Smart Living: The Surprising Truth About How We Learn

Jan 5, 2015

Credit Tom Woodward/flickr creative commons

Sleeping is studying? Distractions are good?

Turns out both those things can help us learn faster and better. Cognitive scientists have been putting learning to the test, and once you cruise through the most important studies, you see myths about learning popping like balloons. Concentration? Repetition? Not so much.

You can read about those learning studies in How We Learn by Benedict Carey, a New York Times behavioral science reporter. If you listen to our show podcast, you'll discover:

While laziness and distraction have long been thought of as hindrances to learning, they can be an asset "if you know how to exploit them," says Carey. Studies show that a short break of, say, 20 minutes watching TV or checking out Instagram, gives the brain time to absorb, order and reconfigure information; even days of interruption can work for long-term projects.

Early to bed and early to rise before a big test or presentation? Maybe not. Carey shows remembering words and numbers might be improved by early to bed, but if you're preparing for an exam, staying up late and sleeping in late is best for creative thinking for tests, and physical performance such as recitals and sports.

Many of us have study rituals, including music selection and a special place to learn, but Carey points to studies showing that varying your routine as much as possible helps you become sharper about whatever it is you're trying to learn. And you'll remember it all for longer periods of time.

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  • Benedict Carey is an award-winning science reporter with the New York Times and author of How We Learn.


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Lori Mack and Jonathan McNicol contributed to this show.