Benedict Carey: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

CareyBenedict J. Carey is a science reporter for The New York Times who focuses on brain and behavior topics. He writes about neuroscience, psychiatry and neurology, as well as everyday psychology. The territory includes the large and the small, memory molecules and group behavior, narcissism and nostalgia, drug uses and drug addiction. From 2007 to 2010, he was the Mind columnist for Science Times, where he wrote about pranks, binge drinking, boredom, regret, perfectionism, study habits and Super Bowl anxiety, among other things.

Carey joined The Times in 2004 as a behavior writer. Previously, he worked at The Los Angeles Times, writing about health, medicine and brain science, where he won a University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award for a story on drinking water. Before that, he was a freelance magazine writer, and a staff writer for Health magazine in San Francisco. He began his career at American Shipper, a trade book in New York covering the shipping trade. He writes frequently for the Review section of the paper and has written two books, both science mysteries for middle-school aged kids: Island of the Unknowns (previously titled The Unknowns in hardback), a math adventure; and Poison Most Vial, a murder mystery involving forensic toxicology due out this spring. His latest book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, was published by Random House (September 2014).

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Morris: Before discussing How We Learn, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Carey: Personally, it’s my parents, my siblings, my wife and kids (I have two daughters, 17 and 22). I also find the movies of Alexander Payne, and the classic Muppets in Space have been helpful in times of doubt.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Carey: My many editors along the way, for sure, including Michael Gold and Susan West, Rick Flaste at The New York Times and Erica Goode, also at the Times. Also, to some extent, Russ Rymer, a book writer.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Carey: I was a math and physics student in college who saw at some point that I didn’t have the chops to make a real impact in those fields. A physics teacher – can’t remember his name – handed me a magazine called (at the time) Science ’80, put out by the AAAS. I devoured that and decided then that I could write about science. That’s how it started.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Carey: It has been mostly of secondary importance. I never had a mentor-like teacher, and no one really advised me specifically (the physics teacher was handing out those magazines to a lot of people). It was my travels on my own – in Ireland and Spain, mostly – in which I discovered what my strengths could be.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Carey: I wish I’d known something, anything about the business world. I knew nothing and am still learning. I believe economics/ business classes should be part of all regular curricula, from early on. Sales, marketing and basic economics are all critical components of what I do – pitching stories is sales.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Carey: Jeez, very tough one. Tin Men is good and Glengarry Glen Ross, although these are highly stylized and not strictly ‘business’ movies. Margin Call is also excellent. Those all lay out the importance of sales and forging relationships – in person.

But I’ll take any recommendations.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Carey: Well, I have profited to some degree from Ayn Rand’s books (The Fountainhead, mainly), tho I am not a Rand acolyte. Also, for sure, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker about Robert Moses and the making of modern New York. That’s all that come to mind, at this moment. Which are your choices?

Morris: There are so many. Here are three plays, none of which is strictly about business: Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. All three address key issues about loyalty, authority, and — to paraphrase Dante — not preserving neutrality when in a moral crisis.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Carey: Love that. That’s what I try to do in the book.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Carey: Execution is damn hard, Robert, and rarely lives up to the vision. I think Mr. Edison is holding the bar too high and being too dismissive of Vision. Execution needs Vision, and to the extent that hallucination (un-executed Vision) prompts “some” real work and original thinking, it’s success of precious kind.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Carey: Not necessarily. More often yesterday’s dangerous idea fizzles out. I love Dawkins but he’s being grandiose. His comment only applies in retrospect, to those dangerous “pearls” than do indeed play out.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Carey: Dead correct.

Morris: From Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Carey: Yes

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Carey: Yes – but it’s not always clear what should and should not be done!

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Carey: I think that’s probably right, yes. That’s why we value instinct in leaders: no one has all the information, no matter how good their advisors.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Carey: Love that. You have to make bets, and you’d better make ones that will be valuable even if they fail spectacularly.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Carey: I think stories are one way of capturing the instinct needed to act. They’re also a great way to get people to join you in trying.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Carey: From my perspective – given that I hope principles from “How We Learn” have a large effect on education – I think the most important thing is to appeal to the instincts people already have to break customs.

