it is probably beyond reach. But there’s something else in there, too, a lower-frequency signal that takes a while to pick up, like a dripping faucet in a downstairs bathroom: doubt. The nagging sense of having strayed off the trail when the gifted students were arriving at the lodge without breaking a sweat. Like so many others, I grew up believing that learning was all self-discipline: a hard, lonely climb up the sheer rock face of knowledge to where the smart people lived. I was driven more by a fear of falling than by anything like curiosity or wonder.

That fear made for an odd species of student. To my siblings, I was Mr. Perfect, the serious older brother who got mostly As. To my classmates, I was the Invisible Man, too unsure of my grasp of the material to speak up. I don’t blame my young self, my parents, or my teachers for this split personality. How could I? The only strategy any of us knew for deepening learning — drive yourself like a sled dog — works, to some extent; effort is the single most important factor in academic success.

Yet that was the strategy I was already using. I needed something more, something different — and I felt it had to exist.

The first hint that it did, for me, came in the form of other students, those two or three kids in algebra or history who had — what was it? — a cool head, an ability to do their best without that hunted-animal look. It was as if they’d been told it was okay not to understand everything right away; that it would come in time; that their doubt was itself a valuable instrument. But the real conversion experience for me came later, when applying for college. College was the mission all along, of course. And it failed; I failed. I sent out a dozen applications and got shut down. All those years laboring before the mast and, in the end, I had nothing to show for it but a handful of thin envelopes.

What went wrong?

I had no idea. I aimed too high, I wasn’t perfect enough, I choked on the SATs. No matter. I was too busy feeling rejected to think about it. No, worse than rejected. I felt like a chump. Like I’d been scammed by some bogus self-improvement cult, paid dues to a guru who split with the money. So, after dropping out, I made an attitude adjustment. I loosened my grip. I stopped sprinting. Broadened the margins, to paraphrase Thoreau. It wasn’t so much a grand strategy — I was a teenager, I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of my face — as a simple instinct to pick my head up and look around.

I finally got into the University of Colorado, where I began to live more for the day. Hiked a lot, skied a little, consumed too much of everything. I’m not saying that I majored in gin and tonics; I never let go of my studies — just allowed them to become part of my life, rather than its central purpose. And somewhere in that tangle of good living and bad, I became a student.

The brain is not like a muscle. It is something else altogether, sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location, environment.

The change wasn’t sudden or dramatic. No bells rang out, no angels sang. It happened by degrees, like these things do. For years afterward, I thought about college like I suspect many people do: I’d performed pretty well despite my scattered existence, my bad habits. I never stopped to ask whether those habits were, in fact, bad.

In the early 2000s, I began to follow the science of learning and memory as a reporter, first for the Los Angeles Times and then for The New York Times. This subject — specifically, how the brain learns most efficiently — was not central to my beat. But I kept coming back to it, because the story was such an improbable one. Here were legit scientists, investigating the effect of apparently trivial things on learning and memory. Background music. Study location, i.e., where you hit the books. Video game breaks. Honestly, did those things matter at test time, when it came time to perform?

If so, why?

After experimenting with many of the techniques described in the studies, I began to feel a creeping familiarity, and it didn’t take long to identify its source: college. My jumbled, ad hoc approach to learning in Colorado did not precisely embody the latest principles of cognitive science — nothing in the real world is that clean. The rhythm felt similar, though, in the way the studies and techniques seeped into my daily life, into conversation, idle thoughts, even dreams.

That connection was personal, and it got me thinking about the science of learning as a whole, rather than as a list of self-help ideas. The ideas — the techniques — are each sound on their own, that much was clear. The harder part was putting them together. They must fit together somehow, and in time I saw that the only way they could was as oddball features of the underlying system itself — the living brain in action. To say it another way, the collective findings of modern learning science provide much more than a recipe for how to learn more efficiently. They describe a way of life.

