Review: How We Learn by Benedict Carey


As the sub-title mentions, the ideas preferred in the book is in fact surprising and goes against the conventional wisdom in learning that we have grown up with. Turning too many ideas on its head, through a mixture of cognitive research, social science experiments and philosophical detours Mr Carey presents a cogent and quite persuasive picture of how we can adapt ourselves to learn consistently and most efficiently while keeping our eyes and ears open for that cherished moments of creative dawning. It’s a work that smacks in the face of the cohort that believes that hard work and hard work alone lets you learn and understand things. In some ways, the 10,000 hours theory lies squarely on the opposite spectrum of what Mr. Carey convincingly sets out to portray.

There are plenty of terminologies that have been in existence in the science of learning. Many, such as the Perceptual Learning Model or Interleaving have come up more in modern times as research around them have established their advantage over their more orthodox peers. Deliberate procrastination lets your ideas incubate and percolate to bring out more creative and tangential learning outcomes. Sleeping at various hours (night-shift theory), or burning the candle at the right end of it can let you master different learning statements better. Perceptual learning lets you learn without thinking and makes the extrapolatory learnings faster. A REM sleep lets you bring out abstract associations, that which we cannot do while being up and about. Sleep, in effect, becomes a consolidator of learnings whereby the brain synthesizes its learnings from the day and tones down the neurons it deems to be noises merely.

One of the most important learning that I could relate to personally was the phenomena of pre-testing and self-quizzing and how effective it is in helping us learn faster. In effect, relying on our ignorance to push the brain into its depths. How about a pre-final exam before you have even sat down for your first class in the course? Mr. Carey suggests that students pick up the concepts in the pre-test much more effectively and retain it much longer.

There are, in effect, two dimensions of how brain functions – the storage element and the retrieval function. Both are essential but we have to make sure we understand how we use them to better manage our brain. Brain Management, it seems, is a concept that’s going to come up more often as we get to know more about this curious and without doubt the most sophisticated piece of machinery every seen by man.

By Benedict Carey
272 pp. Random House. $20

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