Morris: During the years since you joined The New York Times decade ago, which breakthrough in neuroscience – in your opinion – has had the greatest significance and impact? Please explain.

Carey: Neurosience has not had any major breakthroughs in the past 10 years, insofar as I know. I think the increasing interest in and study of sleep as a learning process, however, is the most promising. Sleep is still an unknown, largely, but there’s little doubt it’s integral to learning and figuring out exactly how will lead to all sorts of possible interventions – ways to deepen, and manage sleep.

Morris: Which innovation?

Carey: This has been going on for more than 10 years, but the idea to study neural circuits directly, with epilepsy patients undergoing surgery as collaborators, is the most exciting.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge that elementary school teachers now face, especially in inner-city public schools?

Carey: Convincing kids early on that learning is hard work and that it’s very much worth doing.

Morris: MOOCs have attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. What are your thoughts about (a) their unfulfilled potentialities and (b) their inherent limitations?

Carey: MOOCs are potentially important to the extent that they light a fire and inform people who do not have much access to top institutions. The limitation, the primary one in my view is that that they engage people through only one medium – the computer. Real learning needs many more ways of engagement, hands on, person to person, mentoring in a very specific way. That’s how we learn to do our jobs, after all.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Carey: Nope, I think leaders will have to have the same qualities as ever: smarts, humility, charisma, and willingness to take risk and get others to go along.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to How to Learn. When and why did you decide to write it?

Carey: I had covered the area – the cognitive science of learning – for years, and saw how counter-intuitive and little know it was. No one gets a course on How to Learn, and we all should. I realized I had the background and the access to deliver the story in all its pieces – biology, theory, experimental findings – and to tie it all together into one big idea: the brain as forager. I was excited about telling the story, and felt a professional obligation.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Carey: Yes, the many dimensions of forgetting, that was wonderful. So often we think of forgetting as the enemy. But no, it’s the greatest friend of learning, allowing us to acquire new skills while also ‘banking’ the old ones for future use.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Carey: It has more of myself in it than I expected. I thought I would let the science do the talking but in the end we are all experts on psychology and learning to some extent – and doing plausibility checks on the information put me in the book a lot. I was, in a sense, speaking for the reader.

Morris: Of all that you learned about how we learn, what did you find most surprising? Please explain.

Carey: Pre-testing was great. Take the final exam on the first day – and do better on the real final. The way front-loading information that is foreign and make it more digestible later on.

Morris: You provide a number of tools in this book. Which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Carey: The most difficult to deploy may be perceptual learning – training up your instincts quickly, in sports, games, music, math. That takes some up-front work and it’s the kind of thing we’re used to doing very slowly.

Morris: You suggest that, “if the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited. “ Please explain.

Carey: The brain is a machine, a clump of cells. It has evolved to learn what is most valuable to survival, and just telling it, “Here, learn this,” is not enough to deepen learning. It needs to be *shown* that something is important, by spaced use, by use in all environments, by continual self-testing – all the techniques in the book. The ‘conscious mind’ whatever that is, can’t just give orders. *Using* information and skills is what tells the machine the stuff is important.

Morris: Please explain your reference in the Introduction to “background noise, a rustling of the leaves.”

Carey: Most experimental findings don’t pan out in the end, as tantalizing as they seem. Some of the newer findings in learning science fit this category, and I wanted to simply say: Give it time. Some of those rustling leaves will shake the tree, but it takes time to find out which.

Morris: I agree with you that some of what of what we have been led to believe about laziness, ignorance, and distraction – our so-called “worst enemies” – is, in fact, questionable. Each can also work in our favor. How so laziness?

Carey: Better to say what we think of as laziness, the putting work aside, napping off, wanting distraction. Learning takes work; the point is that much of what we think of as laziness is in fact work of another kind.

Morris: What about ignorance?