The brain is not like a muscle. 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. It has a strong preference for meaning over randomness, and finds nonsense offensive. It doesn’t take orders so well, either, as we all know — forgetting precious facts needed for an exam while somehow remembering entire scenes from The Godfather or the lineup of the 1986 Boston Red Sox.

In the past few decades, researchers have uncovered and road-tested a host of techniques that deepen learning — techniques that remain largely unknown outside scientific circles. These approaches aren’t get-smarter schemes that require computer software, gadgets, or medication. Nor are they based on any grand teaching philosophy, intended to lift the performance of entire classrooms (which no one has done, reliably). On the contrary, they are all small alterations, alterations in how we study or practice that we can apply individually, in our own lives, right now.

In short, it is not that there is a right way and wrong way to learn. It’s that there are different strategies, each uniquely suited to capturing a particular type of information.

The Ways We Learn: Separating Myth from Fact in the Quest for Better Retention

College student studying
Divide and Conquer: Breaking up study or practice time — dividing it into two or three sessions, instead of one — is far more effective than concentrating it. (Shutterstock)

Some of what I’ve learned about how we learn can be found in the answers to a few essential questions.

Can “freeing the inner slacker” really be called a legitimate learning strategy?
If it means guzzling wine in front of the TV, then no. But to the extent that it means appreciating learning as a restless, piecemeal, subconscious, and somewhat sneaky process that occurs all the time — not just when you’re sitting at a desk, face pressed into a book — then it’s the best strategy there is.

How important is routine when it comes to learning?

Not at all. Most people do better over time by varying their study or practice locations. The more environments in which you rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes — and less strongly linked to one “comfort zone.” Altering the time of day you study also helps, as does changing how you engage the material, by reading or discussing, typing into a computer or writing by hand, reciting in front of a mirror or studying while listening to music: Each counts as a different learning “environment” in which you store the material in a different way.

How does sleep affect learning?

Studies show that “deep sleep,” which is concentrated in the first half of the night, is most valuable for retaining hard facts — names, dates, formulas, concepts. If you’re preparing for a test that’s heavy on retention (foreign vocabulary, names and dates, chemical structures), it’s better to hit the sack at your usual time, get that full dose of deep sleep, and roll out of bed early for a quick review. But the stages of sleep that help consolidate motor skills and creative thinking — whether in math, science, or writing — occur in the morning hours, before waking. If it’s a music recital or athletic competition you’re preparing for, or a test that demands creative thinking, you might consider staying up a little later than usual and sleeping in.

Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice?

More important than how long you study is how you distribute the study time you have. Breaking up study or practice time — dividing it into two or three sessions, instead of one — is far more effective than concentrating it. That split forces you to reengage the material, dig up what you already know, and restore it — an active mental step that reliably improves memory.

How much does it help to review notes from a class or lesson?

The answer depends on how the reviewing is done. Verbatim copying adds very little to the depth of your learning, and the same goes for looking over highlighted text or formulas. Just because you’ve marked something or rewritten it, digitally or on paper, doesn’t mean your brain has engaged the material more deeply. Studying highlighted notes and trying to write them out — without looking — works memory harder and is a much more effective approach to review. There’s an added benefit as well: It also shows you immediately what you don’t know and need to circle back and review.

Is distraction always bad?

No. Distraction is a hazard if you need continuous focus, like when listening to a lecture. But a short study break — five, 10, 20 minutes to check in on Facebook, respond to a few emails, check sports scores — is the most effective technique learning scientists know of to help you solve a problem when you’re stuck. Distracting yourself from the task at hand allows you to let go of mistaken assumptions, reexamine the clues in a new way, and come back fresh.

Is it best to practice one skill at a time or many things at once?

Focusing on one skill at a time — a musical scale, free throws, the quadratic formula — leads quickly to noticeable, tangible improvement. But over time, such focused practice actually limits our development of each skill. Mixing or “interleaving” multiple skills in a practice session, by contrast, sharpens our grasp of all of them.

From the book How We Learn by Benedict Carey. Copyright © 2014 by Benedict Barey. Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Random House LLC.