Hey there, Dean here. I write and share about productivity, leadership, money, psychology, marketing, and more. → Check out my latest product on AppSumo

How We Learn

How We Learn

The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Benedict Carey

Summary in 100 words or less


How We Learn is a book packed with research and findings on the topic of how our brain functions in term of gaining memories and then use them. It comes with many solid techniques that aid your learning in real-time. The mechanism of learning is so much more amazing, far beyond plain self-discipline.

My Highlights

The science of learning is, at its core, a study of the mental muscle doing the work of how it manages the streaming sights, sounds, and scents of daily life.

The theory that memory was uniformly distributed was wrong. The brain had specific areas that handled different types of memory formation.

The brain does not store facts, ideas, and experiences like a computer does. It embeds them in networks of perceptions, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time.

Just retrieved memory does not overwrite the previous one but intertwines and overlaps with it. Nothing is completely lost, but the memory trace is altered and for good.

Using our memories changes our memories.

If learning is building up skills and knowledge, then forgetting is losing some of what was gained. It seems like the enemy of learning, yet there are upsides to forgetting too.

Forgetting is nature’s most sophisticated spam filter. It’s what allows the brain to focus, enabling sought-after facts to pop to mind. It works to block distracting information, to clear away useless clutter.

If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing. –  William James, nineteenth-century American psychologist

With a little forgetting, you get benefits from further studies that strengthen learning, like an exercised muscle.

Every memory has two strengths: the storage strength and the retrieval strength.

Storage strength is the measure of how well learned something is. It builds up steadily with studying, and more sharply with use.

On the other hand, retrieval strength is a measure of how easily a nugget of information comes to mind. It, too, increased with studying and with use. However, it drops off quickly without reinforcement, and its capacity is relatively small.

The brain developed this system for a good reason. In its nomadic hominid youth, the brain was continually refreshing its mental map to adapt to changing weather, terrain, and predators. Retrieval strength evolved to update information quickly, keeping the most relevant details handy. While the storage strength evolved so that old tricks could be relearned quickly, if needed.

Desirable difficulty: The harder your brain has to work to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning.

The environment we practice becomes the trigger when we’re performing. Learning – practicing and studying – in the same environment get easier over time, while learning in a different environment and context exposes us to a wider range of mental triggers.

Since we can’t predict the context in which we have to perform, we’re better varying the circumstances in which we prepare.

Spacing out and varying the context dramatically improve our learning.

Testing does not equal to studying. In fact, testing is greater than studying.

Self-examination is more effective than straight learning because when successfully retrieve a fact, we then restore it in a different way than we did before. Not only has storage level spiked, the memory itself has new and different connections.

The act of guessing engaged your mind in a different and more demanding way than straight memorization did, deepening the imprint of the correct answers.

Get away from an unsolved problem for a brain doesn’t mean the brain gave up, but tap into the incubation mode to solve the problem with the subconscious mind.

There are two mental operations that aid incubation, picking up clues from the environment, and breaking fixed assumptions.

Having a goal foremost in mind tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it, and hat tuning determines, to some extent, where we look and what we notice.

Start working on the large project as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, it’s not quitting, but percolation. In order to gather string and collect casual data, then, listen closely to all those incoming bits and pieces.

We all need a certain amount of repetitive practice, but repetition creates a powerful illusion. Instead, mixing your learning to create interleaving. Interleaving is, essentially, about preparing the brain for the unexpected.

Mixed-up practice doesn’t just build overall dexterity and prompt action discrimination. It helps prepare us for life’s curveballs, literal and figurative.

Perceptual learning is active and automatic, no external reinforcement or help required. We, of course, have to pay attention, but we don’t need to turn it on or tune it in. It’s self-correcting, and it works to find the most critical perceptual signatures and filter out the rest.

Sleep plays a critical role in flagging and storing important memories, intellectual and physical.

Stages of sleep: Stage 1 is to consolidate memories (often laced with REM-like periods); REM is a stage that aid percolation, and interpreting emotionally charged memories; Stage 2 is the single most critical stage for motor learning; Stage 3 and 4 usually lumped together as slow-wave or deep sleep that is important for declarative memory consolidation.

Napping is sleep too.

More Book Notes

Think and Grow Rich
Business Without the Bullsh*t
Brain Rules

Master Your Week to Master Your Life

Output Journal template preview

Join my newsletter to get best content on productivity, leadership, money, psychology, and more. And get my free Output Journal templates as a bonus.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.