Carey: Ignorance acknowledged is a form of humility and a prod to digging deeper.

Morris: And distraction?

Carey: Distraction needs to be well timed – when solving a problem and we’re run out of ideas – that’s when it helps. Distraction for its own sake is just that.

Morris: What are the core components of the science of learning?

Carey: The same as any kind of learning: motivation, patience, creative thinking, and willingness to fail and try again.

Morris: Which seems to be most difficult to grasp? Why?

Carey: The last one. Science is a foreign language (much of science) but it’s not one, like Spanish, that others speak and can help you with easily. So where we’re generally OK trying out our mangled Spanish knowing we’ll fill in the blanks, or others will, not so with science. We get it ‘wrong’ and think – oh no, I can’t understand.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, Cognitive science and physiology of the brain: Aids for study (xi-xvi)

Carey: All you need in terms of biology and cognitive theory is in the book. Most important thing is: using memory changes memory.

Morris: Retrieval of memory (21-41, 59-79, 82-97, and 205-209)

Carey: Most important: forgetting is the best friend of learning.

Morris: Philip Boswood Ballard (Pages 29-35 and 205-206)

Carey: Memory does not work in the way we think it does and may get sharper” with time, not decay.

Morris: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork (35-40, 93-100, 153-158, and 160-163)

Carey: Memorized facts are never lost. It’s what’s currently retrievable that changes.

Morris: Context for memory, environment for learning (47-64)

Carey: Changing locations for learning – switching room, going outside, to a cafe – deepens the experience, as does varying how you engage the material: reading, writing it out, on the computer, hands on.

Morris: Four Bahrick Study (69-74)

Carey: Spaced study is best way to learn a foreign language for a lifetime.

Morris: Testing as self-examination (76-79)

Carey: Self-examination, closing the book and rehearsing the material – in front of mirror, talking to friends, making your own outline – are high-octane forms of studying.

Morris: Your own experiences in learning: Incubation or percolation, problem solving (107-130 and 131-148)

Carey: Writing is all about percolation – stopping a project and letting your mind chew on it, making the mind sensitive to incoming relevant information and to your own thought about that information. Incubation – taking well-timed breaks – is the best way to see your way through a knot, whether in math problems of writing problems.

Morris: Learning Cognition: Discrimination (142-146, 159-163, and 175-194)

Carey: Discrimination is a very important and often overlooked part of the process. We all do it – we had to when first learning to read, just discriminating letters. You can do the same, train yourself to discriminate between things that look the same but are not, using fairly simple tools.

Morris: Interleaving (163-171)

Carey: This is the idea of mixed practice. That is, instead of repeatedly practicing one thing over and over – which leads to noticeably improvement – it’s more efficient (once familiar with a skill) to practice it along with many other different ones. Musicians already do some of this: scales, then a new piece, then sight reading, then an old piece – all in one sitting. The variety builds a *general agility* that sharpens each skill faster than doing each one at a time.

Morris: In your opinion, of all the information, insights, and counsel you provide in the book, which – in your opinion – will be of greatest interest and value to first-time parents of a newborn? Why?

Carey: Newborns are natural learners. They can teach us how the brain forages for information. The message from the book is, Watch how they do it. How they pick up things piecemeal, on the fly, coming back, messing around. The book should put a new light on “goofing off” and give parents some patience and appreciation for young learners.

Morris: What about first-time grandparents?

Carey: Ditto, Robert.

Morris: Of all the great educators throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Carey: I’m a Ben Franklin guy. Practical, curious, open minded, experimental, decent, and not too pompous and pretentious.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in How We Learn, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Carey: You know, I think the perceptual learning stuff is going to be extremely applicable to people trying to build instincts in complex new areas. But overall, everything in the book is potentially applicable – and it’s up to the CEO or entrepreneur to experiment with lots of possibilities and then decide.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Carey: You’ve covered it. I’m Exhausted. Cheers!

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Ben cordially invites you to check out these websites:

The How We Learn Amazon link

New York Times link

NPR interview link

Scientific American review link

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