How do we learn? Forget about it.

Brain mulls over problems even when distracted, researcher says

Most people think of it as a generational attention-deficit disorder: the inability of teenagers to sit down and do their homework without regularly checking Twitter or updating Facebook. But according to science writer Benedict Carey, we should think of it as brain reorientation.

"We're all distractible," he told TES. "But distraction is neither good nor bad. It's a tool that can be used in your favour. When you're out of ideas and you're stuck, that's when distraction helps. Take a break. Call a friend, check Facebook.

"Your brain doesn't completely switch off. Subconsciously, it keeps working. You're talking with your friend, but your brain is reorientating the information. And when you come back, you have a better chance of solving the problem. That's what the science says."

Mr Carey's new book, How We Learn, is the product of a decade of reporting on science research for The New York Times. Specifically, it is the culmination of years spent writing about the science of memory and information retention.

"A lot of these findings are definitely counter-intuitive," he said. "We think that forgetting is the enemy of learning, lurking out there like a thief trying to steal our knowledge. But it's actually the biggest ally of learning."

As an example, he pointed to his own efforts to remember the name of actor Kate Winslet. "Forgetting is like muscle breakdown. A little bit of breakdown allows you to build up that muscle. Once I've remembered Kate Winslet's name, it's much stronger in my mind than it was before."

And the act of forgetting functions like an email spam filter, allowing the brain to focus on useful information. In order to remember Winslet's name, for example, Mr Carey needed to forget the not-entirely-dissimilar name of the not-entirelydissimilar actress, Cate Blanchett.

Similarly, school spelling-bee champions rarely misspell a word because they have forgotten how to spell it. They fail precisely because they remember too much: they confuse the spellings of two similar words.

As a high-school student, Mr Carey spent night after night in desperate, isolated study sessions. At university, however, he began to combine more haphazard learning with other elements of student life. His grades improved significantly.

His book, therefore, takes a pragmatic approach to study. For example, although he is clear that sleep is useful for consolidating information, he acknowledges that most students will be more interested in whether it is better to stay up late revising or to wake up early for the final push.

He points out that the first half of a night's sleep is the period when facts and figures are consolidated in the brain. The second half processes physical skills and motor memory. "So, if you're going into a foreign-language test, get up early," he told TES. "And if it's a recital, don't get up early, because that's when you're consolidating motor memories."

Mr Carey would like to see all 11- and 12-year-olds given training in cognitive science, providing them with information and skills that they can then apply throughout their educational life.

"Teach them directly," he said. "The brain is a distracted learner, a foraging, scavenging learner. That's the big picture. Know that you're going to forget 90 per cent of the stuff that you've just read. But that's OK, that's the way the brain works. Come back tomorrow and you will see that you will pick up a lot more."

Individual teachers could then refer back to these skills, highlighting techniques that might be particularly effective in any given subject.

"Have we studied the right things? Have we studied in the right order?" Mr Carey said. "Most of us have no earthly idea. It's just hope and prayer.

"But this learning science gives you a plan. You can tailor study techniques and methods to what you're trying to learn. It gives you a feeling of some control. And it's nice to have a sense of control over your study."

How We Learn is published by Macmillan on 11 September

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